Is the real-time web helpful for books?

Business Insider reported last week that the half-life of YouTube videos is now hovering around six days. For those who aren’t scientists or web developers, what this means is that 50% of the average YouTube clip’s viewers see the clip within the first six days that it is put up on the internet. This number has dropped from fourteen days in 2008. The half-life of YouTube clips is getting shorter – and we can theorise that a big reason for this is the real-time web. The ‘real-time web’ is a fancy way of saying Twitter, and the way that Twitter has affected other social media platforms. You could say (if you wanted to be entirely simplistic and make a crude generalisation based on these statistics) that we are now so efficient at instantaneously sharing and distributing pithy little videos around the internet that the majority of us never see something unless we see it within a week.

What, you might ask, has this to do with books? Well, with the increasingly close integration of social media and books (the latest firmware for the Kindle includes the in-built ability to post what you’re reading and quotes to Twitter and Facebook) we might reasonably expect the shelf-life of books to decrease along with other digital media.

Or can we? Interestingly, Google is putting a lot of effort into trying to turn web video into an experience that mimics television. Particularly regarding how much attention we pay to television – and for how long we watch it. The web – which by its nature privileges active browsing over passive viewing – is not very easy to monetise. This is obviously very important when your primary income comes from advertising. With the announcement of Google TV this week, we can see that the next frontier for the search giant is colonising our living rooms.

Is it reasonable to draw a similar line between Google and TV and Google and books? Shelf-life (or at least profitable shelf-life) for books that are published today is about six weeks at the maximum. Books that haven’t sold much in six weeks are very unlikely to sell more. Can the publishing industry survive a shorter shelf-life? Or will it just mean we buy more books (and perhaps read less)? Or are books by their very nature entirely different to other kinds of media – and therefore immune to the vagaries of the real-time web? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

Beyond the literature of steampunk

It seems that steampunk has grown beyond simply being a literary sub-genre. It has made its way out into the real world like no other genre, with the possible exception of gothic fiction. It has become a style, not just for cosplay, but for day-to-day accessories and decorating.

Cosplay, the art of making and wearing costumes for fun, has been around for a long time. Often centred around Japanese anime or particular science fiction/fantasy films and television shows (Star Trek and Star Wars spring to mind here), there is a growing steampunk costuming fashion.

Ever since the Australian Costumers Guild moved it’s base of operations from Melbourne to Adelaide, South Australia seems to have become the Australian capital of steampunk cosplay. They even have a group dedicated to steampunk — Adelaide Steampunk. They run costumed events and are currently planning a steampunk fashion display to be held at AvCon (Adelaide’s Anime and Video Games Convention).

Steampunk Steve Scholz

Avid steampunk aficionado, and one of the organisers of Adelaide Steampunk, Steve Scholz dropped by Literary Clutter to say a few words. I asked him about his favourite steampunk fiction and what it was about the sub-genre that attracted him, both as a reader and a costumer.

I’ve read numerous efforts set in a steampunk universe, some not within my own perceptions of the genre. But I will give a big green light to Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula and The Bloody Red BaronAnno Dracula was a precursor to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — forget the movie, the graphic novel and its sequels are gold.

The cross pollination in these novels was the breeding ground for the games and the costuming efforts which followed — the elegance of the era, the craftsmanship, the natural materials of production. Mixing massive orbital space platforms with top hats and frock coats is a fantastic design challenge and the historical context of a British Empire where the human spirit of endevour is limited only by one’s imagination. Besides, it looks awesome!

Photo by Kurt Janzon

The popularity of steampunk is all around. You can buy jewellery, clothes, decorations, even a steampunk computer. And, as well as reading steampunk, you can watch it. Take a look at the tailers for the films Steamboy and Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec.

And then there’s my all-time favourite steampunk film, the Australian animated masterpiece The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello. You can watch the trailer on the official website.

Steampunk is making a place for itself within popular culture. Elements of it are even creeping into other tv shows and movies. Witness the Cyberking from Doctor Who tv special, “The Next Doctor”.

Shadow PlaysIt certainly seems that steampunk is going to be around for a while… even I’m not immune to its charms. As well as reading steampunk, I’ve also dipped into the sub-genre as a writer. A few years ago my steampunk-esque short story “Nigella and the Clockwork Man” appeared in a dark fantasy anthology called Shadow Plays, which co-incidentally had two other steampunk stories — “Calliope: A Steam Romance” by Andrew J McKiernan and “Crystal and Iron” by EJ Hayes.

Do you have a favourite steampunk book? Have you tried writing steampunk? Do you tap away at the keyboard of a steampunk computer? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

And tune in next time as Carole Wilkinson, author of Sugar Sugar, drops in for a chat.

Catch ya later,  George


Today we continue our series of posts about Alex Rider, the superspy who has enthralled millions of readers worldwide.

Alex’s creator, Anthony Horowitz chose to write about a teen supe spy because:

“I genuinely think that 14-year-olds are the coolest people on the planet. It’s this wonderful, golden age, just on the cusp of manhood when everything seems possible.”

As my own son approaches this ‘golden’ age, I have to agree with Horowitz that it’s a special time. I also feel a certain sadness for Alex that he is alone without parents to love and guide him through this important stage in his life.

But this feeling doesn’t last. The Alex Rider books are so full of vitality and action that it’s hard to feel sorry for the teen superspy for long.


Alex Rider faces some formidable foes, but Horowitz has equipped him with the technology and the talents to defeat the most vile villains:

1.  Herod Sayle (Stormbreaker) – A wealthy computer genius seeking revenge on a childhood bully.

2.  Dr Grief (Point Blanc) – An evil mad scientist with plans to take over the world.

3.   Colonel Sarov (Skeleton Key) – A man who wants to bring back communism to ‘save’ his country and the world.

4.  Damian Cray( Eagle Strike) – An insane anti-drugs campaigner.

5.  Julia Rothman (Scorpia) – The ruthless head of a secret organization.

6.  Nikolei Drevin (Ark Angel) – A major criminal with big plans

7.  Major Winston Yu (Snakehead) – A man with major plans to disrupt a peace conference.

8.  Desmond McCain (Crocodile Tears) – Some people will do anything for money.

Anthony Horowitz says that the inspiration for his villains comes from people he reads about in newspapers. And of course many of these bad guys and girls have access to the latest technology.


I’m convinced that technology is part of the appeal of the Alex Rider books. Apart from the gadgets, there are guns, bombs, Geiger counters, cars, planes and rockets. In many of the books there is also a healthy dose of science.

Horowitz has this to say about his technology:

In Stormbreaker, it’s computer technology. That’s followed by cloning technology in Point Blanc. Scorpia looks at the extraordinary world of nanotechnology, particles so tiny that you could fit a million of them on the dot of this i. When I wrote Snakehead I had to dip my toe into the science of meteorology and the way tsunamis are formed. An in Ark Angel, of course Alex finds himself heading for outer space.

It seems there’s nowhere Alex won’t go and nothing he can’t conquer. I for one am looking forward to reading his ninth adventure, due in 2011.



Angels in YA Literature (Part 1)

In continuing with my angel and devil-themed posts, I wanted to take a closer look at Young Adult literature, which has recently heralded a host of books on dark or “fallen” angels, in particular.

These are no mere cherubs – they’re winged beings with a dangerous edge. The male lead in current YA angel novels still tend to be Edward Cullen-esque, with their possessiveness and their secretive nature, but lately, things have been getting a wee bit darker.

Hush Hush, by Becca Fitzpatrick (released 2009) has Patch, a fallen angel who is Bad News. Yet Nora Grey, our requisite damsel-in-distress protagonist, can’t stay away from him. When this book was first released, bloggers were split clean down the middle. On one side, YA romantics loved the forbidden love and compared the book favourably to Twilight, calling it “thrilling” and “seductive”. On the other side were YA bloggers who were disturbed by the physical interaction between Patch and Nora, considering Patch’s actions to be less seductive and more ‘abusive’. What example is it setting for young adults, to have a protagonist drawn to a bad boy who slams her against a bench, when she has a sinking feeling that he wants to kill her and yet still yearns to trust him?
I’ve read the book, and find myself somewhere in the middle: yes, there are a couple of questionable scenes in the novel, but I figure most girls are smart enough to draw a crooked (okay, sometimes very crooked) line between fantasy and reality, and can enjoy Hush, Hush for what it is: a forbidden romance between a paranormal guy and a human girl, testing the boundaries of hormonal attraction.

I must say, though, I prefer the idea behind Lauren Kate’s Fallen, released just after Hush, Hush. In Fallen, Lucinda falls in love with Daniel, a guy at her new school. Life gets a little more difficult for Lucinda after she finds out Daniel is actually a fallen angel, and that they’ve had a history (ie. many previous lives) where they’ve fallen in love and lost each other each time, thanks to good and evil forces trying to keep them apart. What I like about this scenario is that Lucinda isn’t a passive character – she has responsibility from the experience of her previous lives, and she plays a more active role in attempting to combat fate and the forces, rather than be prone to them. There’re some nice mythology references as well.

Having a dark and tortured celestial being for a boyfriend is a pretty seductive scenario to me – no wonder these kinds of books are so popular. But what I’m really looking forward to is the YA novel where the FEMALE is the fallen angel and the male is the human – would put quite a spin on things, no?

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Angels in YA Literature, which focuses on angels existing in a world populated with other sorts of paranormal beings.

The Book Burglar’s Time Machine

White TeethFittingly given my earlier blog post about prioritising reading over such important things as, oh, study and deadlines, I found myself quite seriously discussing the merits of time machines today.

Specifically, how I’d make use of one.

Admittedly, time machines don’t yet exist outside of science fiction, but one can never be too prepared for how one would use them if and when they do eventuate. Me? I’d obviously use a time machine to fit in more reading time. Hours and hours and hours of luxurious reading time.

My time machine would need both a comfy chair I could curl up in as well as a bed I could lie down in to read. The bed would double as, well, a bed, to enable me to indulge in my other favourite pastime—sleeping—between reading stretches, as I’m thinking that a nap taken in a time machine would mean no loss of actual, long-term reading time.

One friend suggested that a time machine could be used for literary tourism, enabling one to travel back to literally peer over a writer’s shoulder as they’re penning their great work. Of course, this led to the idea of suggesting improvements to texts or even, much to my amusement, the idea of preventing certain books from seeing the light of publishing day altogether.

They suggested this of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight quadrilogy, which they hate but I love. But I can see their point—I’d simply apply it to the likes of anything by the precocious Zadie Smith or Jodi Picoult, whose books blur into mediocre repetition.

There’s also the fast-forward function of time machines, which would allow us to find out what’s big ahead of time and then return to the present to get the snobbish jump and read said book ‘before it was cool’. Such fast forwarding would also allow us to forego the current agonising over the future of book formats, know that the world isn’t going to end and that books will continue in some handy format, and let us just get on with the pleasure of reading.

Sadly, though, until time machines make it of the book page and into the real world, I’m going to have to prioritise which books I read as well as master the fine art of speed reading.

Prime Procrastination Tools

The Wolf Of Wall StreetIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that the less time to read, the more good books you find.

You know how it goes. Work is incredibly busy or uni exams are swiftly approaching and you are suddenly—or slightly more than usual—overcome with the overwhelming urge to retreat, curl up, and get lost within the pages of a good book. Then you see, buy, or someone loans you the book they’ve just finished, the book (or often series) you’ve been wanting to read forever. And. You. Can’t. Focus. On. Anything. Else.

