The New Twilight Or Just Hype?

The PassageI’d heard a bunch of things about The Passage, not least that there was a bidding war over it and that it’s ‘the new Twilight’. Having struggled lately to find something that caused me to drop off the face of the earth in obsessive, devouring-it-record-short-time reading in the same way that Harry Potter and Twilight had, I thought I’d give it a crack.

The short verdict is that I really, really enjoyed it. The long verdict—and one that’s only becoming clear to me now that I’m not buried in the book’s tome-meets-phonebook 766 pages—is that I really, really liked it, and I wanted to and kind of did really, really love it, but it perhaps doesn’t quite live up to the ‘new Twilight’ hype.

Its back cover reads:

I Am LegendDeep in the jungle of eastern Colombia, Professor Jonas Lear has finally found what he’s been searching for—and wishes to God he hadn’t. In Memphis, Tennessee, a six-year-old girl called Amy is left at the convent of the Sisters of Mercy and wonders why her mother abandoned her. In a maximum security jail in Nevada, a convicted murdered called Giles Babcock has the same strange nightmare, over and over again, while he waits for lethal injection. In a remote community in the California mountains, a young man called Peter waits for his beloved brother to return home—so he can kill him. Bound together in ways they cannot comprehend, for each of them a door is about to open into a future they could not have imagined. And a journey is about to begin. An epic journey that will take them through a world transformed by man’s darkest dreams, to the very heart of what it means to be human. And beyond.

Setting aside the fact that the blurb writer either hadn’t quite read the book or took some creative licence with the storylines to hook us in, the blurb worked. Although re-reading it, I keep thinking that: Lear doesn’t wish he hadn’t found what he found—at least, not until much, much, much, and relatively insignificantly later; the six-year-old never really wondered why her mother abandoned her—that’s what makes her so unlike other six-year-olds and the ethereal being upon which the book hinges; and Babcock and his dream don’t really feature in the prison cell—the focus is on another condemned man, Anthony Carter. The Babcock dream stuff turns up later and in a different form.

The Forst of Hands and TeethBut if the back cover blurb isn’t enlightening for those of you who haven’t tackled its hefty volume of pages, here’s the summary: a scientist pairs up with the US Army to conduct research deep in the Colombian jungle and his findings create a kind of vampire-like (although not in the strict sense of vampires as we know them: blood-sucking Dracula-like, vegetarian Twilight-like, or otherwise) creatures created through being infected by this virus.

Of course, the ‘jumps’, ‘dracs’, ‘virals’, or ‘smokes’ as they’re variously known make it out of the lab and wreak havoc across North America and possibly the world, devouring everyone or turning them into one of their own. The (or an—they’re not really sure if there are others) outpost of human survivors exist pretty much on a 24/7 watch against these bloodthirsty creatures, taking turns on the watch, and living in fear that the lights (which the virals don’t like) will go out and the compound walls will be breached. Then there’s a mysterious six-year-old girl whose ‘otherness’ comes into play.

Tomorrow When The War BeganThe Passage is, in short, the classic hero’s journey:

  • The ‘hero’ lives an ordinary existence but is called to adventure (think The Lord of the Rings’ Frodo receiving the ring and having to leave his safe Hobbit home to return/destroy it).
  • The hero refuses the call, due to fear, lack of confidence, etc, but then is guided by a supernatural aid who appears at just the right time, and they cross the threshold, i.e the point of no return.
  • The hero endures a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals in order to undergo transformation (think of all the challenges Frodo encounters on the way to the mountain, including doubting his friends and almost being corrupted by the ring’s power).
  • The hero overcomes these obstacles and returns home a new and improved person/Hobbit/[insert character type here].

LOTRThe hero’s journey formula perhaps why I enjoyed it—that format has been used countless times and is the basis of just about every Hollywood blockbuster. But it’s perhaps also why, combined with the fact that I didn’t find most of the storyline ‘fresh’ or ‘groundbreaking’, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something I’d encountered in various textual and filmic incarnations before. The creatures that eat or turn you and the last outposts of humanity? That’s most stories, including the recently read zombie romance The Forest of Hands of Teeth (which I also enjoyed). The virus that creates these creatures? Again, most books or films, including Will Smith’s I Am Legend. The journey through treacherous landscapes to overcome obstacles, including people who can’t be trusted? That’s Tomorrow When The War Began, The Road, and The Lord of the Rings, with The Passage reminiscent of the latter not least because the final scenes take place in a kind of mountain.

Perhaps my most consistent thought—both while I was reading it and once I’d made it through—was do we really need 776 pages of text to cover this? The story is well balanced and doesn’t feel overly slow in too many parts, but there was a part of me that was pretty unimpressed that you get to the end to find—spoiler alert—that the book is really just the beginning and we’re really staring down the barrel of what is at its shortest going to be a trilogy. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t want to know what happened and could put the book down. I spent two solid days powering through it and getting frustrated if anyone interrupted that effort by doing things like phoning me.

The RoadI may have skimmed some passages, thinking back story, back story, yada, yada, back story, but I did appreciate that Justin Cronin’s tale was better written (he’s an English professor and has won awards for his previous novels) than, say, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. His characters and storyline are more sophisticated, tightly written, and better fleshed out. The issue is that a post-apocalyptic tale of creatures created out of a virus that met with scientific experiments to make an immortal human being isn’t entirely new and, though incredibly gripping, and though I’ll definitely read and (I’m sure) enjoy further instalments of the story, it took the final 100 or so of almost 800 pages to surprise me. Here’s hoping that part two of The Passage will break out of the hero’s-journey-meets-end-of-the-world mould.

The Magicians’ Guild

A few posts ago I mentioned that I was reading The Magicians’ Guild by Trudi Canavan. I finished the book. I loved the book. I intend to read the second book in the series (The Black Magician Trilogy) very soon. This is significant for a couple of reasons…

Firstly, I don’t normally read what I refer to as “great, big, doorstop epic fantasy trilogies”. I’m not really sure why. I don’t dislike fantasy. Maybe it’s because I’m a fairly slow reader and I find a set of books big enough to hold open a door in gale-force winds rather daunting. Maybe it’s because I like my books to have an ending, and so many trilogies contain books that need the following book or books to be read in order to reach even a modicum of closure. Maybe it’s because I’ve read fantasy books where one novel’s worth of plot has been stretched out over three. Or maybe it’s simply because I’ve read some not-so-great epic fantasy in the past. Whatever the reason, I’ve been avoiding Trudi’s books for quite some time. Which brings me to my second disclosure…

I’ve been friends with Trudi for years. So it’s been rather embarrassing not having read her books for such a long time. Not because she’s made an issue of it… she hasn’t. In fact, she says she never expects her friends to read her books. But lots of other people, when they find out that I’m friends with her, will start chatting to me about her wonderful books, assuming that I’ve read them. And when I confess that I haven’t, they look at me as if I’ve got some contagious disease and slowly back away. Okay, okay, a slight exaggeration with that last bit.

Anyway, I’ve finally read one of her books and am now eager to read more. The Magicians’ Guild is a fairly straightforward fantasy adventure. But it is a well-told tale with vivid characters and an easy, unpretentious style. The book draws the reader in and immerses them in a fantasy world. There is enough detail to make the world believable, but the story is never bogged down in unnecessary waffle. It captured my interest immediately with its glorious opening line:

“It is said, in Imardin, that the wind has a soul, and that it wails through the narrow city streets because it is grieved by what is finds there.”

And it had me eagerly turning pages until the very last line. It is the perfect first book of a trilogy, in that it is in itself a complete story, but it also lays the groundwork for further adventures. There is closure, but there are threads left hanging, ready to be picked up in the next two books.

I suppose I should finish up with a little plot summary. I don’t like giving away too much, so this is just a teaser. In the city of Imardin, anyone with magical potential must join the Magician’s Guild… or have their powers blocked. The guild is peopled only with the wealthy and powerful, and it is feared by the slum dwellers. When a young slum dweller, named Sonea, discovers that she has magical powers, she turns to the city’s thieves to hide her from the guild. The guild, meanwhile, mounts a search to find her, for a rogue magician can be a threat not only to them, but to herself and the people around her. Exciting stuff!

Tune in next time for some videos.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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Throwing the book at ebooks

My friend swears she will never convert to e-books. It’s not that she’s anti-technology or she prefers the feel or smell of books. It’s because of the lack of violence.

“The main problem with reading books on a Kindle or ebook reader,” my friend explains, “is that you can’t throw the Kindle at the wall in disgust.”

The demise of the “dead-tree” book has been predicted and retracted and redefined and re-predicted and retracted until we are all, quite frankly, a bit sick of it and wish they would shut up until they have actually decided. They said radio would do it in the 1930’s, they said TV would kill the publishing industry in 1960’s and they’re still hollering on about today. I’m not here to argue the technology and the sociology of how we will read in the years to come (my fellow Boomerang blogger, Joel, will better serve you on that one at his blog). I am here to tell you one simple thing.

