A Life In Words – Cameron Rogers on writing on the road

We  both live in Australia but I end up interviewing Australian author Cameron Rogers on the other side of the world. We’re in Central Park, New York, where he is taking a break from working on his upcoming novel, Fateless.

He wrote the bulk of it in Melbourne where he lived for the last decade, but he’s doing the final edits while travelling around the world. He’s worked on the manuscript – which he calls, not entirely affectionately, “the brick” – in the States, on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, near an Icelandic glacier, in England, Germany and Graceland, all over Paris, while camping in the Dandenongs and in between checking out Muddy Waters’ shack and the Reichstag.

Sounds fun. So is writing all bumming around the world, scribbling a few words in exotic climes?

Cameron grins. “It’s a feast or a famine.” Mainly a famine. He’s been crashing on sofas and working on other things too, a travel article here, or a food piece there. They add a few welcome dollars to the travel fund. But, in the main, he’s financed this trip through royalties, selling almost everything he owns and renting out his room in Melbourne. It sounds spartan, but Cameron relishes the challenge of living in the moment.

“My friend subscribes to the idea of a two bag theory: that is, never own more than two bags worth of things you aren’t willing to part with. That way, if you need to, you can get up and go at a moment’s notice. I like that idea a lot, not only for the freedom it allows, but because it stops your possessions owning you. My father is a bushman to the bone, and so’s my brother. An appreciation of practical expediency is probably genetic.  And very William Gibson.”

Cameron is a fan of science fiction and fantasy writers such as William Gibson and Neil Gaiman, and his writing showcases his interest in the fantastical, bizarre and philosophical. Fateless and his previous novel, the Music of Razors, are both dark adult fantasy but Cameron’s first sales were to other avid Sci-Fi fans – his classmates in Cairns. “I had a Star Wars fixation as a kid. So I started a tiny business writing illustrated stories to order for classmates. I wrote them in exercise pads and sold them for about three dollars.”

His first work to be published was a young-adult novel entitled The Vampires and, in between working on Music of Razors and Fateless, in 2005 he released Nicholas and the Chronoporter under the name Rowley Monkfish. Writing for kids is a different experience again, and one Cameron enjoyed. “The upside of doing kids’ stuff though is that they’re more receptive to the fantastical, and you really can go nuts with those stories, so long as you don’t go offending any librarians. After all, they are the ones who actually buy the books.”

Cameron should know about being receptive to the fantastical. He’s lived a very varied life, with more jobs in a year than many people hold in decade. Many of them have more than a touch of the absurd. He’s been an itinerant theatre student, a stage director, a stand-up comic and had a question mark instead of a photo in his high school yearbook. He spent three months cutting up vegetables in the company of a defecting Soviet weightlifter and almost ended up working in what turned out to be a Yakuza-run all-gay bowling alley in Kyoto.

He wanted to be director, but after a brief stint studying drama, decided to try writing instead. “I abandoned theatre studies after second year when I realised that 95% of all actors are usually out of work anyway, and I didn’t need to study for that.”

His passion for showing the world the scenes he sees so clearly still burns strongly, even if he no longer wants to act. Halfway around the world and working on his manuscript, Cameron is using all his available time and money to get his story, Fateless, out there and into people’s hands and heads. His dedication to the manuscript is balanced by his determination to live in the moment and try everything the world can offer and his advice for aspiring writers is to do the same.

“Experience things. Explore your life.  Document it, either plainly or dressed up as a metaphor inside a novel. But be honest and observant about it. It’s what people look for in a book, even if they don’t consciously know it.  That means being honest with yourself, about yourself.  Readers can smell a fake a mile off.”

Indigenous Literacy Day – 40% of takings to be donated this Wednesday

Indigenous Literacy Day is on this Wednesday, 1 September 2010.  Boomerang Books is a supporter of this fantastic program – this year we will be donating 40% of all takings (not profits or margin) to the cause.  You can help us to help indigenous readers by buying a book from Boomerang Books on Wednesday.

For more information, check out the Indigenous Literacy Day website:

http://www.indigenousliteracyproject.org.au

What’s it all about?

Can you imagine not being able to read a newspaper, a road sign or directions on a bottle of medication? Sadly, this is a reality faced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in remote communities today.

The Indigenous Literacy Project (ILP) aims to raise literacy levels and improve the lives and opportunities of Indigenous Australians living in remote and isolated regions.

This is done by providing books and literacy resources to Indigenous communities and raising broad community awareness of Indigenous literacy issues.

What happens on Indigenous Literacy Day

  • Events and fundraisers are held across Australia.
  • Participating publishers donate 5% (or more) of their takings from their invoices on ILD.
  • Participating booksellers donate 5% (or more) of their takings from sales on ILD.
  • Participating schools host The Great Book Swap and other fundraising activities.
  • Participating businesses, clubs and organisations host The Great Book Swap and other fundarising activities.
  • Across Australia people attend ILD events including local Great Book Swaps, purchase books at participating bookshops or organise their own private fundraising literary lunches and morning teas.
  • People everywhere pause to read to support Indigenous literacy.

Boomerang Books salutes you

Boomerang Books would like to acknowledge David Gaunt, Karen Williams and all of the Indigenous Literacy Project committee members, staff and supporters for their work on this great cause.

Announcing the Claudia Gray ‘Hourglass’ Giveaway Winners

Hey Hourglass entrants!

I was totally overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the entries received for the Claudia Gray Hourglass giveaway. As a result I spent the weekend judging and agonising over ‘the longlist’, then ‘the shortlist’, and finally, I whittled the list down (with much more agonising and second-guessing my choices) to the five winners who are each going to receive a copy of Hourglass.

I definitely feel content with my final decision, and if you didn’t win this time, never fear! If I look into my crystal ball I see more giveaways in the future…

Anyhoo, the readers were asked to write in 25 words or less:

“What’s the best OR worst thing about being immortal?”

So, without further ado, here are the five winners (in no particular order):

Chris, who said:

“Having to wear the clothing of the period to fit in; from corsets to tracky dackies. Could be fun in some eras, definitely horrible in others.”

Dean, who said:

“The best thing is that I’d never have to say …. “so many lovely women, so little time …””

Lesley, who said:

“Worst thing about being immortal is that you stop growing and maturing. I appreciate my mind and body more at 37 compared to my 20s.”

Jodie, who said:

“Immortal forever sounds a dream,
but that lily white skin! I’d scream!”

Courtenay, who said:

“The worst thing about being immortal would be hiding the fact – could you imagine how many people would want ‘in’ on the secret!

 

Expect an email from me soon, guys, and congratulations!

Sean Williams talks Star Wars Part 1

Sean Williams has written over 20 novels, including the four-book Astropolis series and the Evergence trilogy co-authored with Shane Dix. In addition to all these original novels, he’s also written a number of Star Wars novels. I invited Sean to stop by Literary Clutter and answer a few questions about writing in the Star Wars extended universe…

How did your first Star Wars book come about?

I’m asked that a lot, for obvious reasons: a lot of people would like to write for Star Wars. Sad to say, it wasn’t from writing fan fiction. The mighty Richard Curtis, my hardworking agent at the time, looked at the work I was doing then with Shane Dix and noticed a similarity between it and the Star Wars extended universe. Not surprising, really, since Shane and I wrote the Evergence series with the intention of making something that fans of both Star Wars and Blakes 7 would love. Richard kept in Del Rey’s face about us until an opening finally came along–a trilogy towards the end of the epic New Jedi Order series—and of course we leapt at it. Both Shane and I had been Star Wars fans since we were little folk, so it wasn’t an entirely commercial decision—although the money was something of a boon at the time. (My half of the check enabled me to write full-time for the first time ever.) Neither of us could believe our good fortune. To be writing lines for Leia, Luke, Han, etc seemed like a dream come true, or, at the very least, a return to our roots. By working hard and pursuing our own dreams, we’d come back to a story we had loved for most of our lives. There was a pleasing symmetry to how things worked out.

What attracted you to write in the Star Wars universe and what sustains your interest in it?

I love a good space opera adventure story. There’s no point in hiding it, and no shame in admitting it. Star Wars gives me a chance to play with a bunch of wonderful toys without having to worry too much about how it all works. (There is part of me that always wants to sneak a bit of real science in, just to keep it relatively grounded, but I am very aware that this not what Star Wars is all about, as opposed to, say, the Doctor Who I also loved as a kid, which is very much about hammering home the scientific method, if hidden behind a lot of hand-waving.) So preposterous plots, huge set-pieces, iconic characters, humor, romance–Star Wars has it all. Brilliant.

One of the things I love perhaps a bit too much about working in the extended universe is just how large and baroque the EU has become. A lot of it remains internally consistent and rigorous–amazingly so, in fact–but there are nonetheless so many threads that haven’t been tied off, so many places and beings that have been mentioned only once, that I can’t help but want to come to their aid, to lift them out of obscurity, to remind readers that this is a rich and varied galaxy full of wonders and terrors both. Sometimes I get into trouble with my editors for being too obscure, but I figure it’s a risk worth taking. And always, among the millions of fans of the EU, there’s at least one who appreciates the effort.

The extended Star Wars universe (books, comics, video games, animated series, etc) is quite large. As a Star Wars author, do you need to keep up with all of it? Are you, for instance, reading all the books as they come out?

That would be a feat, one I certainly don’t have time for. I only read the books directly related to the projects I’m working on, and I rely on the various encyclopedic references to fill in the gaps. Wookieepedia is an immensely valuable fan-created tool (as a fan I am often getting lost in there, letting idle curiosity lead me hither and yon) and of course there is the invaluable Leland Chee at Lucasfilm who maintains the Holochron database. He is the guy who keeps it all together. Without him, any Star Wars author would be completely lost.

That’s all we’ve got space for this time… but fear not, Sean will be back next post to tell us about the freedoms and restriction of writing in the Star Wars universe. To find out more about Sean and his writing, check out his website.

And tune in next time for part 2 of this interview.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… I’ve almost got 100 followers. Only 4 more to go.

Do Ebook Readers Read More Books?

There’s a persistent nugget of common sense that keeps floating around the web indicating that people who read ebooks read more books than those who read paper books.  It’s reared its adorable little head again on the WSJ this week, and I think it’s worth analysing it a bit deeper. Snip:

A study of 1,200 e-reader owners by Marketing and Research Resources Inc. found that 40% said they now read more than they did with print books. Of those surveyed, 58% said they read about the same as before while 2% said they read less than before. And 55% of the respondents in the May study, paid for by e-reader maker Sony Corp., thought they’d use the device to read even more books in the future.

You can see why people want it to be true (people other than Sony, that is). Ebooks are a bit of a boogeyman for publishers and booksellers – some of them like to pretend that ebooks spell (variously) the end of the book, the end of reading and the end of the bookstore. However, if it turns out that ebook readers read more books than paper book readers (and more importantly, buy more ebooks than paper book readers) then the amount of money that books make for everyone will increase, which will reverse a worrying downward trend in both reading and book buying over the past decade.

But the questions is – is it true? It’s obviously a very difficult thing to prove at this point. As the WSJ points out itself, it’s a bit too early to tell if the increase in reading will continue after the lure of the new gadgetry wears off. Nonetheless, let us indulge ourselves in some idle speculation.

It’s true that the early adopters of ereaders are likely to be both gadget-fiends and fairly big readers already. However, it’s very likely that the penetration of ereaders and ebooks into the ordinary book buying public will occur for a few key reasons, each of which, I believe, is directly related to why ebook readers read more books than paper book readers.

Firstly, there’s what’s called interstitial, or cereal-box reading. That is, ereaders and ebook technology lends itself towards the type of reading you do from the back of a cereal box while scoffing down your breakfast. And, let’s face it, the average person spends three years of their life on the toilet – what better time to finally finish Ulysses? (Especially if it’s already sitting on the iPhone you have in your pocket).

There’s also the ease of purchase. Despite the teething problems readers are experiencing at the moment in regards to book availability, pricing and territorial copyright, the digitisation of other industries has proven that these things eventually settle down. Not only are we already in a position to quite easily read The Passage while lining up in the pub or waiting for a YouTube video to load (two of the most distasteful waiting times in a modern human’s life), we can also buy, download and begin reading Mockingjay when we finish it without leaving our spot.

Tied in to the ease of purchase, of course, is the availability. How often have you gone into a bookshop looking for a book and left without it because it wasn’t in stock? How often do you end up tracking that book down elsewhere? If you’re lazy like me – almost never. When the ebook teething problems are sorted out, that will be a problem of the past.

So, to sum up: when it’s easier, faster and cheaper to get books, and you convert more interstitial time into time to read books – you will probably read and buy more books, irrespective of whether you’re a gadget freak or a book lover. What do you think? Are you convinced by my tenuous argument, or do you think the ebook is the end of civilisation? Sound off in the comments.

Speaking at Aussiecon 4

Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention is now just round the corner. Five days of panel presentations, readings, signings, book launches and kaffeeklatsches (I’l explain the term later in the post), beginning on Thursday 2 September at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. I’m getting excited!

