Trilogy ‘Tis Done

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's NestI know I’ve devoted two previous blogs to rabbiting on about how little I liked Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander trilogy, and no one wants to revisit the issue less than me. But having gone two-thirds of the way through the trilogy and then having a freebie copy (and no, that’s not a euphemism for stealing—I have standards) of book three landing in my lap, I figured I should see it three thirds through. This is, I promise, my final word on the trilogy.

If nothing else, I wanted to alleviate the nagging feeling I had that maybe I’d judged Larsson’s books too soon. Maybe the third book was where all the seemingly tedious, distracting, and story-slowing threads come together in the story arc equivalent of an impressively executed triple-pike acrobatic maneuver. Maybe I was even going to be left with egg on my face.

But, while I will concede that I think the latter two books are head and shoulders above the first—not least because they get on with the story instead of filling the first third of the book with background that never pays off—I still think they’re below par. The same issues that plagued the first two—say, for example, the incessant naming of now-outdated laptops, the minutiae of travel and locations in Sweden, and the fact that Salander’s difficult persona is two-dimensional and wearing thin—continue into the third. I guess I could say that Larsson was at least consistent.

Add in some eye-rolling that almost every male character seems to be conveniently into prostitutes or kiddy porn and that every woman has had a bad experience with a man and, well, let’s just say I’m happy to have finished reading to the end. I spent half the book confused about who was who and why there were about 50 characters all doing one-man or one-woman investigations. One or two would have thoroughly sufficed; 10 diluted the effectiveness and distracted from the tale. Indeed, every time Salander thought ‘Mikael Bloody Blomkvist’ I couldn’t help but think ‘Lisbeth Bloody Salander’. I kept waiting for the missing twin angle to enter the fray, but now realise that this was probably planned for subsequent books that Larsson sadly won’t get to write.

But I will admit that although I skimmed chunks of the brick of a book, I did want to read to the end and that I found the repartee of the trial clever. That’s perhaps the greatest gripe I have with Larsson’s trilogy: the ideas are interesting and the story has good moments. It’s just that it takes too long to get there and we’re forced to work too hard to find the gems among the guff.


Thanks to everyone who entered this competition. We had some amazing and totally creepy stories and congratulations on the high standard of entries.

It was a close call, but the judges felt that the most hair raising entry came from Lucie Campbell. This is her story:

Six weeks after my husband passed away my daughter had a sleepover at her friends place…at 2 am I woke up to her bedroom being ‘ransacked’ I was terrified as I lay in bed listening to someone running around her room throwing things around…we share a wall so I could hear everything crystal clear…after 10 minutes I summed enough courage to grab my hockey stick I keep under my bed and go confront the thief in her room. I slowly crept up my heart beating hundred mile an hour as I switched on the light …the room was empty and nothing has been touched… is both the weirdest and scariest thing that has ever happened to me !!!

Congratulations, Lucie, I’ll be in touch via email and organise to have Worlds Next Door sent out to you.

Hope you like spooky stories.



Karma is Carrying Books up Two Flights of Stairs

I’ve occasionally wondered what my comeuppance would be for the sheer and shameless volume of books I’ve poached from others’ shelves. Something tells me I’m about to find out as, by the time you read this blog, I’ll be knee deep in moving house.

While I have plenty of people who’ve kindly offered to help me lug my goods (it’s been seriously surprising—I mean, who would voluntarily commit to such a tedious, time-consuming, and physically exhausting type of hell?), but what I’ve realised is that there’s one thing they absolutely cannot help me with: packing, moving, and unpacking ‘my’ books.

The reason? They’re almost certain to find their own books among mine. Indeed, it seems that my comeuppance karma will not, as I’d feared, be some sort of public shaming, but something much, much simpler: carrying bucket loads of books up two flights of stairs.

Arguably this would be a time to either cull or return books I no longer need, but my book-collecting and book-hoarding habits and my refusal to actually admit that I have a penchant for either prevents me from doing so. Even worse, in a mean-spirited manner given their generosity in giving up their free time and muscles, I’m going to have to watch my moving helpers like a hawk lest they attempt to crack open or hot foot it with a box of books.

The other issue I’ll face—that is, once, I’ve cursed every book’s weight and my own thieving habits as I ascend and descend said two flights of stairs seven million times in one day—is how to reshelve my books. In spite of my rampant obsessive compulsive behaviour, I’ve somewhat surprisingly never had a hard and fast book shelving rule. Some friends I know order their books alphabetically, either by title or by author’s surname. Others by genre. Still others by book size, colour, or publication date.

I’m wondering if now is the time, with this clean slate, that I should enact some order on my book collection? And if so, what shelving rules should I apply?

Exercise Read Write

Recently I spent three posts writing about cookbooks and food, with one of those posts devoted specifically to chocolate. I feel that I should now balance things out with a post about exercise.

We all know that exercise is good for us. And yet, so many of us do not exercise enough. For me it comes down to a time factor. I’m trying to maintain a writing career while also being a stay-at-home dad. Every minute I spend exercising, is time not spent on writing or cooking or cleaning or playing with the kids. But I do try. It’s a matter of finding some sort of balance. I aim to do a minimum of two exercise sessions a week. That is, either a 45-minute jog or a one-hour body pump class. (Body pump is kind of like aerobics with weights, set to music.) Ideally, I try to do more than this. Four sessions in one week is a brilliant, rarely achieved high. But often I fail to even reach my minimum.

Aside from formal exercise, I also endeavour to get in as much informal exercise as I can. So I walk to and from school with my seven-year-old, rather than using the car. I try to always use stairs rather than an elevator, if the option exists, and if I use an escalator, I walk on it rather than stand still. I used to do a lot of my local travelling (post office, shops, etc) by bicycle. But since the birth of daughter #2, this has dropped off because I always seem to be in a hurry, and the good old car is the quicker option. Teaching at the University of Melbourne this semester has given a little boost to this kind of informal exercise, as I take the train into the City and then walk to the uni. I also walk a lot around the campus, from lecture theatre to library to tutorial room (conveniently spaced out at opposite ends of the campus) and then, of course, the tutorial room is on the fifth floor. But I taught my final tutorial this week, so it’s back to more lazy habits from now on. 🙂

I’m sure that as daughter #2 gets older and starts kindergarten, and then primary school, I’ll have the time to exercise more. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. (It may turn out to be self-delusion… only time will tell.) In the mean time, I shall valiantly push forward with my inevitably losing struggle against the ravages of a slowing metabolism and an ever-increasing desire to consume more cheese and red wine.

This now brings me to the big question: Why is exercise so important to me and what’s it all got to do with books and writing? Three things…

Firstly, I want to live for a long time. At least 100 years would be good. And staying at least passably fit and healthy increases my chances of this (barring a freak encounter with a runaway bus, terrorist attack or other such quirk of fate). I have quite a long list of reasons for desiring longevity, including wanting to see as much of my daughters’ lives as possible. But the pertinent reason for this bookish blog, is that I want to read more. There are sooooooooo many books out there that I want to read. And there are many that I would like to re-read. And I know that no matter how long I do manage to live, I will never get to read every book that I want to read, because so many new books are being published each year. But the longer I live, the more of them I will get to read. I’m a rather slow reader, averaging only about three substantially sized books a month. That’s 36 books a year. I’m 42, so if I live to 100, that’s only 2,088 books. What a depressingly small number!

Secondly, exercise makes me feel good. And when I feel good, my writing improves and the volume I produce, increases. I always find that I write better on a day when I exercise in the morning. Whereas a morning of self-indulgent sloth is likely to make me reluctant to commit my brain to… anything.

Thirdly, jogging has the side effect of providing me with some great thinking time. No distractions. No interruptions. 45 minutes in which to brainstorm, plot and develop ideas. Many of my concepts are born while jogging, and many of my plotting problems have been solved during these 45-minute sessions. Often, the first thing I’ll do, when returning from a jog, is quickly jot down the ideas that have formed during that jog. I have sometimes even come home with fully formed scenes in my mind, ready for me to “download” to the computer.

So there you have it… my thoughts on the relationship between exercise and reading and writing. Anyone else have any thoughts on this subject? Do other writers exercise to energise their writing, or counteract their otherwise sedentary work? Leave a comment!

And tune in next time to find out about a few short story anthologies.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… it won’t burn calories but it could be an interesting ride!



There are worlds where ships take travellers through space like taxis. Worlds where your worst nightmare destroys your greatest dreams. Worlds where magic makes the rules. What you have here is not a book, but a key to worlds that exist under your bed, in your cupboard, in the dark of night when you’re sure you’re being watched. what you have is a passport to the worlds next door.

(from the publisher’s website)

Prepare for the funny, the spooky and the totally bizarre in Worlds Next Door, a collection of short stories for kids edited by Tehani Wessely and published by Fablecroft.

Worlds Next Door is an anthology of eery, weird and spine tingling speculative fiction stories for 9-13 year olds. The stories range from fantasy and scary, to weird and wonderful sci-fi, and they feature kids in some strange and potentially life-threatening situations.

The settings are also diverse from space travel to Mars, to Medieval and modern worlds. And so many fascinating and terrifying creatures creep onto the pages and into the reader’s mind. There are giant snails, genetically affected poodles, dinosaurs, dragons, a horde of techs, a goat, a kelpie with special powers and as you’d expect, a generous dose of ghosts and aliens.

I love the diversity of this collection. Each story has suspense and strong narrative to keep you turning the pages until the often-surprising end. The stories are in bite sized portions so you can read a complete piece in one sitting and this is great for reader confidence; particularly with reluctant readers.

I also liked that Worlds Next Door places no limits on the imagination; that kids can be transported to worlds they never dreamed of visiting and their imaginations are allowed free reign.

There are twenty-five stories by both well-known and emerging writers, guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat.
Contributors to the collection are: Joanne Anderton, RJ Astruc, Jen Banyard, Jenny Blackford, Launz Burch, Sue Bursztynski, Matthew Chrulew, Paul Collins, Leith Daniel, Rowena Cory Daniells, Felicity Dowker, Aidan Doyle, Thoraiya Dyer, Dirk Flinthart, Pamela Freeman, Edwina Harvey, Kathleen Jennings, Martin Livings, Gaston Locanto, Dave Luckett, Bren MacDibble, Geoffrey Hugh Miller, Dale Newman, Michael Pryor, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Kaia Landelius, Angela Rega, Matthew Shires, Angela Slatter, Peter Turner and  Kaaron Warren.