I am not in this. Yet.

Until they invent a reader that you can throw at walls, spill coffee on and whirl about in your handbag bashing it off things with no worries as to its safety, the dead-tree industry will be getting most of my cash.

This is not sentiment, this is necessity. I am what my teachers called “spirited”, my father calls “a bit rough on things” and my mother refers to as “a bloody menace”. I am informed that liquids and ebook readers are not a match made in heaven and this could be an issue.

When presented with a book, some part of my brain returns to my those wonderful first books of my childhood and expects them to have waterproof and chewable covers so when the sippy-cup of juice (or cup of mocha) is inevitable bumped, the liquid will slide neatly off the covers, averting a tantrum at ruined and sticky pages.

And, worse than that, what will I do when I want to throw a tantrum? Hurling a book at the wall in a fit of pique could suddenly become a very costly habit. And it’s cost me enough already. The first book I ever hurled at the wall was Dicken’s Hard Times, which then promptly bounced off into a filthy bin. My classmate were hugely impressed at the gesture, thinking I meant it. I was in fact aghast that I was going to have buy a second copy of that lumbering monstrosity of a book.

(I eventually did get to like Dickens but my throw still stands. Hard Times was a terrible book to make fourteen-year-olds read. Took valuable time away from my Stephen King’s.)

I’ve developed quite a throw; hard enough to be satisfying, but soft enough not to crack plaster after the time I had to explain to the landlord that Melvyn Bragg’s Credo was a terrible read but excellent as a ballistic and that, yes, I would pay for those damages.

I’m not suggesting that you always bin rejected books with extreme prejudice but deleting the file doesn’t have the same cleansing effect on your psyche. Try it sometime. Erase an ebook from your PC. You can hammer that “delete” as hard as you want but it’s still anti-climatic. No one cares. But chuck it in a bin or set it on fire and you’ll have everyone asking why. Especially if you decide to do this with some of the major religious texts, although I’d recommend perhaps just going with a more amusing method of disposing of these – send bibles to the Scientologists and books on Scientology to your local representative perhaps?

Don’t get be wrong, I can see massive advantages in ebooks. You can take 1,000 books on holiday for the same space as you normally used on a magazine. School kids will no longer be forced to warp their backs with massive textbooks. (There was a ten year old on my train I used to refuse a seat off daily, because her bag was bigger that her – and indeed my – torso.) This is a good thing, although it will mean that they will no longer be able to enliven the duller texts by writing in them and drawing mustaches and naughty bits all over the pictures.

They’re smaller. They’re lighter. They’re better. I get it. But I just enjoying hurling things at the wall too much. Today Credo, tomorrow William and Kate – The Love Story. Will you join me? And what would you throw?

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TEACHING KIDS TO READ

Teaching Kids to Read isn’t strictly a book for children, but it could have an enormous impact on their ability to read and consequently, their future.

I am a big supporter of literacy and as a long time parent helper in classrooms, I have seen the anguish and frustration experienced by children who struggle to keep up.

It’s estimated that around one in five children have some sort of learning difficulty and that’s why books like Teaching Kids to Read are so important.

Fay Tran, the author of Teaching Kids to Read is has more than twenty five years experience as a teacher and this book contains a wealth of research  and anecdotal evidence.

Peter Westwood, Associate Professor (Special Education) mentions in his foreword,

“The results from research conducted in many English-speaking countries have indicated very clearly that the early stages of teaching reading and spelling must include an emphasis on explicit instructions in phonemic awareness and letter-to-sound relationship, because both are necessary for decoding or writing unfamiliar words.”

It’s well known that kids learn differently – some learn by listening, some learn by reading and some learn by doing. It’s not that any method is right or wrong, it’s just that we’re not all the same and neither are our children.

Teaching Kids to Read will help you identify what type of learner your child is, if they have a learning difficulty and what you can do about it. There are also great resources at the back of the book showing where you can get help.

Phonics, which Fay Tran believes is the key to developing adequate literacy skills, is the method of learning embedded at the heart of Australia’s new National Curriculum.

In Teaching Kids to Read, Fay explains how phonics works and how you can develop phonemic awareness in your child. She discusses techniques that work especially well for kids with learning difficulties and her book is full of word lists and lesson plans that can be used in the classroom or at home.

Fay also examines how learning issues can affect a child’s behaviour and how lack of sleep can affect their ability to learn.

As Professor Westwood says about the author,

Her approach to their problems reveals a thorough understanding of how children learn.

Teaching Kids to Read is a great resource for teachers, but it’s also an important book for parents of beginning readers or parents of children who are having difficulties learning to read and write.

Teaching Kids to Read is published by Wilkins Farago

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The Leak That Launched a Thousand Political Memoirs

News surfaced today of a cache of over a quarter million confidential US diplomatic cables between embassies and consulates and the US State Department. The leak has been released to news organisations and has been made available to the public via the website WikiLeaks, a not-for-profit organisation devoted to releasing confidential documents that may have relevance to public debate. You can read an initial breakdown of the latest and greatest leak on the New York Times website.

The leak, the scale of which is unprecedented, cements WikiLeaks as an institution on the web and as an important tool for journalists the world over. It also raises the stakes for the organisation, as the leaks look to be quite embarrassing for the United States. But although WikiLeaks itself may eventually be destroyed by outside forces, lack of funding or its sheer infamy, it is representative of what the open web means for modern publishing.

The instantaneous availability of confidential source material to anyone with an internet connection is something the publishing industry is really only beginning to respond to. The existence of WikiLeaks (or any organisation like it) is further motivation for publishers to move faster and simultaneously provide deeper and more comprehensive analysis in order to justify the longer schedules involved in putting a full-length book together based on this kind of information.

The other big issue the open web raises for publishers is accountability. Traditionally, publishers rely on authors to do the due diligence in terms of fact checking in non-fiction. Although potentially contentious books are checked by lawyers, and editors certainly do a certain amount of fact checking, the buck generally stops with the author. As readers find it increasingly easy to check facts themselves on the web, it will become more important for this most basic level of quality assurance to take place before publication.

Quite aside from any of these points, there’s something essentially unromantic and lacking in smell-of-bookishness that turns me off WikiLeaks. Although the Watergate scandal would still have happened without All the President’s Men, there is something a bit depressing about Deep Throat uploading his information to WikiLeak’s online drop box.

My question for you all today is this: what do you look for in book-length journalism? Do you want a narrative? Do you want a big-name journalist attached? Does the story just have to be so huge it justifies the length and price? What draws you to reading journalism of this size? Or is the art of book-length journalism dead? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

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LAST DAYS: Most Popular Aussie Novel Survey – Your final chance to win $500 of books

Hurry!  This is the last chance for you to complete our Most Popular Aussie Novels survey – the survey closes at 5pm AEST Tuesday 30 November 2010.

We want to know which of the 150+ Aussie novels on our list you have read in their entirety – your responses will help us to compile a list of the most popular reads of all time. One lucky respondent will win $500 worth of books!

On Wednesday 1 December, we will start counting down the top 24 most-read novels, all the way up until Christmas Eve, when we will announce the most popular Aussie novel of all time.

Take the survey now and go into the draw to win $500 worth of books…

Thoughts on: Blossoms and Shadows, by Lian Hearn

This novel has been much anticipated by Yours Truly. I was absolutely mesmerised by Lian Hearn’s Otori series, and was somehow able to love it that little bit more, when I discovered that Lian Hearn was not only Australian, but female, too.

Blossoms and Shadows is a major departure from the Otori series, and to be honest I’m left with mixed feelings about Hearn’s latest venture. Similar to the book I raved about earlier this year (David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) Blossoms and Shadows takes place in the end cycle of feudal Japan – the death of the Samurai. But rather than give you the ordinary blurb, I found a beautiful book trailer distributed by Hachette Publishers, which describes the book in necessary detail.

Blossoms and Shadows teaser from Xou Creative on Vimeo.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of a sense of Japan from this novel. When I read novels by Lisa See, for example, I’m gifted with this telescope to see into a particular other time, a particular other world. Yet the story of forbidden love and flouting tradition in Blossoms and Shadows could really be anywhere, any time. The imagery and depiction of Japanese society is tastefully done, but a little too subtle for me to truly immerse myself in a different world.

And, as a very character-driven reader, I felt lost with Tsuru. Tsuru as the protagonist and female, is at the ready to flout her traditional female role. Instead, Tsuru is fascinated by medicine and has something of a strange investment in fate – she has premonitions about the deaths of those around her. Yet despite this unusually modern attitude, Tsuru comes off as cold and methodical. Her plans, the depth of her emotions, and her understandings of others feel overshadowed by the politics of the landscape and I couldn’t warm to Tsuru. Perhaps, though, this is the perfect combination for a woman who was nurtured in the tradition of females being seen and not heard, but by nature became a rebel against it.