Last week, an email arrived in my inbox from the convention’s programming director, detailing all the programme items I had agreed to do and providing me with a schedule. Wow! I didn’t realise I had volunteered for so many items. I’m doing seven panels (two of which I’m chairing), two kids’ programme items, a reading, a signing and a kaffeeklatsch. And, of course, there are dozens of other programme items that I want to go and watch. It’s going to be a rather exhausting and exhilarating five days.

So, here’s a round-up of the panels that I’m on, with descriptions from the programme:

Game on! Games and YA spec fic — “A discussion of the influence and penetration of games of all sorts into the world of YA Speculative Fiction.” Also on this panel are Leanne Taylor, Bob Kuhn and Ben Chandler. I, of course, will be chatting about my novel, Gamers’ Quest, as the entire story is set within the multiple worlds of an elaborate, virtual reality computer game.

Playing in someone else’s sandpit: franchise writing — “With original novels based on entertainment properties such as Star Wars, Doctor Who and Halo regularly hitting the bestsellers lists, media tie-in fiction is big business. It is also a type of fiction that comes with its own rules and expectations. A group of authors discuss their own experiences working with someone else’s characters — the challenges, the benefits and the drawbacks.” Also on this panel are Karen Miller, Paul Cornell, Russell Blackford and Jennifer Fallon. I’m rather excited about this panel. My experience with franchise writing is minimal (I’ve done one Doctor Who short story and one book in the Behind The News series), so I’m looking forward to hearing the words of writers more experienced than myself.

Making a living: Professional writing for speculative fiction authors — “For many writers of science fiction and fantasy, the money earned from her or his craft is never enough with which to make a living. What other opportunities are there to earn a sustainable income? A look at ways to earn money as a professional writer outside of the speculative fiction markets.” Also on this panel are Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi and Jennifer Fallon.

QF — “Quite Fannish: a cheap attempt to cash in on the success of Stephen Fry’s quiz show with a similar name. Let’s see what interesting misconceptions the contestants have about science fiction and its associated sub-culture.” Also on this panel are Marc Ortlieb and Ian Nichols. I’m not sure what to expect with this one. I think I might have to watch a few episodes of QI before the event.

Fantasy TV: What happened? — “The overwhelming success of Star Wars in 1977 sparked off a wave of derivative science fiction television dramas such as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica, each intended to capture the Star Wars audience on the small screen. Following the similarly successful release of The Lord of the Rings from 2001 to 2003, no such wave of derivative programmes followed. Why has fantasy television failed to enter production as successfully as science fiction television? What are the hurdles facing writers, producers and television networks, and how might they be overcome?” Also on this panel are Jeanette Auer and Lara Morgan.

We are all fairy tales: Doctor Who’s fifth season — “In 2010 Doctor Who returned to the screens with a new writer/producer, a new TARDIS, a new companion and a new Doctor in the form of Matt Smith. How has Doctor Who’s fifth season differed from the four seasons before it? Has the transition from Russell T Davies to Steven Moffat been a successful one? A critical review of the most significant change in Doctor Who since it returned to TV.” Also on this panel are Kathryn Sullivan, Narrelle M. Harris and Rani Graff. I’m a complete Doctor Who nerd, so this panel should be a lot of FUN!

YA science fiction – a guy thing? — “Is Young Adult Science Fiction written by males for males?” Also on this panel are Foz Meadows, Sue Bursztynski and Gina Goddard. Yes, another excuse for me to talk about Gamers’ Quest.

And the two kids’ programme items are Writing career guidance for kids and Books from TV series.

Then, of course, there’s the kaffeeklatsch. A kaffeeklatsch, for those of you who don’t know, is a small, informal gathering over coffee (or tea). The host author is joined by up to nine people for a chat about pretty much anything. There are a whole bunch of authors hosting these, including Garth Nix, Rowena Cory Daniells, Trudi Canavan, China Mieville, Marianne de Pierres, Stephen Dedman, George R R Martin, Charles Stross and Ian Irvine. Demand for places at kaffeeklatschs hosted by some authors can be high, so you have to sign up beforehand… people often need to arrive very early and wait in line in order to get into the kaffeeklatsch of their choice. Given the calibre of the other authors, I’m not sure that people have to worry about lining up too long to get into mine. 🙂

If any of the above has sparked your interest in Aussiecon 4, then check out the website, buy a membership and join the several thousand other people who will be heading to the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre in just under a week.

And tune in next time as Sean Williams tell us a little about writing Star Wars books.

Catch ya later,  George

PS — Follow me on Twitter… go on… you know you want to!

Readers are making books better – on non-fiction and well written stories

I’ve always thought of myself as a reasonably good writer, so it was a shock when I got my thesis draft back from my course coordinator with a huge “rewrite” on the cover. I had put in a lot of time and effort to making it both accessible and entertaining while still covering my topic thoroughly. But according to my coordinator, it needed to be completely changed.

I was confused. My other reviewers had been very positive. Had she found it incorrect or boring or difficult to wade through? What was the issue?

She’d enjoyed it, she said. But that was part of the problem. I had made it too easy and enjoyable to read. It wasn’t suitable because it wasn’t written in academic language. It needed to be – and these are the words she used – more dense.

I remember thinking that there was something clearly wrong with the idea of writing a book on your work that no one would enjoy reading. Surely the point of a book is to share information in a lively way; to give knowledgeable readers an enjoyable read and people new to the subject an interest in the area? Surely people wanted to read specialist texts to be informed, not to be excluded?

This is why the discovery of non-fiction books such as Norman Doidges The Brain That Changes Itself on Boomerang Books 50 Books You Can’t Put Down delights me so much. One of the things that I enjoy most about hitting a bookstore these days is the profusion of well-written, informative and – yes – amusing books that line the non-fiction shelves. From Gladwell to Diamond, from historical biographies to Guides for Dummies, the information is out there and actively trying to engage the audience.

We no longer assume that people who don’t have knowledge don’t want it. Non-fiction specialist books no longer practise hiding simple statements in impenetrable thickets of academic verbosity. They can’t afford to. The reading public has proven to be intelligent, voracious and discerning, demanding excellent writing along with information. Writers that stick to the elitist convention of squirreling away knowledge behind dense phrasing and academic language will find themselves passed over for writers that credit their readers with both a brain and taste. Coming from wading through countless overwrought books on literature when I was completing my English degree, I can’t describe how happy this change in attitude makes me.

The Brain That Changes Itself is, fittingly enough, about changes that people thought were impossible. It’s the study of neuroplasticity, of overcoming brain limitations and challenging the notion that an old dog can’t learn new tricks. It combines study and scientific explanation with the personal journeys of both researchers and patients in this area. It is a hopeful, engaging and inspiring read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Also on the list is Life in His Hands by Susan Wyndham, a fascinating book on the relationship forged between controversial neurosurgeon Charlie Teo and one of his patients, the classical pianist Aaron McMillan, when McMillan is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive brain tumour at the age of 24. And, for people looking for something that isn’t brain surgery, try The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do, an Australian comedian whose family escaped war-torn Vietnam by boat. It’s a timely, moving and occasionally highly amusing tale of how he and his family faced a whole new set of challenges as immigrants to Australia, and how they adapted to life in the “Lucky Country”.

These books and others are all part of the 2010 Get Reading! program, Australia’s largest annual celebration of books running from 25 August to 30 September with the aim of encouraging everyone to pick up a book and get reading. As part of this, Boomerang Books is offering a free book when you purchase one of the 50 Books You Can’t Put Down, either “10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2010” or “Tickled Onions And Other Funny Stories”.

There’s plenty of enjoyable and informative reads in there, and I can’t wait to get my brain on them. How about you?

Why I Love Heston Blumenthal (Reason #3853764)

He loves fairytales as much as I do.

If you were one of the fortunates to tune in to SBS last night at 8:30 pm, your mind would’ve been blown – as mine was – by the Pumpkin Carriage amuse bouche, the Golden Egg entree, the Boar’s Head main encased in a book of Snow White; or the ‘piece de resistance’, an entire Hansel and Gretel edible house to round off dessert. If your house was on fire or the kids refused to be sent to bed, you may not have seen it – so lucky for you Heston’s latest book:  Heston’s Fantastical Feasts contains all the stuff I, the rest of the foodie nation and the guests themselves were drooling over.

Heston said that his reason for this theme was so that he could ‘re-create the wonder of childhood’, which once again prompted me to think: Why don’t we have more fairytales for adults?

One of my latest reads has been Susanna Clarke’s followup to the brilliant Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell , titled The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Aside from the fact that I was instantly drawn to the cover itself, the filling inside is just as tempting.

Imagine a place very much like Victorian England, with the same social mores and stuffy costumery, but with fairies. Perhaps it existed sometime in history for you (do you believe in fairies?) or it is entirely fiction, but nonetheless Susanna Clarke does a super job of making fairies seem integrated into the Victorian environment, if not society (the fairies tend more to dilly-dally around the edges).

The fairies themselves, interestingly enough, aren’t happy little joys the size of your forefinger who go spreading fairy dust everywhere – they’re more likely to be six-feet-tall, and followed around by imps and goblins. They have all the passions, jealousies and hatreds of the human being magnified tenfold – if you cross them prepare to suffer strange and unusual consequences: perhaps they have a mind to turn you into a tree, or fill your ears with a shrilly ringing so you’ll never think straight again. It’s a thoroughly proper collection of short stories full of wit and whims and fairy trouble, and you can read my full review here, if you’d like.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu really is a gorgeous book to curl up with on a rainy day when the world outside seems like a strange, electric place. And the devotion to 19th century language throughout the book makes it perfect for a recommendation at your next High Tea gathering. Just be sure that none of the other ladies and gents begin to cough into their handkerchiefs or eye you strangely, or you may find you’ve just made yourself a willing target for an undercover fairy who fears being found out.

FRIDAY BOOK FEATURE – RANGER IN DANGER

As a writer, I am in awe of Alison Reynolds and Sean Willmore for their ‘Decide Your Destiny’, Ranger in Danger Books.

While some writers struggle to come up with one plot, Alison and Sean have to create a number of alternative plot directions for each book so that the action can be guided by the choices made by readers.

The books are written in second person so that the reader is brought straight into the story. And from the first page, it’s non-stop action.

All the stories are based on real life ranger’s experiences and right from the start, readers are catapulted into the middle of deadly action.

Readers are invited to travel the world as rangers-in-training and what happens next depends on the choices they make. Readers decide for themselves how the story will end.  And the best part is that they can keep reading and re-reading so they can enjoy many incredibly daring experiences from a single book!

Based in different parts of the world including Africa, South America, India and Australia, Ranger in Danger is an action-packed collaboration between Australian ranger and environmental activist Sean Willmore and Melbourne author Alison Reynolds. With illustrations by Andrew Hopgood, these totally wild, interactive adventures include 20 possible endings to each story.

Diablo’s Doom

This is the start of your new life. You have been selected to travel to Africa as a ranger in training. You can’t wait!

Rampaging elephants, charging rhinos, and hungry man-eating crocodiles…The adventures start from the moment you get on the plane.

A scarred man with an eye patch sits near you. Is this the evil poacher, Diablo? Can you stop this international criminal? Will you even make it
off the plane alive?

You decide your destiny.

Hernando’s Labyrinth

You decide your destiny. You’re flying into South America as a ranger in training. You can’t wait!

Stinky skunks, gigantic tarantulas, Mayan ruins,
and flesh-eating piranhas…

A mysterious email triggers more adventures.Someone’s threatening the last Pinto tortoise in the world. Can you save him and stop the evil mastermind, Hernando?

Your fate is in your hands.

The Ranger In Danger series is published by Five Mile Press

For more information about the series, visit  www.rangerindanger.com

REVIEW: Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Mother by William Shawcross

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

I am not A ‘Royal Watcher’ although I do enjoy the theatrical pomp and circumstance which Royalty provides. Nor am I usually a reader of Royal biographies. However, I knew Ted Hughes when he was British Poet Laureate and I knew that he got along especially well with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. “She’s a great flirt”, he told me (she was in her 80s at the time), and he greatly admired her abundant energy and her sense of fun. She also used to send him salmon which she had caught on her Scottish estate. So, I was interested to read more about their friendship.

My other reason for wanting to read this book was that Queen Elizabeth (as she is called throughout the book) was a favourite with my mother, who was of the same generation and shared some of the Queen Mum’s “indomitable” character traits. When Queen Elizabeth II sent her ninety-three-year-old mother a special stick with a letter saying “Your daughters and your nieces would very much like your to TRY this walking stick”, I knew just how she felt.

Shawcross delivers on both my interests. There is a whole chapter entitled ‘Poetry and Pain’ in part of which he writes of Queen Elizabeth’s special friendship with Ted Hughes. On Hughes’s first private poetry reading for her at a Musical Weekend at the Royal Lodge at Windsor, “he was captivated by her and she by him”. Their friendship, Shawcross writes, “was a continued pleasure” for Queen Elizabeth. They corresponded with each other, fished together and shared a love of nature. Hughes would write whimsical poems especially for her, and he clearly knew what sort of poems she would enjoy. The poem he wrote for her eightieth birthday, she said “gave her great joy”. She was still re-reading it ten years later and several passages, she said, made her cry every time she read it.