The anthology lends itself to being used in the classroom and teachers’ notes are available from

They include a list of listening, reading and creative writing, poetry and assorted activities to keep students engaged.

Worlds Next Door will inspire young writers to create imaginative and compelling stories of their own.



Win your own copy of Worlds Next Door by telling us in the comments section of this post about the weirdest, scariest or funniest thing that has ever happened to you…


Spooky Stories for Halloween

Here in Australia, we don’t really have massive shindigs for every single holiday like our American friends do. Give us a beer or a glass of wine and a grassy area and we celebrate in what is usually a much more laidback manner. Living in the opposite season to our Northern counterparts…I’m STILL dreaming of a white Christmas, and the one time in the early ’90s the neighbourhood kids and I actually got it together and planned a Halloween Trick or Treating adventure, the 40 degree weather was not conducive to wearing a black witch costume and we gave up mid-afternoon and jumped in the pool.

But things are changing. Slowly. I’ve even noticed that Woolworth’s has been advertising pumpkins for Halloween, which happens this weekend. So if you’re stuck for something to do on Sunday 31 October, and you’re up for celebrating the creatures of the night, there are some classic and not-yet-classic creepalicious stories that you can curl up on the couch with. Here’s my top three picks for this Halloween:

The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux.

The opera in gay Paris…what could be more romantic? But this isn’t Valentines Day, my friends. There’s nothing like a doomed love story involving a disfigured, tormented dude and a beautiful opera singer to get you shivering. The violence and suspense of this novel makes for drama, drama, drama…and you’ll never dismiss the importance of stagehands again.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

I first read this book as a book club pick, and when the time came to discuss we had the most crazy-intense conversation, with differing and adamant viewpoints about what had happened in the story. The Thirteenth Tale takes its style of prose and sense of mystery from the greats of Victorian Literature, and it’ll leave you thinking about the plot points long after you’ve turned the final page.

The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

The genius behind that spooky fairytale movie Pan’s Labyrinth turns his hand at some surprising vampiric fiction. A homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the book is a modern take, and opens with an airplane stopping dead on the tarmac, full of pale corpses. Oooh.


These suggestions are really just a starting point. There are tons of Halloween-perfect books out there, so make sure to pick something that will give your imagination more thrills than chills and you’ll have a spooky ol’ time. Just one final piece of advice: try not to pay attention to the little hairs rising on the back of your neck…and whatever you do, don’t answer the phone!

It’ll just be telemarketers, anyway.



Your own copy of Worlds Next Door by telling us in the comments section of our Worlds Next Door post about the weirdest, scariest or funniest thing that has ever happened to you…

Worlds Next Door is a fantastic collection of funny, scary and downright weird short stories for kids aged 9 to 13 with stories by Paul Collins, Michael Pryor, Bren MacDibble, Rowena Cory Daniels, Jenny Blackford, Pamela Freeman and a host of other great Australian speculative fiction writers.

Something for Shaun Tan diehards

If you’re a fan of Shaun Tan’s work (and honestly, who isn’t?), this is news that is sure to get you salivating. Hachette have just announced that they will be producing a limited 1500-copy run of a The Arrival and Sketches from a Nameless Land Suitcase Collector’s Edition.

This exclusive edition includes hard cover limited edition copies of both The Arrival and its new companion title Sketches from a Nameless Land, along with a FIRST RELEASE SIGNED PRINT of an illustration taken from The Arrival. Each of the 1500 suitcases will be uniquely numbered and individually signed by Shaun Tan.

This deluxe clamshell box set opens like a suitcase, revealing a vintage pattern (worn and stained) interior.

For more information on how to order a copy (or to simply look at more pictures of it), click here.

Wednesday Web Sighting: Writing for Young Adults

Our friends at the NSW Writers’ Centre have just given us a sneak peak at their upcoming program, so I thought I’d pass it on tonight – they’re running an extensive 5-week Writing For Children and Young Adults workshop with acclaimed author, Jeni Mawter… so, so tempting. Lots of you have mentioned creative writing on the Facebook Fanpage, so I think this might be right up your alleys. This one’s only for residents in NSW, but if you see any interesting writing courses across the country, email me and I’ll post up details – don’t want to look NSW-biased. 😛


It’s hard enough being a twelve-year-old and having to deal with teasing from the school bully because your parents have given you the unfortunate name of Lily Padd.

But when Lily is forced to give up her bedroom for the French exchange student and share with her younger and annoying twin sisters, she thinks that things can’t get any worse.

Unfortunately they do. For some inexplicable reason Lily Padd is turning into a frog and unless she does something about it soon she’s going to be spending the rest of her days hopping around the house eating flies.

Pond Magic, is an hilarious new Chomp from Penguin. It is the debut novel of author, Angela Sunde. Angela is also a talented illustrator but for Pond Magic, the quirky illustrations have been drawn by Lisa Coutts.

There’s a great sense of comedy in this book and plenty of tension as Lily’s symptoms increase daily. First it’s the burping, then the webbed feet, the green skin tinge and the frog like wart. But when Lily starts thinking that flies look appetizing she knows she’s really in trouble.

Lily is a great character as are her best friend, Maureen and the mysterious and attractive exchange student Rainier le Dauphin de France.

Chomp lovers will enjoy the humour, action and hint of romance to be found in Pond Magic. This is a cleverly-crafted and well written first novel.

More about Angela and her work can be found at Lisa’s website is currently being rebuilt but you can find her details at

Seeing Red Over Stereotypes? Vent, and win a copy of Delusions of Gender.

“Woman has her range of duties, and her special functions, as man has his; and I would like to see each find his own place in his own level.”
Sir Edward Braddon (Tasmania, Free Trade) House of Representatives, 23 April 1902.

It well known that men don’t listen. Women, of course, can’t read maps. Women have smaller (possibly fluffy, certainly pink) brains that are great at empathising but bad at hard things, like maths and concentrating. Men can do complicated thinking but can’t do emotions because their brains consist of steel wool surrounding a solid block of logic. We can’t help it. It’s just the way our brains have been wired.


A lot of books would have you believe that there is an inevitable gap between the genders, vast and unbridgeable – well, unless you read the book, of course. Books, magazines and even scientific articles often cite immutable biological differences between the male and female brain as the reason.  Men are doomed to be shuffling Neanderthals, incapable of understanding communication more subtle than a club to the head, women are irrational shrews who must trick and cajole men into commitment before they accidently burn the cave down.

For those of you who find yourselves bristling at the blanket generalisations about both genders epitomised by books such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (or, as a friend of mine calls it, Men Are From Mars, Women Suck My… well, you can fill in rest yourself) here’s a tonic for what ails you.

Dr Cordelia Fine is an academic psychologist, writer and researcher at Melbourne University, and her new book Delusions of Gender is a rebuttal to all the latest pseudo-scientific claims we hear on a daily basis about the differences between the sexes being based in the brain. Challenging “neurosexism” – as it has come to be known – she argues that by thinking of the genders as intractabily different, serious and unjustified obstacles are being placed in the paths of children’s devopment. Critiquing the bad science and methodology of many claims and drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and social psychology, she puts forward a very convincing case for the mind’s malleability, and for society to be mindful of this plasticity.

It may sound like she’s swimming against the tide of opinion, but that’s exactly what she wants to do. She was inspired to write the book by the amount of “bad science” already out there, as she explained in an interview with Salon.

It began when I read a parenting book that claimed that hard-wired sex differences meant that girls and boys should be parented and taught differently. When I looked at the actual studies being used as evidence, I was really shocked by how badly the neuroscientific findings were being misrepresented. I saw the same thing going on in other popular books about gender, and when I looked, I was surprised to discover how little convincing evidence there was that, for example, the male brain is hard-wired to be good at understanding the world and the female brain is hard-wired to understand people.

We have two copies of Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine to giveaway. To win, we want you to tell us what people say about your gender that really gets your goat. Entries close at 5pm on Monday 1 November, so feel free to call up your most sexist “everybody knows” acquaintance or co-worker and get them to hold forth at length, safe in the knowledge that this time, when you brain explodes in fury, you could be winning a book out of it.


Today we’re pleased to welcome debut author, Angela Sunde to Kids’ Book Capers. Angela is stopping here on a blog tour with her new book, Pond Magic and she’s going to be chatting with us about her life as a writer and where her ideas come from.

Hi Dee,

It’s so nice to be here on the Kids Book Capers blog. Thanks for inviting me.

Angela, how did you become a writer?

I have always been a storyteller. As a German teacher for many years my students would often ask me to tell them stories of my travels. These little anecdotes took on a life of their own as we moved the furniture around and pulled out the finger puppets or dress-ups.

Then, when travelling through Europe for six months with my own children in 2006, my colourful, descriptive and action-packed emails of our day to day adventures drew a dedicated following of readers.  Even years later friends still tell me how sorry they were when the emails stopped.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

I love working for myself and I don’t find it lonely at all. In fact I feel more connected to my writing peers than in any other job I’ve had. The friendships I’ve made have been the best part.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

The hardest thing is having to wear so many hats: webdesigner, blogger, publicist, marketer, accountant and event organiser.  Writing is the fun part.

What is your greatest writing achievement?

The publication of Pond Magic as an Aussie Chomp with Penguin Australia is definitely a dream come true for me. I am very proud of this story and there is nothing I would change about it.

Where do your ideas come from?

Over the last few years I have become more observant of the people around me. I’d say most of my ideas come from personal experience; either my own childhood or the children in my family. I keep a notebook of ideas and often a story idea will come to me when I am free writing.

Where did the idea for Pond Magic come from?

I was asked to write a story for a fantasy anthology. I didn’t feel very confident as I’d never thought of myself as a fantasy writer, so I looked for help. Morris Gleitzman had given a talk at the CYA conference a few years ago and he’d shared with us the ‘secret’ of a successful story.