Those who enjoy a solid literary style and have an appreciation of the Meiji Restoration period in Japanese history should be able to take something away from Blossoms and Shadows, but I must confess that I would prefer more of the blossoms, and less of the shadows next time I pick up a book by Lian Hearn.

***Thank you to the lovely people at Hachette Publishers for the opportunity to read and review Blossoms and Shadows.***

REVIEW: A Postcard to Sylvia Plath by Patricia Jones

TITLE:  A Postcard to Sylvia Plath (Poetry)
AUTHOR: Patricia Jones
PUBLISHER: Ginninderra Press (P.O. Box 3461, Port Adelaide, SA 5015, Australia) (November 2010)
ISBN: 97811740276498

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com)

“Trawling out my memories – elusive as tiny silvered fish
my heart flapping – a torn sail in the wind”.

In her Introduction to this book of poems, Patricia Jones writes of her childhood awareness of “the shadows within the sun” – a “hovering darkness” and fear which she could not then explain. Her acute sensitivity to that same darkness in others pervades these poems but her growing awareness of the complexities and beauties of life, and the humanity with which she surveys this world, constantly lighten this darkness. She has, too, a gift for capturing the strange beauty and connectedness of everyday things in vivid and evocative images.

In a Brisbane landscape where “showgirl houses on long-legged stilts” lie open in the tropical sun, she sees “Kids growing disordered/ wild summer weeds caught/ between cracks of cement, broken fences”. Here, she too, grows, develops, “dreams / of gossamer silk / pale latticework skies / woven silently / in tiny attics of the mind”, before heading for the Great Southern Ocean and “courting the seductive song” of a different city with different shadows.

These poems are embedded in an Australian landscape. There are  poems about country life and poems about the cities. And there are personal poems: a wonderfully funny but disturbing poem about her parents, in which grim humour and music are weapons against death and poverty; a film-like scenario about a sister in her “Rita Hayworth Dress”, where the refrain of a wartime song threads its way like a lament through a picture of a teenager reaching out for excitement – Craven A, Fosters Beer, fast cars  – and a devastating result of this; and poems about the poet’s own reaching out for independence, love and beauty.

Patricia’s poems are rich, dark, funny and compassionate. She confronts her shadows with insight and wards them off with music and laughter. Through her own shadows, she feels kinship with Sylvia Plath, whose presence in the first and last poem of the book is a shadow which has haunted the poet and to which she finally says goodbye. She feels the restlessness, loss and rejection of the aborigines “all the sounds of Noonuccal – blown away / like dead leaves”. And she mourns our own seeming indifference to “newsreels of dismemberment” and the “steel cataracts of war”.

Patricia has a discerning eye for the “small realities of life”, and for memories which can be outgrown “within the endless boundaries of love”. Her clear evocation of places and people, and her talent for evoking unusual and apt images make these poems vivid and memorable. In all, this is a fine first collection of poems from a poet whose voice deserves to more widely heard.

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

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REVIEW: The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time by Peter Ackroyd

TITLE:  The English Ghost: Spectres through time
AUTHOR: Peter Ackroyd
PUBLISHER:      Random House (December 2010)

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

Full of ghosts as this book is, it is disappointingly unspooky. Ackroyd is not telling ghost stories to scare you. Instead, he describes and reports, raises questions, notes trickery, and generally covers all manner of English ghosts from the earliest times to the present.

There are phantoms, poltergeist, “clerical souls”, animal ghosts, wanderers and premonitory ghosts which bring messages or herald a death. And there are plenty of strange occurrences and unexplained events.

Ghosts, on the whole, seem not to be the traditional white, spectral appearances but to be solid, like you and me, although they may dress oddly and glide rather than walk, and they do have tendency to vanish into thin air. Those who see them often don’t recognize them as ghosts until they disappear, and they generally find them unthreatening and not unfriendly. There are, of course, exceptions. Like the killer of babies recorded in a twelfth century anthology, although it is hard to know how reliable this record is and how much is misinterpretation and superstition. There are ghosts which may cause accidents, too, like the quite recent reports of the phantom on the A38. A number of motorists have had to swerve to avoid a grey-haired, middle-aged man in a mackintosh who appears on the road waving a torch. One woman drove her car into a ditch; a motorcyclist claims to have broken his leg taking avoiding action; and one man says he gave the man a lift on three different occasions. Always the man is drenched with rain. Always he just vanishes.

Ghosts may reappear regularly and then suddenly stop coming. They can be seen by several people at once or by only one particular person. They rarely speak. And there are notoriously haunted places, where apparitions have been seen by many people over many years.  But are English ghosts any different to those in other parts of the world? Ackroyd seems to think they are but he offers no proof.

This is a book for dipping into rather than reading straight through. It is a gift book, a pot-boiler written with Ackroyd’s usual care and precision. It contains nothing to convince those who don’t believe in ghosts, and nothing to change the minds of those who do. But it is a cabinet of curiosities for the curious and offers a pleasant way of passing  a few idle hours.

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

EVERYONE LOVES A PRINCESS

With the impending wedding of Prince William and his long time girlfriend, Kate Middleton on the horizon, princesses are very much on some people’s minds at the moment.

As a small child I remember playing prince and princesses with my siblings. I was always Princess Anne and my older sister got to be the Queen, but I always thought it was more glamorous to be a princess.

Even today when there’s so much talk of republics and monarchy free states, little girls all over the world dream and pretend to be princesses.

That’s probably why princesses make such great book heroines. Princesses feature today in two books from Scholastic, Princess and Fairy Twinkly Ballerinas and Lilli-Pilli The Frog Princess.

PRINCESS AND FAIRY TWINKLY BALLERINAS

This “look and find” book by Anna Pignataro is full of glitter and colour and princesses and fairies.

The beautifully detailed illustrations are great for children who love to spend time poring over a page, looking at the tiniest detail.

And who wouldn’t be charmed by rabbit fairies dancing and flitting their way through a colourful adventure?

Peter Pan, Captain Hook, The Sugar Plum Fairy and other popular characters make their appearance in the magical land that Anna Pignataro has created.

Young readers will love the encore finale where the fairy ballerina bunnies put on a glittering show for a cheering audience.

LILLI-PILLI THE FROG PRINCESS

This picture book by Vashti Farrer & Owen Swan has a very real princess dilemma. Lilli-Pilli is the eldest and loveliest of the Royal Tadpoles but instead of a tail she has frogs’ legs.

There are advantages to this but of course when it’s time for her to find a prince, having frogs’ legs when you’re a tadpole becomes a problem.

That’s until Lilli-Pilli  she meets a juggling, acrobat, trapeze artist, gymnast prince and finds that they are made for each other.

This book has an important theme for children who feel as if they are different and don’t belong. In Lilli-Pilli the Frog Princess, Lilli-Pilli finds someone who likes her just the way she is.

Owen Swan’s beautiful illustrations show Lilli-Pilli at her leaping, tumbling, gymnastic best. Readers will empathise with this princess heroine and learn that it’s okay to be different.

Phar Lap

It would probably have been more appropriate for me to have organised this guest post around Melbourne Cup time… but I didn’t. Oh well. Here it is now. Please welcome Jackie Kerin to Literary Clutter, as she tells us a little about the genesis of her book Phar Lap the wonder horse.

Writing Phar Lap the wonder horse
By Jackie Kerin

I’m a storyteller. I travel to schools, festivals and museums and tell stories. In the year 2000, I was invited to tell stories in the new Museum Victoria. With a collection of tales inside my head, that related to the exhibits, I felt well equipped for the task  – except I didn’t know the story of Phar Lap. The mounted hide of Phar Lap is the most popular exhibit in the Museum — there was no way I could sit in the story chair and not tell the tale of this loved horse.

My plan was to read about Phar Lap’s life and string the key moments together into what I call, a “beginning, middle and end” story. All I needed was a little book with the facts. But there wasn’t one. So … I launched into research mode, reading fat books and trawling the Internet for details about PL.

The facts gathered, I covered the kitchen table with butcher’s paper, and with felt pen in hand, set about arranging the highlights of Phar Lap’s life. And I created a story to tell  … for the moment.

However, as I pieced the details together, the language of the 20s and 30s worked its magic on me. This was a time before television and when radio reception was unreliable; newspapers, journals and songs were commonly the way news was spread. Reciting and writing rhyming verse was a popular form of entertainment. The works of Banjo Patterson, Australia’s most enduring poet, was memorised and performed by young and old in homes and halls around the country. Patterson was also a racing correspondent and a passionate follower of Phar Lap.