Shawcross delighted me, too, with his accounts of Queen Elizabeth’s sense of fun and her love of the unexpected. And, again, I recognized her daughter’s worry whenever her elderly mother delightedly “went outside her programme”.

I enjoyed many parts of this book. I was lost by the pedigrees discussed in the early chapters but interested to read of the black sheep of the family, who were responsible for fluctuating family fortunes and for some tempestuous and disastrous marriages.

Queen Elizabeth’s own early family life was very happy, although one of her six brothers was killed during the First World War, a second was wounded in the foot and suffered badly from shell-shock, and a third had to have a bullet-shattered finger amputated. Elizabeth, herself, was too young to train as a nurse but she was responsible for making the soldiers who were convalescing in her family home feel relaxed and comfortable. She was clearly very good at this and her experiences, then, clearly shaped the way she cared about the ordinary people during the bombing of London during the Second World War.

A good deal of Shawcross’s book seems like lists of events which, as official biographer, he clearly had to mention, but Queen Elizabeth’s character shines through and her great sense of fun frequently enlivens the text. Shawcross uses letters, diaries, and much other archive material, and he is good at encapsulating the historical and political events which Queen Elizabeth lived through during her hundred-and two years.

Queen Elizabeth never expected to sit beside he husband as Queen of England, wife of King George VI, and it is interesting to read that when they took the throne after the abdication of King Edward VIII, she and Albert (the name by which the family knew him) were not immediately accepted by the British people. However, she handled this difficult challenge with the aplomb, sensitivity, stamina and sense of duty which eventually made her, in her later years, the most popular member of the Royal Family.

Other reviewers have noted Shawcross’s “manful” handling of countless descriptions of clothes, charity work, constant public tours and duties. I did find these over-long and tedious, and the book itself is thick and heavy, but Shawcross is a meticulous historian. What I really enjoyed, however, was the way his book revealed a remarkable woman, a loving wife and mother for whom family was of the greatest importance,  a caring family matriarch, and, especially, a “Granny” who loved poetry, ballet, jokes and unscheduled adventures.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Sandy Fussell and the Jaguar Warrior Part 2

Last time around Sandy Fussell told us a little about writing historical children’s novels, such as Jaguar Warrior. Today, she’s back for Part 2 of the interview…

My favourite character in Jaguar Warrior is the old priest Ichtaca. I especially love the passage where he explains to Atl that “A powerful religion must put on a good show for its people” and that “a good priest is a clever magician”. What was your inspiration for this character?

My historical novels usually have a strong, elderly figure advising the young protagonist because this is a key aspect of the social and religious structure of many ancient cultures. It also provides a vehicle for a touch of humour as the relationship between the young and the very old is a special one. In the Samurai Kids Series the samurai teacher is the wise and eccentric Sensei Kiyaga and in Polar Boy, the old shamaness Ananasaq (Nana) guides Iluak as he follows his destiny. In Jaguar Warrior I purposely avoided giving Ichtaca a lead role although he is obviously the influence who has moulded Atl. Ichtaca is an interesting character because he epitomises the paradox which inspired me to write about Aztec Mexica. Ichtaca saved slave-boy Atl’s life once and loves him like a son, but when the Serpent-Sun god selects Atl as a sacrifice, as High Priest, Ichtaca doesn’t hesitate to obey.

PS: I should point out that in the early times I write about, ‘very old’ would have been about 38.

Aside from the Aztec civilisation in Jaguar Warrior, you’ve also written about feudal Japan in your Samurai Kids novels. Is there any other historical period you’d like to write about?

Ancient times are fertile fiction ground for stories for middle primary to lower secondary readers – full of action, conflict and really big decision-making. Life and death stuff. This was a period when kids often had to cope by themselves and assume what we now consider adult roles. At fourteen, a boy was a full samurai and went to war. Twelve-year-old Iluak in Polar Boy is required to single-handedly face a polar bear. Jaguar Warrior’s Atl is expected to run for days on end through dangerous forest to deliver a message to save the city of Tenochtitlan.

There are so many periods I would like to write about. I particularly like civilisations that are unfamiliar to kids but are at the edge of those they know quite well. I am currently working on a story set in the Kingdom of Kesh, a black African nation that predated Pharaohonic Egypt and at one time enslaved Egypt. I think I will just write my way around the ancient world!

Finally, I just have to ask… Is this a stand-alone novel, or are we likely to get another adventure with Atl and Citlali?

I was surprised when the first two reviewers of Jaguar Warrior both commented they were eagerly awaiting the sequel, as I intended the story as a stand-alone. I read the last paragraph to my son and asked him if the story had closure. He rolled his eyes and said “It does but obviously you intended a sequel. Look at the last line.”

I think what is evident at the end is that I am very well-aware what happens next in my character’s lives. Atl, Lali and Zolan are running towards the fabled city of Atzlan to build a new world, where everyone is free and no-one is a slave. But history tells us that so often humanity repeats the mistakes of the past and Atl will find new threats to freedom, even in a world without slavery. I shouldn’t say more because if the opportunity arises, I would love to write a sequel!

Finally, finally… What’s next for Sandy Fussell?

Fire Lizard, the fifth book in the Samurai Kids series will be released in September and more titles are planned. I am working on another junior historical novel, a young adult novel with a supernatural twist (dare I say paranormal?) and my first picture book is due for release in 2012. The best part about being a children’s author is interacting with the readers and I am excited about my new classroom blogging project ReadWriteZone, aimed at engaging students in reading and writing related discussion via blog posts. Anyone interested can check it out here www.readwritezone.blogspot.com

My thanks to Sandy for stopping by Literary Clutter to talk about Jaguar Warrior. To find out more about Sandy and her writing, check out her website.

And tune in next time for some info about the Aussiecon 4 programme.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter!

THE WILD WORLD OF WRITING – With Alison Reynolds

Today, I’m pleased to welcome writer friend,  and author of more than twenty books, Alison Reynolds.

Alison and  Sean Willmore (founder of  The Thin Green Line) are the authors of the very popular Ranger in Danger Series.

Alison grew up and still lives in suburban Melbourne, but she says she often feels  like a ranger in danger.

I have a pack of wild dogs, possums tap-dance on the roof all night, and the neighbour’s scarily giant rabbits bounce across the front yard. Then there are the bats, cats and marsupial rats. Melbourne

Being a writer was something Alison always wanted to do, but she felt as if it was something other people did.
After a series of jobs, as a public servant, market researcher, working in a radio station, restaurant, bookshop, and for the most curmudgeonly boss in Melbourne, I decided if I was ever going to be a writer that now was the time. I was home with youngish children. I gained a Graduate certificate in Professional writing and editing and a MA in Creative Arts at the University of Melbourne.  I was lucky enough to have my first book, The Ghostly Hand accepted in 1997 and I haven’t stopped writing since.

The Ranger In Danger books are taken from real life experiences of rangers around the world. So how did the Alison and Sean writing team come together to tell these stories?

Alison says she was approached by the publisher to write a series with a ranger, Sean Willmore who has founded The Thin Green Line – a foundation to look after the welfare of rangers’ families where the ranger has been killed in the line of duty.

Sean and Alison brainstormed and came up with a ‘decide your destiny’ book set in Africa, Diablo’s Doom.

DIABLO’S DOOM

The reader goes to Africa as a ranger in training, but on the plane they overhear a voice speaking of killing rhinoceros. The reader embarks on an adventure where they make the choices and one wrong choice may end in death.

You require all the animal facts and ranger skills you know.  You fight poachers; are charged by elephants and one, very angry rhinoceros; and need all your ingenuity to survive. It’s up to you, the reader to decide your destiny.

WHY KIDS LIKE RANGER IN DANGER BOOKS

The Ranger In Danger books are for 8 – 12 year-olds.  They are full of adventure and facts about nature.

The ‘decide your destiny’ format, gives the reader the power to imagine what they would do if they were a ranger.

The main character is the reader. Alison says,

Each book in the series features a real-life ranger, and I’m full of admiration for his or her bravery and wisdom. Even though I’ve never met Makombo, who is in Diablo’s Doom, I feel as if I do know him and admire and respect him very much.

One of his jobs has been to protect the gorillas in Rwanda against poachers who are ruthless. Many rangers die in the line of duty.

THE WRITING PROCESS

Alison says that one of the most fun parts about writing the Ranger In Danger books was meeting and becoming friends with Sean Willmore, and learning about rangers and wildlife around the world.

The actual writing is a lot of fun as Sean and I brainstorm a vague outline, then I think ‘what if?’. I try to make each strand of the story more challenging for me as a writer.

When I get stuck, I contact Sean and tell him, for example, the little ranger has accidentally jumped out of a motorized rickshaw over the side of a steep mountain in India, and ask him what can he suggest. So far, we haven’t been stumped for an answer.

According to Alison, the hardest thing about writing the books is keeping  track of all the different strands and coming up with so many choices.

Find out more about Alison and her books at http://www.alisonreynolds.com.au

On Friday, we’re going to be discussing the Ranger in Danger books in more detail at Kids’ Book Capers.


Aussie celebs endorse 2010 Get Reading! campaign

The 2010 Get Reading! Campaign is live!  Buy one of the ’50 books you can’t put down’ and you’ll receive one of two free books.  Check out the details here…

Four Australian celebrities – Ray Martin, Judy Nunn, Anh Do and Matthew Hayden – have endorsed the campaign  and you will soon see these television commercials on small screens around the country:

We Want YOU… to Study a Bachelor of Wizardry (Yes, Really.)

Picture this: little Aimee B., fresh out of highschool, first year at Newcastle University (great uni, by the way).

I was enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts degree wondering what on Earth I was good for. I couldn’t pick a major just yet, so I chose from the Liberal Arts faculty of subjects the way I would a box of chocolates – one of each flavour. Partway through my Politics 101 subject I realised it just wasn’t for me, and began to agonise in advance over the slim pickings available in Semester Two. I’d already argued the existence of God and nature versus nurture in ‘Philosophy’; watched movie greats such as The Seventh Seal in ‘Film Studies’; yawned through ‘Rome to the Gracchi’; and compared Kate Bush’s wonderful warblings on tape to Bronte’s classic Wuthering Heights in ‘The Romantic Age’.

I felt as if my degree had nothing further to offer me…I was well and truly lost.
And I hadn’t realised I had been agonising out loud about the decisions for next semester when a girl in my ‘Myth and Antiquity in Ancient Greece’ class turned to me and drawled : “You DO know you can study witchcraft in third year, don’t you?”

My head went into a spin of ruby red-shoes and tornado-spun houses landing on shapely green legs…I cackled into the air and felt that I needn’t worry about my future anymore – my path was clear.

But the dreams of youth are often lost into the ether…by the end of the year, I had moved to Canberra to study something MUCH more interesting and not boring at all: Law (har-har), but I have often had a Sliding Doors moment where I wonder “what if?”

Chances are that the course would have been a relatively mild look at the Salem witchcraft trials…but there’s always that possibility that I would’ve learned a totally rad spell or two. Maybe even take over the world. So when I see this article, I almost scream in delight. Turns out Durham University in the UK is giving me a second chance at world domination.

The study of the Harry Potter story is nothing new, of course. Colleges in the U.S.A. have been offering seminars for years, and not just in literary areas. Young American politicians may already be debating the advantages of Voldemort’s political party in a hung parliament scenario, or Sciencemongers dissecting unicorns in Biology could be on the cliff-edge of a cure for some currently incurable disease.

At Swarthmore, “Battling Against Voldemort” remains one of the most popular freshman seminars, and a lottery determines who gets one of the 12 seats.

[Do they pull names out of a Sorting Hat, I wonder?]

Yet never before has a course been so incredibly specific to Harry Potter, offering such syllabus points as:

*Welcome to Hogwarts: the commodification of education. The sign replaces the thing – a reassuring world of uniforms, gowns and rituals;
*Muggles and magic: the escape from the treadmill and the recovery of enchantment, and;
*‘My station and its duties’: Harry Potter and the good citizen.

Wowww. I am starry-eyed, to say the least. And I’ve always been a Ravenclaw gal, as I may have said once or twice before. I NEED to study…and what could be better than studying the ins and outs of Hogwarts itself?

Now, I wonder if they offer off-campus correspondence courses…

New Australian Ebook Reader

Australian-based IT and consumer electronics accessories company LASER Corporation has launched a new ebook reader, priced at $149.95. The company said ebook files and content on the EB101 ereader ‘can be shared with friends, rather than having to continuously download from the web’ because its Digital Rights Management (DRM) functionality ensured ‘access to supported content for playback’. I confess that I don’t really know what that means. Spokesperson Christine Kardashian (no relation) told the Weekly Book Newsletter that, ‘Non copy-protected ebook files … can be shared between users – just like you would with music files.’

There is no DRM format that I know of (other than the heavily gimped Nook) that supports the sharing of copyrighted books … so I’m not quite sure what the former statement might mean, but I’d jump at the chance to take a look on behalf of readers. The EB101 is LASER’s first ebook reader and supports a range of formats including ePub and PDF. ‘With MP4 capabilities, the lightweight, portable EB101 is fitted with a 5-inch Thin Film Transistor (TFT) screen and unlike many other [ebook readers] on the market, allows users to store and view photos, watch video and movies in full colour, as well as listening to music – even while reading,’ said the company in a statement.