That secret was to give your character a problem and start your story with the problem. So I gave my character, Lily Padd, the problem of burping uncontrollably.

How did you develop the original idea into a story?

Once armed with a character and a problem, I asked myself a lot of questions using a mind map: What’s making her burp? What are the embarrassing consequences for her? What if other symptoms start to appear making it worse? What if she’s turning into a frog?

Was it a fun process?

Absolutely! I spent a lot of time laughing as things went from bizarre to ridiculous.

What did you enjoy the most about seeing the story unfold?

As I followed my scene plan the most enjoyable aspect of watching the story unfold was getting to know the characters and watching them interact as they developed into strong individuals.

What was the hardest part about going from initial idea to finished story?

The most difficult part was choosing which of the many solutions would save Lily and stop her turning into a frog. Even as I was half way through writing the story, I didn’t know exactly how it would end.

Do you think that being an illustrator as well helps you visualize ideas and characters?

Perhaps. I see the story in my head like a movie and the characters walk through the scenes in full colour.  I see everything three dimensionally, even house plans.

After you came up with the initial idea, did you do things like drink French champagne and catch tadpoles to help you get into the mood of the story?

Oh dear, my secret is out! Actually we had not long ago returned from our trip to Europe and I had been captivated by the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France, so of course in the story the French exchange student, Rainier, comes from there. It is also a winegrowing district as the climate of Languedoc is fairly moderate.

Then this year, by coincidence, I discovered a French sparkling (champagne) from the same Languedoc region called ‘Lily Pad Pink’ and … the winery itself is called the Arrogant Frog. I know, unbelievable. Even the blurb on the back label says: “Try a taste and discover what a prince this frog can be!”

So of course that is the champagne served at Pond Magic’s book launch.

Can you tell us what your story is about and why you love it?

It’s about a twelve-year-old girl called Lily Padd who can’t stop burping. Fitting in at school is hard enough for most kids without the added embarrassment of webbed toes and skin that’s turning green! And so Lily fears she is turning into a frog.

To make things worse a French exchange student, Rainier, moves into her bedroom, forcing her to share with her little sisters, and Lily’s best friend, Maureen, thinks he’s gorgeous. As Lily side-steps Rainier’s attempts to be friends, her intolerance of him and all things French escalates into a series of laugh-out-loud situations.

I love Pond Magic. It is hilarious, but it also has a deeper more serious layer beneath the humour. As the plot progresses Lily’s character develops from an intolerant, self-obsessed tween to an accepting, tolerant friend with a better understanding of different cultures and a positive attitude towards other languages. The inter-cultural exchanges throughout the story highlight what is happening in schools everywhere when an exchange student arrives.

The value of this experience is what I wanted to express as the underlying theme of Pond Magic. I think the story successfully delivers this theme without being didactic and at the same time engages the reader in a rollicking good yarn.

I had a lovely time. Thanks so much for having me.

Thanks for visiting, Angela. You can  catch Angela on tour at these great blogs:

21st October – Stories Are Light – Sandy Fussell –

22nd October – Write and Read with Dale – Dale Harcombe
Review and Developing a Character

23rd October – Sally Murphy’s Writing for Children Blog
Getting Published for the First Time

24th October – Cat Up Over – Catriona Hoy
What Girls Read

24th October – Kids Book Review
Review of Pond Magic

26th October – Tuesday Writing Tips – Dee White
Writing to this Length

27th October – Kids’ Book Capers – Boomerang Books
Review and Where Story Ideas Come From

28th October – Kids Book Review
The Aussie Chomp Format

29th October – Tales I Tell – Mabel Kaplan
Promoting your First Book & Planning a Book Launch

30th October – SherylGwyther4Kids
Once upon a time in a far away place… A Potential Australian Alternative

Widely reported in Australian book news over the past couple of days is the decision by Melbourne indie bookstore Readings to use a new Australian start-up’s web technology to launch an ebook initiative. This is big news for essentially everyone in the trade in Australia, not because the offering is especially mindblowing, but because of the relief we all felt on reading this that at least this particular piece of news had nothing to do with Amazon.

The new start-up is called and is a Google Editions-esque web-based ebook platform. Essentially what this means is that instead of using an app (like the iBooks or Kindle app on the iPad and iPhone), or a dedicated reading device (like the Kobo, Sony or Kindle reader), you access your books directly from your web browser. The service uses HTML5 technology, the newest implementation of the programming code that underpins the web.

A significant feature of HTML5 is that it allows websites to store files on your device. This means that when you first buy a book on through the website, your web browser downloads the book files in the background, so that even when you’re not connected to the internet, you can still read that book through your browser: on the iPad and iPhone, you can even add the book to your homescreen and access the book whenever you want to read it. The service even works with the Kindle 3; I tried the demo through the browser on my Kindle 3 and although it wasn’t quite as smooth as reading a native Kindle book, it was nothing like viewing a web page through the Kindle’s terrible browser – it even utilises the Kindle’s turn page buttons!

The demo service that Book.ish has made available is not without its kinks. Although it’s fairly slick, it’s not quite as slick as using an app or a dedicated reading device to read your ebooks. It’s also missing some pretty key features that I have started to rely on – like an in-built dictionary, annotation and highlighting. It’s also missing bookmark syncing, though you have to assume that when an account system is built in it will include this fairly obvious feature (ie if the book is already on the web, you may as well be able to sync bookmarks across every device that accesses it). It’s also not clear just yet whether readers will be able to use their own documents on, like the Kindle Personal Documents service.

Nonetheless, this is a very promising proof-of-concept that could become something quite interesting with the support of indie booksellers and a bit more development. Whether they’ll be able to compete with the likes of Google Editions, once Editions launches, is another thing entirely – but we have to hope that the little guys like this still have a chance. There’s also the concern I’ve raised in an earlier post about cloud-based services, and whether readers will be OK with not owning a ‘thing’ when it comes to reading – but rather access to a thing. Either way, this is one to watch.

Economic SF

Should science fiction authors pay more attention to world economics? Could they use the GFC as the basis of a novel or two? Award winning science fiction author Sean McMullen has joined us today for a guest post about science fiction and economics…

Should science fiction authors write about the economy?
By Sean McMullen

Science fiction authors have a patchy history with predicting the future. We missed the rise of the personal computer until it was right on top of us, while predicting a Mars landing during the 1980s. More nuclear wars were fought in SF than real wars, we also tried to tell people that personal air commuting was well within our grasp. We did get computer worms and viruses right, and even a version of the web, but as a rule science fiction is driven by the need for a cool story rather than by what is likely to happen.

Now, at the start of the new millennium’s second decade, we live in a science fiction world. If you can imagine it, someone can do it as a computer game and do it now, because we are no longer tied down by real-world technology, biology or physics. So far so good, but remember what I said about science fiction’s track record with the near future?

The problem is that most things that really impact our lives and future are not very interesting. Toxic assets? Ninja loans? Derivatives? They are dead boring to kids as themes, yet they seriously affect their lifestyle options. Now. How about writing a story about the invention of banks? Boring, yet the invention of banks financed the Renaissance, not to mention an awful lot of exploration. Heard about the Louisiana Bubble of 1720? Boring, yet it trashed the French economy so badly that some say it led to the French Revolution a few decades later. Heard about the Global Financial Crisis of 2008? They were all economic events, but they certainly made life exciting.

How hard is economic SF? Take credit. Western nations have supported their people’s lifestyles on credit for a couple of decades past, but the national annual interest bill is now up around the total ability to pay. We are already seeing the first entire countries maxed out on their credit, and this sort of thing is going to dominate our future. So, it’s happening already, yet who is writing economic SF?

What about something more exciting? Returning to petrol, there is actually plenty left, it is just getting more expensive to extract it from the really deep reserves. So, we can keep burning it, and pay with credit. So what if the world gets a bit warmer because of the extra CO2 in the atmosphere? We just get longer summers. Actually CO2 dissolves in seawater, making it more acidic, dissolving the shells of everything from clams to corals and also making life hard for the plankton. Kill off the plankton, and you kill off the organisms that supply about half of our oxygen.

Now that is really exciting, and it all happens because of economics. Our transport depends on oil, which still is relatively cheap, and transport infrastructure (like roads, parking lots, petrol stations, and however many hundreds of million petrol fuelled cars) is expensive to change. If we don’t want to pay, it will stay the same until it gets a bit hard to breathe – THEN the problem will secure our undivided attention and people will be very interested in spending money.

So, economics is determining our future right now, and it is not a pretty sight, but we are heading into the future with our eyes firmly closed and our iPods turned up loud. Should we write about it? Yes. Can we write about it without making it boring? Yes.

George’s bit at the end

Food for thought! Sounds like a niche desperately waiting for an author to fill it. Has anyone out there come across any SF with an economic focus? If so, leave a comment.

My thanks to Sean McMullen for taking the time to write a guest post for Literary Clutter. To find out more about Sean and his writing, check out his website.

And tune in next time for some exercise.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… the economic fate of the world depends on it!


Battle of the bios

As anybody watching Q&A featuring former PM John Howard last night will tell you – it was a shoe-dodging, bio-battling spectacle the likes of which we’ve never seen. Whatever your political leanings, it’s hard to deny it made for great television. Howard appeared on the programme to spruik his recently-released political autobiography, Lazarus Rising, which, like Q&A leaves no stone unturned, from Iraq to Costello to Rudd… albeit without all the shoe-throwing.

Did you miss Q&A? Never fear… the best bits were put online. The worst attempt at shoe-throwing ever recorded on film:

And the Battle of the Bios. In one corner, Howard, in the other, Hicks, who conveniently enough, has the release of his own memoir just around the corner, Guantanamo. Hicks left a video question for the former PM. Howard chose his words carefully, but there’s no doubting the fire in his eyes…

Boomerang Books is giving you the opportunity to win one of 5 copies of John Howard’s Lazarus Rising, courtesy of our friends at HarperCollins. Entries close 5pm AEST Fri 29 October. Click here to enter.

Required Reading – the Most Popular Aussie Novel Survey

Ever expressed an off-the-cuff opinion and realised, with a sinking heart, you were talking to an expert? Ever wish you’d boned up more – or at all – before an exam? Ever turned up confident to a job interview and sat there squirming as you realised they expected far more, and you were woefully unprepared and probably under-qualified?