Suddenly it came to me! I had to write the story of Phar Lap in rhyming verse! I tried to resist the idea. I knew it’d be hard but I also knew that by writing in this way, I was giving the story another layer of meaning.

I then had to learn how to write in rhyming verse … but that’s a long story!

Eventually I had the life of Phar Lap the wonder horse to tell, as I wanted. I tried it out at every opportunity and my listeners loved it. I heard that Museum Victoria had a small publishing unit (that was news to me) so I sent Phar Lap through cyberspace as an attachment. The subject: ‘an unsolicited idea’. And work on the book began.

Given the scale of difficulty in telling a true story in rhyme, Melanie Raymond (publishing MV) was keen to have an editor cast an eye over the text. Nan McNab came on board, and she cajoled, encouraged and cheered a few more verses out of me, and helped smooth the rough edges. It was like working on a tower of carefully balanced blocks, every alteration reverberated through the structure. But we did it!

When it came time to look for an illustrator, Patricia Mullins was on our wish list. Who could be more perfect for the task? Patricia’s love of the story matched our own and her beautiful illustrations are everything and more that I imagined. Patricia spent hours looking through photographs in the Museum’s collection, checking and cross checking the details. The illustrations were eventually created using coloured tissue paper, Japanese, Nepalese and Indian papers, crayon and photomontage.

In 2009 Phar Lap the wonder horse was listed as Notable by the Children’s Book Council of Australia in the Eve Pownall non fiction awards and now wears a shiny sticker on the cover.

George’s bit at the end

My thanks to Jackie Kerin for stopping by and sharing her story. For more info about Jackie and Phar Lap the wonder horse, check out this page on the Museum Victoria site.

As an aside, many years ago, when I was about ten years old, I got the chance to meet Tommy Woodcock, the man who was Phar Lap’s strapper. He was very nice to me and let me sit on Reckless, another famous racehorse that he trained, as he led the horse into its trailer.

Tune in next time for another bookish post.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… I’m a sure bet. 😉

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USER REVIEW WINNER: The Debacle by Emile Zola

The Debacle by Emile Zola
Reviewed by LawrenceW

Tolstoy wrote War and Peace over five years between 1863 to 1868 and Zola had The Debacle published in 1892. Together, they have produced definitive war narratives interwoven with intimately and finely drawn affected lives that live on forever in the reader’s eye and mind.

One can’t help but feel these two great novelists  had a prophetic vision of the wonders of cinema awaiting and sought to prepare readers for such an impact. If anything, Zola is the more exhaustively detailed and yet wastes not a word on his own opinions or morality. The Debacle refers to the French fiasco that was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 lasting just six weeks and culminating in the massacre of The Commune.

Patriotic feeling is not permitted to intrude on the brutal journalistic descriptions of the horrors and criminally inept absurdities of the conduct of the battles. I was not expecting such gruesome realities.Yet all characters, from the pathetic Emperor himself to the lowest of the poor who trail and scavenge among the dead following each battle are depicted with natural dignity.

The Debacle is a cinematic masterpiece and a more compact War and Peace, admittedly not as overtly ambitious, but we are spared the often tedious moralizing and lectures of the grander book. Tolstoy has an innate poetry in his writing that is frequently carried away (as in poetry) to allusion and abstraction. While Zola has poetry in his amazing attention to the sensual qualities of all he ‘paints’, it is the poetry of impressionism and is never sidetracked from its subject.

After finally and reluctantly putting The Debacle down after what my wife described as a reading frenzy, I wanted to read everything I could find about the history of this period and The Commune, so drawn was I to the characters and events I had just lived through by being immersed so thoroughly in this wonder of a novel.

So, two great books, one much more well known to us in the English speaking world, and this is the mystery; just why is The Debacle so little known to us? (5 stars)

A big thanks to all the members who submitted reviews – keep reviewing your favourite books at http://www.boomerangbooks.com.au for your chance to win! For being this month’s winner, LawrenceW has won $50 to spend in Boomerang Bucks.

Another Cover to Covet

What a pleasant surprise to receive this in the mail. Thanks Hachette Publishers! I have long been a fan of Angela Carter, but considering she died in 1992 I really didn’t expect them to squeeze anything else out of her. But I was wrong! Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women has just been released in a fabulous new suit. I have only begun the first story in the collection, but I already love the book because the cover is magnificent!

Right now I’m smoothing my hands over the white hardback edition – it truly is glorious. I’ve done a personal study on myself and I seem to prefer simple, striking covers: this one is no exception. See how there is a bee heading towards a rose, but it’s also a woman’s face? Glorious. SO double entendre, SO Angela Carter-esque!

If you have yet to experience the awesomeness that is Angela Carter, I would suggest reading The Bloody Chamber (and other stories) first, which is full of former fairytales turned into glittery nightmares. Even if you’re not very interested in fairytale retellings, you can still rejoice in her fabulous prose…in 2008, The Times ranked Angela Carter as tenth in their list of ‘The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945’. I’m sure I have discussed her a number of times on this blog, but I love that I’ve been given another chance to gush with the updated release of this collection.

The book itself actually only contains one Angela Carter narrative, titled The Loves of Lady Purple, but the rest of the stories have been handpicked by Carter herself. Although the title suggests sexual deviancy, the women of these stories are more the ‘societal misfit’ type – those which I gather to have emerged rebelliously from the womb. Carter herself says of the collection:

“They [the heroines] know they are worth more than that which fate has allotted them.”

Ordinary feminists don’t seem to have nothin’ on these girls! In my travels across the web I also spied this quote which has whetted my appetite further:

“He is the intermediary between us, his audience, the living, and they, the dolls, the undead, who cannot live at all and yet who mimic the living in every detail since, though they cannot speak or weep, still they project those signals of signification we instantly recognize as language.”

I sincerely hope I’m not a doll. But we’ll soon find out!

“6” WILL SCORE WELL WITH YA READERS

It has been a while since I read a book that left me not wanting it to end. You know the kind of book where wake up in the morning looking forward to reading more but then you remember that you finished it the day before.

That’s what happened when I read Karen Tayleur’s new YA novel, “6”. It’s one of those books you read as a reader and you think I wish there was a sequel. It’s one of those books you read as a writer and think, “I wish I’d written that.”

There are a lot of characters to juggle in this book (6 if you don’t count parents and other minors) and there are six points of view. But Tayleur handles each one with precision – each voice never wanes – each character is clearly delineated.

The ‘6’ are six year twelve students whose lives are intertwined in a complex way – six kids looking forward to a bright future, confident that things will go their way. You know from just reading the blurb that this confidence is misplaced, that six kids in a car with five seat belts is a recipe for something going badly wrong.

But the collision itself doesn’t seem relevant after a while. You become so embroiled in the character’s lives that all you can think as you hurtle towards the end is that you really hope your favourite character comes out of this okay. It’s the authentic characters that really hook you in to “6” that make you care about them and want to know what happens next, even though a part of you is scared to find out.

There’s an underlying story that starts the whole chain of events, and adds a bit of mystery, and it’s a great device to help build the tension and make the reader start to doubt some of the characters and second guess what might happen next.

“6” has just the right balance of anticipation and suspense to keep the reader hooked. You know it isn’t going to end well for someone, but you’re not sure who and you’re not really sure who you want to be saved.

YA readers who love gritty storylines, authentic characters and polished prose will devour this novel and emerge from the experience moved, shocked and wanting more.

“6” is a beautifully crafted novel that is destined to have a profound impact on the YA literary scene.

More about Karen Tayleur and her work is available at www.karentayleur.com/

The Tyranny of the Digital

News surfaced this week of Rupert Murdoch’s plans to launch a newspaper exclusively on tablet devices. It’s the kind of plan that sounds great in a press release. Murdoch knows how to put a newspaper together – The Daily, as it will be called, will be housed in a real office, with real journalists, but it will not have a print or web edition. The only edition, which will be released seven days a week for 99c, will be available solely on the iPad. Murdoch, I fear, has finally jumped the shark.

It’s not that a new newspaper (can you even call it that if it’s not printed on paper at all?) is something to sneer at. Or that newspapers don’t need to experiment with new models to succeed. But the distribution model – locked to a single kind of device and behind a paywall – fails to acknowledge that people who read the news no longer do so in isolation. A huge proportion of digital natives rarely, if ever, get their news from a single paper delivered to their front door; news comes piecemeal from diverse sources like Facebook, Twitter and from multiple websites, RSS feeds and email. Most importantly, news comes from trusted colleagues, friends and family members – through connections that are more important than loyalty to a brand of news. Murdoch’s The Daily will not be able to join in on this participatory news experience, which is increasingly becoming the norm. It will be edged out by content that is more easily shared. In essence, like many follies in the digital era, Murdoch is trying to replace the analogue experience of a newspaper with a digital facsimile, and it is not going to work.