Winter is, of course, the worst for this, with rugged-up reading in the corner with a cup of hot chocolate the modern Homo sapiens’ equivalent of hibernation. (Mind you, I can also convince myself that reading is the only option during the heat of summer, which is too oppressing for one to do anything but sit in front of the fan.)

The InfernoBut what is it about impending, immovable deadlines that convinces you that the most important, responsible, and productive thing you could possibly do is read?

And does the illicitness of the reading such a book heighten or hamper the enjoyment of it?

I’m currently furtively reading The Wolf of Wall Street, a book that’s not really even my style. It’s a rollicking read by Jordan Belfort, former Wall Street banker who made millions of dollars each day and whose actions are both galling and incredibly intriguing. Would I normally enjoy such a book that so openly and gallingly celebrates appalling behaviour? Perhaps not. Can I put it down? Goodness no.

The 19th WifeOnce I’ve finished with that, I have a mini mountain of books I must read before I die (or miss my deadlines—whichever comes first) teetering invitingly on my bedside table. Even worse (ok, let’s be honest—better), I just got confirmation from this very online bookstore that the books I ordered during the week, in the brief moment I peeled myself away from reading, have been shipped and are currently on their way.

I am not so quietly cursing the fact that the weekend is getting between me and further book arrivals, as Australia Post rudely doesn’t deliver on Saturdays or Sundays, but it does give me some time to polish off The Wolf of Wall Street and try to work out which new arrival to read first.

Stripping Bare The BodyFrom (I hope) Monday, I’ll have the choice of Mark Danner’s Stripping Bare the Body, a book that skewers the politics and brutalities of war, and David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, a book about Ann Eliza Young, the first woman to leave the Mormon fold and who exposed the practice of polygamy to the rest the world.

Light reading, I know.

They’ll join the likes of Luz Arce’s The Inferno, a tale that explores the terror of existing in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, and, somewhat ironically, John Naish’s Enough, a book that examines our constant need to consume and how what we really need to be aiming for is ‘enoughness’.

EnoughSo which book should I read first as I continue my deadline-avoiding procrastination?

And which books are your prime procrastination tools?


In our house, reading is a big thing. I love that my boys love books and I love that family discussions take place at our dinner table about what is the latest ‘must read’.

I love that even though he is eleven, my son and I can snuggle up on the couch together before bed, and read a book like Jaguar Warrior.

I even love it that he got impatient and went ahead and finished the book before me.  That’s how engrossed he was with the story of Jaguar Warrior, and when you read it, you’ll see why.

The book’s hero, Atl has been imprisoned in a box for seven days and is waiting to die. He is about to be sacrificed to the bloodthirsty Mexica gods, but Atl has a strong heart and he refuses to give up.

When he is unexpectedly released and sent on a mission, it’s not the mission that has him running, it’s the chance of freedom.

But he has to stay one step ahead of his mortal enemy, The Captain. The Captain believes that Mexica will fall if the Serpent-Sun god is not appeased by a sacrifice. The Captain is determined to bring Atl back to fulfil that role.

Atl’s travelling companion, Lali fears The Captain – and for reasons that are revealed in the story, she should know him better than anyone. Lali says The Captain is “more terrifying than the armies of Spain and Mexica marching together.”

The tension and pace of this story keep you turning the pages, but for me, it was the well drawn characters and vivid detail that kept me reading when there were many other jobs I should have been doing.

Here’s an example of the evocative narrative – Atl is eating tortillas.

Eyes closed, I listen to my stomach purr. Old men say the jaguar spirit lives in a young warrior’s heart, but when I listen to my gut grown with contentment, I know that’s where the big cat crouches. And it likes corn cakes.

Humour and a strong character voice also endeared me to Atl and made me eager to know his fate.

The tension of the story is enhanced by the dual narrative. The point of view alternates between Atl and his foe, The Captain. The reader is given information that neither character knows and this also helps build up the suspense.

Set in Aztec times, Jaguar Warrior is a work of fiction but it has been so meticulously researched that I felt like I had stepped into the story.

Jaguar Warrior is Sandy Fussell’s sixth published book and she is fast becoming known for her fast-paced but beautifully descriptive historical fiction works. Sandy is the author of Polar Boy (shortlisted for a 2009 CBCA Award) and the Samurai Kid’s Books: White Crane, Owl Ninja, Shaolin Tiger and Monkey Fist.

Both my sons can’t wait to read the fifth Samurai Kid’s Books, and I’ll be eagerly waiting with them in the queue.

The Mongoliad: The Future of Reading?

Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and ‘friends’ this week launched a new media project called The Mongoliad. Part novel, part fan-fiction and part game, The Mongoliad is a new media experiment designed to explore the future of the written medium. There’s not all that much to The Mongoliad at present, but it raises a bunch of very interesting questions about what is possible – particularly considering who is involved.

For those of you who don’t know, The Mongoliad is a sort of serialized story, created by Neal Stephenson, and written by Neal, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, and a number of other great authors. It will be told via custom apps on iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and Android, and will be something of an experiment in post-book publishing and storytelling.

Neal Stephenson, who from the reports appears to be the driving force behind this project, is a well respected SF writer with serious cyber– and steampunk chops. Anyone who has read his book The Diamond Age could be forgiven for seeing the similarities between the fictional Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer and this new project. In The Diamond Age, the Primer fulfills the function of parent, teacher, friend and entertainment. It is an interactive work of fiction intended to guide the reader towards a more interesting life, and plays a pivotal role in the novel.

I think if this project had been conceived by anyone other than Stephenson, I’d probably just snort with derision. These new media projects come along every once in a while, but they always seem to remind me of my childhood of reading choose your own adventure stories. They seem immature, poorly developed and lacking in essential depth. But Stephenson does depth very well. The scope and ambition of his novels have been on a grand scale to date.

So far, it seems, attempts at this kind of storytelling have not gained mainstream success or acceptance. They fall between mediums, and readers don’t know how to take them. But it seems there is a potential market for it, particularly now with the release of tablet devices like the iPad. A number of gamer friends of mine have been hooked on games like Hotel Dusk for the Nintendo DS and Heavy Rain for the PS3 but never read books. Could something like this project lure them into reading? What do you think? Will it bang or will it blow?

More Steampunk… with Michael Pryor

The Laws of Magic is a series of YA steampunk novels by Michael Pryor. They follow the adventures of a young magical genius named Aubrey Fitzwilliam. They include Blaze of Glory, Heart of Gold, Word of Honour and Time of Trial. Today, Michael has stopped in at Literary Clutter to give up his views on steampunk. Take it away, Michael…

I love Steampunk because it brings together two of my great loves: imagination and history. I’ve always enjoyed imaginative literature—fantasy and science fiction—because of the expanded horizons they introduce me to. I get excited by the possibilities presented, the way that they’re not limited by the here and now. I’ve always seen fantasy and SF as the best possible expression of the powers of creativity and the imagination.

History has been an area of fascination to me because it’s everything that we, as a species, have done. History is the great and grand story that’s got everything—and it’s all true! I love big picture history (the famous people, the wars and battles, the mighty conflicts, the defining moments in the unfolding of nations) but I also love the nitty-gritty history (What did people eat in Elizabethan England? What colours were the togas in Ancient Rome? What sort of washing machines would you find in a Victorian laundry?)

So Steampunk is a marvellous combination, bringing together history and the imagination. I love reading it, and I love writing it for the same reason. The Victorian/Edwardian era, the setting for Steampunk, is particularly appealing because it’s an era of formality and manners, where politeness and decorum is important. Of course, many things go on under the surface of such restraint and, for a writer, that’s a rich and valuable starting point. Add to that the permission to introduce wild and imaginative flights of fancy, and Steampunk is just perfect for me!

That’s the difference between writing Steampunk and writing a historical novel, of course. The amount of research is the same – I want to get my facts right. But writing Steampunk means I don’t have to stick to exactly what happened in real life. I can add bizarre and impressive machinery. I can invent secret conspiracies and plots. I can tweak things to leave out—or sidestep—the boring bits that sometimes sneak into history …

The formality of the Victorian/Edwardian era, the old-fashionedness of it, also allows me to work with language in a way that I can’t when I write in a more contemporary mode. I can use words like ‘braggadocio’, ‘snood’ and ‘nugatory’ and they are perfectly at home. In fact, they’re more than at home, they actually help create the slightly archaic feel I’m aiming for and are important in the overall effect.

I can remember the first Steampunk book I encountered. It was The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. It was a superb introduction. Through a time travel excursion gone wrong, the main character is stranded in nineteenth century London and falls foul of gypsy magicians, lunatic beggar kings, body-swapping murderers and sundry other challenges. The sense of place is wonderful—Tim Powers always does his homework—and it’s a rattling good yarn. After reading it, I couldn’t get enough. I read as much Tim Powers as I could find, then the books by Powers’ friends James Blaylock and J.T. Jeter, who were also writing Steampunk at the same time. Great fun!

My thanks to Michael for stopping by. For more info about Michael and his books, check out his website. We’ll finish up with the trailer for Heart of Gold.

Tune in next time when we’ll discover that steampunk goes beyond literature.

Catch ya later,  George

’tis the season of the cookbook

First off, I’d like to congratulate the winners of our Facebook fan page Julie Goodwin competition. Their prize, a copy of Our Family Table, is something to be treasured – a really beautiful cooking compendium designed for building wonderful meals and memories, and signed by the first Australian Masterchef herself. Julie also took time out from her book tour to give us an interview on the process of writing the book and what she’s planning next and I, for one, am dying to hear her recipe for wonderful winter comfort food that is fettucine carbonara.

Second off, I would like to have a good whinge. Mainly about the fact that wonderful winter comfort food such as fettucine carbonara is back on the menu. Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, except it’s not – it’s only May but somehow I’m still already assuming a waistline of Claus-ian proportions.

Being a Northern Hemisphere girl who has relocated to Sydney, I find living in the Harbour City offers many benefits but the reversal of the seasons is not one of them. It’s weird – when everyone in the Emerald Isle is enjoying the watery sunshine and a chance to really develop their freckles, the Antipodes are battening down the hatches and readying for the onslaught of the coldest time of year.

That said, both seasons are equally brief and tepid in their commitment. There’s that joke about Irish summers – Irish people will tell you they had a lovely summer this year, it was on a Wednesday. Looking out the window here in Sydney at the rain, I’m reminded that the damp depths of the Australian winter is remarkably similar to the brief soggy high of the Irish summer

So, if it’s much of a muchness whether I’m in Canberra or Kilmacow, why am I complaining? Well, in Ireland, Christmas is in winter. Meaning that all those layers of horrid reindeer jumpers and silly paper hats hide the festive seasons effect of your midriff and by the time Summer is raising its bleary head, you’ve had a chance to shed the Christmas kilos.

But in Australia, halfway through what should be the skinniest and skimpiest season of the year, you get mugged by festive feasting. Tim Minchin may sing fondly of white wine in the sun, but the Australian Christmases I have been lucky enough to attend have starred not just wine, but cold meats, hot meat, seafood, salads, breads and pasta, potatoes and game meat, a dessert of five, gelato and beer to wash it down.

Have you tried to swim, let alone surf, after a surf and turf? You’d be better off just lying next to the lifeguard and gasping in pain and pretending to be a washed-up whale from the get-go. It’s a nightmare. I am trying to be good and eat salads now, but my body is telling me loudly and clearly that it is WINTER and it is COLD and it does not want lettuce, it wants STEW.