LASER managing director Chris Lau said the ereader, which weighs ‘no more than 300gms in total’, was ‘like having a large MP4 player – you can comfortably read books, watch video in full colour and listen to music, along with sharing content with friends’.

This new reader is one of many products capitalising on the ebook/tablet market that has been opened up with Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad. My suspicion is that the EB101 isn’t on the same level as either of these products, but I also doubt they’re attempting to compete with these two massive companies directly. The biggest selling point is the price – which is low, even for a product without e-ink. The specifications include a 6-hour battery life, an SD card reader and a 5-inch screen. Six hours battery life is negligible, especially in comparison to e-ink devices like the Kindle – but then again, the Kindle can’t play movies. The iPad has a 10-hour battery life, and can play movies, but it costs closer to $700.

Without having actually seen this new product, I’d say it’s biggest potential drawback is its patchy support of ‘DRM’. From the marketing bumf I surmise that it supports Adobe’s DRM scheme, a format sold through a number of Australian publishers and e-tailers (including ebooks.com and Dymocks). However, it’s not going to be compatible with the massive Kindle library. Nonetheless, I congratulate the manufacturer on taking a punt and getting an Australian product out into what is shaping up to be a bit of a crowded market.

The Future Is In The Past And Present

I’m not normally one to weigh in on the e-book debate, partly because I think others can say it better than me, partly because I’m bored.

I should explain that boredom with the background that I worked for the music industry on and off over the last 10 years as I put myself through uni. It’s perhaps also why, while publishers’ concern over the fast-moving changes sweeping the industry is warranted, it feels a little groundhog day-like for me.

I had the fortune (or misfortune) to gain an insider’s perspective on how not to tackle the advancing electronic era. And if there’s one lesson I have learned from observing objectively from the inside, it’s that the key to the future of the publishing industry is in the music industry’s past and present.

In the music industry’s defence, the changes were swift and previously unexperienced, so it’s unsurprising that they handled things badly. But the publishing industry? They’ve had some forewarning, and what I don’t understand is why they haven’t been pinning down and picking the brains of music industry professionals—those who survived, those who didn’t, and those whose developments changed the game. Because if I were pinned down and brain-picked, I’d put it this way: it’s not about the packaging—it’s whether the content, be it words or music, is delivered in a format the suits users’ needs. Ultimately it’s about providing them with what they want, how and when they want it.

Let me explain. The concept of the music ‘album’, replete with 12-ish songs, was created not by musicians or demanding fans, but by record companies who saw it as a way to bundle more content together and make more money. What it meant, though, was that artists released music less regularly as it took them a long time to come up with 12 good songs, albums were very often padded out with not-so-great ones that arguably decreased the overall value, and fans were forced to buy whole albums when they very often just wanted one, single, solid track. And that’s not counting the impracticalities of carrying around a bazillion CDs to parties or overseas. In short: the packaging and delivery didn’t suit users’ needs.

Then advances in technology gave users an easy, affordable alternative. Yes, for the most part that was an illegal one, but I’d argue that while illegal downloading was always going to appeal to some, there was a percentage of people who did this simply because they couldn’t get the content in the format they were after.

While artwork and having a physical CD to show off on your shelf were ok, they weren’t the driving reason why people bought CDs. The driver was the content: the music. What Apple recognised and what the iPod and iTunes, in particular, enabled people to do (like a revelation), was pick and choose tracks. They made music portable and placed the how and when and why decisions firmly back in users’ hands.

Which is where the publishing is—and should be—heading, with or without publishers’ tacit agreement: towards formats that are more in tune with users’ needs.

The look and feel of a book is important, but it’s not the sole book-buying driver. I buy a book because I want to read it. And I want to read it in a manner that suits my lifestyle, which is one that involves a lot of travel with a lot of heavy gear. For this reason, too-heavy, too-cumbersome, easily damaged hardcover books are completely impractical for me. But audio books that I can listen to while on a bus, train, or plane (times when ‘traditional’ reading normally makes me motion sick) or multiple e-books I can take overseas without having to worry about the weight of my luggage are perfect. Moreover, e-books that bookmark pages to remind me where I’m up to (a battle I constantly face as I can never seem to remember the exact page number and stalwartly refuse to buy bookmarks that only fall out anyway) are a godsend. Finally, it feels as though someone’s thinking about how I use (and need to use) books.

The publishing industry is focused on trying to resuscitate the book, as if it’s on its deathbed. They’re blaming the terminal e- and audio-book illnesses for its passing and are so caught up in grieving and making funeral arrangements, they’re not seeing the situation for what it is.

Books aren’t dying. The format they come in is just being updated or, indeed, not even that—just being joined by complementary electronic versions. The sooner the publishing industry understands that—and the sooner they recognise that the key to the publishing industry’s future is in the past and present lessons of the music industry—the better off we’ll all be.

Could Batman take Edward? Fantasy males and mistaken ideals.

I have taken a few potshots at Twilight recently and have a confession to make. I may be firmly off Team Edward but I have felt -and still feel – the allure of a fictional man. Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre, Wesley from the Princess Bride and even Raistlin from Dragonlance have all warmed my heart briefly and oh-so-embarrassingly, but there’s only one fictional character who can be my One Twue Wuv.

I admit it, it’s Batman. Something about that cape and cowl and tortured soul just makes me want to pull on my underwear over my tights and go fight crime with him. I liked him in the movies, I like him in the comics, and I think that he’s still adorable at 50 and with spinal augmentation (thanks to imaginative artworks of Alex Ross in graphic novels such as Kingdom Come).  Would I like to ride with Batman? Oh, yes please.

And I am not alone in this. At the Warner Bros. Movie World parade in the Gold Coast, the kids may have been laughing with the Looney Tunes but most of the older women were busy admiring Batman’s rubberised pecs. Wealthy, self-assured and utterly screwed-up, Batman owes his appeal to his brooding good looks, big brain and occasional bad manners.

Sound familiar? It’s a common theme. When it comes to writing a fictional fantasy man, Stephenie Meyers is following in the well-worn footsteps of writers such as Byron, Austen and Brontë and giving us a hero that is difficult to like or keep up with but all too easy to fancy. Twilight’s heroes certainly aren’t the first characters to angst their way into their reader’s fantasies. If, like me, you have sighed over the infamous Mr. Darcy or Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, you’ll have some sympathy for girls with a taste for anti-heroes and Byronic heroes.

And while it might seem that Twilight came out of the blue, it may have been the right book in the right place. Twilight successfully taps into the voracious market of romance and that of young adult books, and taking a swipe out of the supernatural market while it’s at it. There is a tendency to ignore romance fiction but it’s a booming market and its audience is 90% women. In the USA in 2008 it sold the largest share of the market, with 75 million Americans reading at least one romance novel that year.

Twilight is a dark romance story at its heart, with a brooding male hero (in fact, quite a few brooding male heroes). And as a teenage reader, when you are surrounded everyday in school by fifty hyperactive boys with breaking voices, clumsy feet and a tendency to tease, the appeal of a silent type like Edward Cullen is pretty obvious. Less likely to pull your hair, at least when he is being taciturn and grumpy he’s not being noisy about it.

Adding the supernatural twist is just the icing on the cake. Vampires tick off all the boxes as a classic take on the perfect man – a handsome Prince, come to whisk you away from all this. Tall, dark, handsome, – and usually cultured, powerful and wealthy. Lets face it, it’s all the benefits of a young man’s body with the budget of a sugar daddy and the style of a Hugo Boss model. Oh, and they have super-strength and can fly. I mean, really, what’s not to love?

Other than the fact that he keeps trying to eat you? And, you know, he’s not Batman.

While I have my own reasons for disliking Twilight and believing that Edward and Bella’s unequal relationship is a terrible example for very young girls to be reading (no, breaking into your room at night, choosing your friends and dismantling your car is not romantic, call the cops if it happens) I can’t plead innocence on understanding the appeal of literary bad boys.

All I can ask for also understanding myself that these characters are fantasy, and I would probably want to punch them in five minutes if we really started going out. And, for girls just starting out on understanding relationships, that their parents take the care to explain that, really, having a controlling boyfriend in his hundreds who alienates you from all your friends would not be as much fun as Bella seems to think it is. That declarations of eternal love is not all it takes to have a decent relationships and that sometimes – in fact a lot of the times – romance books get it really, really wrong.

Well, that and a bat signal.

REVIEW: Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

London. Holloway Gaol, Tuesday 3 Feb. 1903“:  Two women are about to be hanged for baby killing and, in the frosty, early-morning darkness of one cell, warder, Celia Bannerman, prepares to awaken one of them for the 9 a.m. arrival of the hangman and his escort. Thirty years later, writer Josephine Tay recreates the scene in an untitled chapter for her latest book. She is interested in the lives of the two women and in the effect of their actions and their deaths on those who knew them and were close to them.

If you look up ‘Josephine Tay’ on the internet, you will find that this was, in fact, one of the pseudonyms of a popular Scottish author, Elizabeth Mackintosh, who died in 1952. In Two for Sorrow, Nicola Upson has borrowed her name and some aspects of her life to tell her own mystery story.

Chapters purportedly written by Tay are interspersed with Upson’s own chapters on imagined events in Tay’s life and the horrific murder of a young woman employed by close friends of Tay. The murder is in some way connected to the hanging of the two women which Tay is investigating but now, thirty years later,  the web of connections between this event and the current murder involves many of the Tay’s friends and acquaintances. As the search for the killer evolves and the tangle of events is gradually unwoven, Upson skilfully and slowly reveals details which intrigue and puzzle everyone, including the reader.

The hanged baby-killers really did exist and Upson has used newspaper reports of the time as a basis for Tay’s book research. Elizabeth Mackintosh (alias Tay) really did study at the Anstey Physical Training College, where Upson’s Celia Bannerman has been a senior teacher. And the Cowdray Club, where much of Upson’s dramatic action takes place, really did exist and was frequently the residence of Tay when she was in London. Two for Sorrow, however, is a work of fiction and no matter what real names there are amongst Upson’s characters (Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, for example, make an appearance) their thoughts and actions are Upson’s invention.

Her Josephine Tay is a strong-minded, intelligent and independent woman, dedicated to her work but, now, embroiled in a real-life mystery. Her close friend Archie, who had been a friend of her lover who died during the 1914-18 war, is now the detective investigating the murder; and his cousins, Lettuce and Ronnie (both women) run a dress-making business which specializes in theatre work. All this provides Upson with varied and fascinating material, as, too, do the various women who frequent the Cowdray Club and the attached College of Nursing and who are also involved in the murder investigation.

In spite of the developing love interest between Arthur and Tay, the women’s club, the nurses, and the theatrical acceptance of unconventional behaviour all allow Upson to inject a lesbian flavour to parts of her story, but this is lightly done and is unlikely to offend many modern readers. It is also the source of much humour and of some perceptive writing about female friendships, which were common in the aftermath of the Great War, when so many young men were killed and so many single women had no chance of marriage.

Two for Sorrow, I discovered after reading it, is the third of a series of books by Upson which feature Josephine Tay, but it can certainly be read on its own. And I found it gripping enough to make we want to read the earlier books.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Sandy Fussell and the Jaguar Warrior Part 1

Today, Literary Clutter will be taking a trip into the past — into a time of slavery and blood sacrifice; a time of exciting adventure and thrilling dangers. Today, we go back in time to the Aztec civilisation with Sandy Fussell’s novel, Jaguar Warrior.

Atl is a young slave boy in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, who has been chosen for sacrifice to the Serpent-Sun god. But when the Spanish attack, the high priest Ichtaca releases him, sending him on a mission — to get help from the city of Purépecha. On the way he meets up with a runaway girl named Citlali. Together, they race for Purépecha, as they are pursued by the ruthless Captain Huemac. Can this boy escape the Captain’s pursuit, save the City of Tenochtitlan and become a Jaguar Warrior?

This is an exciting children’s novel, which paints a vivid picture of the Aztec people and their civilization — not just the big picture stuff, like religion and sacrifice, but also interesting details such as what people ate and how they used cacao beans to make chocolatl drink. But it is not only a history lesson. Jaguar Warrior is an exciting adventure with an array of interesting, well-conceived characters. Although clearly aimed at children, the book has much to offer the adult reader. I enjoyed it so much, that I immediately emailed the author and asked for an interview. So, it is with great pleasure that I welcome Sandy Fussell to Literary Clutter

Hi Sandy! One of the first things that struck me about the Jaguar Warrior, was the amount of research that must have gone into it. Can you tell us a little about the research?

I usually know quite a bit about the historical setting before I begin my research. I have been collecting books about ancient civilisations since I was in primary school and studied Ancient History at university. My initial approach is to read widely, looking for interesting facts and trivia as well as story pieces and ideas. The Internet is wonderful for this sort of research as one link leads to another and what might start out as investigation into the significance of owls in ceremonial practices will end up on a page about making hot chocolate from chocolatyl beans.