It’s a similar story with ebooks. Publishers would much prefer it if ebooks were just like real books, only digital. The problem is, they are most emphatically not. Digital content is completely different – it can be easily shared, copied and moved around. These things are all good things; they’re what make ebooks cheaper to produce, easier to carry and faster to buy. They are why ebook readers buy more books than regular dead tree book readers. But ebooks could be more successful than they are, and the reason they are not is that publishers (and retailers) are still trying to control the content in a way that is even more restrictive than the dead tree books they are trying to emulate.

Why, to pick just one example, are ebook loaning rights so restrictive? Barnes & Noble’s Nook already has the ability to lend books, and the Kindle is soon to join it. However, owners of digital books will only be allowed to lend a book once for a period of two weeks. Does anyone in their right mind really think that the book business is going to be sunk by giving ebook readers the ability to loan out their books to a single person at a time for as long as they want as many times as they like? This is a basic feature of any dead tree book, and the benefits to the book industry are obvious. Anyone in publishing will tell you that the basic problem with selling books to people is getting people to read books. To paraphrase Tim O’Reilly, obscurity is a far greater threat to the book than piracy. It’s why publishers give away paper books to drum up interest in it. It’s one of the cheapest ways to market a book. Why not harness the word-of-mouth power of social networks to get books out there to at least as many people as it was already getting out there with the paper edition?

But no. Where producers are able to restrict, they restrict. What producers of content are not doing is working backwards from what their consumers want. Consumers want fast, cheap, easy access. Producers of content want to be paid enough to keep doing what they’re doing. There is a compromise position between these two points that allows both to be achieved. But it won’t happen when producers are sticking their heads in the sand and trying to recreate the analogue in an increasingly digital world.

Inkys 2010 winners announced

The winners of the 2010 Inkys were announced at a special ceremony at the State Library on Thursday.

Lucy Christopher’s Stolen took out the coveted Gold Inky, rewarding an Australian novel, while Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater won the Silver Inky, rewarding a book by an international author.

The shortlist was selected by judges Randa Abdel-Fattah, Broede Carmody, Grace Bell, Esther Crowley and Andrew McDonald. It was then up to the public to decide the winners.

You can view Lucy’s video acceptance speech below.

What makes a classic?

Novels are generally deemed “classic” if it’s a weighty (albeit outdated) tome. There’s fine line to tread between what is defined as cheesy and classic. Cheesy novels are drenched in unfashionable references not yet far enough removed to be yearned for. Yet classics resonate like a ringing of a bell.

As a writer, won’t it just be safer and wiser to avoid contemporary events all together? Just zip lock your novel with timeless references to avoid becoming an irrelevant pile of paper.  For debut author, Steve Totlz, there is no safe option. Toltz grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck, pulls them into a hotted up car and drives full pelt into modern Australia.

However it was 2008 when the novel hit the shelves with great aplomb, would it still be “devastatingly funny” when read today?

The short answer is – yes. It’s hilarious and may result in aspiration pneumonia if read in conjunction with a cup of tea.

Essentially it’s a story about a Father raising his son. While the Father takes his role as an educator very seriously, his advice and childrearing techniques aren’t quite run of the mill. With the family motto “there’s safety in looking crazy”. These bizarre thoughts flow forth from the “My Father the philosopher – he couldn’t even give a simple haircut without reflecting on it”.

The father and son relationship is more reminiscent of “Dad and Dave” than the Mr. Brady and Greg. Full of inappropriate jokes and naff notions. “Most of my life I never worked out whether to pity, ignore, adore, judge or murder my Father.” The characters are so well fleshed out they have everything but a pulse.

Between all the bombastic, batty thoughts and tangents, there are some real gems of insight “there seems to be no passion for life, only for lifestyle.” Yet for all the navel gazing and bar stool philosophizing, the story has an unrelenting pace. Starting off in small town NSW, before jet setting to Sydney, Paris and eventually Thailand.

The novel is brimming with ideas, pulsating with energy, without feeling like we’re furrowing through the dregs of every last creative writing task Toltz has ever attempted.

In fact Toltz is a tidy writer – reining the plot with more skill than a cowboy born and breed in Wyomy, when it could have easily veered off the cliff into a sea of crashing absurdity (much like this metaphor of Toltz being a cowboy cum pirate).

Themes of mainstream media consumption, immigration, family values, the flawed education system are seamlessly integrated into the solid story. Perhaps it’s this fearlessness to represent Australian society warts and all made the novel an international and local success, as it tackles issues which are so big that they won’t slip onto the backburner anytime soon.

Toltz captures contemporary Australia without resorting to cheap sucker-punch of stereotypes of a homogenous Home and Away society of surfer bums lounging at the local corner store.

Fiona Murphy

About the author
Fiona Murphy has a terrible singing voice but thankfully is an obsessive reader, so is more likely to have her nose stuck in a book. When not reading she is documenting her flights of fancy and embarrassingly frequent follies at http://penpaperplay.blogspot.com/

The I Can’t Cook Cookbook

The Cook's CompanionI both agreed and disagreed with a friend recently when they marvelled at the sheer volume of cookbooks available and decreed that the market couldn’t possibly support such numbers. Agreed, because I too wonder how there could possibly be so many incarnations of said books, particularly given how expensive the production costs and subsequent shelf prices are. But disagreed—or perhaps despaired—because regardless of how many there are or how sustainable the market may or may not be, I still can’t find a cookbook for me.

My cooking problems are myriad, and I recognise that my needs are less niche than, well, tricky and a little odd. But I’m putting out my cookbook issues and wish list lest anyone know such a book exists.

I can’t cook.

And I really mean that I can’t cook. In fact, I think any cookbook I create could and should be—to paraphrase from the similarly titled one already around—The I Can’t Cook Cookbook.

Jamie OliverI haven’t the time for cooking.

By the time I’m ferreting around in the pantry, there’s only one thing I want to do: find food and get it in me. I’ve neither the patience nor the blood sugar levels to sustain a two-hour food prep time. In actuality, any food prep time is spent snacking on ingredients so: a) there’s not much left for the actual meal I’m attempting to prepare; and b) I’m no longer hungry by the time said food is ready and it goes to waste. And no, I can’t start earlier. I’m busy.

I lose patience with fiddly, time-consuming steps.

In spite of the fact that I can’t cook, I invariably get part of the way through cooking something and decide that some of the steps and/or ingredients are superfluous. So I skip them. Because clearly, in despite my complete lack of culinary training, I know better. If a recipe’s got more than about five steps, it’s all over.

I only like plain food or sweet food.

This one’s self-explanatory. I need a cookbook that skips anything that could be remotely considered a spice or a distant relative of a spice, and that instead hones in on anything plain or sugar-filled. Yes, this means that I lean towards cake cookbooks. Given my penchant for eating while I cook, cake mixture and I are old friends.

Moosewood CookbookI only eat one food at a time, so I need to be able to prepare it in bulk.

There are some things you don’t really want to be famous (read: infamous) for, but it’s well known among friends that I tend only to eat one food at a time, eat it until its death, and then never eat it again. There was the blueberry muffin phase. There was the sushi phase. There was the vegetable cannelloni phase. I can now neither eat nor even stomach the smell of all three. Regardless, when I was eating them, I needed them to be easy and quick to prep and able to be prepped and stored in bulk. I’m currently auditioning new foods to fill their places.

I can’t cook if I can’t see what I’m cooking.

No, I don’t need glasses—my eyesight’s fine. I need glossy, expensive-to-produce, food stylist-created pictures. For every single recipe. Because if I haven’t got something visual and salivation-inspiring to aspire to, I’m not interested.

MasterchefI’m a vegetarian.

Maybe I should have mentioned this earlier, but I tend to forget that this isn’t how everyone operates. I’m reminded of that the hard way when I forget to order myself ‘special’ meals on long-haul flights. Either way, I don’t eat any animals—that includes chicken and fish (don’t get me started on those faux vegetarians); in short, anything with a face—and things like eggs or dairy only in the smallest amounts, and only then if they’re part of the bigger food picture. Think cheese on a pizza or eggs in a cake, but never on their own or as the primary part of the meal.

I’ve found that the problem with most vegetarian cookbooks is that they assume you live on a commune, grow your own vegies, run your own health food store, have limitless time for preparing things like lentils, which take days upon days to cook, and that you have a fully stocked pantry of specialised vegetarian ingredients. Where are the vego cookbooks for time-poor, inner city-dwelling writers, I ask?

I’m after low fat.

Isn’t everyone? After all, our diets are so saturated with artery-clogging, thigh-expanding fat that if we’re not after low fat, we’re probably in health trouble.

I hate capsicum, eggplant, and herbs.