Which is why a quick look at the Boomerang Books bestsellers list is amusing me so much. There is 10, count ‘em, cooking books, on the list mainly based on stews and slow cooking and home-cooking. Home Cooking with Rachel Allen, One-Pot Cooking, Our Family Table and more – it’s obvious that everyone in Australia is thinking, much like me, that it’s time for some delicious home food.

I may not be eating salad, but I am not alone. ‘tis the season to cook comfort food. I’ll worry about having a skinny Christmas a little closer to the day.

The Utter Insanity of Book Guilt


Being part of the blogging community, particularly being part of the book blogging community, is a fun, informative, and – if you want it to be – a largely collaborative experience. If you’re a social internet creature with a book fetish, there is a whole plethora of groups you can join to help hone your book goals and meet likeminded people who will comment on your page, and recommend you books they think you’ll love. Oftentimes joining these groups, and regularly participating in these groups, can be a really productive thing.

Joining a book challenge is probably the most popular way to go about group participation with a common goal in mind: someone hosts the challenge on their blog page, sets the rules, and those who are interested in that particular challenge will hopefully follow those rules, maybe even post their experiences following the challenge on their own blogs. It’s a great way to feel part of the blogging community, and to knock the dusty top off your never-ending TBR pile.

One particular challenge that I thought I could handle is Wolf Hall Wednesdays. The gist of the challenge is this: Read 100 pages of Wolf Hall, weigh in with your thoughts at the hostess’ blog page, and see what everyone else thought of it in return. Once a lively and colourful discussion has been had by all, you crawl back in your hidey-hole until the next Wednesday, at which point you discuss your thoughts on a further 100 pages. In theory, this is brilliant idea with a substantial payoff to the individual– it’s like an online book club, where everyone supports everyone else in getting through a fairly chunkeriffic read that you otherwise might be too intimidated to finish on your own.

Except I haven’t really been holding up my end of the bargain.

You would perhaps think that since the internet isn’t ‘real life’ you can easily drop book challenges that you’ve committed to online without psychological repercussions. Not so, my friends. The guilt I feel is disproportionate to what I SHOULD be feeling, considering I don’t have a boss to report to on a failed deadline and the other challenge participants probably don’t give a rat’s if I contribute or not. But the guilt is definitely real. I panic as the Wednesdays roll around like the next car in a city cab rank, and I am barely past the third paragraph each and every time.

So instead of writing my discussion post on pages 300-400 of Wolf Hall and feeling some sense of accomplishment, I am here writing this warning post and wallowing in self-pity. If I could go back to my younger self when I signed up for this challenge (all of four weeks ago), I would say “Don’t do it!!” or “Do it next year instead!!” But it’s too late for me. Maybe not for you.

Like I said, book challenges are a fun way to participate in the blogosphere, and accomplish some long-held book goals. My advice for newbies, however, is: don’t bite off more than you can chew.

You’ve just gotta know when to stop, I guess.

So here’s to 400 pages of Wolf Hall to catch up on before next Wednesday. It’s gonna be a long week.


Today, we are pleased to welcome 12-year-old Tom to Kids’ Book Capers to tell us why he is such a big fan of the Alex Rider books.

Tom, what did you like about these books?

They were interesting and hard to put down. There was so much action and there were all these different bits of information that fitted together in the end.

Which one of the Alex Rider Books is your favourite?

I really liked Point Blanc.

Can you tell us about this book and why it’s your favourite?

In Point Blanc, Alex Rider is captured and stuck in the mountains and he has to escape. The setting was good and it had a good storyline.

Besides the action, what else do you like about the Alex Rider books?

I like the gadgets that Alex Rider takes on his missions. And I like Alex Rider’s character. He is brave and unique because most kids would jump at being a spy but he just wants to go back to his normal life.

Would you like to be Alex Rider?

Probably not because he gets in so many life and death situations and he is a potential target for kidnapping and assassination and he gets put in a lot of pain.

Also, the training is pretty grueling and challenging.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the Alex Rider books?

After I’d read the first one, I wanted to read the next one straight away. The books kept me interested because they were really unpredictable and I never knew what was going to happen next.

Also, I think it’s much better to read them in order because he often reflects back on things that have happened in other books.

Thanks for joining us here at Kids’ Book Capers, Tom. You’ll be pleased to know that Anthony Horwitz is currently working on the ninth Alex Rider adventure and that should be coming out next year.


Racey Reading – did you bring enough to share?

Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.

But Australian Customs are reserving the right to search you if you read about it on the plane. The first question on Australian custom’s Incoming Passenger Cards has been changed recently and those of us with a taste for the racier literature may be in for an unpleasant surprise. Where once the form asked if incoming passengers if they were carrying “objectionable materials” it has now been amended to “carrying pornography”. And those answering “yes” will have their material examined by customs officials, who will presumedly make note both of well-thumbed pages and cracks in the spine where books have been worn to death.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the change was made late last year because the term “pornography” was more recognisable to travellers than the term “objectionable material”. If you are carrying depictions of the sex act, Customs want to know about it. The change of the reference to pornography was intended to make travellers aware that some forms of pornography were illegal to bring into Australia.

Think this has nothing to do with you? Think again. Many mainstream books and publications contain pornography, without necessarily containing “objectionable material”. Objectionable material, according to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) (Enforcement) Act 1995 “depicts, expresses or otherwise deals with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that it offends against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults”.

But the problem is, there does not appear to be an easy definition of pornography in the Classification, and most people would assume the word – as it is commmonly used – refers to graphic depictions of the sex act.

And pornography is everywhere in literature these days, by that definition. It may have been scandalous when Lady Chatterly’s Lover was tried for obscenity in 1959 but in modern writing, graphic sexual scenes are common. Chick lit is a frequent offender here, with many books from the genre from writers such as Marion Keyes containing scenes that – while appropriate to the plot and certainly not overlaboured – are reasonably graphic about sexual relations. Jodi Picoult’s soul searching novels leave no area barred and you’ll find some rude words in the phenomenally popular Eat, Pray, Love too.  A few of the giants of Fantasy and Sci-Fi – Terry Goodkind and Anthony Piers, for example – have a taste for the lewd in literature, and even non-fiction such as auto-biographies often include some very real real-life scenes.

Shirts. Real men don't need them, apparently.

And with the euphemistically named Romance being one of the top selling genres world-wide, it’s worthwhile remembering the average bodice-ripper contains more than a few scenes of bodice rippng. The more “chaste kiss” approach espoused by writers such as Barbara Cartland (a truly prolific writer who averaged a book every two weeks and still – over a career that spanned 664 novels – managed to avoid actually mentioning, you know, “it”, even once) has been replaced by more explicit texts. It’s a booming market, and its audience is 90% women; in the USA in 2008 75 million Americans read at least one romance novel that year.

So Australian Customs could be dealing with more American ladies than peddlers of filthy smut. Not to mention that people carrying what they think is serious literature – such as Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” or pretty much anything by Norman Mailer. Some books literally surprise you with a sudden sex scene. Are we meant to skip ahead to catch the danger scenes, or just hand books over to Customs and tell them to call us when they are done? Or will we be able to get near them with the many American ladies waving their historical romances and teens handing over their Anita Blake – Vampire Hunters? We’re already thoroughly vetted on the way on to the plane, do we now have to wait on our way off now if our in-flight reading contained a little raunchy?

I’m not sure what the solution to this one is. But I am pretty sure that it’s not insisting that passengers share their pornography on landing. Because, if that happens, I’m going to be reduced to reading books I know don’t contain any smut whatsoever, and if that means I may, once again, have to break out Lord of the Rings.

Evolution or revolution?

Covering the Sydney Writers’ Festival for this blog exposed me to many of the buzzwords that publishers and ebook proselytisers use to talk about the digitisation of the publishing industry. Among their favourites is the ‘digital revolution’. At last Thursday’s ‘Are Australian Publishers E-Ready?‘ panel, Sara Lloyd, Pan Macmillan UK’s digital maven, said that this ‘revolution’ was more of an ‘evolution’. Another buzzword? Or is there some sense to this rhetorical wrangling?

I’ve always found that the word ‘revolution’ verges on the hysterical when applied to digitisation. A revolution implies that a statistically small group of people are pushing the market towards digitisation before it is ready. In this picture, the only entity I can think of that would fulfil this role is Amazon. But I don’t think I can honestly say that Amazon alone revolutionised the digitisation of books. Amazon, Google and Apple, respectively, are going to be heavily involved in the future of ebooks, but none of them have exactly been on the raggedy edge of ebook adoption. I know people who were reading ebooks on their Palm Pilots in 1996.

Realistically, the digitisation of books has been going on for decades. Publishers faced a massive shift more than ten years ago when they turned the whole publishing process – which had been painfully manual – into a digital one. They didn’t do it because they were trying to revolutionise anything – they did it because it was cheaper, easier, more efficient and less prone to errors. Amazon, it could be argued, is helping to usher in the retail digital book age for the same reasons.

This scrutiny on the words used by the industry might seem pointless. But it isn’t. By talking about a ‘revolution’, pundits would have us believe that some maverick company or person is heroically changing the world around them. But they’re not. ‘Revolutionary’ isn’t a synonym for ‘new’. We already have a word for ‘new’ – it’s ‘new’. Revolutions are bloody scary things, and when we talk about ‘revolutionising books’, you’re bound to get a whole bunch of grumpy old people and anachronistic indie kids flailing their moleskines at us and harping on about the smell of books. An evolution, on the other hand, implies a gradual change that responds organically to the environment. It’s messy, and it tends to create eyeballs in weird places. That seems far closer to what we’re dealing with when it comes to ebooks. Except for the eyeballs thing.

An evolution also takes into account the years of preparation the industry has been going through to get to this point. Some bloggers and pundits are railing at the trade, publishers in particular, due to how slow they are perceived to be responding to this ‘revolution’. But the fact of the matter is, publishers have been preparing for years. And ebooks still only account for about one per cent of the industry in Australia – forecast to reach only 10-20% in the next ten years. So let’s all take a deep breath and calm down. The revolution isn’t coming. Don’t let rabid early adopters convince you that the sky is falling in.

A personal mini-essay on: Getting personal

Creative writing is, by nature, a very personal profession. Writers write words, and these words, ideally, trigger emotional responses in readers. Writers draw on their own experiences and feelings, in the hope that in representing these, the reader will  feel a story just as much as read it.

I thought I’d write this post on ‘personal’ writing as an author, more than a reader, so please, forgive the shameless mentions of Loathing Lola. It’d be hard to write personally about getting personal without it. 🙂

Getting personal in print is more than simply revealing secrets and sharing life stories with characters’ real names substituted for fake ones, the magical ingredient of stories – the ‘What If?’ mechanism that makes a real event ‘creative’ – allows you as an author to divorce yourself from simply retelling your life. Instead, you look at the event that inspired you, and its characters, and you look at them with an author’s eye – you look at their motives, their hidden insecurities… re-writing your world creatively allows for you to better understand your world. And grow.

Loathing Lola began as a novel I wrote in Years 5 and 6, and was drafted close to twenty times before its eventually-published incarnation. In Year 5, I was in the middle of my parents’ divorce. I didn’t write about their divorce, but I did, in a way. Most of my character’s feelings were my own, the references to past experiences (the unpaid Child Support, the Apprehensive Violence Order, our own financial struggles) were very real. To alleviate the suspicion of those reading it, I changed the gender of the protagonist to female, and I wrote about her hating her father’s new girlfriend and striving to get her parents back together. While it wasn’t literally about my life, I never did anything Courtney did (the ‘What If’ driving the story being: ‘What if I did?’), a psychiatrist would have a field day reading it.