Have you ever cringed, really cringed, at how ill-informed you have just been revealed to be? Well, now you know how I feel after completing the Boomerang Books Most Popular Aussie Novel Survey.

Ow. I really hadn’t realised that I had missed out on that many novels.

Boomerang Books have launched their Most Popular Aussie Novel Survey to narrow down 120 of Australian authors’ best known titles, with the aim of finding out which novels are the most popular with readers. Their criteria for working out the popularity is pretty simple – the survey just asks did you actually finish the book.

After all, many books are bought or gifted, not all are read. I myself have a simply stunning set of Hilary Mantel bookends, as well as a disturbing large pile of novels in my “need-to-finish” pile – which is right next to my “donate to charity” pile. Not all the books get finished. Some do not pass Go, go directly to the local Op Shop.

So, you would think with giving up on books I would have plenty of time to get through the most acclaimed Australian novels, but apparently not. I won’t divulge my shameful strike rate, but I will tell you that  if this had been a percentage based exam, I would have failed it. In some cases, I had never even heard of the author. In others – lots of others – I had, but had read some other title they had written. Surely that must be worth half points?

I can come up with plenty of excuses. I grew up in Ireland so I would neither have studied many of the novels or have heard as much of the hype when they were released. I am also more of a non-fiction fan and when I dip my toe into novels I tend to read for fun, but the amount of books unread on that survey horrified me.  Still, it has also galvanised me – now that I have a handy list of them, I can make a start on getting through them. The big question is, of course, which ones should I go for first?

If you fancy taking your own shot at deciding Australia’s most popular novels, and possibly winning more books than you can read over the festive season, you can find the survey here. The grand prize for entry is a $500 book voucher, more than enough to keep you puzzling over what books you should buy until New Years, not to mention pondering the ethical dilemma that – given that Christmas is the season of giving and all –do you spend all of the money on yourself or just spend MOST of it on yourself. There’s still plenty of time – the survey closes on 30 November, and the site will be counting down the Top 24 from the first of December right through until Christmas Eve.

Random stuff

I keep a list of blog topics in the back on my notebook, which I add to every time an appropriate idea crosses my mind. But not every thought that crosses my mind is worth a blog post in its own right, and so today I present… some random stuff.

I like reviewing books. I also like reviewing DVDs. As well as the books I review on this blog, I also do reviews for Australian Spec Fic in Focus and MC Reviews. MC Reviews is a particularly interesting review site in that it includes more than just books. There are reviews of DVDs, CDs, films, exhibitions, theatre, opera and other events. My most recent reviews on this site include the YA novel Trash by Andy Mulligan and the DVD of Doctor Who: The Dominators. And if you’re really interested, you can check out a list of all my reviews on this site… here. ‘Cause I know you’re all dying to read more of my opinions. 😉

I like going to book launches. They are an important way of announcing a new release. They generate publicity, sell some copies and give people the chance to meet, talk to and get an autograph from the authors/illustrators. Sometimes there’s even free food/drink. Although The Glasshouse, by Paul Collins and Jo Thompson, was released last month, its official Victorian launch is yet to take place. So if you’d like to come along and join the festivities for this fab new picture book, you can. It will be held at 11.30am on Saturday 30 October at Prahran Market. More info about the launch is available from the Ford Street Publishing website. And you can read my thoughts about the book, here.

I’ve known fantasy author Trudi Canavan for years. She’s a lovely person and a good friend. But, believe it or not, I’ve never read any of her books… until now, that is. I’m about three quarters of the way through The Magician’s Guild, the first book in her Black Magician trilogy, and I’m very happy to say that I’m loving it. I hang my head in shame for taking so long to get around to it. Given how much I am enjoying this book, I will, no doubt, blog about it more substantially in the near future. And I’ll definitely get around to the remainder of the books in the series with a little more speed.

Another author that I have been meaning to read for ages but haven’t yet, is Lili Wilkinson. Her book, Scatterheart, is next on my list. Her mother, Carole Wilkinson, is one of my favourite authors and a long-time friend, so it seems logical that I should give Lili’s books a try. I’ve been following Lili on Twitter for some time, and her tweets are usually interesting, as is her blog. And this semester we have been teaching colleagues at the University of Melbourne in the third year subject “Encounters With Writing”. So it seems like a good time to finally get to one of her books!

After having completed a number of school readers, I’m now finally working in earnest on my new novel. I’m six chapters in to what will undoubtedly be a barely readable first draft. My early drafts are always somewhat iffy… but that’s why re-writing is so important. It will be a number of drafts before I have something that’s okay to send to my publisher… and then, of course, there will be more re-writing. But that’s all part of the process, and I’m actually looking forward to each step.

I’ll finish up with a couple of links. Firstly, an article by Paul Collins — “PODs, E-books, Nuts and Bolts”. It’s an interesting take on the whole electronic publishing trend and the difficulties faced by small press publishers wanting to branch out into the electronic world. Secondly, a blog post from Narrelle M Harris — “Lessons in language: Tactfully changing tack”. It’s a great little rant about the incorrect use of language. So if ‘changing tact’ bothers you, you’ll get a chuckle out of this post.

Given that my post today has been about random things, I thought I’d finish up by asking if anyone out there has any random comments to make? Anything to do with books, writing or publishing? Your favourite colour? The airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

And tune in next time as author Sean McMullen tells us a little about economic SF.

Catch ya later,  George

PS.  Follow me on Twitter… if you already follow me, how about following Lili Wilkinson or Narrelle M Harris?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’

No one told me this book would be so…well, awesome.

Ok, so I lie. Many bloggers and critics have written about this book since it was first published in 2005. It has its haters and its not-likers, of course. But for the main part it’s been well-received, and when I found out it was being made into a movie starring cute-as-a-button Carey Mulligan and the gorgeous Keira Knightley I just had to get on the wagon.

I guess “shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize” emblazoned across the cover was probably some indication that the book would be, if not enjoyable, then thought-provoking. I had previously categorised Kazuo Ishiguro as one of those Japanese authors that I really should be reading but I don’t read much of, like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. I think I already had in mind that Kazuo’s works would be a little bit “kuh-razy”, which I have to be in a certain mood for. But while Mr Ishiguro is crazy – it’s in all the best ways, I promise.

Never Let Me Go begins with ‘Kathy’ at 32 years old, reminiscing about her idyllic childhood at Hailsham, where the children are encased in their happy, painless bubble; provided with everything to keep them physically healthy and encouraged in artistic  and athletic pursuits. Hailsham seems like your ordinary Toffee-English boarding school for the privileged few, but there’s something a little ‘different’ about it that the reader can’t quite put their finger on, in the beginning. When we’re finally let in on Hailsham’s little ‘secret’, the book becomes a bit of a philosophical mind-bender.

What makes this story so interesting, so absolutely heartbreaking, is its refusal to wallow in sentimental bull dust. The subject matter is scarily relevant today – the idea of ‘playing God’ is something that civilisation questions with every technological and scientific advance. But it is often the human element that divides us on this issue. Where do we draw the line? Is one human life worth a half-dozen others? Ishiguro handles this issue in an originally subtle way. In fact, its subtlety might be lost on people expecting high, impassioned speeches and a rebellion against the cause. Although it has elements of alternative history, dystopia and science fiction, Never Let Me Go bypasses the expectations of the genres to become its own brand of quality contemporary literary fiction.

Was it the beautiful, exacting prose, or the haunting feeling it left me with? Like origami, this book deserves to be admired: a modest creature on the bookshelf, but its fascinating secrets, and thoughts of its construction, lie within the perfect folds. Clearly, I loved it: it’s right up there with The Book Thief for me.

Do read it, and let me know how it affected YOU.


Today at Kids’ Book Capers, creator Judy Horacek and I talking about Judy’s hilarious and insightful new book, If you can’t stand the heat.

Judy, what inspired you to write this book?

If you can’t stand the heat is a collection of cartoons that I’ve done over a number of years.  Some of them will make people think, others are simply silly jokes.   I love making people laugh.

What’s it about?

It’s a collection of diverse cartoons, so it’s not about anything in particular – there are ants, aliens, furniture, penguins, reindeer, the list goes on and on.  People too.   I am very worried about the environment and climate change, and so a lot of the cartoons are about that.

That would be the biggest single topic in the book, but there are lots of things.

Is there something that sets this book apart from others?

It has 133 cartoons in full colour, and an introduction by me where I talk about being a cartoonist.  And it’s very funny.

(I can vouch for that. Not sure if that has something to do with me being a ‘closet Elvis fan’ and his appearances throughout the book are hilarious.)

What did you enjoy most about creating this book?

I liked going through all the cartoons I had done and seeing which ones I thought would be good for this book, and then arranging them into what I thought was a good order.

What was the hardest thing about creating If you can’t stand the heat?

I always find it hard to think of the title.  Until you have the title you’re not 100% sure what cartoons should go in and what should stay out.

My favourite cartoon in the book ( I’m showing my age here…and the fact that I have a teenage son) is Folk Song Mama strumming her guitar and singing “Your undies my friend, are blowin’ in the wind…” and her  son responding with “Can’t you just ask me to get the washing off the line like other mothers?”

I can’t give any more away because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but if you can’t stand the heat is full of funny and insightful cartoons about issues that are so important.

If you can’t stand the heat is a great book for good readers and kids who have an interest in environmental change and what’s happening in our world. Although this book was created for adults, it engages with kids as well and my twelve-year-old really enjoyed it.

I think we shared a favourite The Hysterical Penguins on page 7.

The Perils of Convenience

Around the blogosphere, especially among gadget-obsessed early adopters, you hear a lot about what various content industries that have latterly gone digital “should be doing”. They (and sometimes me) justify everything from breaking DRM to piracy by saying that if the industry in question were only doing things right – making things convenient for said gadget-obsessed early adopters, and thereby everybody else – then they would have an alternative to cracking, pirating, dodging restrictions and other apparently nefarious deeds.