Particularly herbs. Particularly rosemary, the all-powerful, all-tainting herb that recipe books always seem to contain and that restaurants not-so-conveniently forget to include on their list of potential meal selection ingredients. All three are deal breakers for me, at both cafes and in cookbooks. I realise that I could omit them from recipes, but it’s the principle that matters here. Vegetarian cookbooks are always loaded up with eggplant- and capsicum-featuring recipes with serious helpings of herbs to ‘add flavour’. Purchasing such a cookbook would be like giving the publisher a thumbs up for creating such a horror.

Skinny Bitch in the KitchI haven’t the interest or the inclination to chase all over town for quirky ingredients.

The moment you say ‘vegetarian’, recipe books say ‘expensive, almost-impossible-to-find ingredients’ that you’ll spend days trying to source, will only need a pinch of, and that will spend the rest of its shelf life attracting weevils to your cupboard. Case in point, the Skinny Bitch in the Kitch vegan cookbook. Add in the fact that the hard-to-find ingredients have American names and you have to use Google translation to decipher what they’d be called in Australia and where precisely on this continent you might find them, and you can understand why the book ended up gathering dust on my shelf and I ended up eating rice crackers for dinner.

Sigh.

I realise that this is an eclectic and entirely embarrassing list of needs and tastes and that the word ‘fussy’ springs to mind. Either way, it’s incredible how difficult it is for someone with my tastes to find a suitable cookbook.

I say vegetarian. They say impossible, specialist ingredients + herbs.

I say vegetarian. They say bland, cheaply produced cookbook without pictures.

I say low fat. They say spicy to get your metabolism going and bucket loads of protein, i.e. meat…

Nigella LawsonI mean, forget Masterchef cookbooks—they’re too over the top and too meat-filled. Forget The Cook’s Companion—alluring as it is with its new stripy cover, it’s much too large and overwhelmingly intimidating for a newbie to cooking like me. Forget anything Jamie Oliver-ish—he’s cute and his books are beautifully produced, but they include far too much meat replete with pictures about how to kill it [the cute farmyard animal pictured just a few pages before] and carve it. Forget anything Nigella Lawson-themed. We all know that’s just gastroporn. And forget Moosewood Vegetarian Cookbook—it lacks glossy pictures and is chock filled with tricky-to-find ingredients with American names.

The question is, is there a low fat, plain + sweet, herb-, capsicum-, and eggplant-free, quick-and-easy cookbook for people who can’t cook out there in the market? And if so, can you please tell me its name?

A Question for Voldemort

With the Australian release of Part I of the final Harry Potter movie, based on the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I had expected this post to be a true Harry send-off worthy of the little boy with the lightning scar who saved the world. I must confess to never being completely obsessed with that boy wonder and his magical world – but I read all 7 of the books, if only so I could take part in discussions about them! And I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy them – they brought me that certain comfort I hadn’t experienced since first reading Enid Blyton’s books, and that’s special in itself.

Yes, I had wanted this post to be about Harry and the rest of the crew (including the uber-annoying bushy eyebrow-ed Hermione) but something else has warranted my attention. Yesterday I watched a repeat of an Oprah episode with J. K. Rowling herself, aired in early October this year (quite recent). The interview itself was a bit uncomfortable – perhaps it’s my envy over J K’s success, but I felt as if Oprah was asking a lot of questions about money and not having to worry about anything anymore – it felt like two queens in the parlour gorging themselves on their own awesomeness. To give credit where it’s due though, I felt J. K. responded to the questions with as much humility and grace as is possible when one is asked: “how do you feel about being the first ‘author billionaire’?”

How do you think she feels, Oprah?!

Anyhoo, aside from the money questions, there wasn’t much new gossip on the Harry Potter author. She said things that even I, a non-follower, have heard/read her saying numerous times. One thing has stuck in my head though, and has me questioning my own project passion. When Rowling shopped about her first Harry Potter book to publishers, someone lamented the fact that Rowling had written a book about a boy wizard, telling her she’d ‘never make money writing children’s books’. And while I bet that unnamed person is sitting down to a lavish dinner of eating their own words every night, it does make me wonder: is Harry Potter a true children’s book series, or is it devoid of age genre? Is there still a place in the market for classic magic/fantasy books like The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials, written for all ages and with a genuinely capable writing style? Or did she just get lucky, getting adults to read her books as well?

Arrgh. I hope I don’t have to go to the dark side and switch to attempting the next Twilight.

G-Rated, Family-Friendly Book Porn

Apartment Bookshelf PornI should state up front that although this blog post is brought to you by the word ‘porn’, it is in fact completely g-rated and family friendly. The ‘porn’ it contains is related to books. Specifically, beautiful bookcases and book storage captured in photos and posted on a daily blog that’s not unlike the I’d Marry The Best If I Could Have A Library Like That I’ve written about previously.

Apartment Bookshelf PornI look forward to those daily postings with greater anticipation and salivation than I should probably admit, and doubly so now that I’m in the throes of finding spots for my books in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment. You could say I’ve got my own kind of Bookshelf Porn entries going on here, with an absence of newly installed bookcases meaning that I’m stashing (and loving and planning never to undo) books in my kitchen shelves and cupboards.

I can’t cook to save myself and books in the kitchen, while not ingredients I can physically consume, are nourishment for my mind. They’re the first thing I see when I come in the door each day and the last when I leave, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s also proving a talking point with friends who stumble across the books when they’re opening doors to find cups and crockery.

Apartment Bookshelf PornWhen it comes to the main space I have for a bookcase, which is currently a blank [pictured at the bottom] wall, I’m thinking of going all out once my finances will allow. My not-so-secret dream is to have a room of floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall books. The closest I’ve got right now is a space that’s about two metres wide and three metres high.

My brother joked that I could get a ladder to go with the bookcases in this space. He quickly realised that one shouldn’t joke about such thing, because I’m now determined—however ridiculous it might seem for a small wall in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment—to get me floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a ladder on which to ascend and slide side-to-side to access them.

Apartment Bookshelf PornWho knows? Maybe my quirky book space will be worthy of being featured on Bookshelf Porn one day—ridiculous ladder and all.

My book covers

It’s very easy, as a reader, to pass judgement on a book cover. I do it all the time. “Oh, I like that cover, it’s pretty good. But that one, it’s a piece of crap.” As an author, assessing the covers of your own books, it’s a different kettle of fish. You have a personal attachment to the words within the covers, and so a bad cover (which could potentially frighten off some of your readers) can bring with it a new level of emotional pain, while a good cover can make you weep with joy.

As author of over 40 books, I’ve experienced a wide array of covers — some, I’ve been extremely pleased with; others, I’d really like to bury in some dark forest where no one will ever have to lay eyes on them again; and then there’s a fair few I’m indifferent to.

The vast majority of my books have been for the primary school education market. (If you’d like to know more about this market, check out my earlier post on the subject.) The education market tends to have a bit of a production line approach, each person doing their job and not necessarily consulting with the other people who work on it. So often, after delivering a final manuscript, I don’t see it again until the finished book arrives in the post, a year or so later. There is some variation in this process — sometimes I get to suggest illustration and diagram needs for a non-fiction book; and sometimes I get to see the laid-out pages so I can proof read them. But, in all my years of writing for the education market, I have never had any input into any of the covers. The decisions are made by other people on that production line and I’m stuck with whatever I’m given.

Sometimes I strike it lucky and I get a great cover, like the ones illustrator, Christian Schwager, did for my five-book series, Cory Jansen: Teen Spy.

Sometimes I’m not so lucky and I get something like this:

My experience with the trade book market (i.e. books you find in an ordinary bookshop) has been limited. My first book, a YA short story collection called Life, Death and Detention, was published in 1999 by Margaret Hamilton Publishing. I was a naïve young author who didn’t even think to ask what they had planned for the cover. As it happened, I was really rather pleased with the finished product, which was just a montage of stock images. But it was well put together and reflected the feel of the stories within its pages.

My most recent experience was with the cover of Gamers’ Quest, published late last year by Ford Street Publishing. I got to have input, right from the word go. The publisher actually gave me a choice of cover artists. I went with Les Peterson, as I was familiar with his work and he had done a lot of science fiction art in the past. The brief for Les was to make the cover look like a computer game. As he worked on the cover, which went through four drafts, I was able to comment and give him feedback along the way. The result is a cover that has proven to be extremely popular with the target audience of young teens. I’ve found that at book signings and school visits, these kids have been clamouring to get a copy of the promotional poster, which features the cover artwork. Needless to say, I’m very pleased with it.

Tune in next time as author and storyteller, Jackie Kerin, drops by to tell us about Phar Lap.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll post some more of my not-so-good book covers. 😉

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A Celebration of Books at the Ford Street Literary Festival

Last week I attended the Ford Street Literary Festival at Scotch College in Hawthorn and I really wanted to blog about this inspiring example of kids having fun with books and their creators.