As I grew older, the story evolved. Looking back at the story, I didn’t believe what I had written, because despite the heat-of-the-moment things I had written about unpaid Child Support, the Apprehensive Violence Order, and our own financial struggles, I didn’t hate my father, and I didn’t hate my new stepmother. To be fair, I didn’t know them. And I sure as hell didn’t want my parents back together. I only came to these realisations when I read the father/stepmother characters’ stereotypical portrayal in Loathing Lola‘s earlier drafts, and Courtney’s unrealistic Hollywood-style unbridled hate for the stepmother and need to The Parent Trap them back together. The unbelievable aspects of the story forced me to look inside, and question my own real-world beliefs.

This caused me some problems, because I now had a title I loved (Loathing Lola) and a character who didn’t loathe Lola. Great. Reality TV was my saviour (another ‘What If’: ‘What if my life was on TV?’), because it allowed me to challenge the ‘typical’ perception that children should hate their step-parents because they’re replacing their biological ones. In the final version, Courtney has to deal with people expecting her to hate her stepmother, when she doesn’t know really know her. This blind, stereotypical hate is something Courtney rejects in the narrative.

So, while I’m not female, and I’ve never had a TV show, getting personal and working through my own feelings through Courtney not only gave me a stronger and more realistic narrative, but it really forced me to look at myself, and my own feelings. Was I feeling them because I had to? Were they justified? Or was I just feeling ‘typical’ feelings because I didn’t actually know them?

And while it’s difficult dealing with emotional uglies – I’m currently working on a book that focuses primarily on dealing with my close friend’s death, and it’s hard – it’s rewarding, not only for readers, but for authors. I like to think I better understand myself, and my life, thanks to Loathing Lola, a piece of personal fiction.


Today, ladies and gentlemen, we enter a world of manners, polite society and dark secrets; a world of amazing steam-driven contraptions; a world in which Victoria sits on the throne and we all daily sing along to God Save the Queen; a world in which class divisions are nearing breaking-point and but we all pretend they are not. Welcome, dear reader, to the world of steampunk.

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction. It encompasses quite a lot of diverse fiction, but is usually characterised by society in an age of steam-driven machinery, often fantastical in nature. It is Victorian-esque and is often set in 19th century England. This sub-genre has been around for quite a while but has been gaining in popularity of late.

LarklightThe first book I read which made me sit up and take notice of the sub-genre was Philip Reeve’s Larklight. Set in an alternate 1851, where the British Empire extends from Mercury to Jupiter, this charming and whimsical kids’ novel has been referred to by some as steampunk-lite. But I think that it and its sequels, Starcross and Mothstorm, are a terrific read and a jolly-good intro to steampunk. I reviewed them a while back for the Australian Spec Fic in Focus website.

WorldshakerMost recently, Scott Westefield’s Leviathan has been getting rave reviews. And last year, Richard Harland’s YA novel Worldshaker hit the shelves. Leviathan is sitting on my must-read-soon pile, but I did read and review Worldshaker when it came out (check out the review). It is, without a doubt, my favourite book of 2009. So I’m extremely pleased that Richard was able to drop by and answer a couple of steampunk questions.

Why do you like reading steampunk and what attracted you to write in that sub-genre?

I didn’t plan to write a steampunk novel, that’s for sure! When I had the ideas for Worldshaker, over 15 years ago, steampunk was only a small and little-noticed sub-genre of SF. My first idea was for a great gothic castle, but – since I didn’t just want to imitate Mervyn Peake – I built my ‘castle’ out of metal and put it on rollers. From then on, the mechanical side grew more and more important as I kept on developing the world and narrative.

I couldn’t see any chance of getting the story published for a very long while, since no Australian publisher was looking at that kind of fantasy back then. So I bided my time and kept on with the developing – and in the end, steampunk/Victoriana fiction started to catch on. I started the actual writing of the novel 5 years ago, and now it’s come out right in the middle of a huge steampunk wave in the US, and an ever-spreading wave in Australia.

I think it was the novel I always had in me to write. When I look back, steampunky elements had already crept into many of my previous novels. The Vicar of Morbing Vyle and The Black Crusade are both set in Victorian-type worlds. There’s a metal world in The Dark Edge, industrial scenery in the Humen Camp episodes of the Ferren trilogy, and quirky bits of machinery in (again) the Ferren books and The Black Crusade. I’m just lucky that the world finally wanted to read what I particularly wanted to write.

For me, the appeal of steampunk is that it’s a whole new realm of fantasy. I still enjoy post-Tolkien and medieval-type fantasies, but there are so many of them. Most very competent, many very emotionally involving—but there’s a limit to their originality. All the obvious things that can be done with that kind of world have already been done. Whereas steampunk worlds still have so many possibilities—including alternative technologies and political scenarios that can hardly appear in medieval-type fantasy.

Plus I love the atmospheric possibilities of the 19th-century-that-never-existed: claustrophobic back-alleys, grime and smokestacks, fog and gloom. The Dickensian imagination!

What’s your favourite steampunk novel/story?

Let me say first of all that I haven’t yet read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, which I’m saving up to take with me when I start the overseas tours for Worldshaker. Since I have great admiration for Scott as a writer, it’s almost certain to join my list of favourites. (Ironically, Leviathan was my original title for the novel that became Worldshaker!)

I love Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines and Predator’s Gold.  (A love/hate relationship originally, because when Mortal Engines appeared, I was horrified by its overall similarities to my own as-yet-unwritten steampunk story. But I’ve got over that since Worldshaker has managed to make its own very successful way in the world.)

Of the early classics in the genre, my favourite is Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates; I admire more than love Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine.

I’ve just finished reading Jay Lake’s Mainspring, which has a truly marvellous central concept.

Perdido Street StationSome of my very favourites are steampunk-ish rather than middle-of-the-genre steampunk. For example, China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and The Scar, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo books.

And did I mention Michael Pryor’s The Laws of Magic series? So much of the good steampunk stuff is coming out as YA.

To find out more about Richard and his writing, check out his website. My thanks to Richard for dropping by. And a good thing that he mentioned Michael Pryor…

Tune in next time for some more steampunk adventures along with Michael Pryor, author of The Laws of Magic.

Catch ya later,  George


In the ten years since the first Alex Rider book appeared on our bookshelves, there have been over 12 million sales around the world.

To celebrate 10 years of the Alex Rider phenomenon, Kids’ Book Capers is having a three week celebration where we’ll be looking in depth at the books and the man behind them.

Today, our first post looks at the inspiration for the Alex Rider stories.

Anthony Horowitz admits to being an avid James Bond fan and says he used to queue for hours in the rain to be the first one to see the latest James Bond Movie. When he was bored at school, he used to relive the most exciting moments from the James Bond films.

He says,

“These were the dreams that sustained me through maths, physics, chemistry and all the other subjects at which I was no good at all. I used to build secret drawers in the bottom of matchboxes and fill them with tiny bits & pieces, badly glued together. My imagination would then turn them into super-weapons…”

He discovered the James Bond books when he was 12 and read them over and over again. Horowitz says that when he became a scriptwriter some years later, he had a secret dream to write a James Bond movie. After a disastrous interview with a movie producer, he decided that one day he would create his own James Bond.

After he’d finished writing his book The Switch, he started to toy with the idea of creating a new sort of hero.

A boy who lived in the real world, who went to comprehensive school, who didn’t want to be a hero but would survive – just – a series of ever darker adventures.

He wanted his books to remind people of Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories without actually stealing from them.

Horowitz says,

“So even as I started work on the first book, I made conscious decisions. James Bond was a patriot who enjoyed working for the Secret Service. My hero would be recruited against his will and wouldn’t trust the people he worked for. There would be no gadgets. Alex would never have a gun.”

But Horowitz says he was forced to revise his ‘no gadgets’ policy after several school visits.

Every one I spoke to wanted gadgets. More than that – they expected gadgets.

Giving Alex Rider gadgets has been one of the most challenging parts of the writing process for Horowitz. He is adamant that they must be realistic and says,

They always have to be concealed in items that you would expect to find in the pocket of an average fourteen-year-old and, when you really think about it, that rather narrows the field.

And unlike James Bond, Alex Rider’s gadgets have to be non lethal. They have to be life saving but surprising.

With their superspy themes and action adventure, it’s not surprising that the Alex Rider books are sometimes compared to James Bond’s adventures.

But according to Horowitz,

At the end of the day, the most important thing for me is to be original. When it comes to thinking up the stories, creating the characters, devising the action sequences and chases, my first question is always – did Bond do it? And if the answer is yes, then sadly I have to think of something else.

The Alex Rider adventures have been translated into 28 languages and several are now available as state-of-the-art graphic novels. The latest best selling title in the sequence, Crocodile Tears, was simultaneously published as a traditional book, an e-book and an iPhone application.


If Anne Rice Says It, It’s Gospel

Firstly, guys, apologies for deserting the blog for over a week…put it down to an incredibly hectic College of Law schedule. In case you’re wondering, I’m pretty sure I passed everything so I guess the sleepless nights, lack of socialisation and the mountainloads of chewed-up printer paper must have somehow been worth it (won’t someone please think of the TREES??)!

We should be back to our regular programme broadcasting now – I’ve been itching to discuss a bit more about angels, devils, and their current plan for world domination. And what better person to ask “Are Angels the New Vampires?” than the undisputed queen of contemporary vampire fiction – Anne Rice.

If you’ve just fainted in your chair with excitement, I hate to disappoint you, but I didn’t actually score an interview with Anne Rice (I mean, I’m good, but I ain’t THAT good). I did, however, notice that she’s been cornered by various journalists to give her point of view on the angels versus vampires debate.

Most of us who can stomach such bloodsucking stuff have seen that classic movie adaptation of Rice’s first book in the vampire series – Interview with the Vampire. Even now, I still can’t fathom the fact that they somehow managed to get Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Antonio Banderas to all have a go at donning fangs on the same movie set. The mind boggles.

Being the trendsetter that she is, Rice created The Vampire Chronicles’ most fashionable character, the vampire Lestat, as a golden-maned Don Juan with a love of cravats that could rival Masterchef’s Matt Preston. Early in the series, Lestat has a go at the 80s rock scene, and many fans love him for the devil-may-care attitude he displays during these first couple of books. But my personal favourite, which shows early signs of what would be a massively new direction for Anne Rice’s writings later on, is Memnoch the Devil, published 1997. The novel represented the holy dilemma vampires face: how can vampires be a product of God? Are they naturally forsaken, or can they be saved?

Lestat meets a man in a suit, who introduces himself as Memnoch the Devil and spins a yarn Paradise Lost-style. Turns out there are two sides to every story and the Devil’s an angel who’s been misunderstood all this time. Lestat rides on Memnoch’s coattails (or should that be forked tail?) through Heaven, Hell and History, all the while experiencing inner conflict, as he struggles with his sympathy for the Devil versus the possible chance for redemption with a God he had never believed existed. The story of Memnoch the Devil can also be said to have reflected Rice’s own inner religious turmoil at the time (she ended up rejoining the Catholic church in 1998 after years of atheism).