This doesn’t apply just to books. Rightly or wrongly, music, movies, games, books and software are all under threat because they haven’t adapted to the changing digital sales environment quickly enough. Some are doing better than others. And you can see from looking at a few examples that those that are recovering are often doing so because a single player has risen up and utterly monopolised the industry, making it easier for content producers to sell their product to people in a way they find convenient. This is true of Apple’s iTunes Music Store, and it’s becoming increasingly true of Amazon and the Kindle.

It’s also true of Google Book Search. For those who don’t know, Google Book Search is exactly what it sounds like. It allows you to input a string of text from any book that Google has in their database and find out what book it is, often giving you a chance to buy it or, if it is what’s called an ‘orphaned work’ (a book whose copyright owner cannot be located for some reason) it allows you to read the full text online for free.

Clearly this is an excellent state of affairs on one level, because it means that works previously abandoned to time can be rediscovered and shared with the world – and the revenues will eventually trickle back to authors and publishers. The problem, as Cory Doctorow points out in a recent Boing Boing post, is the way that Google acquired its massive database of books. It scanned them. Just bought a whole bunch of books and scanned them, then used its software to index the text. When the Authors’ Guild (the US one) found out what was happening, they sued Google. They have now reached a settlement, the details of which are complicated and not relevant to my point. This now means, as Doctorow points out, that the only way for another organisation to ever hope to compete with Google in both the indexing and searching of books and making orphaned books available to the public is to “illegally scan the books and then hope for a good outcome when slapped with a class-action suit by all the country’s publishers”.

So my question for all of you is this: is it worth it? Is the price of convenient, easy access to content and services worth the perils of a monopoly? There are a lot of people, for example, who’d like to see the Kindle succeed in the way the iPod has succeeded in the music world – and they aren’t all employees or stockholders of Amazon. Some people just want to be able to buy an ebook, and then not think about it. I love the idea of Google Book Search, but have we (or rather, the US Authors’ Guild, on our behalf) just invested in Google the may-as-well-be-exclusive use of all the world’s published knowledge? Or am I just being hyperbolic? (Spoiler: I usually am). What do you think?


This month is Breast Cancer Awareness month and Susanne Gervay’s latest book Always Jack tackles this difficult subject from a young child’s point of view.

Always Jack has been endorsed by The Cancer Council & National Breast & Ovarian Cancer Centre NBOCC and will be launched in Melbourne this weekend.

Always Jack was featured recently at Kids’ Book Capers in Take A Journey With Jack

Chocolate cookbooks

CHOCOLATE! Is there anything in this world that can possibly compare? Well… okay… there is red wine and cheese, of course… and I’m sure that I’ll blog about them in the future, but for now — it’s chocolate! My last two posts have been about cookbooks and recipes, so it seems logical to conclude with the greatest of all dessert ingredients. It can be combined with so many different things — from fruit to cheese, from cake to cream — and, of course, it’s brilliant on its own.

In Australia, I guess, when you say chocolate many people immediately think Cadbury (even though the company originated in the UK). It’s not the greatest chocolate in the world, but I do rather like Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate. It has quite a unique taste (maybe it’s that glass and a half of full cream milk the advertisements keep telling us about), and it can be quite good to cook with. Which brings me to Joanna Farrow’s book, Simply Cadbury’s Chocolate — one hundred dessert recipes, each and every one containing some type of Cadbury chocolate. This book also includes an introduction, with a very brief history of chocolate (less than one page, so it leaves out a hell of a lot), a history of Cadbury chocolate and some general instructions on how to cook with chocolate. It’s a pretty good basic chocolate cookbook. It’s been a while since I’ve used it, but looking through it now, I’ve found a recipe that I haven’t tried but would like to. “Millionaire’s Shortbread” is a biscuit topped with rich caramel and two different types of chocolate. I think I’ll try it this weekend.

Much as I like Cadbury, there is better chocolate out there. I’m thinking Lindt, Haigh’s and Koko Black, amongst others —or one of my favourites, Michel Cluizel. The darker the chocolate, the more pure the experience, in my humble opinion. While I enjoy most levels of chocolate from milk to 99% dark (white chocolate is an aberration, which can have a small place in cooking but should never be eaten on its own), my ideal approach is as follows: 70% dark chocolate when consumed with the accompaniment of milk; 85% with coffee; and 99% with single malt scotch whisky.

Just as there is more to chocolate than Cadbury’s, there is more to cooking with chocolate than Farrow’s book. And so we come to The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Chocolate by Christine McFadden and Christine France. While this book doesn’t really fulfil its title’s claim, it is a damn fine dessert cookbook… my favourite, in fact. It has over 200 recipes, including one of the best chocolate fudge recipes I’ve ever come across, and the rather brilliant “Malt Whisky Truffles”. It also devotes 23 pages to the history of chocolate, 6 pages to “Cultivation and Processing”, 6 to “Taste, Quality and Presentation”, 12 to a section on different chocolate from around the world, and a final 8 pages on “Physiology and Psychology”. Great reading!

Let me finish up with my thoughts on hot chocolate. I find most hot chocolate mixes a little too sweet. I prefer to make mine with plain cocoa, to which I add a little sugar, thus making a hot drink with a touch of bitterness. Of course, once upon a time, the ancient civilizations of Central America drank an unsweetened drink made from cacao beans called chocolatl. Where am I going with this? Well, I felt that I should link this whole self-indulgeant chocolate post to some good quality literature — in this case, Sand Fussell’s novel, Jaguar Warrior, which is set in Aztec times and in which the main characters make the aforementioned chocolatl. [Sandy Fussell has previously visited Literary Clutter to talk about Jaguar Warrior.]

Anyone out there have a favourite chocolate related book? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

And tune in next time for some random stuff.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Send me chocolate… if you can’t send me chocolate, the least you can do is follow me on Twitter. 🙂

Revised Harry Potter 7 Trailer

Embedded below is the just-released second theatrical trailer for the first part of the final Harry Potter film – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Warner Bros. recently announced that it would not be releasing the film in 3D as previously announced, after realising the up-conversion to the third dimension would not be completed to a high enough standard before its release.


Today we welcome cartoonist Judy Horacek to Kids’ Book Capers.

She is the creator of seven collections of cartoons for grownups and five picture books for children.

Judy’s new book, If you can’t stand the heat has just been released and as well as being an insightful commentary on so many important world issues, it’s very very funny.

Judy Horacek says she was born to become a writer.

I started making up stories and songs almost from when I learned to talk, and once I learned to actually write there was no stopping me.  I also drew pictures from a young age.

Judy loves creating something new, something that only she could think of.

I like having ideas and then working on them to make them into a book.

She says that the hardest  thing about being a writer and artist is when you can’t find the write word or pictures for something.

But then when you do find the perfect thing, it feels fantastic.

Judy’s cartoons are often concerned with things that worry her about the world – the environment, the place of women, making things fair for everyone.

My children’s books are all different, but they always have a great sense of joy and happiness about them.

Judy says that her greatest writing achievement is that she keeps on doing it and manage to make some kind of a living out of it.

She says that If you can’t stand the heat is really a book for grown-ups, especially the cartoons about things that worry me.  But I’m sure some older kids will like it too.

I have to say that my twelve-year old thoroughly enjoyed this book and seemed to have no trouble understanding the messages. Admittedly, he is a high level reader but as Judy says,

The drawings are pretty amusing even if you don’t get all of the jokes.

I’d recommend If you can’t stand the heat to good readers who care about the world we live in.

It’s Beginning To Feel A Lot Like Christmas

It’s barely October, but it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Or at least, shopping centres are decking themselves out to make us feel like it is to cash in early on (or even extend) our credit card buying frenzy.

I have to admit, though, that I’m someone whom the Christmas spending frenzies and stresses have largely passed by. I have friends who have copious lists and plans of action for which shops to hit when, but my Christmas shopping is simple, straightforward, and involves visiting only one place: the bookshop.

I’ve only recently realised that this is an unusual Christmas shopping effort, especially because not only do I only buy books for friends and family, I only buy them ones I’d like to read. Yeah, I know, Indian-giver actions. If there’s a specific book that anyone particularly wants, they can tell me and I’ll pick it up for them. But they more often than not leave the book recommending to me, which invariably means that I buy books that I: a) want to read; followed by b) think they’ll also happen to enjoy.

I can’t remember specifically when this Christmas tradition started, and it’s more likely more a Christmas resignation on my family members’ part than one to which they’ve willingly subscribed. I do vaguely recall my father once unwrapping a present and saying, tongue in cheek, ‘Oh look, another book you want to read’. I also vaguely recall, for the record, that it’s one he subsequently enjoyed.

In my defence, my family tends to like the books I pick and I’ve become increasingly disciplined (or perhaps simply time poor) in recent years. It’s rare now for me to pre-read the presents and squash them down with phonebooks to give the illusion of an un-cracked spine. I’d also like to point out that while the books might boomerang back to me, my family can hardly complain—as a writer, reviewer, and compulsive book buyer, I single-handedly keep them in steady supply of top-notch books year-round. My questions are:

–        Is buying along my own reading taste lines such a bad thing?

–        Am I the only one who operates this way?

–        And surely pre-reading is simply a form of quality control?

The Return of the Short Story

There’s a popular idea that the rise of the internet has given us short attention spans. It’s something book and long-form journalism publishers have been bemoaning for years. The internet is a compendium of short form content – short videos, pithy reportage, compendiums of weird and wonderful things and, of course, there’s 4chan. Content was originally limited by bandwidth, but now that technological constraints have been lifted? Content on the net is still short – but it’s limited instead by our attention spans. If I see that a YouTube video goes for more than about five minutes, I will sometimes not bother watching it. Seriously. It’s become that bad.

Although this short attention span has (arguably) given us lots of good things (nobody with a long attention span could have thought up Twitter), it’s also made it more difficult to sell books. Even with digital books, which take out much of the chore of going to an actual bookstore, browsing for a book, buying it and then thumbing through pages – books still sell to a limited range of people. People no longer have the free time or the levels of concentration required to read a whole lot of books.

But, of course, people have never really had a lot of time (or concentration) to read a lot of books. It’s just that back in the days before the internet, TV and radio there were fewer other things to distract oneself with. Back in the bad old days, people would sometimes read this thing called a short story. And now Amazon (at least to begin with) intends to bring it back.