I read a lot of historical non-fiction, both adult and junior titles. I find the latter particularly useful as they often contain large numbers of diagrams and pictures, which are excellent inspiration. One of my favourite research books for Jaguar Warrior was The Broken Spears by Miguel León-Portilla, which is an historical account from the perspective of the Aztec (Mexica) people. Most records of the fall of any civilisation are written by the victors, and often ignore the indigenous point of view.

What made you decide to set a children’s novel in the Aztec world?

My story ideas often begin with a paradox and the question it raises. For Samurai Kids it was: “Belonging to the samurai, the best warriors in the world at the time, is a consequence of birth. But what if you had a disability that made it really hard to claim this birthright.” For Polar Boy it was: “The Inuit people are very fearful and live in such a harsh, unfriendly environment. But at the same time they are joyous and celebrate the land. How can this be possible?” And for Jaguar Warrior it was: “How could the Aztecs be an intelligent and compassionate society but carry out such cruel sacrificial practices?”

The answer to the last question lies in what the Aztec people believed and how we interpret their actions based on our beliefs, not theirs. I wanted to communicate this to my young readers. The Aztec people believed without question that if blood sacrifices were not made, the sun wouldn’t rise and the world would be destroyed. While sacrificial victims were often prisoners of war, in times of peace cities would organise tournaments called the Flower Games, with the losers being sacrificed, to ensure the world was kept alive.

That’s all we’ve got space for this time… but fear not, Sandy will be back next post. To find out more about Sandy and her writing, check out her website.

And tune in next time for part 2 of this interview.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter!

ACTION, MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE FOR TEENS – CONSPIRACY 365: AUGUST

I have just been reworking parts of my own novel in journal form so it seemed like a coincidence when I decided to read Conspiracy 365: August by Gabrielle Lord, which is written entirely as a journal.

And even though it’s the eighth book in a twelve part series, I was hooked.

The format of Conspiracy 365: August brings the reader right into the mind and emotions of the main character – and what a fast ride, this book is. The blurb warns, Don’t blink, don’t forget to breathe, and publishers, Scholastic are not joking.

16 year-old Callum Ormond is a hunted fugitive. Just in book eight alone, Callum is buried alive and framed for the kidnapping of his own sister. This time he is going to need some seriously daring and dangerous tactics to save her.

One of the things I enjoyed about Conspiracy 365: August is that it worked really well as a stand alone book and as part of a series.

ABOUT THE SERIES

(taken from publisher’s website www.conspiracy365.com)

On New Year’s Eve Cal is chased down the street by a staggering sick man with a deadly warning…

“They killed your father. They’ll kill you. You must survive the next 365 days.”

Hurled into a life on the run, with a price on his head, the 15-year-old fugitive is isolated and alone. Hunted by the law and ruthless criminals, Cal must somehow uncover the truth about his father’s mysterious death and a history-changing secret. Who can he turn to, who can he trust, when the whole world seems to want him dead? The clock is ticking. Any second could be his last.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gabrielle Lord is one of Australia’s best-selling crime writers. In 2002 she was the winner of the prestigious Ned Kelly award for best crime novel.

Conspiracy 365 is her first foray into writing for a younger readership and she is loving it.

Writing Conspiracy 365 has been the biggest, most exciting project I’ve ever done. I think I’ve been in training for this series all my writing life.

Lovers of action-packed stories like Alex Rider and the Matthew Reilly books will enjoy Conspiracy 365.

Conspiracy 365: August is published by Scholastic Australia.

Writing Super Hero

American PsychoI realise it’s odd that I haven’t blogged about the three sessions at which I saw Bret Easton Ellis at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, especially given that he was one of the primary reasons for me forking out the cash for a ticket and hitting the road. The truth is, I haven’t completely grasped the sessions, much less known what to write.

I went down with the very real fear that the writer to whom I’ve long looked up would not meet my pre- or potentially ill-conceived notions. I mean, he’s only human, but in my obsession with his writing genius I may have built Ellis up to writing super hero status. Certainly the media has painted him as the poster child for, well, lots of culture-slamming, disaffected-youth, violence-promoting stuff. But really, who knew what to expect from the writer who’s built his career skewering the west’s and youths’ empty and ultimately doomed fascination with consumerism?

The first session was an intimate in-conversation set-up with The Book Show’s Ramona Koval. Now, this isn’t a Koval-bashing blog, but I will say that I’m really not a fan. She’s a woman of a certain age and reading taste (and I’d argue that she’s also been doing the job for too long and is completely over it), and Blind Freddy could have seen that she was going to be a complete interviewing mismatch for Ellis.

Just how wrong, though, was pretty shocking to those of us who’d paid good money for this session in addition to our festival tickets. I won’t go into gory details here, but you can podcast or listen to an excerpt of the session on The Book Show. Long story short, Koval opened with a long and literary question and Ellis answered it with the words: ‘Delta Goodrem’.

It seems he’d seen a Goodrem music video here and, knowing nothing else of her history, tweeted that she was hot. He didn’t expect the passionate, mixed response he got to that and waxed lyrical about how Australians have a really warped, love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with Goodrem.

It wasn’t the answer Koval was after and the interview took a kind of train wreck turn for the worse, with Koval getting all school teacher meets grandmother trying to pull Ellis into line and Ellis allowing himself to be anything but.

I came away disliking Koval more than ever before, but also a little less keen on Ellis. Sure, as the author of such titles as American Psycho, he couldn’t have been a completely compliant interviewee—the man’s got an authority-bucking reputation to uphold, after all. But I wanted to like him and I genuinely wanted to hear what he had to say—unfortunately the Delta Goodrem joke was funny in the first instance, but less so as he repeatedly returned to it.

What I came to understand as the festival progressed, however, and what a few weeks of musings have helped me cement, is that despite appearing a seasoned (potentially hardened) industry professional, Ellis is a very humble, quite fallible human at heart. Quite incredibly, in spite of 25-odd years in the business, Byron was his first ever writers’ festival appearance.

And he was nervous.

It’s hard enough speaking about your work to a room full of people when you’re starting out, but potentially doubly so when you’ve already made it and are expected to be all over this stuff. Ellis had 25 years’ weight of expectation on his shoulders when he sat in front of a microphone on a stage in packed tents. Everyone expected him to both know what he was doing and to have something intelligent and articulate and incredibly insightful to say about his writing.

The issue was that he isn’t that type of writer. He’s a guy who is compelled to write and who can’t explain the—as Koval kept asking him—‘whys’ of his work. He doesn’t—and can’t—analyse it academically, and any attempt to do so makes him uncomfortable. Which is why Koval got him offside and ‘off message’ with her eight-questions-in-one literary-focused questions.

But here’s the thing. Ellis did have extraordinarily intelligent and insightful things to say about his work or the industry as a whole—he just needed to be asked straight-up, straightforward, not-too-serious questions. And when he was asked those, he answered with great aplomb and humour.

I laughed out loud when he talked of how the media constructed this mythical writing ‘Brat Pack’, as if they all got in a car and travelled together in a group at all times. I laughed even harder when he said that rather than being upset about the fact that American Psycho is sold in shrink wrap in Australia (as his publishers thought he would be), he thinks it’s ‘cute’.

It was those candid comments, his laughter in the face of trite cling-wrapped censorship, and his real-life anecdotes about the industry and about what it’s like to be a writer (padding about home alone working and occasionally catching up with friends for beers) that I found the most entertaining and memorable.

And that is perhaps what I loved and now love even more about Ellis—he’s a regular guy (which includes being prone to nerves), he’s a real writer, he doesn’t take the industry or himself too seriously, and he has brilliant and witty things to say if we stop trying to put literary, analytical words in his mouth. Upon a second listening of the now-infamous in-conversation session with Koval, I hear all that. And I officially love Ellis, my writing super hero, more than ever before.

Algorithm and Blues

Image copyright Nick Gentry ©

On the eve of the election, two things I have read this week have combined in my head and I have not been able to stop thinking about them. The first thing is the excellent comment that Dave Freer left on my post earlier this week. The second is this video by music critic Chris Weingarten. The subject of these two influences – or at least the tenuous connection I have built between them – is the conflict between the benefits of technology and the tyranny of numbers.

OK, so even to me that sounds a bit dramatic. But it is true. I’ve touched on this topic before in a previous post, and I came to the conclusion that optimisation of artistic expression by algorithm may well be possible, and even useful, but it’s really bloody depressing. I still feel this way. I was at first skeptical of Dave’s explanation of how mathematical modelling of book acquisition could be possible, but he convinced me. Snip:

At the moment, you have your gut feel and the bookscan figures to decide what you buy. If you had better quality data (ie. laydown, returns, normal sales of that sub-genre and laydown within each geographic area … you could say which … would make your company more money, which had the lower risk, what was actually a reasonable ask for the books in question. It could also tell the retailer which were good bets for their area, and publisher where to push distribution. It doesn’t over-ride judgement, it just adds a tool which, when margins are thin, can make the world of difference.

I am forced to agree with Dave that if such a tool were available it would be of great use to publishers to help decide what to buy, and in a great many instances, what books would sell (if you still don’t believe it, I recommend reading the whole thing). Nonetheless, it fills me with despair. As Weingarten says in the video I linked to, most of us who got into the world of writing did so because we suck at maths. But it’s not just that. There’s a kind of ethical issue at stake here too. The availability of a tool like this would make publishers lazy. I once heard the use of test audiences for TV pilots and films described as being more about ass covering than actually predicting the success or failure of a film. And I have to say the same thought occurs to me about the statistical modelling of book acquisition.

This is not to say the information wouldn’t be useful, but it would mean that when a book that tested well in the model bombed, publishers could throw their hands up in the air and say, “Well, it tested well.” It would be a tool that sales directors and corporate executives would use to dampen creativity in publishing. Presumably (though correct me if I’m wrong, Dave!) the sales of statistical outliers that don’t easily fit into a pre-existing genre or sub-genre would not be easily predicted under this model. And there are a lot of books that don’t fit into genres. I’ve heard it said that when it comes to books there are almost as many genres as there are books. Does that mean that publishers would just use their own judgement? Or would they be even more unlikely than they already are to take on books that aren’t safe bets?

Of course, Dave will probably tell us that this amazing statistical model would only be a tool. It wouldn’t ‘override judgement’ as he says in the quote above. But humans like to rely on machines and numbers – especially when it comes to difficult decisions. Sometimes that comes at the cost of something difficult to quantify. And perhaps on this day, when the leaders of our country are trying to win an election based as much upon the statistically predicted thoughts of a few key voters in a few key marginal seats as any true leadership, beliefs, policies or moral character, I fear that ceding our decision-making to an algorithm has the potential to take away far more than it gives us. What do you think?

School Readers

Hundreds of them are published each year. You will find them in school classrooms and school libraries, and occasionally on the shelves of public libraries, but you won’t find them in your standard bookstore. They are read by more kids, and have a longer lifespan than the average children’s book bought in your local bookshop. But they are generally ignored by, and often looked down on, by the literary community. I think it’s time to stand up for the humble school reader.

School readers are part of the educational publishing market. The education market is different from the standard trade market, which sees books distributed to stores. The education market, sells directly to schools and educational libraries. These books are levelled, so that students can work their way up through the various stages, slowly increasing their comprehension, their vocabulary and their reading skills. These books are written by a wide variety of writers, myself included. Some writers do it for the money. Some writers use it as a stepping-stone in their writing careers. Some do it because they enjoy it. For others, it’s a combination of things. Those of us who do write for this market, need to be able to write to a publisher’s brief — a set of instructions outlining what the book needs to achieve. This is not just limited to the reading level. It can also include educational outcomes, genre, major plot points, sometimes even a basic outline. Many writers find this too constraining of their creativity; others find that even within boundaries, creativity can thrive.

Often, these school readers are the first real introduction to reading that kids will get. And it is on the basis of these readers that many kids will decide whether or not they like reading. That’s quite a responsibility for the authors.

As a kid in early primary school (way back in the 70s), I was a reluctant reader. A major part of the problem was that I disliked the material I was being given to read at school. I found the school readers boring and a chore to get through. It was not until mid-primary that I finally hit a book that I loved… a book that convinced me that reading could be fun. That book, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, was not a school reader.

I can’t help but wish that I had discovered reading, earlier. I can’t help but wish that the readers we had been given in school had been more interesting. This is part of what motivates me to now write school readers. (Okay… there’s also the money. It’s nice to have a regular income as a writer.) I try to write books that do more than just fulfil the educational requirements of the brief. I try to write books that kids will, hopefully, find interesting.

And I’m not the only one. There are a lot of VERY talented authors who are writing for the education market these days. I challenged two of these writers to explain, in 50 words or less, why they write for the education market.

First up, we have Sue Walker. She is author of almost 20 books, many of which are for the education market. Her non-ed books include Arnie Avery, Tilly’s Treasure and Best Friends (a CBC Notable Book). To find out more about Sue, check out her website.

“Generally, Educational Publishers produce more titles annually than Trade Publishers, so there’s greater opportunity for authors.  I’ve written early chapter books for both markets, and it’s taught me to write economically.  I think the experience has had a positive impact on all my writing.”