So why did Rice continue writing books for The Vampire Chronicles, and why did she end them when she did (in 2004)?
She told Wall Street Journal:

“Vampires for me were always like feeling grief for my lost childhood faith, being cut off from that life. I reached the point where I didn’t have any more stories to tell from that point of view.”

At the conclusion of the Chronicles, Rice seemed to have made a decision to leave the doomed vampires behind and embark on a writing pilgrimage. Her last two books were spiritual stories about Jesus Christ, and while interesting, they didn’t seem to have the same passion of her earlier works. Imagine my excitement in late 2009 when she released Angel Time, a story of an assassin who is offered redemption by an angel for his sins (sound familiar?)… I haven’t got around to reading it yet: if any of you have, what did you think?

And whether you liked Angel Time or didn’t like it, I also want to know: what does Anne Rice think of her new direction ?

Being on the side of the angels, it feels much better than being on the side of the vampires. Vampires were tortured, tragic figures.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


Today at Kids’ Book Capers we start three weeks of celebrations for super spy Alex Rider’s ten years in print.

Thanks to our friends at Walker Books we have some fabulous prizes to give away.

From now until 11th June, we’ve got some great posts happening here.

Learn about Alex Rider’s life saving gadgets, and the villains who are out to destroy him. Find out about Anthony Horowitz, the man behind the Alex Rider phenomenon.

We’re also talking with literacy expert, The Book Chook on how Alex Rider got boys reading, and we’ve got some interviews and reviews with Alex Rider fans.

Here’s what to expect:

24th May 2010 ANTHONY HOROWITZ – The story behind the stories – where the inspiration for the Alex Rider books came from.
26th May 2010 Interview with Tom 13 about the Alex Rider Books
31st May 2010 ABOUT THE ALEX RIDER PHENOMENON – The villains and the technology

A review of Crocodile Tears by Lachlan aged 12

9th June 2010 Interview with George 15 about the Alex Rider Books and review of Stormbreaker by John 14




The Book Burglars’ Pin-Up Boy

The Law Of NationsSometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and never more so than this week’s news that former American president and all-round good guy George Washington was also—yes, indeedy—a book burglar. I’m referring, of course, to the fact that a library book he borrowed in 1789 was returned this week, a tardy 221 years after he’d signed it out.

Famous for being America’s first president and widely regarded as a fine, upstanding, and popular citizen (he remains the only president to have received 100% of the votes), Washington is the last guy you’d expect to be slack with his book returns. Which is why it’s all the most schadenfreude-ly gleeful for me, a regularly and unfairly accused book burglar who now has you-couldn’t-have-scripted-it-better ammunition that even the best of us are book thieves.

Sure, you could argue that not returning a book is different from actual, premeditated theft. And you could wonder, as I did, whether the reason that he didn’t return it was excusable because of some awful incident—say, for example, he died. But I can attest to the fact that not only did death not prevent Washington from returning the book, but that he lived some 10 years beyond its due date.

Even better, interest and inflation mean that the overdue fines due for the book are in the vicinity of a cool $US300,000, calculations of which undoubtedly made the executors of his estate break into a cold sweat. But Washington and his estate have apparently been absolved of all financial responsibility and the book in question was presented to the library in what was arguably a burglars-always-prosper little ceremony.

So what was this book that Washington so badly seemed to want to keep? Emer de Vattel’s The Law of Nations, which was an, er, undoubtedly scintillating read. Clearly it’s not a book I, you, or anyone we know would ever want to ‘borrow’, but the man lived in the 1700s and airport fiction hadn’t yet been invented.

No matter. As far as I’m concerned Washington is not only the best thing that’s ever happened to book burglars, he’s our pin-up boy.

I mean, if it’s ok for the ‘father’ of America, I’m pretty sure it’s ok for me.

Marching Powder

Marching PowderI’m seven years and a bunch of print runs behind the times (seriously, this consistently popular book has been reprinted two and three times each year since its 2003 release), but I finally got to read Rusty Young’s cult non-fiction book Marching Powder.

And it didn’t disappoint.

Based on interviews Young conducted with its protagonist, Englishman Thomas McFadden, Marching Powder is the story of both McFadden and of Bolivia’s most famous and difficult-to-comprehend jail.

Apprehended, incarcerated, and eventually convicted of attempting to traffic cocaine out of Bolivia, McFadden was thrown into South America’s chaotic and corrupt prison, a place where inmates are expected to purchase their own cells, where poverty forces ‘free’ family members to live inside the prison with their loved ones, where prisoners run businesses to support themselves, and where Bolivia’s highest quality cocaine is produced right under the noses—and with the consent—of the prison guards.

It’s an almost impossible-to-comprehend story and my main concerns in reading the book were that a) it had been overhyped, b) that it would glorify drug-taking and –trafficking, and that c) it would seem too far-fetched to truly absorb.

But my fears were unfounded with the book written in conversational, compelling first person, as if in the charismatic McFadden’s own voice. While drugs are ever present, the book is a cautionary tale, and Marching Powder makes you feel as though you’re there—warts and all.

Which Young was, as he met McFadden through one of the prison’s craziest schemes: admitting Western travellers to the prison for tours. With sections given star ratings and a complex real estate system based on supply and demand and negotiation skills not unlike the real estate system we’re familiar with on the outside, McFadden conducted tours in order to be able to afford his food and four-star cell. The two hit it off and Young agreed to help McFadden write his book.

While it’s easy to concentrate on the bizarre prison which acts as its setting, what makes Marching Powder so interesting is that it explores some darker issues. These include the poverty that wracks Bolivia, the corruption that undermines every aspect of the country and its systems, the destructive nature of drugs, and the West’s role in perpetuating drug demand, which Bolivia meets with its supply.

There’s also a scene in the prison that demonstrates the mob mentality and the grey area of determining what’s an acceptable crime and punishment that still haunts me—even though I tried to skim the remaining paragraphs once I realised what was happening—but I won’t ruin it for you if you haven’t already read the book.

What I will say, though, is that Marching Powder is a cult hit for a reason and is well worth reading—even if you’re seven years late like me.

The Gap

I came to a realisation yesterday while attending the Interrogating Twitter session at yesterday’s Sydney Writers’ Festival: there is a significant gap between those who get Twitter and those who don’t. And that gap may never be bridged. How can it? Those who despair of social media genuinely believe that it will destroy our language and do irreparable damage to our consciousnesses. But those who use social media can barely understand why everyone is complaining about it.

I don’t necessarily think this gap is generational. The panellists ran the gamut from the venerable Ruth Wajnryb through to the younger, hipper end of the spectrum with John Freeman and David Levithan. Nonetheless, all of the panellists seemed to be in agreement that there was nothing wrong with Twitter (or other forms of social media) and that we shouldn’t worry that it will cause the next generation of children to be illiterate. In fact, if anything, the panellists seemed mildly perplexed that this should even be at question. The only dissenting voices came from the audience, who managed to sound exactly like the fusty SWF grumpy-old-person stereotype.

So where does this gap come from? And why? Freeman’s new book, Shrinking the World, posits that each forward leap in communications technology has been greeted with scepticism, fear and contempt. The Gutenberg press was called the ‘devil’s machine’ by monks and the telephone was going to tear families apart. Nonetheless, Freeman cautions that Twitter, just like any other communications technology, is not necessarily benign. How could it not change the way we think, he says, when we can barely go a moment without checking our phones?

This is a conversation I’ve been having with a lot of people of late. And it perplexes me – maybe because I’m absolutely on the ‘understanding Twitter’ side of the gap. Why is there a persistent myth that those who participate in the brave new world of texting, Twitter and Facebook suddenly become automatons who cannot make the choice to switch off their devices and will have some kind of panic attack if they’re ever alone? Nothing I’ve learned by participating in social media has led me to believe this to be true.

This kind of Luddite moaning about the value of being ‘alone with one’s thoughts’ is ubiquitous on the other side of the gap. I had a conversation with another (very young) author at the SWF about travelling on the train. Nowadays, he says, it’s impossible to have a moment of quiet introspection while on the train, such is the cacophony of noise produced by communications devices. Since when, I ask you, has public transport been the most Zen part of anyone’s day? Human beings have spent thousands of years going to remote locations in order to be truly alone. How has that changed?

You always have the choice. Whether it’s to switch off, go somewhere quiet or to not participate in social media at all. As David Levithan said – if you’re not interested, don’t worry about it.


When I was in Brisbane recently I was wandering through the Roma Street Parklands with a friend and her five-year-old daughter. As Sophie stopped to sniff every second flower and gazed around in wonder, I remembered what it felt like with my own children to watch them explore the sights, sounds and smells of a beautiful garden.

A garden can be source of comfort and discovery – a place to escape to – a place to wait and hope.

Today, I thought I’d talk about two beautiful new releases from Walker Books, both set in a garden, both with different messages of hope.


Noah spends hours playing in the hospital garden, inhabiting the world of his imagination while he waits for his sister to get better so she can come and play with him.

Noah asks with a child’s simplicity,

“When can Jessica come to my garden?”

“Maybe some day,” says Dad, spinning him round.

One of the things I loved about this book was its sincerity. It’s based on a true story, on family friends of the author who spent seven months living at a hospital after their daughter was born with a serious medical condition.

There is no sentimentality to this story and perhaps that’s what makes it so moving. The courage of Jessica’s parents and the resilience of Noah are a powerful combination.

Noah’s Garden is full of hope and love and a testament to the power of imagination.

The beautiful illustrations by Annabelle Josse bring light to a serious subject.

Published by Walker Books Australia, Noah’s Garden is for children aged three to seven.

All royalties earned by Mo Johnson for the sale of the Australian edition of Noah’s Garden are being  donated to the Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation in Melbourne.

A CHILD’S GARDEN: A STORY OF HOPE – written & illustrated by Michael Foreman

Written and illustrated by Michael Foreman, this garden offers hope of a different kind – hope for the future in the midst of poverty and war.

The boy in A Child’s Garden: a story of hope has no name; he is just “The Boy” and this adds to the story’s poignancy.

After war comes to his country The Boy is separated by a barbed wire fence from the hills he used to roam with his father.

When The Boy finds a tiny plant amongst the rubble it becomes his symbol of hope.  But he lives in fear that at any moment, the soldiers will discover his secret garden and destroy it.

A Child’s Garden: a story of hope is a beautiful story about the resilience of the human spirit.

The detailed but understated illustrations brought me right into the story and I felt the family’s hardship and felt my own spirits rise with The Boy’s hope.

I loved Mo and Michael’s picture books for their moving words, stunning illustrations and their themes of  courage and optimism.

Beyond the book trailer — author vids

My last three posts have been about book trailers. But there is more to video promotion than book trailers. Authors and publishers are also creating videos in which the authors talk about their books.

The most basic of these is a straight-to-camera chat, relying on the ability of the author to say something interesting in an engaging way. Unfortunately there are many authors out there who, while brilliant on paper, are really dull when talking straight down the camera lens. Most seem to be recorded on handycams and then badly edited… or not edited at all. But there are some that stand out. Here’s one that I’ve posted on this blog before (see Thirty seconds to Marrs), but it’s such a good example of what can be done with one of these videos that I’m posting it again.

In this video, Shirley Marr talks about her debut YA novel Fury. But it’s her off-hand comments about other things — from her eyelashes to kinky boots — that show her personality. This is combined with some good editing and excellent use of music to create a really engaging video. A video like this, which portrays an interesting author as well as an interesting book, does a lot more for promotion than a dry speech simply telling you what the book is about. No matter how great a book is, if the author is to engage with an audience through a video, then that author needs to come across as an interesting person.