Last week Amazon announced Kindle Singles, their attempt at rejuvenating the short form with two heavy-handed blurbs: “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length” and “Kindle Singles, Which Can Be Twice the Length of a New Yorker Feature or as Much as a Few Chapters of a Typical Book, Coming Soon to the Kindle Store” both of which manage to make this announcement sound like the most boring thing of all time. Nonetheless, the announcement is a very interesting one for publishers and authors, many of whom have complained about being forced into a cost effective length in order to make publication in paper form possible. Well, actually, it’s only the publishers who say that. The authors say, “I’ve got this great idea for a short story,” which the publisher quickly shuts down because it isn’t cost effective to publish it. Even short story collections are pretty rare nowadays. They’ve become like the literary equivalent of a Best Of album – only ever awarded to writers at the end of their career. And so the short story has been forced to the margins – awarded to the already-successful author, or sold by hand for $2 a pop by a crazy person on the streets of Newtown.

So what do you think about this development? Would you be tempted to buy an attractively priced short form text? Or is this just not something you’re interested in? Will the lure of other short form distractions get the better of readers and distract them from this new/old one? And authors – are you excited to get a chance to bring that short story to the masses? How successful can this endeavour actually be? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Wednesday Web Sighting: 15 scathing book reviews

Last week, I spoke on Perpetually Adolescent about bad books, and a friend passed on this link, and I laughed so hard that I had to share. compiled a list of its 15 scathing book reviews. a preview:

Jeffrey Archer poses something of a problem for reviewers. On the one hand, his popularity makes bad notices seem like high-handed snobbery; on the other, novels like this are so unspeakably awful that they elicit nothing short of anger.

Click here for more.

Words left unspoken, books unread

Have you ever regretted words unsaid? I have.

It’s a bit of a cliche, but I met him on a train. One of the good things about commuting to work (and believe me, there aren’t many) was the company of my fellow readers. Whether they were flicking through the twin of the book in my handbag or perusing tomes that I wouldn’t have picked up without protective gloves and a blindfold, it was always nice to spot another booklover.

Sometimes I’d see them and their book just the once but, as any commuter can tell you, most of us are creatures of habit. Same train or bus, same time each day, same carriage or even seat. You got to recognise your fellow travellers and their reading habits. Sometimes I even considered breaking the Sacred Silence of the Morning Commute (people who chat on phones before 8am on public transport, yes, everyone hates you) to recommend another similar book or ask what they thought of what they were reading.

Most days my train carriage had the Lady of Romance who read a new pink bodice-ripper weekly, Sci-Fi Guy who shared my liking for Peter F. Hamilton and Sucky-Stabby Woman who read grisly murder books while demolishing a bag of hard-boiled lollies.

And of course, there was Cute Book Guy.

It was the book that had got my attention as it was the same book that I was currently reading – Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I noticed the book and then the young man reading it and then – and only then, I swear – the fact that he was cute. I’d been enjoying it and I wondered what he thought. I must have wondered a bit too hard – he looked up and then looked worried at the intensity of my gaze.

Blushing, I flashed the cover of my own book – the twin of his – apologetically at him in explanation. He smiled, relieved, and put his head back down. Then he looked up again, and at the book, and spread his hands in a “what do you think” motion? I gave him a thumbs-up. He nodded and grinned, and we both got back to our books.

Trapped together in the non-speaking zone of a train trip five days a week, we flashed covers and spines and occasional smiles when we saw each other. But we never spoke. I showed him my penchant for travelogues, he showed me his for adventure tales. I liked non-fiction and stories of scientific pioneers, he had an impressive line in historical biographies. We admired each others’ Classic Penguins; Hunter S. Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear for me, Jack Kerourac’s On The Road for him.

It wasn’t all good times. One day I caught Cute Book Guy with a book of cricket jokes, and another time he caught me reading Who Moved My Cheese. I wanted to tell him that my office had insisted we all read it, but that would have involved breaking the sacred silence of the early morning commute. And I just wasn’t brave enough to do that.

And now I don’t commute anymore, and I can’t help feeling I wasted an opportunity. I occasionally wonder what he, and my other fellow readers, are up to these days. And, I have to admit, I regret the fact that I didn’t break the morning silence to speak to him. There was so much I wanted to say to him, although one simple sentence would have got my point across.

So, Cute Book Guy, if you are out there and reading, here’s something I have always wanted to say to you but couldn’t.


Read Stumbling on Happiness. Malcolm Gladwell recommends it and it really is very entertaining. I think you’d really like it.

Oh. And also, sorry about Who Moved My Cheese – my old job made me.

…it’s amazing how good it feels to finally say that.

Into The Woods

Into The WoodsTwelve months ago I bemoaned the dearth of good books. Everything I either poached or forked out cash for turned out to be mind-numbingly dire, and I despaired that I would ever again find a good book. And by good I mean a gripping, page-turning magnum opus about which you obsess and for which you’d forego sleep and a social life in order to finish.

But to borrow the cliché ‘what a difference a year makes’ (or something to that effect), my reading cup is now overflowing with brilliantly conceived, stunningly executed books. I am, frankly, having trouble finding the hours in the day to devour them.

The latest in this good run is Australian writer and journalist Anna Krien’s non-fiction masterpiece Into The Woods. It’s a book built out of an initial article Krien wrote about the long-running Tasmanian logging debate and is breathtaking in scope, scale, and execution.

As with most journalists, Krien’s interest was first piqued when she saw YouTube footage of loggers violently berating and removing activists attached to a vehicle. The activists had set up a car, sans wheels, ignition, and other vital parts that would enable it to be easily removed, and then locked themselves to it in a peaceful attempt to stall or prevent logging of old-growth forest. It’s a time-consuming tactic designed to delay loggers and in turn make the practice too expensive in terms of lost time and effort to pursue. The footage, which was captured by another activist who was hidden from the loggers, went viral and prompted significant media coverage and questioning of precisely what the hell was going on in Tasmania.

Armed with a sleeping bag and her beat-up old car, Krien spent time with, tried to spend time with, and has given equal airtime in her book to all camps in Tasmania’s forest battle: the activists; the loggers; the locals; the Gunns management; the politicians on both sides of the debate. The result is an extremely balanced, comprehensive account of what is a complex and emotionally fraught situation.

Tasmania is an island that sells itself on tourism and trees, yet it’s also one that fells and sells said trees for profit. There’s no clear right and wrong in the logging debate, and Krien acknowledges her own (and, indeed, as a writer too, my own) complicated relationship with and culpability in the issue. When hostile loggers challenge her to say which side of the fence she’s on, she says it’s not that easy: ‘…I also like timber and I’m a writer—my whole career is built on paper. So I can’t just have an opinion.’

Award-winning journalist and author of the equally groundbreaking The Tall Man, Chloe Hooper commends the book on its cover: ‘Anna Krien’s ultimate, urgent book pulsates with life and truth’. And it does. Krien peels back the layers of the debate that is otherwise too hard and too detailed for most of us to tackle. You suddenly realise that you’re privy to the crux of a debate that you’ve only ever heard or considered in impassioned log-versus-don’t-log sound bites.

Krien’s searingly straight, describing Tasmania as a sort of climate canary: ‘As I near the end of my trip, I realise I am on the island of last things. There is the last Tasmanian tiger, the last Tasmanian Aborigine, the last Tasmanian emu, the last Kind Island wombat, the last ‘true blue’ logger, the last tree, the last Tasmanian devil, the last forest battle. And yet the ghosts of these absences linger. Some are still visible because the land and its people refuse to forget them; they leave empty patches where nothing else can grow. Others have been more myth than reality, adopted as an excuse by authorities to do nothing because it is ‘too late’, or taken up as icons for one campaign or another. If ever there was a canary at the bottom of the world, it is Tasmania…’

Krien’s cuttingly incisive and funny, including at one point describing a pro-logging kind of lobbyist as ‘defending the industry like a chihuahua on pseudoephedrine’. She also makes matter-of-fact observations that make you realise that while there might not be trees involved in other industries, the issues the loggers face aren’t isolated. Swathes of journalists are losing their jobs as newspapers and their business models die a prolonged digital age death. The loggers aren’t, she points out, the only ones whose work options are (and need to) change.

I found myself dog-earing key pages of Into The Woods, be they those that quote a biologist and writer who’s termed activists ‘the living world’s immunological response’ [to environmental ills]. I found myself chuckling at the code names activists give each other, and the clever and at times cheeky tactics they’ve employed over time. I also found myself incensed at the bullyboy tactics of Gunns and of the devastation wreaked on the forest and its wildlife, partly by the loggers and partly by the heinous 1080 poison they use and that has killed countless native creatures through painful, drawn-out, mouth-frothing means.

I was also impressed at how Krien worked to examine every aspect of the logging debate that dominates this tiny but resource-rich island. Although I won’t pretend for a moment to believe that the logging of Tasmania’s old-growth forests is warranted, I now understand better the complex factors that are at play.

REVIEW: A Darker Music by Maris Morton

A Darker Music by Maris Morton is the inaugural winner of the CAL Scribe Fiction Prize. It’s a beautifully written novel, and the  prose is as evocative as the music theme that runs through the book.

When Mary Lanyon takes on the job of housekeeper at Downe, a famous Merino stud she discovers a number of secret threads behind Paul Hazlitt and his prize winning fleece. Mary soon develops an empathy with Paul’s estranged wife, Clio and the reader is quickly drawn into their growing relationship.

Clio has just returned from a serious operation in Perth that her husband seems to know nothing about, and as her health continues to deteriorate, her bond with Mary deepens.

Curious by nature, Mary wonders what could have happened to cause the rift between husband and wife and why Clio gave up the music that meant so much to her.

With its unique setting , carefully drawn characters and well kept secrets,  A Darker Music is a compelling read.

I found myself willing Clio to pick up her Viola again and march off into the sunset, leaving behind her uncaring husband and ambivalent son.

It was difficult not to feel sorry for a woman who had undergone so much tragedy in her life and yet Clio is not a person to wallow in self-pity and this just serves to endear her more to the reader.