Next up with have Jill McDougall. She is author of over 100 books, most of which are for the education market. Her non-ed books include Jinxed! and Anna the Goanna. To find out more about Jill, check out her website.

“Why write for the education market? Money. There I’ve said it. Professional writers crave a steady income and this market is a hungry beast. Simply put, if you can deliver the goods, the commissions will keep coming. What’s more, the challenge of delivering lively text under pressure is almost as much fun as 2-minute Scrabble. Almost.”

My thanks to Sue and Jill for joining me on Literary Clutter.

Anyone out there want to share a school reader experience with us? Leave a comment!

And tune in next time for Sandy Fussell and her Jaguar Warrior.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter!

FRIDAY BOOK FEATURE – GET A GRIP COOPER JONES

When a story makes you cry, you know that it has touched you on a deep emotional level. Get A Grip, Cooper Jones, is Sue Whiting’s latest book for children and when I was reading it, I found myself both laughing and crying.

Set in an isolated “surfie” town wedged between the sea and the rugged escarpment, Get a Grip, Cooper Jones is a story about friendship and families; about fighting fires and facing fears; about growing up and finding where you fit.

Cooper Jones is the sort of character that gets under your skin. He’s a thirteen year old who doesn’t tidy his room, sleeps in late and has dubious personal hygiene, but is also extremely vulnerable. Cooper is at an age where he needs answers; where he wants to know who his Dad really is and what’s really going on around him.

He doesn’t always get things right and this makes for some great humour. There is plenty of action and intensity in Get A Grip, Cooper Jones, and the lighter moments add weight to the tension.

When gorgeous newcomer, Abbie comes to Wangaroo Bay and Mum starts acting weird again Cooper’s life begins to spin out of control and old fears and insecurities return to the fore. But when bushfire threatens and puts lives at risk, Cooper has to get a grip fast.

There were so many things I enjoyed about Get A Grip, Cooper Jones. Apart from the great characters, setting and humour there were the little things I found appealing – for example, the Mum who runs away to join the circus – the turning of stereotypes on their head.

Get A Grip, Cooper Jones is for readers aged 10-14 and has themes of identity, family, friendship, bushfires, survival, courage, beach, coming-of-age and adoption.

Sue Whiting talks about writing Get A Grip, Cooper Jones

I first started thinking about this story when I came across a very silly joke book. This book was filled with jokes like: “What’s the difference between a man and a piece of cheese?” Cheese matures. And “Why are men like snot?” They get up your nose.

As a flicked through the book, giggling, I started to wonder about what it would be like for a young boy to grow up in a household with a mum who felt this way about men. That boy became Cooper Jones. The story has changed enormously from this early idea, but it was the joke book that it all sprang from.

Why will kids like Get A Grip, Cooper Jones?

I hope kids will like it because it is about them – about two pretty typical thirteen year olds facing life’s ups and downs.

But what I hope more than anything else is that readers will find new friends in Cooper and Abbie, and that they will be keen to hang out with them for a while. And as tensions increase and bushfires threaten, and Cooper’s life seems to be spinning out of control, they will be there, shouting – yelling – at Cooper, telling him he had better get a grip – and fast – because Abbie’s survival depends on it.

What Sue says about Cooper

Cooper is a great kid – he just doesn’t realise it! He thinks he is a big-time cowardly loser.

He loves the bush, hanging out at the Feral Tree and swimming in the Blue Hole. He is a strong competitive swimmer, who does early-morning swimming training three times a week. But he is terrified of the sea (and what lurks below the surface) and never swims in the surf. This is not ideal when you live in a town like Wangaroo Bay that is so “surfie”.

Writing Get A Grip, Cooper Jones

The thing Sue enjoyed most about writing this book was writing the bushfire scenes.

The words came out in such a huge rush I could barely keep up. I was on fire! (Sorry – bad pun alert!) When I had finished, I was spent, totally drained – emotionally and physically – and it was many weeks before I could continue with the rest of the story.

The hardest part was listening to my characters. I had a very clear idea about what I wanted the story to be about – but Cooper and Abbie had other (better!) ideas. It took me a long time to realise this and to work out what was really bothering them. Once I stopped and listened to them, the story fell into place.

More information about Sue and her books is available from her website: http://www.suewhiting.com/

The Lists Of Lists

ListographyThe need to plan out, hand write, and tick off ‘to do’ lists is a pastime that I’ve furtively indulged in for as long as I have been able to write. I say furtively, because I’m only too aware of my OCD-ness and am acutely embarrassed should anyone discover the extent to which I keep lists.

I’m also only too aware that writing, checking, and then cross-referencing my lists is one giant procrastination tool. Sometimes I need to clean my room before I can concentrate on anything. Mostly it’s that I need to rewrite or mark off items from my list.

Admittedly, I’ll occasionally add items I’ve already completed just so I can cross them off. And sometimes my list contains the task of revising and updating my list, which needs to be completed and checked off as the list-making, list-checking, list-ticking cycle continues…

Of course, as the pleasure I get from creating and completing such lists is almost unequalled, I did some mental high-fives when a fabulous friend sent through a link to the brilliantly conceived, fantastically executed Listography. Judging from the positive reaction I’ve gotten from everyone I’ve now thrust these gems at as presents, I’m clearly not alone in my compulsive need to create lists.

And awesome lists they are.

Love ListographyNot just traditional, bread-and-butter inventories of items to be actioned, Listography lists are, as author Lisa Nola says on her website, ‘time capsules’ that help you capture your autobiography. I tend to think they’re diary-like, but bite-sized and potentially more quirky and fun to pick up and read. Within the various Listography books, which include whimsical artwork, and which span such subjects as friends and love, you’re invited to catalogue such topics as (in no particular and non-exhaustive order):

– three people you would beat in an arm-wrestling match

– whose house you would pillage and what treasure you would steal

– which friends would win a best-dressed award (contentious but don’t tell me you haven’t already worked this one out mentally)

– three things no one knows about you

– friends and their special talents

– crimes/sins you’ve witnessed friends committing (the question is whether they should be committed to paper)

– friends and their best physical attributes

– what animals friends remind you of (but think hard about whether you want to actually tell them)

– your most memorable injuries (and I say special mention to older siblings who inflicted them on you)

– who you would choose if you could be friends with anyone

– why you wouldn’t date yourself (youch)

– things you’d want written in to your wedding vows (could be funny; could be very, very bad).

Truthfully, I have so much trouble containing my ‘to do’ list habit that I don’t need any encouragement from Listography. But given that they extend my list-making habits (I am, in truth, a mostly ‘to do’ list kind of girl and these ask me to think outside traditional list-making bounds), I think I can make an exception. The question is probably more whether it’ll be safe to leave such lists lying around…

The Claudia Gray ‘Hourglass’ Giveaway Is Finally Here!

* Please make sure to read the post in its entirety so you know you’re following the rules.

Hey vampire-loving peeps!

Do you feel lucky????

To celebrate author Claudia Gray’s trip to Oz this month we’re giving away copies of her latest book. Whoohoo!

Thanks to the superheroes at HarperCollins, Boomerang Books is giving away not one, not two, not three, but FIVE copies of Hourglass, the third installment in Claudia Gray’s stellar vampire series Evernight. This series has been touted as THE next series to read for Twilight fans – except I don’t like Twilight and I LOVE the Evernight series. So you could say the Evernight series satisfies Twilight fans and non-Twilight fans alike!

[Even if you don’t like vampires yourself, maybe you have a bloodsucker in your family or friendship circle who would love to read Hourglass? They’ll love you forever. And ever].

The details:

Because I’m generally an evil person, I’m going to make you WORK for the giveaway.

So, in 25 words or less, FOR THE WIN…answer the following question in the comments section of this post:

“What’s the best OR worst thing about being immortal?”

I will be announcing the five gloriously fortunate winners in a separate post after the entries have been judged, but make sure to include a valid email address in your comment below so it’s easier to contact you if you win!

This competition is open to Australian residents only (ie. those who have a valid Australian postal mailing address).

Entries close:

Thursday, August 26 2010, 5 pm Australian Eastern Standard Time.

GOOD LUCK, EVERYONE 🙂 

*fangs crossed*

Let’s get those creative juices flowing!

Damsels are out, kick-ass is in – fantasy covers go hardcore

The results of Orbit’s study of fantasy covers is in, and it’s official –  distressed damsels in high heels are out, and  kick-ass brunettes are very firmly in.

They should know, as Orbit is one of the world’s largest publishers of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Orbit UK’s authors include Iain M. Banks, Terry Brooks and Laurell K. Hamilton while Orbit Australia publishes writers from Australia and New Zealand, including Trudi Canavan, Pamela Freeman and Joel Shepherd.

Each year they do a highly scientific survey of cover art elements for the top fantasy novels published in the previous year.  Okay, not that scientific. An intern looks through lots of covers with a checklist. Perhaps it’s less Sci-Fi than many of their books, but with categories like Damsels (in distress), Damsels (no distress) and Dark Cover of Meaninglessness, it’s an entertaining take and I’m doubtful a robot could analyse the covers the same way . Unless it was Marvin the Paranoid Android, but he’d be too depressed by the whole thing to see the funny side.

The results are in for 2009, and it’s painting a very different cover girl to 2008. Moving from pouting in clubbing gear to pulling a piece from her combats, 2009’s ideal woman is less likely to be kissing a vampire and more likely to be kicking your ass. The women of fantasy are getting so capable-looking that Orbit are planning to retire the Damsel in distress category. With just 10 damsels looking distressed and 70 looking not just undistressed but more bad-ass than a herd of delinquent donkeys, a section for women awaiting rescue is no longer needed.

As a girl who wanted to be She-ra and only wanted Prince Charming to turn up so I could steal his horse, I approve and I’m glad to see that today’s reading audience does too. Enough with the faffy maidens being rescued, today’s girl can sort themself out, thank you very much.  Pass over the weapon and the sensible shoes, we’re off to kick a vampire in their annoying pointy little teeth.

Of course, that’s just 2009. By the end of 2010 Orbit could be announcing a return to dragons and castles and moons and some woman in corset looking like she has lost her keys to the castle on a moonlight night, and needs to hail a dragon to get her there.  Fantasy covers are interesting in that they are very trend-based – how many black and red Twilight imitation covers have you seen since the series became a smash hit? Authors with one idea for a cover frequently have to put up with their characters being tweaked, transformed and occasionally twisted completely out of shape to fit this season’s look.

This leads to more than a few annoying clichés; your book may be a witty ground-breaking piece of feminist fantasy, but your covergirl seems to have missed the memo. There’re more backless dresses and tramp stamps than you’ll find at the Logies, and the same tendency to pose. Or the “headless-torso” cover, assumedly to make it easy for the reader to project themselves on to the main character, which in practice makes it look like all the action in the book takes place after the protagonist is decapitated.  How are you going to fight the forces of darkness when you don’t even have a brain?

…actually, this might explain Bella Swan.

Anyway, all cheap shots at Twilight-aside, it’s encouraging that women on fantasy book covers are becoming less mopey and more kick-ass. It reflects both a change in the reader (as a cover-type that doesn’t sell isn’t likely to be repeated) and a welcome change from the passive female protagonist. The times they are a changin’, and today’s fantasy readers – which includes a huge amount of teenage girls, reflecting their opinions on what women should behave like – are ready to meet it.

In combats and with a kick-ass attitude, of course.

A BURNING DESIRE TO WRITE KIDS’ BOOKS

Today I have a very special guest on Kid’s Book Capers. Sue Whiting is my wonderful editor at Walker Books – the person who patiently helped me shape Letters to Leonardo from a manuscript into a book.

Sue is also the author of more than sixty books for children and is here to talk about her journey and the release of her latest work, Get A Grip, Cooper Jones.

Sue didn’t start writing until she was in her late thirties, though she says that the desire and passion to write children’s books had been burning deep within her for more than a decade beforehand.

I had never thought of myself as a writer, so it took me quite a while to muster the courage to give it a go. But once I started I couldn’t stop and I spent every spare moment I had writing. It took me a couple of years of writing and submitting before I got my first acceptance for a children’s novelty book. That was a very special day, that’s for sure.

The thing that Sue enjoys most about writing is having the opportunity to share her stories with kids.

School and library visits and literature festivals are exhausting, but they are the best fun.

Before she became a writer, Sue was a primary school teacher and this is where she fell in love with kids’ books and developed her passion for writing. She says that the hardest thing is having the discipline to keep plugging away at your story even when the words aren’t flowing and all your ideas seem to suck.

My greatest writing achievement was writing my first junior novel, Battle of the Rats, as it was the first time that I had written something of that length (and I never thought I would be able to do that!) and also because a number of people have told me that this book was the first book that their son/daughter ever completed. And truly, there’s very little that can beat that.

Sue has lived close to the sea for most of her life, so it is no surprise that the sea, the beach and beach culture feature in many of her books.

It is very much part of who I am. But I have noticed lately that fire is another element that often makes an appearance in my stories. And I’m not sure why… In Get a Grip, Cooper Jones the sea and fire (in this case, bushfire) are both major players in the story.