An author can do more than just deliver a straight-to-camera chat about the plotline of his/her new book. There are lots of things that can be done to spice up an author vid. For example, in this one, Scott Westerfeld talks about going on an airship ride as part of his research for the YA novel Leviathan. He is talking straight to camera, but photos and video from his airship ride are interspersed. It results in an interesting video.

Of course, an author doesn’t even have to talk about her/his own books in order to promote them. Jack Heath, author of YA thriller The Lab and its sequels, has a YouTube Channel on which he posts semi-regular videos about all sorts of things. What they all have in common is that they begin with a quick shot of his books accompanied by a musical hook. Take a look at the post in which he compares Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight with another vampire novel, 13 Bullets by David Wellington.

Heath’s engaging, witty style is what promotes his books, even when he’s not talking about them directly. I’ve watched all his videos and as a result, The Lab has been added to my reading list. Just for good measure here’s another one of his vids, titled: “Too Much Information”, in which he discusses some of his medical issues.

What’s it got to do with his books? Seemingly nothing! But it’s entertaining. And it’s a way of creating an ‘author brand’ — an association between his books and him as an interesting, entertaining person.

Just as book trailers can vary considerably in terms of style and creativity, so too can the author video. Some authors are simply more charismatic than others. While clever production can certainly do a lot to help an author video be engaging, there are some authors out there that no amount of flashy editing can save.

Anyone out there got any fav author vids they’d like to share? Leave a link in the comments below.

And tune in next time for a chorus of God Save the Queen as Literary Clutter explores the world of Steampunk.

Catch ya later,  George

Troubles by J.G. Farrell wins Lost Man Booker

Forty years after it was first published, Troubles, by J G Farrell, is today (Wednesday 19 May), announced as the winner of the Lost Man Booker Prize – a one-off prize to honour the books published in 1970, but not considered for the prize when its rules were changed.

It won by a clear majority, winning 38% of the votes by the international reading public, more than double the votes cast for any other book on the shortlist.

Troubles is the first in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, which was followed by The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) and The Singapore Grip (1978). The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973 and was shortlisted for the Best of the Booker, a special award created to mark the 40th anniversary of the prize in 2008.  J G Farrell died in 1979.

More information about the Lost Man Booker Prize winner can be found on the Man Booker website.

Unfulfilled fantasy – Tyra Banks and writing what you (want to) know

Tyra Banks has signed up to write – or at the very least, review the CV of a ghostwriter or two for – a set novels based on the modelling world. She will write three books, Delacorte Press said, the first to be called Modelland and published in 2011.

The story revolves around a teen girl at an academy for exceptional models called Intoxibellas. Banks said the book was “for all the girls and guys who want a lot more FANTASY in their lives and some fierceness and magic, romance and mystery, crazy and wild adventures, and yeah, some danger too.”

I have to admit, I am hugely disappointed by this. The headline actually read “Tyra Banks tries hand at fantasy novels” and I had visions of old-style Dungeons and Dragons fantasy epics perpetuated entirely by rogue supermodels and their team of stylists.

Angular young women, emaciated yet busty, battling dragons and demons and Gods for such arcane and mystical artefacts as the Rod of Hair Straightening, the Sceptre of Waterproof Mascara and a Low Calorie Potion of Might (all the strength, none of the fat!). Displays of stomach-revealing diamante armour, held together by safety pins and attitude and not designed to be used it actual battle by real warriors. (Would they wear in it the Woods of Woe?)

Thrills, spills and more low-blood-sugar-related hissy fits than you can throw a Navi inspired outfit (that tribal blue skin look is so last season, sweetie) at.

But no, it appears Ms Banks has not put on her horned helm and charged off into the realms of fantasy but is writing a book about fashion and the many wacky adventures you can have in the industry.

(I am confused by the fact that the media insist on referring to the fashion industry as “fantasy” constantly. Surely no one has ever mistaken the stuff that the average designer sends down the catwalk as anything else? This year Romance Was Born graced the Rosemount Australian Fashion Week with what appeared to be good and evil candyfloss and a woman who would like to be wearing something fashionable but can’t get out of her volcano.)

So, is it really a work of fiction when the author is effectively writing their own “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, or is it more a re-telling of their life as they and their readers would like it lived? A certain Ms Myers, whose one-size-fits-all-narrator lives the high school and vampiric popularity  dream depsite having no discernable personality, has been accused of blatant wish-fulfillment in her books.

Lest you think I am picking on the good Ms Myers, the basic concept of “write what you know” or rather “write what you want to know” has worked for many authors. Stieg Larsson, writer of the Millenium trilogy and a rebellious political journalist, wrote about a rebellious political journalist who travels to small towns and discovers mayhem and murder and lots of young women who find him inexplicably attractive. To be fair, I am only on book one, perhaps in book two or three he meets a lady who doesn’t pack in the prudery at the first hint of Pulitzer prose.

Stephen King writes, near constantly, about a writer who arrives in small towns to discover weird stuff is happening, usually when his hot new girlfriend goes missing.

Helen Fielding was a thirty-something singleton journalist and researcher when she was to write a column about single life in London. She created the exaggerated and comic self-parody that was Bridget Jones and the rest is history. (And two movies, with a third in the works.)

Perhaps the writers least likely to accidentally write a book starring themselves are fantasy and sci-fi writers who are, by virtue of the genre, expected to make at least a token attempt to hop out of their own head for a few moments when coming up with a premise. Dragons, star ships, aliens and elves, fantasy and science-fiction writers are expected to step bravely into the unknown.

Or perhaps their wishes are just that bit harder to fulfil than Tyra Banks? Perhaps dreaming of a world where genetically-enhanced and aesthetically perfect people abound is more outlandish when you’re not attending a fashion show every day of the week. For Tyra, tales of freakishly flawless people, celebrity parties and designer goods may be more writing about day-to-day monotony than glamour. Perhaps she should write some fantasy after all, all dour dwarves and grotesque goblins, if only to step outside the fantasy world she lives in every day.


Flame Stands Waiting is a beautiful new picture book written by Corinne Fenton and illustrated by Sebastian Ciaffaglione.

This moving story is for four-year-olds and upwards. It’s about Flame, a golden carousel horse with a sad heart.

Unlike the other horses, who are designed to move up and down, Flame was built to stand still. The children choose to ride on the turning, dancing horses and Flame is left waiting. Until one day, a little girl who has always dreamed of riding the beautiful horses comes to ride the carousel…

Author, Corinne Fenton says, Flame Stands Waiting is about wanting something enough to make it real – and believing in your dreams.

She hopes that Flame Stands Waiting will

help younger readers see the power of imagination and grandparents will be reminded of their own childhoods and be caught up in the magic.

I asked Corinne to tell me about the writing process.

Where did the inspiration for Flame Stands Waiting come from?

Way before I ever had Queenie published and certainly before The Dog on the Tuckerbox, I had started Flame. One day my mother said to me, ‘You know the first thing your grandmother wanted to do when she moved to Melbourne (from Tasmania) was to ride the carousel at Luna Park.’  So, Flame began.

Why is Flame unique?

Flame is different from the other horses because he cannot move – but although his heart is sad, it is strong.

What did you enjoy most about writing Flame Stands Waiting?

I enjoyed finding the most perfect words.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

The rewrites and the waiting.

“Wanting something enough to make it real – and believing in your dreams” is what turns would-be writers into authors according to Corinne.

I became an author through sheer dogged, persistence – and some luck thrown in as well. The hardest part is continuing to believe in yourself, against all odds.

Corinne’s tip for new writers is

Believe in yourself and if you be persistent you’ll get where you want to go.

If you love writing, just get on with it. If you have something to say, a story to tell, you’ll find a way to do it, no matter what you’re up against.

Corinne is also the author of Queenie-One Elephant’s Story and The Dog on the Tuckerbox. Her books are a blend of social history and beautiful storytelling.

Flame Stands Waiting is published by Black Dog Books, and readers who enjoy Corinne’s books will be pleased to know that she has another five picture books and a junior novel in progress.

A Life in Words – Susan Maushart on writing about your family without being disowned

Ever texted your teen to get them to the dinner table, or had to resort to a Facebook post to get a message across to your family? How about being locked off the family computer by someone intent on playing games, or needing a TV for everyone in your household to stop the rows over what to watch?

For those of you who have been tempted to pull the plug, and the modem, meet journalist and commentator Susan Maushart. For her latest book, Winter of our Disconnect, she not only persuaded her family to allow their exploits to be published, but to sign off from the Information Age for six months. That’s no screens or social media in the home  – iPods, iPhones, Facebook, Twitter and TV were all out. How did they survive it, and more importantly, how did she persuade them to agree?

For Winter of our Disconnect, you persuaded your tech-addicted family to go offline and become a screen less household. How did you convince your children to let you write about them?

I bribed them!

Do they enjoy seeing themselves in print? Do you, or your family, ever “act up” for the story?

I think they more tolerate it than enjoy it. We are all pretty strong willed, opinionated and funny so there’s usually no need to turn on anything extra. Turn it down is more like it.

Do you ever have to run copy past them? Or offer sweeteners (and what sort – I’m thinking it would be a great chance to wangle for a pony)?

No. I have never sought their approval for anything. I’ve been rapped over the knuckles a few times… but I have to say, only a very few. They have been amazingly lenient towards me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been writing about them literally since they were babies…

If this had been a fiction novel, what would have happened?

Er, I would have met a Liam Neeson/Colin Firth lookalike while out on an ipod-free walk with Rupert … and we would have, er, connected?

While the book documents a change from being constantly being connected, what aspect of Social Media did you miss the most?

I didn’t miss social media at all really. I missed my podcasts the most. And not being able to watch movies at home all winter was a real bummer. The cosiness factor is something I hadn’t really thought about.

You describe yourself on The Australian as being a “control freak”. You get total control of the future direction of a social media site – Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, whichever. What do you do, and why?

I laugh about being a control sneak but the truth is I have TOO much control in my life, and too much decision making, and too many opportunities to showcase my life. For these reasons, I’m pretty blasé about social media. My Facebook page is very badly neglected, and I don’t do the others…

Have any of your children shown an urge to write about the family from their point of view, and how do you think you’d handle it?

My daughters have both assisted with publicising The Winter of Our Disconnect, and trust me they DO present their own point of view. The only way writing from life, or memoir, can work is if you are searing honest about yourself and your limitations. It’s a standard I continually strive for, and if they were to go down the same track I would hope they would too.

Review: iBooks on the iPad

Click on any of the pictures for a closer look

So, I’ve had my iPad for a couple of weeks now, and it’s high time to review Apple’s answer to the ebook question. I’m not going to review the entire iPad – unlike the Kindle, the it’s not a dedicated reading device, and there are plenty of other options for reading books, newspapers, magazines and blogs on it.

The iBooks app does not come pre-loaded on the iPad when you buy it, a choice by Apple that has more to do with their relationships with international publishers than it does with their determination to turn the iPad into a reading device. Unlike Amazon, Apple do not want its users to associate the iBooks app with no books on its bookstore.

Having said that, we don’t yet have much of an idea how much content will be available on the Australian version of the iBookstore (can I point out right now that I’m already getting sick of typing lowercase ‘I’s in front of every bloody proper noun in the Apple vocabulary?). When it launches in Australia on 7 June, the iBooks app will be available from the App Store, but we don’t yet have any idea what the range will be like. The US iBookstore, for what it’s worth, seems well stocked enough (by all reports, somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 titles). It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 400,000 available on the Amazon Kindle store, at the moment, but that’s likely as much to do with how long it has been available as anything else.