As Mary slowly unravels Clio’s secrets, she reveals some of her own and it soon becomes clear that her own marriage to the irresistible but now deceased Roy was far from perfect.

In an isolated existence where it’s hard to find kindred spirits, Clio and Mary form a friendship that helps them overcome ghosts of the past and learn important things about themselves and each other.

It’s hard to believe that this moving novel is Maris Morton’s first published book, so I was not surprised to learn that she has been honing her craft for more than twenty years and that A Darker Music is the product of  twelve year’s work.

Sorry, bad books exist

Sorry, bad books exist.

I know. You’d be forgiven for thinking they don’t, but they do. On this blog and others like it, bloggers focus on and praise books that move, that affect, that inspire. Because we love reading. All reading is good.

But is it… really? Sometimes, you struggle from page to page, wondering how, in a system of authors, editors, publishers, beta readers, publicists…. how a book can come out being so earth-shatteringly terrible.

Whenever I visit schools, I tell them my author origin story. I wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider or anything equally dramatic, I was just a boy in the back of a Year Six classroom forced to read a book so earth-shatteringly terrible that I had to put it down and pick up a pen. I thought I could do it better, and I was convinced that I would.

We’ve all been there – confronted by a book that we’ve had to force ourselves to finish… Well, I told this story at a school last month, and I was told I was sending the wrong message, it’s not appropriate to talk about a bad book in a classroom – it’s encouraging kids to not read.

And I believe the opposite. Luring kids into a false sense of security, tricking them into thinking that unlike any other story-telling medium, novels are not susceptible to suckness is only setting them up for future failure. One day, there’s going to be a book they don’t connect with. One day, they are going to hate a book. Just like they hated Transformers 2, or the new Rihanna CD, they’re going to hate a book. It’s inevitable.

That’s why I think we try to limit our talk to just those good books. They’re not all good, but when a good one lands on our desks, we scream from the rooftops. Hopefully, we’re writing positive reviews for the right reasons, not to uphold some archaic notion that all reading is good. But one man’s pleasure is another’s torture, so I won’t always be right.

But I can be certain.

As certain as I am that Susanne Gervay’s Always Jack is wonderfully heartfelt. I was deathly afraid of reading this book. One, I’m good friends with Susanne, and two, this is her baby, the third part in a trilogy she has wanted to birth for a very long time (forgive the horrible metaphor). And it’s not YA. I don’t usually read anything else. This was really far out of my comfort zone. But it was so fulfilling. The way it dealt with cancer and can act to open up discussions of the disease within families is masterful. It isn’t the dramatic downer a lesser author could have made it and I loved every single second of it.

As certain as I am that Six Impossible Things is the first of many fantastic novels that Fiona Wood will gift us in the coming years. Realistic dialogue that doesn’t just grab you, it shakes you while it’s at it. It mixes humour with the subtle emotional stuff so well. It didn’t take long to read, but honestly, it’d be worth triple the investment of time. and I love me a nerdy-yet-lovable protag.

As certain as I am that there’s another amazing Australian novel just around the corner.

Ah, the joys of being perpetually adolescent.


Being a book lover, I had been really looking forward to reading It’s A Book and I wasn’t disappointed. Print versus digital is the topic of the moment, and It’s A Book handles this contentious issue in a clever and humorous way.

One of my other favourite topics is cats and from the moment the eyes peered out at me from the cover of There are no cats in this book, I was hooked.

There are no cats in this book was a picture book I knew nothing about but it’s another delightful story for young readers.


Written and illustrated by Lane Smith

In It’s A Book, we meet a monkey with a book and an inquisitive Jackass with an electronic device. The Jackass is mystified by the monkey’s book and asks what it is.

“It’s a book,” replies Monkey.

“Can it text?” Jackass queries.




By the end, the Jackass learns the joys of the printed page (although he still can’t quite grasp how the book “works”).

I loved the text and illustrations in this book but to me it was the subtleties that set it apart. Watching the donkey trying to ‘charge’ the book was very humorous. Lane Smith uses a double page illustration with clocks on the wall and no text to show that the jackass is completely hooked on the book.

Of course it’s how we’d like to see children respond to a book so as well as providing great humour for kids, it also provides satisfaction for adult readers.


Written and illustrated Viviane Schwarz

There are no cats in this book has easy to read text, engaging characters and an interactive and innovative design. And of course, when you open the page, what do you see? A family of cats. So there ARE cats in this book.

I’m not going to tell you why the title is so appropriate, you’ll have to read the book for yourself.

But what I can tell you is that kids will love the humour in it, the simple colour illustrations and the telling detail like the 3D postcard in the book that makes the reader feel as if the characters are really talking to them.

Published by Walker Books, It’s a Book and There are no cats in this book had a completely different but engaging perspective on books. They are picture books to be enjoyed by a variety of ages and my 11 year-old giggled his way through both of them.

Review: Kindle 3

I’ve been using the new Kindle 3 for a couple of weeks now, and I think this is the first ereader device I’ve used that gets almost everything right. I’ve been using my iPad for months now to read books, and while the experience reading on the iPad is great, my attention span is often tempted out of the reading apps into checking email or Twitter when I should be absorbed in a book. It’s great, but it’s not as absorbing as reading from a paper book. My previous Kindle (the Kindle 2), was an excellent reading device, but the screen on the new one is far sharper, with better contrast, and the other extras make it an all round better experience.

Screen comparison. The contrast on the Kindle 3 is much higher.

I have the version with WiFi and 3G wireless, so this is the first Kindle I’ve used that you can transfer personal documents wirelessly without paying a fee (if you use the 3G connection, Amazon charges a nominal fee of a dollar or two, depending on the size of the book. Books you buy from the Amazon store are transferred free). In some ways this even trumps the iPad, which can’t accept ePub books in the native iBooks app unless you plug the thing in. The wireless connection doesn’t just give you access to books though. You can use the built-in sharing feature to immediately share a quote from a book you’re reading on Facebook and Twitter. This might sound like the last thing on your mind, but if you’re a compulsive social networker, sometimes you can’t help but want to share the perfect line from a book with your 300 closest friends.

The Kindle 3 is also lighter and smaller than its predecessor, which was already pretty small. With the case it feels a bit like a B-format hardback book to hold in your hands, which is just about my favourite book size to read. The new cover I got with it (people with Kindle 2s beware – your old cover will not fit), has an integrated light that runs off the battery of the Kindle, something version 2.0 couldn’t do as far as I know.

The keyboard, like the old Kindle, is not great, but that’s hardly a massive issue, as if you were buying something like a Kindle to do a mass of typing, you’d have bigger issues. Along with the new price drop, I’d have to say this represents the best value single purpose ereader on the market at the moment bar none. Having said that, it’s almost certain that the price will drop further and the next version will be even better – so if you’re not sure it would still pay to wait.

Then There’s The Girl Who Fixed The Umlaut…

Following on from my Stieg Larsson/Salander rant, it’s come to my attention that The New Yorker’s Nora Ephron (who appears not to be related to Zac Efron, as I first worried) not only feels the same as I do about Stieg Larsson’s Salander trilogy, she’s penned it with great eloquence and parody than I ever could.

I should warn you up front that there are a few swears (sorry), but they’re worth reading past for the punchlines. That is, of course, unless you’re underage, in which case I relinquish all recommending or vetting responsibility to your parents.

Either way, here are the six points I wish I could have made as well as Ephron has.

1. Salander is unnecessarily aggressive and difficult, and Larsson consumes time and energy fussing over minute details that stall the story: It’s as though she’s playing a role or following on from a previous, albeit forgotten, decision, not because she has any particular reasoning or desire to act a certain way.

‘She tried to remember whether she was speaking to him or not. Probably not. She tried to remember why. No one knew why. It was undoubtedly because she’d been in a bad mood at some point.’

2. There’s only so much behaviour that can be excused by being saddled with a rough childhood and a pre-pubescent body:

‘Lisbeth Salander was entitled to her bad moods on account of her miserable childhood and her tiny breasts, but it was starting to become confusing just how much irritability could be blamed on your slight figure and an abusive father you had once deliberately set on fire and then years later split open the head of with an axe.’

3. There’s far too much product name dropping. Specifically of the PowerBook, the now completely outdated and positively slow predecessor to the current models. Which I won’t name here, because then I too would be name dropping.

4. Location is everything in real estate, but not in a novel which contains so much geographical and navigational information it might be mistaken for a Refidex/UBD/Melways/[insert what a street directory is called in your hometown here]. In Larsson’s defence, he wouldn’t have expected his trilogy to become the international blockbuster it has, so wouldn’t have written it with anyone beyond Sweden in mind. But his editor and translator? They should have known better:

‘But where in Sweden were they? There was no way to know, especially if you’d never been to Sweden. A few chapters ago, for example, an unscrupulous agent from Swedish Intelligence had tailed Blomkvist by taking Stora Essingen and Gröndal into Södermalm, and then driving down Hornsgatan and across Bellmansgatan via Brännkyrkagatan, with a final left onto Tavastgatan. Who cared, but there it was, in black-and-white, taking up space.’

5. There are too many characters, and too many confusingly named ones to boot:

‘And now Blomkvist was standing in her doorway. Someone might still be following him—but who? There was no real way to be sure even when you found out, because people’s names were so confusingly similar—Gullberg, Sandberg, and Holmberg; Nieminen and Niedermann; and, worst of all, Jonasson, Mårtensson, Torkelsson, Fredriksson, Svensson, Johansson, Svantesson, Fransson, and Paulsson.’

5. The listed locations contain a crazy number of umlauts and provide the punchline for the parody:

‘“Please,” he said. “I must see you. The umlaut on my computer isn’t working.”

He was cradling an iBook [see point 3 about name dropping] in his arms. She looked at him. He looked at her. She looked at him. He looked at her. And then she did what she usually did when she had run out of italic thoughts: she shook her head.

“I can’t really go on without an umlaut,” he said. “We’re in Sweden.”’

I’m not going to tell you how Ephron’s skewering ends, but I will say that it’s well worth the read.

Cooking with books: the old and the odd

More cookbooks today! I’m going to start off with some old ones, because over the years cooking has changed… and sometimes it’s nice to go back in time.