Sue is currently working on a picture book about two mice that fall in love; a new Strange Little Monster story; and a YA thriller for teenage girls.

Sue’s Tips for New Writers

  1. Read widely.
  2. Write often.
  3. Write from the heart.
  4. Never give up.

On Friday, I’ll be reviewing Get A Grip, Cooper Jones and Sue will be back to talk about the writing journey that took this compelling book from initial idea to publication.

Hope you can join us then.

Do You Believe in Ebooks?

You may not have heard, but the publishing industry is not doing all that well at the moment. The market is shrinking in lots of ways. It might bounce back, but it’s likely that there is a general trend towards publishers needing to seek new ways of making money from the written word. If not now then soon. In this climate, ebooks are not something to be feared, yet there is a general tendency, especially among people who don’t understand, don’t use or don’t like ebooks to build them into a monster of mythic proportions. The fact is, however, that ebooks are not changing the industry. The industry is changing itself.

An author asked a friend of mine the other day if the decline of the second format market (that’s cheap paperbacks) was the fault of ebooks. Another friend who passed this blog along to an acquaintance was actually asked “Do you believe in all that stuff?” All that stuff, presumably, means ebooks – as if ebooks were magic pixie fairy dust that would be influenced by our collective belief or non-belief. Don’t they realise that every time you say you don’t believe, an ebook dies?

Seriously, though, ebooks are not something to be feared. They are at worst another potential revenue stream, and at best a whole new way of looking at telling stories. My beliefs on the matter (which make less than no difference to the outcome) fall somewhere between these two. At any rate, the future, whether you like it or not, will very likely include ebooks to some extent.

But for how long? Is the ebook itself already an old way of thinking about writing and selling stories? If so, what will come next?  Clay Shirky, author of the excellent Cognitive Surplus wrote a post some time ago about the death of the newspaper industry called ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable‘. Much of what he says there about newspapers applies equally to publishing books. Snip:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift … It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

We in the book publishing industry are far further away from demise than the newspaper industry, but it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to put us in the same situation. I’ve seen it myself. “Leadership,” Shirky writes, “becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc.” Sound familiar?

All of this isn’t to say that the book is dead. Newspapers and books aren’t the same, and the internet has not had the same effect on books as it has had on newspapers. But that is not to say that the digitisation of publishing – a process which started long before ebooks and will continue after them – is not going to have a profound effect on the way written stories reach readers. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is that the stories themselves will still be there. You might not believe in ebooks, but you can believe in that.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job – making a living from writing.

Occasionally when I pick up a book I look at the blurb and flick through a few pages and think “I could write this.”

It seems relatively simple. Write a book. Get it published. Become the next Stephanie Meyers, only with less issues on sparkly ice-cold boyfriends. From there on in, it’s on to the sequels and movie rights and appearing at book festivals looking smug. Write a few words every day, attend parties and – to quote an actor in the Simpsons when he is asked how he sleeps at night after making $80 million for a movie of him – sleep “on top of a pile of money with many beautiful ladies.”

Or maybe I don’t even need to write a book from scratch. Perhaps I could do a Jessica Watson and cobble together something I made earlier. Her book, True Spirit, is at number one on the Australian bestseller list, according to Nielsen BookScan. It sold 10,000 copies of  sold in 10 days, and is based on the blogs she has already written when she set out at the age of 16 on her adventurous attempt become the youngest person to sail solo around the globe.

The trip from blogging to book sounds convenient. A bit of revision and re-writing and voila! Instant paycheque. And I can just send out copies to relations at Christmas instead of having to fill in everything I have been up to in the Christmas cards. (They might find the bit about sleeping with pretty ladies on piles of money a bit strange anyway.)

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? But, looking at the news today, perhaps I should take a raincheck on giving up my regular paycheque to write my magnum opus.  Two-thirds of professional writers in Australia earned less than $4000 in 2007-08 directly from their writings and the profession remains the least financially rewarded of all artistic occupations. And other artists, such as musicians and painters, aren’t rolling in it and devoting all day to the craft either. The average artist can expect to work in at least one other job to support themselves, and 16 per cent earn less than $10,000 a year, according to What’s Your Other Job?,  an analysis of arts employment in Australia and the straight-from-the-mouth-of-your mother report titled Do You Really Expect to Get Paid?, an economic study of professional artists. On that income, you’ll be lucky to be sleeping on a bed at all, never mind with pretty people.

But it’s not all doom and gloom and selling the kids’ medicine for printer ink. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s cheerily titled “Why you’ll never make a living as an artist” (reckon the sub-editor that came up with that title was feeling a little bitter?) artists are becoming better multi-taskers and more adaptable to working outside their chosen field.

Many more artists are beginning to see their careers in terms of a portfolio. <…> Their working life is made up of short-term engagements or projects rather than a ”traditional linear trajectory beginning with training, passing through an emerging phase, arriving at establishment and continuing with a life devoted exclusively to a core creative practice”. <…> Artists are mixing up original creative work with arts-related work, some collaborative ventures, study, travel and research.

And, as the Australian points out, “Artists don’t do it for the money” and the changing trend towards part-time artists indicates that many have made peace with making art while acknowledging the need to support themselves. “Mostly people say they want to be artists because they want to, but no matter how you look at it, the money does matter.” David Throsby, who co-authored the Do You Really Expect to Get Paid? states. “I’m not sure artists see money as a form of status but they do see it as a necessity.”

It’s said that everyone has a book in them. (I always figured mine would be Helen Fielding and Chuck Palahnuik go on a roadtrip with Bill Bryson, although if I could harness a thimble-full of their ability I would be a very happy woman.) The question is, before you quit your day job, are you willing to write it for the sheer love and the adventure of trying and work for your supper somewhere else?

Blog Directory for NSW

Hot Guys Do Read Books

I come from a family of readers so rapacious that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve awoken in the middle of the night to have one of them ferreting through my bookshelves. Were I a cynic, I’d say that they were making noise to wake me, because upon noticing my open eyes, they said not ‘Sorry I’m standing in your room in my underpants, pilfering books at this ungodly hour’, but ‘Do you have any new books I can read?’

So how I managed to once date a guy who didn’t read for pleasure, I’ll never know. In truth, despite a vague awareness of industry concern about how to get boys reading, I’d never actually encountered one who didn’t. The concept of a guy who didn’t devour books was so far outside my realm of comprehension that it didn’t occur to me to ask questions about it during the initial get-to-know-you dating phase.

It was, in retrospect, a rookie mistake and one I won’t be foolish enough to repeat ever again.

Relationship red flags in are normally things like: he said he had study to do and now there are photos of him on Facebook on a wild night out with random, scantily-clad girls, or she still lives with her ex-boyfriend, but it’s because they’re really good ‘friends’. They’re not normally things like he doesn’t read for half an hour before going to sleep or he doesn’t understand why a rainy day spent in quiet reading and contemplation is pure bliss.

It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to acknowledge, much less tell others about, such a seemingly petty red flag. But what I’ve come to realise is that although there are worse traits than a lack of love for reading, for a writer and reader who exists only for reading and writing, it is a giant, red flag billowing in the dealbreaker wind.

Someone who doesn’t have such a fundamental, almost primal passion for reading cannot possibly ever begin to know or understand me, and nothing snaps me out of a maybe-it-could-have-worked depression than the three-word reminder that he doesn’t read.

Even better, my fantastic friend Imogen pointed me in the direction of a girl who clearly understands the importance of boys reading and who has created a blog to celebrate it. Entitled Hot Guys Reading Books, the blog invites people to submit photos of guys, well, reading books. It’s a simple concept, yet so heartening for those of us unsuspectingly stung by the non-reading red flag. Spoiler alert, the guys are less hot and more guy next door ok, but it’s the reading that makes them much, much cuter.

This Is Why We’re Fat – The Book Version (Part 2)

As I discussed at the end of Part 1, Enid Blyton isn’t the only author to blame for my literary food obsession. I also point the finger at Roald Dahl – he toyed with the hypothalamus part of my brain something chronic. I will admit that there may be a message in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory NOT to eat too much. I mean, think about it – all the greedier kids get their just de[s]serts (and despite your protests to the contrary I assure you there would be little worse than almost-death by chocolate).

Now delve even deeper. In the end, what happens? Charlie wins an ENTIRE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (hoorah)! So, the message is clear….stave off for a little while, and soon enough you’ll be rewarded with more chocolate and lollies than you’ve ever dreamed of.

At least, that’s what I get from it.

What, you get something different?

Oh.

Well. There’s nothing quite like rediscovering classic novels (like Little Women) during your early teen years. When all you want to do is fit in with everyone else in the P.E. changerooms and attempt to keep slim, there’s descriptions like this to tuck you in at night:

“…when they saw the table, they looked at one another in rapturous amazement. It was like Marmee to get up a little treat for them, but anything so fine as this was unheard of since the departed days of plenty. There was ice cream, actually two dishes of it, pink and white, and cake and fruit and distracting French bonbons and, in the middle of the table, four great bouquets of hot house flowers.”

“Thank you very much, Louisa May Alcott,” I remember thinking viciously at the time. “You are truly a thinspiration.” And then I gorged on a midnight feast of the sticky date pudding mum had made us for dessert earlier on. Awesome.

Sigh. I had hoped that with the disappearance of my childhood and my unpredictable teen hormones (oh wait, I still definitely have some of them left over), my literary food obsession had well and truly passed its expiry date.

Until I read somewhere that The Leopard has one of the most amazing feast scenes EVER.

I promptly bought The Leopard and there it sits on my shelf, tantalising me. I am, quite honestly, afraid to open it lest I absentmindedly gobble an entire packet of Tim-Tams like the food zombie that I am when I’m reading. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again…

Yet – would you believe it – the very latest temptation comes in the form of what is, deep down at its skeleton, an actual cookbook.


A Platter of Figs, and Other Recipes, by David Tanis is not only filled with scrumptious pictures, but also some pretty great writing. The following is an excerpt from the book (you’ll see why I was tempted):

“ I think food should look natural, not contrived. Plums in a bowl are nothing more than a repetition of shapes: what could be more beautiful? Tender green beans—briefly cooked, dressed with oil, and gently piled on a platter—are beautiful in a way that stacked, squeezed, decorated, gussied-up creations will never be.”

And this:

“Start with a few slices of raw fennel and a plate of olives. Then bring me a beautiful bowl of steaming pasta with garlic and oil. For dessert, a just-ripe pear and some aged Parmigiano…
For breakfast, I don’t crave pancakes, I want tomatoes and fresh white cheese splashed with olive oil… I do like a little something sweet after a meal, but I always prefer light, fresh, elemental, fruit-based desserts and that’s what you’ll find in this book.”

But I thought I was the only one who craved salt rather than pancakes, and had food absorb olive oil like it was an intravenous drip! I had found my food soulmate! So I just had to have it.

[NB: I gagged a little when I saw the price tag, but only a little. The potential hours spent salivating and maybe even making some of these glorious dishes far outweighed the one-book-for-the-price-of-two factor].

Look, when all is said and done, books and food make beautiful music together. It’s a sensory overload, and I shouldn’t beat myself up for being tempted by the result. Provided it’s in moderation, of course. I guess that’s what books are for, right? To make you feel something?

Sometimes though, I wish it wasn’t something I felt so strongly in my stomach.

Leviathan

Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan is an awesome read! I loved every moment of this YA steampunk adventure. My only problem with it, is that the next book is not yet out.

What I loved most about this novel, is the world that Westerfeld has created. It is an alternative version of our own world, where history has progressed somewhat differently. In this world, countries are allied by their devotion to either machinery or genetic manipulation. The Clankers have a society based around the use of incredible steam-driven machines, from legged walkers to airships that roam the sky. The Darwinists, on the other hand, rely on a fantastic array of fabricated creatures, from hydrogen creating beasts for air travel to lupine tigeresques to pull their military carriages. The Leviathan of the book’s title, a whale airship, is Britain’s foremost military ship.

The novel’s plot follows the adventures of two teenagers — separate at first, but converging by the end of the book. After the assassination of his parents, Prince Aleksander is on the run from his own Austro-Hungarian people. With the aid of a few loyal men and the use of an old Stormwalker war machine, he heads for Switzerland. Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp, a British girl, has disguised herself as a boy in order to join the military air service. After a mishap on her first day, she finds herself aboard the Leviathan as it heads off on a secret mission to the Ottoman Empire.

The story is set on the brink of the First World War, albeit a very different war from the one we are familiar with. Westerfeld uses many actual events and people, such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, as a springboard for his fantastical story. It’s an exciting tale with interesting characters and a fascinating setting. I found the book difficult to put down… and each time I did have to put it down, I would find myself anticipating my return to its pages.

My only disappointment, when finishing the book, was realising that it was an incomplete story and that book 2 was still a couple of months off publication. But I’ve learned to cope, as I eagerly await Behemoth, which is due out in October.

Leviathan is my first encounter with the writings of Scott Westerfeld. Yes, yes… I know… I must have been hiding under a rock or something. Of course, I’ve heard of his Uglies series, and I’ve always intended to get around to reading them… I just haven’t, yet. But now having read and enjoyed Leviathan, I’m even more motivated to read his earlier work.