(Pictured below are Jo Thompson, Meredith Costain and David Miller who got down to the bare bones of writing and illustrating at the Ford Street Literary Festival.)

What better way for an author to spend a day than in the company of other authors and illustrators and 175 enthusiastic kids and their dedicated teachers?

Graham Davey (champion of children’s literature in Australia) was the MC for the day and he kept the kids entertained and the day moving along smoothly.

Students from schools across Victoria from Years 5 to 10 gathered to talk books and writing with Paul Collins, Meredith Costain, Justin D’Ath, Hazel Edwards, George Ivanoff, , Phil Kettle, Doug MacLeod, Felicity Marshall, Foz Meadows, JE Fison, Liz Flaherty, Sean McMullen, David Miller, Michael Salmon, Jo Thompson and me.

It was fantastic to see kids enthralled by books and coming to an event like this prepared with enthusiastic and informed questions for authors and illustrators.

A book quiz challenged the kids to work together and share their book knowledge to win a box full of books for their school – and all competitors attacked the task with enthusiasm.

Then Michael Salmon (pictured right with Phil Kettle) did an illustration demonstration that kept the kids mesmerised until it was time for JE Fison’s launch of her exciting new Hazard River Series.

It was great for me to catch up with fellow Boomerang Books Blogger, George Ivanoff from Literary Clutter – and of course the entire group of inspiring Children’s  authors and illustrators.

After the quiz and author chats with students, we all moved to the auditorium to watch Michael Salmon work his magic.

Then there was the sales and signings where students could buy their favourite Ford Street titles.

The Ford Street Literary Festival was a reminder that there are so many great ways to celebrate books and what they can bring to a child’s life.

What Not To Gift Part 2 – Expensive Ink and Pricey Poems

It’s that annual Christmas question – what do you buy the person who has everything? How about a copy – in fact, the only copy – of the world’s most expensive book?

Tomas Hartmann, a German writer who calls himself “greatest philosopher of all time,” announced in 2008 he would sell his book. As in book singular. His masterwork of philosophy took thirty years to write, and boiled that wisdom down to just thirteen pages and a price tag of €153 million (about 230 million Australian dollars).

And, lest you be worried that the story is wooden or the prose less than stellar for that sort of price-tag, the author was quick to assure you this was, in fact, a bit of a bargain. At just $17.8m a page, he claimed the book would “answer the three final important questions of humankind in less than three hundred sentences: Where do we come from? Where are we going? And: What is the real task we still have to take on?”

If that seems a little out of your budget, Hartmann also planned to sell just 5,000 copies of his book of philosophical poems at the bargain price of $2,300 each. (However, he did keep a caveat on that stating that if he won a literary award, the price would increase to €1.53 million per book.) I haven’t read the book, as it is unaccountably unavailable in either Boomerang or my local library, but I can take a good stab at the distilled wisdom of Hartmann’s thirty years of philosophical thought.

I have got it down to just eight words and I give to you here – for free – as my little Christmas gift to you all.

A fool and his money are soon parted.

And to think I could have charged $40 million or so a word. And at least my version is easily available. You will have to find out where the copy of the The Task is as Mr Hartmann stopped displaying the book in Dubai in 2009 and my google-fu has proved too weak to find out whether it was sold and how much it actually sold for.

If your enthusiasm for the most expensive book in the world is undaunted but you really don’t have the time to hunt for it, more easily traceable is Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Codex Leicester”. Penned by the Renaissance Man himself, this notebook of original drawings, notes and sketches fetched a cool $30.8 million dollars when it last sold in 1994. You’ll have no issues finding it, although getting an appointment to discuss buying it could be fun – it was snapped up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Less unique but still pricey is Shakespeare’s “First Folio,” a first edition collection of the Bard’s plays. It’s estimated 250 copies remain of the 750 copies published in 1623, and a complete copy broke records in 2006 for being the most expensive book ever sold at auction, going under the hammer for just over US$5m.

If this still sounds a little extreme, you can go for something more modern. The die hard Hobbit fan in your life would probably love a copy of the special 50th anniversary hardback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings which comes in at just under a hundred dollars, and fashionistas can be pleased for less than a price of some shoes by Avedon Fashion 1944-2000, a photographic compendious of spanning six decades of one of fashion’s most iconic photographers, which will add style to any bookshelf.

Or, of course, there’s always gift vouchers. While I know some people consider them less dramatic than gifts as a present, but I can assure you that a gift voucher that goes into three figures, let alone the million dollar bracket, will definitely make their jaw drop.

If You Guys Were Publishers, You’d Publish Books

So I watched The Social Network the other day, and there was a particular scene that grabbed my attention. In the scene, Mark Zuckerberg (the inventor of Facebook) tells a group of Harvard grads who are suing him: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” It took me a moment to parse this zinger, and once I did I thought it might just be stupid. But a couple of items in the ebook news this week made me think of it again.

The first was Joe Konrath’s invented dialogue on his blog between an author and acquisitions editor. To spare you wading through the whole thing, the gist is this: digital avenues to publishing have made traditional publishers rip-off merchants who gouge authors to line their pockets. It plays into a deep vein of mythology in the aspiring author world – publishers are out to get authors, steal their work and change it, steal their profits and then dump them when they prove not to be profitable anymore. And to those authors, I say this: if you wanted to self-publish your book, you’d self-publish your damn book. To Joe Konrath’s credit, he has actually done this, and made a very decent living doing so. But a brief flick through the comments of his blog post are a sideshow of authors who agree with him, but haven’t actually found success by self-publishing their work – digitally or otherwise – all beating the same drum: the publisher is dead, long live the self-publisher.

The other bit of news that has been flittering around the blogosphere over the past week is that Amazon is setting up a script assessment arm. Essentially they’re creating a space for writers to critique each other, with the best scripts that float through the system being passed along to Warner Bros in an exclusive first-look deal. There’ll be cash prizes throughout to motivate writers, and any writer that does get their script successfully turned into a film is guaranteed $200,000 from Amazon. Many bloggers, understandably, are seeing this as the death knell for script assessment, and can easily see Amazon turning their vast infrastructure into doing the same thing for book manuscripts.

I can see the same thing happening. But I’m not as convinced that it’s going to work. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love it if it did. When Authonomy first started, I thought it was a fantastic idea. Get a community of writers together to assess each others’ writing, and the best will surely rise to the top, to then be skimmed off by enterprising publishers. But to the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t worked fantastically well for HarperCollins. And I don’t believe it will work fantastically well for Amazon either.

The thing about publishing books is that there is a massive proportion of people who read who also want to write. Massive. And here’s the other thing: most of them are bad. So while the theory behind getting writers to do their own filtering is enticing, the logic is flawed. You can’t ask bad writers to assess other bad writers and expect them to find gold. This is why the industry uses a pool of readers, editors, agents, publishers and even other writers to help filter out the bad from the good. All of these people are talented and have a stake in the outcome, and work very hard to maintain a standard of quality in published books. And readers still complain that too many bad books are published. And writers still complain that there are too many ‘gatekeepers’.

So, bring on the self-publishing revolution, I say. Let all would-be writers who cannot get noticed by an agent or publisher publish their own work. And let us see if it succeeds. Because I strongly suspect that if these writers and companies were publishers, they’d already be publishing books.

More Profanity Please – Won’t Someone Please Think Of The Children?

I was eleven when I read my first adult scene. And the only reason I was reading it was because I wasn’t meant to.

Judy Blume’s Forever is a story about negotiating family stress and pressures, what happens when your parents divorce,  bereavement and teenage relationships and contains a scene with – in the words of our teacher – “young people being bold”. Despite that scene, it’s not really what you could call pornographic. It’s a touching story, written for younger readers, about negotiating the hormonal and emotional teenage rollercoaster with some maturity and forethought. So, thinking carefully of our welfare, they banned it.

And now we were all trying to read it, passing one dog-eared copy around the class. Now, lets be clear here; we weren’t sure what the book was about. We didn’t know if it was any good. All we knew was it had been banned and that meant that we absolutely had to read it.

For much the same reason we ended up sneaking around Flowers in The Attic a year later, not for the story or prose, but for the incest scene that scandalised our parents and teachers. Thanks to someone deciding not only should their child not read it, but an entire task force of teachers needed to be mobilised to combat the threat of us reading it, they succeeded in running a publicity campaign that turned a mediocre horror tale into that year’s in-school must-read. Same with the horror that was the Sweet Valley High books.

I may never forgive them. If you’ve been forced to sit through any of the Sweet Valley High books, I’m sure you’ll understand. But they were banned, and so I had to read them.

Which pretty much suggests that the ideal way to get kids to read the classics may not be to extol their virtues but to shove in a few swearwords and stick “Adult Themes” on the front. That big red “Over 18‘s” label might as just read “PICK ME”.