Let’s start by going back to the 1970s with the Australian Women’s Weekly’s Cooking Class Cookbook. Although my copy is the 1992 reprint, it certainly looks like they didn’t bother updating anything. The photos have that 70s feel, as do the recipes — lots of rich food cooked with lashings of butter and oil. I’m sure that the Two Fat Ladies would have approved. If you happen to ever come across this book in an op shop, buy it… it’s great. I can highly recommend the “Baked rice custard”, the “Greek Baklava” (is there any other sort?), the “Lasagne” (when you finish eating your serve, your plate is coated in a buttery oil slick), the “Boeuf Bourguignonne” and the “Moussaka” (although I skip the step where you deep fry the egg plant). And this book even has instructions on how to flambé your fruit. What more could you possibly want? Well… what about Alison Burt’s gloriously 70s extravaganza, Fondue Cookery. This was a gift from a friend, and I have to admit that I’ve not tried any of these recipes yet. But my wife and I are planning to one day get our retro on and host a fondue party — so with this book on our shelves we will be up for the challenge.

Now let’s go back a little further, to the 1940s, in country Victoria, for Mrs Lottie Jackson’s Cookery Book. Published in Maffra to raise money for various charities, it was a collection of recipes submitted by local women. It was so successful that it has been reprinted twice, most recently in 2005. There are a number of really interesting things about this book. Firstly, being a wartime publication, many of the entries are cut-back versions of standard recipes, obviously assuming that people had less resources at their disposal. The Christmas Pudding, for instance, has a lot less fruit than any other pudding recipe I’ve seen, and is flavoured with a cup of cold tea rather than any sort of alcohol. There are also a lot of recipes calling for the use of dripping. The other really interesting thing about the recipes in this book, is the assumed knowledge of the reader. I had to look up a more recent pudding recipe to discover that “floured pudding cloth” is cloth that has been scalded in boiling water and then dusted on both sides with flour. And I still have no idea what it means to “put in slide” — which is what you’re supposed to do to the malt biscuit batter once you have rolled it into balls. (Hmmm… it could be a typo for all I know.) Some of the recipes don’t even tell you what temperature to set your oven to.

But I love this book nonetheless. For all its frugalness, the Christmas Pudding recipe is very tasty and has been a staple at my wife’s family Christmas get-togethers for generations; and the shortbread biscuits are brilliant. It also holds a special place in my heart as my grandmother-in-law (who turned 90 this year, btw) gave me her original, well-used, 1940s copy.

Now, from the old let’s go to the odd. Classic Cooking with Coca-Cola®. Published by HarperCollins in 1994, it is written by Ralph Roberts and Elizabeth Candler Graham, who, according to the book’s cover, is the great-great-granddaughter of Asa Griggs Candler, founder of Coca-Cola®. Every recipe in this book, from “Chicken in Coca-Cola® Sauce” to “Jell-O-Delite Salad”, contains either Coca-Cola® or a Coca-Cola Company product, such as Sprite® or Minute Maide®. I found this book in a discount bookshop many years ago and bought it simply for its weirdness. To be perfectly honest, I’ve only ever made one recipe from it — “Coca-Cola® Cake”. It was nice but unremarkable, and I couldn’t taste the Coca-Cola®. Here are some words of wisdom from the introduction:

“The idea of enhancing the flavour of food with Coca-Cola is by no means a new one, thus the very appropriate use of the word classic in the title. From its introduction in the 1880s, there is no doubt that someone has been using Coca-Cola for cooking.”

Do you have any odd or old cookbooks you’d like to tell us about? Leave a comment below.

That’s it for this post… but I’m not finished with food just yet. Tune in next time for some chocolate!

Catch ya later,  George

PS Follow me on Twitter… or I may be forced to blog the entire “Jell-O-Delite Salad” recipe.


Mockingjay, the 3rd book in Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games series was released recently to the delight of thousands of fans, and this final saga in the trilogy doesn’t disappoint.

Just like books one and two it’s full of action and suspense and feisty heroine, Katniss Everdeen is at her charismatic best.

In Mockingjay, the Capitol is angry and wants revenge. Katniss’ arch enemy President Snow blames her for the unrest and will stop at nothing to bring her down. And President Snow wants to make sure that Katniss suffers as much as possible before he destroys her.

Once again, I found myself hooked by Katniss’ story, wondering how she could possibly win against such impossible odds, and every step of the way I felt her physical and emotional pain.

For all her bravery and magnetism, she is also full of self-doubt and impulsiveness and it’s these flaws that make her real for the reader.

To add to the tension is the conflict between the rivals for her affection. Will she choose the angry and driven Gale or the damaged but heroic Peeta?

All three Hunger Games books have a well-constructed plot and a diverse cast of characters, and the events unfold at a cracking pace that keeps you turning the pages. They also offer something for the reader who wants to delve a little deeper to the themes and issues that lie just below the surface. It’s hardly surprising that these multi-layered books been translated into 30 languages and are being so widely talked about.

The books appeal to both YA and adult readers and the secret to their success seems to be in the way the teen heroes and heroines are put to the test and forced to confront their beliefs and fears.

For me, the Hunger Games books have the same features that make John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began series so successful. Both series have plenty of action and great characters facing the moral dilemmas of war and who has the right to live or die.

What can be more compelling than teenagers forced to take risks to save the world in which they live and along the way, find their own identity and discover what really matters?

Mockingjay is written by Suzanne Collins and published by Scholastic.

Dystopian Fiction – My One Big Weakness (This Week, Anyway)

What is it about dystopian fiction that really pulls at our heartstrings?

I refused to see the movie The Road, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, because I found the book so desolate. I am the first to start bawling in theatres, so I figure that if it’s really that great, then I’ll wait until I can watch it on DVD in the comfort and non-judgment of my own loungeroom and cry my little heart out. Funnily enough, I had no problem watching another McCarthy book-to-movie adaptation, No Country For Old Men, which is arguably equally as desolate. But then, it’s that ‘dystopian’ thing, isn’t it?

Deriving from  an ancient Greek language construction of ‘bad’ and ‘place’, the idea of the ‘dystopia’ has long been fascinating school of thought for skylarking philosophers. Dystopian fiction then, does have a cautionary edge to it for us plebean readers. Like a school teacher that just won’t quit, a dystopian tale often takes place in a futuristic universe, or an alternative history that we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy, and tells us that if we do or don’t do something, then THIS will happen. And it’s generally bad. Besides a foreshadowing of what things may come if we take a certain route, the marks of the dystopian societies are often just skewed reflections of who we are today, right now.

People in modern day society have often made the connection to dystopian novels: the surveillance of Big Brother from Nineteen Eighty-Four through ‘Reality’ TV; the test tube designer babies just as prophesied in Brave New World. To the uninformed Westerner, the society in which Offred lives in The Handmaid’s Tale is Afghanistan; and uninformed foreigner or not, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, where people are transformed under surgery to become perfection, is pretty much Los Angeles, USA under a different name.

It always comes back to one thing: not the struggle for humanity per se, but the question of what exactly humanity is. This post may seem a little depressing but the latest dystopian novel I’ve been reading has affected me greatly and caused me to think about this subject a lot. I finished it a few weeks ago but I still I have a lot of questions, some answers, and some more questions to those answers.

Stay tuned for my review on Kazuo Ishiguro’s heartwrenching dystopian Sci Fi, Never Let Me Go, tomorrow.

Weddings and wonderings and oh my poor head

It’s all about testing the boundaries of sanity chez moi this week. I am taking time out from my copies of Crazy Like Us (non-fiction; on globalisation issues and mental health) and Stephen King’s Under The Dome (fiction; bad stuff happens and people go crazy). I’m researching another topic commonly associated with breakdowns in mental health – weddings.

No, this isn’t for the sheer fun of it. Yes, I am actually having one. I have not gone completely insane. I haven’t put the wedding carriage before the plumed white horses with fetching sparkly corsages and just started organising one in the assumption that the groom will turn up on the day.

(Incidentally, is this why all the weddings photos in magazines etc show lone brides standing alone, looking wistful and posing in the light, assumedly in the hope of luring a groom? Is the correct procedure for females looking to meet a life mate to shove on a fluffy white meringue and pose somewhere dramatically, like an albino Bird of Paradise doing a mating dance?)

Someone has asked me to marry them and I would like to, so I said yes. I am not doing a Miss Havisham and planning on stalking through my gothic mansion in a torn wedding dress for all eternity, not least because my apartment in Sydney has an abundance of light and stainless steel decor and Gothicising it would require a good deal more effort than just getting out there and finding another groom.  Although possibly less effort than organising a wedding.

I have a bit of a dearth of wedding books on my shelves. I have tried looking for some online but can’t really tell the difference between the various titles. They’ve all gone for that trick of naming themselves something definitive and simple. Which is all very clever and meta-marketing and all that until you realise that you’ve ended up with 9 books called “Wedding”, 7 books called “Weddings” and another 25 or so called “Your Wedding” or “My First Wedding” or something equally non-helpful in describing the information actually in the book in question. Seriously, go count them. I’ll wait.

I appreciate the concept, but frankly it’s a bit like coming across a whole bunch of fiction books called “Story” or a group of politicians all named Lying Narcissist Weasel.

Most of the wedding books I have found seem to veer between the lines of Fluffyknickers The Flower Belle’s Holistic Hippy Wedding Hints or Mrs. Deirdre’s Guide to Wedding for Charming Young Ladies of Taste, Refinement and Chastity, the second of which I am vaguely worried will explode into flames should I put my hands on it.

Ideally I am looking for a title something along the lines of “How to Organise a Nice Day for You and Both Families Without Going Insane, Bankrupt or Both.” Something with helpful reminders like “Your Mum would appreciate an invite” instead of stern obscure prohibitions something along the lines of “Three shall be the bridesmaids thou shalt count, and the number of the bridesmaids shall be three. Four shalt thou not have, neither have thou two…”

Can anyone recommend a tome to read that won’t suggest either hand-woven organic goat beard headpieces for the bridesmaids (“Just add a sprinkle of grass picked on a rain May 1st for the Goddess’s blessings!”) or covering the piano legs with little skirts so it doesn’t over-excite the Gentlemen?