So what’s it like reading on this thing? Absolutely fine. Unlike the Kindle, the iPad uses an LCD screen, a source of much consternation for ebook nerds. I’ve heard comments that the backlit screen makes it ‘useless’ as an ereader. But this has not been my experience at all. For those of us who already spend a proportion of our days reading backlit screens on computers, the iPad is no worse and arguably a lot better than this. You can easily set the brightness levels to suit the ambient light, and the advantages of the backlit screen are obvious – it can show colour, embedded video and the refresh rate (how quickly each page turns and illustrations are shown) is light years ahead of the Kindle. You can also almost instantaneously flip the orientation of the book between a double-page spread and a single larger page by just turning the device as it suits. There are disadvantages as well, of course. The screen is not a patch on the Kindle for reading in direct light – you can forget bringing it to the beach with you (though I’ve never been inclined to bring my Kindle to the beach anyway). The ten-hour battery life is also nowhere near the Kindle’s ten days – though this is mitigated by the fact that the iPad can and would be used for more than just reading books.

For anyone used to reading ebooks, the iBooks app has most of the standard ereader features. You can look up words in the dictionary (I really like the implementation of the dictionary – it pops up in a small window overlaying the text so you can quickly check without having to leave the page), you can also search the book and bookmark it. For some reason iBooks does not have any annotation capability, though this may be something addressed in a future update.

One thing that really bugs me about iBooks, however, is the way you load books. If you buy books exclusively from the iBookstore, you can do it from anywhere and start reading instantly. However, if you want to load up your own DRM-free, out-of-copyright books you might have downloaded from somewhere like, then the only way to add books to the app is to plug it into iTunes, add it to the library and sync the iPad. For a device that sells itself as internet connected and as a netbook replacement, this feels like a massive (and unnecessary) step backwards.

Ultimately, the iBooks app is a very strong contender in the realm of ebook readers. However, the comparative feature set of this single app is not going to be what sets it apart. That’s because the iPad is not just iBooks. For readers who are hooked on the e-ink experience, I’d say that there’s no huge advantage to buying an iPad. Stick with your Kindle, your Eco Reader or your Sony. For people who are curious about e-reading, but can’t decide whether to an ereader is a waste of money – then an iPad is for you. It’s more expensive, but it does far more than an ordinary ereader. It is also much more likely to be future proof – whether it’s Amazon, Apple or Google books you’re after, it’s very likely that they will all be able to be read on an iPad long into the future.

Dee Watching

Those who have been keeping themselves up to date with our new blogs will already know the fabulous Dee White, she commands the good ship Kids’ Book Capers. Well, she’s going to be busy Festival-hopping in the coming few weeks, so new fans, it’s time to get better acquainted with Dee White, and here’s how:

On 29th May, she will be on a panel at the Emerging Writers’ Festival called ‘Never Surrender’ talking about the path to publication for her young adult novel, Letters to Leonardo. For more information, click here.

On 19th June, she will be at the CBCA Imagine This Imagine That Conference in Sydney, presenting with Samurai Kids author, Sandy Fussell about Authors & the Internet.

Even more book trailers — pushing the envelope

Okay… one final post about book trailers (well, for the moment, at least). Last time around, I suggested that book trailers are perhaps becoming an art-form in their own right — a form of short film making. Take a look at this selection and see what you think.

Let’s start off with a big-budget, major release. From the people who brought you Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, watch out for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Now, let’s go to the other end of the scale — Fury in the Garden: Dream Version by John Pagan. Judging by the website this book looks like is has been self-published by the author. The trailer is just text, computer graphics and music, but it’s effectively put together.

Now, here’s a really stylish trailer for The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King. It’s mostly animated text with a voice-over. Simple but very cleverly put together. The vast majority of book trailers rely on text and still images, sometimes with a bit of animation. They tend to be a bit ‘same-old, same-old’. But every now and then, someone will take these standards of the book trailer and do something unique and imaginative. This is the case with The Dust of 100 Dogs trailer.

There are not a huge number of live-action book trailers out there, and the majority of those are pretty woeful. It’s usually the flashy, big-budget, blockbuster trailers that stand out in this category. But here’s a quiet little trailer. It’s simple and straightforward, without any fancy effects. But it’s well acted, well scripted and it works. It’s for Sugarless by James Magruder.

And finally, while we’re on live action, here’s the trailer for Gone by Mo Hayder. It’s very clever, well made and rather chilling. As the trailer itself warns, parental guidance is recommended on this one. I wouldn’t go showing this one to your five-year-old.

This trailer was put together by Paul Murphy, who also did the trailer for Kate Forsyth’s new book The  Wildkin’s Curse. Paul kindly stopped by to tell us a bit about the making of the Gone trailer.

“The publisher had given me a very simple brief: make a video for the web that is so scary people will forward it on.

I thought about what I had seen online that genuinely scared me, and remembered the real emergency call from a woman whose friend was being attacked by a chimpanzee. You don’t see anything in the video, but the audio is so raw – the woman sounds paralysed with fear, the operator is scrambling to understand what is happening, and meanwhile this crazed chimp is screaming in the background. I could picture everything as it happened, and it stayed with me for days.

That’s how I got the idea for a surveillance video synched to an emergency phone call. I developed it a bit further, and decided I didn’t want people to even know the woman’s daughter was in the car until after the attacker had driven off – that would be the twist that would leave people hanging. And that’s the point where I’d reveal it is the opening scene of a book.

It was very much a guerrilla production. One night, I drove a couple of actors to a rooftop car park. To get that high surveillance angle, I had to climb onto an enclosure with my camera and tripod. It was really windy, and I was worried I might get blown over the edge to a 10 storey drop below. We did four takes, and then got out of there before security was alerted. It would have been difficult to explain why a man was breaking into a woman’s car and driving off with it, only to drive back and do it all again.

For the audio, I recorded three other actors in a sound studio. I added the sound effects and mixed it to make it sound more like it was happening in a car. Finally, I played the mix through my mobile phone to give it that harsh, compressed tone.

I was really happy with the end result. Many people have said to me not only how disturbing they found the video, but how much they wanted to read the book afterwards. For me, that’s the most satisfying thing to hear. In all my book trailers, I’m not just trying to match pictures to words, but entice people with a story.”

For more info about Paul Murphy and his other trailers, check out his website Book Tease.

And tune in next time when Literary Clutter will take you Beyond the Book Trailer!

Catch ya later,  George


A few weeks back I finished a May Gibbs Fellowship*, a creative time residency organized by the May Gibbs’ Literature Trust. It’s for children’s authors and illustrators, and during the Fellowship you get to spend ONE WHOLE MONTH away from home writing (or illustrating). One whole month without school lunches, sport’s training, dentists, vets, committee meetings, and the list goes on.

Of course I missed my family desperately, but I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to have 16 to 18 hours a day to dream, plot and write – and of course READ!

I managed to finish writing an entire first draft of a new YA novel while I was there, blogged regularly, came up with a new book idea, and a name for another book – and of course READ. I also did eleven workshops at the State Library of Queensland, working with school groups, showing kids from years 5 to 10 how to develop heroes and villains for their stories.

All in all an amazing experience, but there’s more.  May Gibbs Fellows who stay in the apartment, leave at least one of their books behind in a special locked cupboard.

Opening the door was like going into a magical world, going back in time, back to when the authors and illustrators were in this very room creating many of the books that were now in the cupboard. It was inspirational to reflect on their experiences and enjoy reading some of the published works that had resulted from their Fellowships.

The varied collection included:

nudes & nikes by Dyan Blacklock

The Tuckshop Kid by Pat Flynn

By Jingo! by Janeen Brian and Dee Huxley

Hungry Ghosts by Sally Heinrich

A Matter of Cats by Elizabeth Hutchins

Something More by Mo Johnson

Boofheads by Mo Johnson

Outback Countout by Norah Kersh

Muck-Up Day by Ruth Starke

Nips X1 by Ruth Starke

The Garden of Empress Cassia by Gabrielle Wang

Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang

Coincidentally, Little Paradise was the book that Gabrielle worked on two years ago for her May Gibbs Fellowship, and it was launched the day I started my Fellowship in Brisbane.

Exploring the world and works of these authors made me feel like a small child again, and I wondered if perhaps a book chest, secret book cupboard or even a book treasure hunt might be a way to inspire young readers around the home. It worked for me.


*Anyone interested in doing a May Gibbs Creative  Time Residency Fellowship can find out more information here:

More book trailers — are they worth the effort?

Last time around I introduced you to a few of my favourite book trailers. I’ve got some more for you to look at this time. Plus, I also pose the question: Are book trailers worth the effort?

But first, let’s take a look at the awesome trailer for Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan:

It’s a complex, beautifully animated trailer. But simple animation can also work. Take, for example, the trailer for Wardragon by Paul Collins. It’s not in the same league as the Leviathan trailer, but… Some simple animation, a bit of text and some stirring music combine to make an effective trailer.

This trailer has been online for about nine months, but it’s only had about 180 viewings. This begs the questions: is the time and effort (and possibly money) that is invested in making a trailer, really worth it, if only a couple of hundred people will watch it? This is the question I put to Paul Collins, who is the publisher at Ford Street Publishing as well as an author. Here’s his response:

“I think this latest publishing phenomenon is too young to predict how useful it is. Providing publishers/authors/illustrators can get their trailers done reasonably cheaply, or they can produce them themselves, I see trailers as yet another cheap means of promotion, much like blogging/reviews, etc. Truly inspirational trailers must cost thousands, but the viral impact is tremendous. So if a book trailer can fire up the viewers to send it on, then it can’t fail to promote the book. But looking on Ford Street’s YouTube channel, I see our most viewed trailer, My Private Pectus, has only had 536 views, and the second most viewed trailer sits at 436. How many of the viewers bought the book/s? Hard to quantify!”

Check out the trailers at the Ford Street YouTube Channel.

While the Ford Street trailers are counting their viewings in the hundreds, Leviathan is clocking up multiple thousands, as is the trailer for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (see previous post). It seems to be a case of big name authors and large publishing houses (who have more money to spend on producing trailers and promoting them) are getting the huge audiences (and huge sales), while lesser known authors and smaller publishers are struggling to get their trailers seen by more than a few hundred people.

Last year I had a book trailer created for my teen novel, Gamers’ Quest. It’s a computer animated video, put together by H Gibbens of Finger to the Bone. It’s had a little over 450 viewings. It’s not possible to know how many of these viewings have resulted in a sale. But for me it is more than just a video to be uploaded to YouTube. I use it during school talks and I also have it playing on a screen beside me when I do book signings. It has proved to be a great way to grab an audience’s attention and so has been an invaluable marketing tool for me.

I think that books trailers are now evolving beyond their initial intention. Just like the music video has become so much more than just a way to advertise a new single, the book trailer is also evolving beyond a simple marketing tool. It is becoming an art-form of it’s own. Just take a look at what the New Zealand Book Council have put together for Maurice Gee’s Going West:

Art? Or mere advertising? What do you think? And what are some of your favourite book trailers? Post a link in the comments section.

And tune in next time for even more amazing trailers.