Anyone else out there read Leviathan? Share your opinion of the book in the comments section below.

And tune in next time as I write about school readers.

Catch ya later,  George

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TWO GREAT READS BY SUE LAWSON

DARE YOU

Dare You is the powerful new YA novel from popular author, Sue Lawson.

I was lucky enough to receive it in my mail box recently and I have to say that once I picked this book up I couldn’t put it down.

Dare You is about three best friends, Ruby, Khaden and Sas who have known each other pretty much forever. But each one is hiding something from the others, and the pressure of these secrets manifests itself in dares that spiral out of control.

As their daring behaviour intensifies, the three protagonists discover that there are just some things you can’t take back.

I loved this book for its honest characters, real people who the reader cares about right from the start. It’s told in three alternating points of view so each character gets to tell their story.

The book is well constructed with great suspense, and clues for the perceptive reader along the way. I liked that Dare You made me think about life and consequences and what can happen when people try to hide the truth from those they care about the most.

Dare You is  also a realistic depiction of how friendships formed in early childhood can change and become something that you never expected them to.

Dare You is published by Black Dog Books.

AFTER

CJ used to be the coolest kid at school until he did something unforgivable.

After, he is banished to live with his grandparents in the country but no matter how hard he tries to outrun trouble, it seems to follow him.

This is a wonderful story about a boy who does something in a moment of recklessness that he can’t take back – one mistake and lives are changed forever.

CJ is a likeable character who will resonate with teen readers. He’s vulnerable and confused and Sue Lawson makes us care about him.

After is a powerful book about the things that can go wrong, and the things that people do to try and make them right again.

This story is another compelling read from award-winning author, Sue Lawson and published by Black Dog Books.

You can find out more about Sue at her website www.suelawson.com.au

School. What Is It Good For?

Animal FarmWhile I was one of those studious types who, for the most part, enjoyed her time at school, I have in recent years come to realise an extra school bonus. That is that school potentially offers us that key, almost once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to read some of the great books of our time.

I’m talking about the 1984s, The Great Gatsbys, the Brave New Worlds, the Animal Farms, the Pride and Prejudices, the Catcher in the Ryes, the To Kill A Mockingbirds, the A Clockwork Oranges, The Princess Brides, and The Crucibles. The books that are cultural touchstones and that are bywords for capturing or interpreting events or experiences.

These days we describe a perceived as intrusive use of technology as ‘very 1984’, bleak, dog-eat-dog situations as ‘lord of the flies’ in style, and many women hope to meet their very own dashing ‘Mr Darcy’. There are lines of dialogue that are regularly quoted—‘Two legs good. Four legs bad.’ and ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’ And who could forget the characters whose names—Boo Radley or Atticus Finch or Holden Caulfield—conjure up very distinct memories and meanings?

The Princess BrideOf course, when you’re forced to write critical essays under exam conditions or give oral presentations about a character or particular theme from one of these books, it’s understandable that you don’t necessarily appreciate you’re on to a good thing. But while the memories of the specific assessment tasks that surround them fade away (I mean, I can’t remember which assessment I completed for which book), the overall memory of that book doesn’t.

Some of us revisit those texts as adults, with many swearing by the grown-up pass. It’s a way of both returning to a happy reading time and of appreciating the writers’ subtleties and sophistication that may have gone over one’s younger reading head. What I’ve realised is that although revisiting is excellent, if school didn’t give you that initial reading introduction, it is very, very difficult to get round to reading these modern classics as an adult.

I’m puzzled why this is so. My guess is that adulthood brings with it greater time pressures, more distractions, and less reading time, and that reading the modern classics is, much like housework, something you know you should do but you keep putting off until later. Me? I’m also distracted by the bright, shiny new releases and am less likely to get back to the classics—they’ve always been around and will always be, but this brand, spanking new title with an uncracked spine? That’s cutting edge and uber tempting.

A Clockwork OrangeIt’s in this blog that I should probably fess up that I only recently managed to read 1984 (although I loved, loved, loved Animal Farm when I read it at school). I’ve never read The Catcher in the Rye (and I can’t right now, because, like, everyone’s reading it after his death and I don’t want to seem like a mainstreaming groupie). Nor have I read The Lord of The Flies, A Clockwork Orange, or Brave New World. I bought a shiny new copy of the latter about a year ago with the determination to gain insight into our near future and to catch myself up on the Aldus Huxley references, but even that new copy keeps gathering dust on the shelf as it gets prioritised as a book ‘for later’.

Bizarrely, it was an attempt to read Fahrenheit 451 because I hadn’t been made to read it at school that saw the freshly purchased copy disappear from my bookshelf before I’d even cracked the spine. My family would argue that all the accusations and mystery could have been avoided were it a set text during high school. And they have a point.

The Catcher in the RyeAlthough I read some fantastic books during school, there are so many I also missed out on. I would give anything now to have read Fahrenheit 451, as well as Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and The Catcher in the Rye, because I’m not sure when or how I’ll find the time to now. Which books did you miss during that first pass stage at school? Have you managed to read them now? If so, how?

Spiders, sharks and other Belizean hobbies

I have read up on Belize in my Rough Guide and been in the country for 6 hours and, as yet, no one has answered the most pressing question I have about the country.

To whit, why is there a tarantula in the box next to the coffee machine?

Like most people, I would normally assume that a box next to the coffee machine would contain beverage related items.  I would imagine the mesh lid would be to keep flies off the things within. Perhaps some sugar and tea bags. Maybe, if I get really lucky, a few packets of biscuits. These would be the things that normally I would expect to find in a box on a table next to the coffee machine.

But no. There is a tarantula. Approximately 5 inches of sulking black arachnid, hunched in readiness next to the spot where the box flips open. Perhaps he wants out. Perhaps he wants a coffee. Perhaps Belizeans sprinkle spiders on the foam of cappuccinos, like squirmy furious chocolate flakes. Who knows?

Belize is insane.

Luckily, the hostel that I am staying in has a book on tarantulas. I have been reading this at a furious speed, hoping that it will teach me some sort of method of pacifying the big spiders, or avoiding them, or at least teach me the Tarantul-ic for “And I, for one, would like to welcome our new arachnid overlords.” If in doubt, I can always use it to throw at them as I run away.

The book is being reassuring. Apparently tarantulas are pretty shy creatures far more happy skulking in their burrows waiting for passing insects than hiding next to the coffee. Apparently they are masters of quiet disguise and catching tarantulas is difficult.

Wish someone had told that to old Eight-Huge-Furry-Legs by the coffee machine.

For most countrys, these huge spiders are exotic creatures to avoid unless they are behind glass. In Belize tarantula catching is a fun thing for small children to do. According to a pamphlet in the hostel. some methods of capture include tapping on their burrows, sticking a lollipop stick down the burrows and the “digital insertion” method which involves – you guessed it – sticking your fingers down their burrows.

Belize is really insane.

This is not the first encounter I have had in Belize with animals I would rather stay away from. The boats here offer to take you snorkelling off the reef, the second biggest in the world, where you can see manatees and green turtles.  Our boat, which was billed as snorkelling and beer, decided that it would be fun to hurl large quantities of food over the side to attract nurse sharks BEFORE we jump in.

I can hear the voices of my ancestors bitching. “Millions of years we spent AVOIDING these things – we left the ocean to get away from them – and now you go straight back IN. Fine. Go extinct then.” Twenty minutes later, our snorkelling guide hauls a huge and gurning eel from its hole in a rock and waves it at us. Do we want to touch it? I look at the baleful eyeballs and strong jaws and decide I am not yet that crazy, thanks.

And, while I might be missing out here, I’m also just not brave enough to try the “digital insertion” method of tarantula catching. I’ll stick to reading about them, and I think I’ll pass on the tarantula coffee too.

The Problem with Pink

Remember a couple of years back, when pink shirts became mainstream for blokes? It was a fashion revolution. Mainly because previous to that fateful day (when the Aussie ocker braved his mate’s bbq and they didn’t beat him to a pulp on sight), pink shirts were the avenue of metrosexuals and guys who didn’t know to separate the colours from the whites in the wash cycle (“it’s red, I tell you”)…

As this isn’t a fashion blog, I won’t be detailing the rise and fall of the empire of Pink Shirt.

Mainly because with the exception of the black, red and white that currently frequents every paranormal series, most covers in the book world seem to be on pretty even rotation through the ages. Or are they? There’s a whole lot of hullabaloo going on at the moment in certain literary media circles, stemming from this article. Apparently, pink book covers are a little too sweet to the stomach for some. I felt a little affronted when I first read the article…like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, pink is one of my favourite things. It’s the colour of romance and cotton candy; if your kids aren’t eating their vegetables then your best bet is to paint the kitchen pink; and pink is the perfect deterrent for car thieves.

But also, in the book world at least, pink is the safe haven for petticoated Chick Lit, Mills and Boon-style romances and domestic YA fiction for girls.

It seems (as much as I hate to admit it) that the problem with pink is that it’s too brash for the bookshelf, too unreasonable when prose is wanting to be serious, too gender-specific when publishers want to appeal to both sides of the audience.

Looking to my own shelves, even though I love the colour pink and am shamelessly drawn to cover art I don’t have much on the pink shelf.

Yes I colour-code my bookshelves. And yes, one of the books is named Princess Academy. But there’s also a David Mitchell and a veritable feast of books with middle-eastern characters.

And, one of the books is also The Best Australian Essays 2008. But when I search it online? The cover comes up as a no-holds-barred royal purple. Mine on the bookshelf is at least a magenta in the flesh. Harrumph. But seriously, does it really matter what colour a book is?

I guess, yes. I don’t like Chick Lit in the slightest as a genre, and (with the exception of Lili Wilkinson’s Pink)  pink YA covers make me think they’re trying to “femme up” the cover because the writing doesn’t speak for itself.

So I’m throwing it out there if you’ve got a possible answer for me: is pink itself superficial? Can it ever be taken seriously?

 Or am I being superficial by judging it prematurely?

Fallen by Lauren Kate – coming to Australia in September

COMING TO AUSTRALIA IN SEPTEMBER, a sensational return for fallen angel Daniel and his mortal love, Lucinda, in this fabulous sequel to FALLEN by Lauren Kate.

How many lives do you need to live before you find someone worth dying for?  In the aftermath of what happened at Sword & Cross, Luce has been hidden away by her cursed angelic boyfriend, Daniel, in a new school filled with Nephilim, the offspring of fallen angels and humans. Daniel promises she will be safe here, protected from those who would kill her. At the school Luce discovers what the Shadows that have followed her all her life mean – and how to manipulate them to see into her other lives. Yet the more Luce learns about herself, the more she realizes that the past is her only key to unlocking her future … and that Daniel hasn’t told her everything. What if his version of the past isn’t actually the way things happened … what if Luce was really meant to be with someone else?

Take a look at the great multimedia for this title:


Talking about writing

People often imagine writers to be rather hermit-like creatures, tucked away in quiet, darkened corners, chained to computers, furtively tapping away at their keyboards, rarely venturing out into the sunshine. Okay… I may be exaggerating a little. But there is often the perception that writers are rather solitary and often shy. That perception is, of course, utter nonsense.

These days, writers are expected by their publishers to promote their books. This means getting out there, amongst the readers, and talking about their writing. It means attending writers’ festivals, doing talks at libraries and bookshops, and visiting schools. For many writers, speaking engagements, as well as teaching writing, is a way to supplement their income… because, unless you happen to be a best-selling novelist, a writer’s income is often in need of supplementing.

I speak about writing for promotion, for income and, most importantly, because I love doing it. I’m very passionate about writing and reading… and I love sharing that passion. As a children’s author, I’m also a great believer in the importance of showing kids that reading and writing can be fun. So I particularly love doing school visits. There is nothing better, whilst giving a talk about writing, than noticing a spark of excitement in the eyes of one of the kids in the audience. If I can inspire just one kid to pick up a book he may not have otherwise considered, or take up a pen and decide to write something she may otherwise have thought beyond her… then I have achieved something to be proud of.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of school talks and writing workshops. This year I’ve also embarked on a new challenge. I’ve taken on teaching at university level. For one semester, I am tutoring and guest lecturing in the University of Melbourne’s third year creative writing subject, “Encounters with Writing”. I delivered my first ever university lecture this Tuesday. It was a somewhat nerve-wracking, but also exhilarating experience. The students appeared genuinely interested and the course coordinator was pleased. I got feedback from several people that the lecture presented information they had never thought about before. Mission accomplished!

Now, my mind is focussed on some upcoming speaking.

In early September I will be attending Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention. I’m scheduled to do some readings and to participate in a number of panel discussions, including “Game On! Games and YA Spec Fic” and “Franchise Writing”. I’m also looking forward to hearing other writers speak during this five-day event.

This Saturday, I’m off to Daylesford for the Words in Winter Festival, where I will be doing two presentations on the writing of Gamers’ Quest, a book signing and a short story writing workshop for kids. If you happen to be in the vicinity, stop by and say ‘hi’!

And tune in next time to find out what I thought of Leviathan.

Catch ya later,  George

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