Catch ya later,  George

A tale of two Guidebooks

In just under two months my partner and I will be winging my way off on a round the world trip. I’m excited and a little nervous as, in addition of my home county of Ireland, the trip takes in a lot of terra incognita or lands unknown.

Well, unknown to me. Most people would argue that Fiji, New York and Miami are very well known indeed, and that even my more off-the-beaten-path overland bus-ride from Antigua to Mexico City is well trodden – and well-written about – already.

So, what’s a booklover (and bloke) to do when they want to make the unfamiliar an exciting adventure as opposed to a cautionary tale? Reading up on it is certainly a great place to start. We’re both well travelled, and already have amassed a pretty big travel collection. Part of the fun of a holiday comes from browsing the brochures and guidebooks and travelogues of other people – the bus-ride to work on a rainy day is so much better when you’re reading of far-away lands. And, even when you are back and the last of your tan has faded, taking down that dog-eared guide that found you the best café and perfect sunset stroll brings back the best of the holiday memories in glorious colour.

So, backpacking guidebooks it is. Except for one problem.

He’s a Lonely Planet. I’m a Rough Guide.

We have this argument every time we go to buy a guide book. He favours the – to my mind – more upmarket and expensive Lonely Planets, all climbing mountains for the dawn and seafood restaurants at dusk. I like the – in his opinion – lowbrow and lively Rough Guides, which tend to list more pubs than temples and know where to find the cheapest beds and eats in any given city.

He maintains he’d rather sleep without bedbugs and backpackers cuddling their bottle of local 10% alc by volume beer to their Ripcurl tee-d chests. I maintain that the booze will kill the bed bugs and that I’d rather be learning the moves in the local bars and clubs than basket-weaving my evenings away. And we’re not the only people having this row. I had similar conversations in hostels, in hotels, at bus stops in strange countries. I once had a girl tell me, with a particularly dismissive sniff,  she was after “more of a Lonely Planet holiday” when I suggested coming out dancing with the rest of the hostel.

It’s the battle of the travel guides, and at about 40 dollars a guide, it can get pretty heated.  I’ve tried both, but I’m a Rough Guide girl. But they’re both good guides. Lonely Planets (an Aussie invention) have been running since the 70’s and appeal to the cultured and adventurous traveller, offering a blend of realism and social commentary along with information. It’s like having a debonair uncle show you around the cliques and clichés and fantastic cafes , with a comfy bed at the end of each day.

Rough Guides have been on the scene since 1982, a student scheme that became a series of witty, wacky and inquisitive guides, aiming to combine a journalistic approach to description with a practical approach to travellers’ needs. It’s like having an impoverished but enthusiastic student show you around their home city, complete with the cheapest places and bizarre local hang-outs and all the bits that the brochures don’t feature.

So, cultural odyssey or overseas adventure? Temples at dawn, or partying the night away? After a lot of fighting, only one solution is going to work – we’ll keep our options open and get both. That way we’ll have something to read (and argue) about on those long bus-rides, even if we can’t quite agree where we’ll stay when we get off the bus.

So, are you an LP girl or RG guy, or something else entirely?

FRIDAY BOOK FEATURE – THE GREAT BEAR by Libby Gleeson & Armin Greder

In our second Friday Book Feature we are looking at a new edition of an old favourite – The Great Bear, written by Libby Gleeson and illustrated by Armin Greder.

The circus bear spends her days in her cage and her nights performing for a crowd. The crowd taunts her as she dances – poking her with sticks or throwing stones. Can she ever break free?

I was first fascinated by the story of The Great Bear when I heard Libby Gleeson talk about it at a writer’s conference.

As a writer I was intrigued with the journey to publication and the fact that both author and illustrator collaborated on this book right from the start.

This is an unusual process for a picture book to go through as often the illustrator is selected after the text has been completed.

The story began with a dream of Libby Gleeson’s in which a bear escaped from taunting villagers by climbing a flagpole. It ended up being so much more.

Libby says, “The creating of this story was a genuine collaboration”. Armin urged her to become more focussed on the myth and poetry in the writing and she suggested he create the sky as a character.

There are so many compelling things about this book. It is a story of many layers allowing readers the space to interpret it in their own way.

The simple narrative of a bear escaping cruelty is just the first layer. Beneath it are themes of empowerment and freedom, about our right to live with dignity.

In the collaboration process, Armin suggested that the text in the last half of the book be removed because he felt that words and illustrations were repeating each other rather than blending together and complimenting each other.

Dropping the words allows the pictures to carry the story and avoid repetition. It also allows the reader to be set free.

It’s a simply told story with compelling illustrations and complex themes of empowerment and finding out who we really are.

The Great Bear was first published by Scholastic in 1999. A new edition has just been released by Walker Books Australia ISBN 9781921529696.

It is part of the Walker Classic series – new editions of Australian and New Zealand picture books. The series features new designs and additional notes from the author and illustrator and comments from an authority on children’s books.

The Great Bear is a picture book for children aged 5-8.

The agency model: hot or not?

The Agency Model: A lot more boring than     this picture.

I’ve implied in the past that ebooks are likely to change the way we buy, sell, read and perhaps even write books in the future. One of the ways things are already changing is the way that publishers supply ebooks to booksellers. This is what’s called the ‘agency model’. The agency model has the potential to fundamentally change the way that publishers interact with people who read books, so it’s worth knowing the basics.

To understand it, though, you first have to get an idea of how dead tree books are sold now. In the current dead tree publishing model, the company sells a certain amount of books to a bookshop and ships them out in dead tree boxes. The bookseller tries to sell as many as possible. Whatever is left can be returned to the publisher. There is a recommended retail price (RRP), but the bookshop decides how much to sell the book for – and they’ve demonstrated a lot of flexibility in doing so. In Australia for example, the big discount stores (K-Mart, Target and Big W etc.) will sell books for a fraction of the recommended retail price. Borders, on the other hand, has been known to increase the price. In other words, books are sold pretty much like any other product.

The agency model is something that has come out of selling ebooks – specifically when Apple came on the scene with the iBookstore and the iPad. Basically what it means is that instead of the bookshop selling digital products directly to you, the bookshop becomes an ‘agent’ (hence ‘agency’ model) of the publisher. The publisher sets the price of the ebook and then give the bookshop a license to sell ebooks on their behalf.

I’ve covered the reason for this change in a previous blog, but the consequences so far have been steady prices for readers (Amazon have increased the prices of ebooks by a few dollars, but other ebook stores will eventually drop their prices). It also means that no single bookshop (I’m looking at you, Amazon) can artificially prop up a price point that no other store can match. This is essentially what K-Mart, Target and Big W do in Australia with dead tree books. You can get very cheap books in these stores, but not a big range. Smaller bookshops around Australia have closed as a result, and the sales for midlist authors (authors who don’t always sell in the big discount chains) aren’t as good as they used to be.

So, the questions is – is the agency model hot or not? As with all of these kinds of questions the answer is that it’s complicated. Do you prefer a good range or a good price? The prevailing wisdom is that the cheaper books become, the fewer risks publishers will be able to take on new and interesting authors. Having said that, ebook stores do not have the physical limitations of their dead tree cousins – the range of books they can supply is almost infinite. What do you think? Sound off in the comments.

Interview with the angelic Nalini Singh (Part 2)

Today, Nalini Singh, author of the new Guild Hunter series, will be chatting about reading, and writing her books. As I said in Part 1 of the interview, Nalini will be heading down under later this month…but if you miss her this time, never fear! She will be back in Sydney for a book signing, August 13 at Crowne Plaza Coogee for the Australian Romance Writers’ Conference! Aren’t we lucky?!

So Nalini, have you always loved to write the decadence of romance, or are there other genres that you like to play around with?

I love reading across a number of genres, but the books that work best for me are the ones where there is some kind of a relationship thread – so romance is the perfect fit for me.

However, part of what I love about paranormal and urban fantasy romance is that I get to play with lots of different elements – for example, my Psy/Changeling series has some science fiction aspects, while the Guild Hunter books have a thriller edge to them.

New Zealand, your country of origin, is a stunningly beautiful place. Does it ever inspire your paranormal writings?

Of course. I think everything around me inspires me in one form of another, whether it’s the most lush beauty, or something far more stark.

Name the books/ authors that inspired your passion for writing:

I read so much that it’s difficult to pick just a few names – I think everything I’ve ever read has probably helped with my writing journey in some way.

Do you have a favourite place you like to read?

I have a sofa that gets the mid-morning sunlight – I love curling up there for an hour in the morning.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

Mark Del Franco’s Unperfect Souls, Patricia Briggs’ Silver Borne, Ariana Franklin’s Relics of the Dead and Jayne Ann Krentz’s Fired Up.

Aaah! I love Ariana Franklin…
Best writing or reading advice you’ve ever received:

When I was first submitting my work, another author told me to never just have one submission out there. That way, there’s less obsessing, and if one piece of work gets rejected, you still have the hope for success with one of the other submissions. Following that advice made it so much easier to bounce back from rejection.

And finally, you’re a big chocolate lover, I hear! So, the most important question of the day: Belgian or Swiss?

You know, to answer this question, I would really need to conduct an intensive year-long study. 😉


Hmmph. I would have picked Belgian, for sure.

Thanks to Nalini Singh for her generosity in allowing me to interview her (my fangirl knees were shaking), and also a special thanks to Hachette Publishing for the opportunity. Remember, if you want to hear about the latest that’s happening for Nalini, head to her website.

Good Girls Don’t Make Pocket Gems Of History

Obscure Events that Shaped the WorldSometimes books sneak onto the scene that you:

a)      wonder how you didn’t know about sooner;

b)     didn’t know you needed until you saw them and now absolutely must have;

c)     marvel at the simplicity and effectiveness of the idea behind;

d)     wish with every fibre of your being that you had come up with yourself.

I’m currently experiencing those thoughts and emotions about Pier 9’s Pocket History series, six—as the title suggests—pocket-sized, cloth-covered books chock full of quirky and compelling historical goodness:

Turning the Tide of BattlePart Penguin classic budget title, part Penguin classic cloth-covered redesign icon, these nifty titles, which endeavour to ‘highlight the influence on history of “the law of unintended consequences”, are the kind you’d be proud to cart around or display on your bookshelf. And at just under $15 each, they’re the kind of books you end up buying all six of (which I did) and can either read from cover to cover or dip in and out of.

Some of the events they cover are well known, but plenty of them are less so but should be. And even the better-known events have been interpreted in a new manner.

The War of Words includes history’s great military speeches, songs, war cries, and final words across the span of time, from such speeches as William the Conqueror’s ‘Be the Avengers of Noble Blood’ to Adolf Hitler’s ‘We Are Merely Interested in Safeguarding Peace’ and George ‘Dubya’ Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’.

The Clash of History's TitansWith such gold as ‘The Cadaver Synod: The most controversial trial in history’ and ‘Guano Happens: How the world was changed by bird droppings’, Obscure Events that Shaped the World is sure to be an instant, much-quoted hit.

And Good Girls don’t make History contains stories of some exceptional femme fatales and renegades. There’s ‘Shi Xianggu: The greatest pirate who ever lived’, ‘Mary Ann Cotton: The “Black Widow” with a predilection for infanticide’, ‘Leila Khaled: The pin-up terrorist’, and, closer to home, ‘Amy Bock: New Zealand’s cross-dressing con woman’.

I’m off to read them, buff up on some history trivia that I can trot out during witty dinner party repartee (who am I kidding), and continue cursing myself for not coming up with an idea so simple yet so outstanding.