Music, of course, realised this years ago. Many rock and pop musicians in the nineties found that if you hadn’t some swearing in your album, and this earned the “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” sticker on the cover, your record label would ask you to put in a few choice words.  Nothing sells to kids and teenagers like being told they shouldn’t buy.

Literature in Australia does have a classification system but books are rarely labelled. Books only have to display it if they are classified Category 1 or higher – basically for pornographic work with no literary merit (hallo again, Ms Andrews). Books that exceed the censor’s limit (racist and terrorist propaganda, for example) are not banned, but refused classification. Which is pretty much the same thing only a nicer way of saying the same thing – think retrenched rather than fired.

But maybe we need to get banning and labelling. Without those huge red labels, teens are missing out on the huge amount of controversy and smut that a classical education in literature can give you. Think of Othello, with murder and madness and racism and sex. Think of Wuthering Heights; physical and psychological torture that shocked readers when it was released, as well as a hint of possible incest.  Treasure Island, with the pirates being old school as opposed to Captain Jack- less swashbuckling, more murder, blasphemy and betrayal.

Perhaps it’s time to rude up the reputation of our classics. Update the rude words in Shakespeare so they resemble their contemporary counterparts. Highlight the fact that novels such as Lord of the Flies and On The Road, with their themes of war, torture, sex and drugs, are completely unsuited to younger readers. Cover the books in stickers labelling them immoral, profane and for adults only, thus making them irresistible to anyone under the age of 15.

After all, won’t someone please think of the children?

http://www.boomerangbooks.com.au/On-the-Road/Jack-Kerouac/book_9780141037486.htm

Dubious honour: Tsiolkas nominated for Bad Sex award

Frequent readers of the Boomerang Blog will know that Aussie author Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap has been up for every literary award imaginable. Now, a more dubious honour to add to the list: the Literary Review‘s Bad Sex in Literature Award, which (dis)honours the most embarrassing passage of sexual description in a novel.

“It’s very repetitive,” one of the judges, Jonathon X told The Guardian, explaining the novel’s nomination, “the sheer laziness of saying ‘they f–ked for ages’ is just one example of slack writing.”

Other nominated books include Maya by Alastair Campbell, and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

The award aims to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”.

This year’s winner will be announced on Monday, November 29 in London.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Tokyo’s Vices

Tokyo ViceI’ve written previously about how it’s often the surprise finds of writers’ festivals who turn out to be the best. I don’t want to write like a broken record…but that’s again been proved true with Jake Adelstein, who I inadvertently heard speak while I was sussing out China’s literary wild child Mian Mian, with whom I was to appear on a panel later in the Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF) program.

I’d heard rumours Adelstein was entertaining from eavesdropping on general queue discussions. He’d been interviewed in a prior session by ABC Radio’s (and my personal hero) Richard Fidler, and I kicked myself for not making it along (I blame a timetabling clash, although I now can’t recall what I went to instead—clearly it wasn’t much chop). What I didn’t expect was Adelstein’s intensity and passion. This is a guy who’s suffered for his art.

I understand his obsession with Japan—I studied it for six years and have been fortunate enough to go there three times, although I can’t even begin to pretend that I’m either proficient in the language or across the country’s social and culture nuances—but I was blown away by Adelstein’s immersion and subsequent story.

He headed to Japan to study as a 19-year-old and wound up working for—I’m tempted to say ‘infiltrating’, for it’s no mean feat—one of Japan’s largest, best-known, Japanese-language newspapers. Over the subsequent 12 years of 80-hour working weeks, he learned the subtle and distinctly Japanese nuances of what can and can’t be discussed, cultivated sources inside the police and the yakuza (the Japanese mafia), became the only American (and perhaps foreign) journalist ever to have been admitted to the Tokyo Metro Police Press Club, and blew open some fairly incredible and fairly harrowing stories.

I expected Tokyo Vice: A Western Reporter on the Police Beat to be a kind of Japanese-themed version of Brian Thacker’s Rule No. Five: No Sex on the Bus, which documents Thacker’s hedonistic time as a Contiki tour guide. That is, a quirky but largely light and funny look at the complex, often contradictory, Japanese culture and customs. And it is that in parts. I chuckled at a ‘coming’ and ‘going’ sexual reference that I’ll leave the book to disclose properly, as well as the comedic moments Adelstein’s being an interloping foreigner (and a foreigner whose particular features meant that he could be mistaken for being from a variety of different countries at that) prompted.

Rule No. Five: No Sex on the BusBut I was horrified (in a good way) at the seedy underbelly of Japan that Adelstein not only uncovered, but blew open. Long story short, Adelstein discovered and exposed two key and overlapping stories. First, that one of the top yakuza bosses had effectively ratted out competing yakuza in order to obtain a visa and a liver transplant under dubious circumstances courtesy of the USA. Second, that Japan has long been turning a blind eye to human (sex) trafficking. Through articles written about both (and that he had lots of trouble getting published initially for publishers’ fear of yakuza retaliation), Adelstein nearly lost his marriage and his life, but helped shine the spotlight on Japan’s dirty secrets. It seems that the Japanese don’t like to be embarrassed on the world stage by being named as one of the worst human trafficking-offender countries and are now trying to clean up their act.

Adelstein was incredibly emotional when he recounted the stories during the BWF panel—his wife and children had been threatened, he had to move them back to America for their safety, he was placed under police protection, and he now has the dubious honour of having an ex-yakuza bodyguard—and Tokyo Vice is not quite the riotous foreigner faux pas rampage through polite Japanese culture I was expecting.

But that’s a plus, because as someone fascinated by Japan, yet always on the outer of understanding the country’s cultural nuances both because I’m Australian and because I’ll never speak or understand Japanese the way one would need to to pick up on such little-known aspects as this book covers, Tokyo Vice gives me a window into the good and bad of Japan.

It also gives me a window into the life of someone whose love for the country drove him to uncover and attempt to address its darker aspects, in spite of the grave personal repercussions. Thumbs up to Tokyo Vice and double thumbs up to Adelstein, who’s continuing the work on an international scale.

Little Piggies

This Little Piggy‘Tis funny the things you learn from books. The quirky, the apparently useless but interesting trivia that stays with you long past the time you’ve finished reading them. Equally odd are the books that you wouldn’t have realised there was a market for, but that find yourself completely suckered into buying as soon as you see them. Thereby, of course, becoming part of that particular book’s buying market.

That happened to me on Friday with Jane Croft’s This Little Piggy: A celebration of the world’s most irresistible pet.

It’s a small, square book about micro pigs, which are the next big thing in so-cute-you-want-to-squeeze-them must-have pets. Often smaller than cats, dogs, and even chooks (although one of the book’s big warnings is that there’s absolutely no guarantee Babe will stay pint-sized and you might end up with a hefty heifer of a pig careering around your backyard and through your house), micro pigs are apparently smarter and cleaner than dogs. They also apparently come with in-built, highly developed fridge-raiding skills, with the author recounting the various fridge-locking devices of which her pigs have made short shrift.

Among the pig-themed facts I picked up from this impulse buy was just how large a part pigs have been in humans’ lives. No, I’m not talking about the amount of bacon omnivores consume, but that pigs have been around on every continent except for Antarctica for about 40 million years, that they’re smarter even than chimps, and that they have proved masterful adapters, which included them being the first animals ever to be successfully domesticated. As the book puts it: ‘Pigs have successfully adapted to forest, swamp, savannah, and now sofa.’

Oh, and they also have about 15,000 taste buds, which exceeds those possessed by any other animal, including humans, and have such acute smelling senses they can sniff out things underground. Like truffles.

The mini pig incarnation is the result of some clever cross-breeding (at least, I hope it is—I don’t want to know if there are some nasty genetic modifications at play). Judging from the glossy pictures full of little trotters so adorable that even Anne Geddes would be jealous, micro pigs are so weak-at-the-knees cute that the words universally emitted from anyone who sees said book are, ‘Awwww, I want one’.

Which I now do, however impractical (and subsequently useless trivia-related) it may be.

NON-FICTION CHRISTMAS BOOKS FOR BOYS

I have two boys who love  gadgets and technology but they are also avid readers. So I always enjoy buying them books for Christmas.

A lot of boys seem to be like mine, and they like to collect hundreds and hundreds of facts about all sorts of things from world’s biggest and world’s oldest to sporting facts and countries that watch the most TV.

Scholastic has a selection of books out that make ideal Christmas gifts for the fact-finder, boy or girl.

BOOK OF FIRSTS

This book is both educational and fun and covers an amazing array of firsts in areas such as Air & Space, Entertainment, Exploration, Food, Money, Technology, Everyday Things and Transportation.

It’s the sort of information that kids like to store in their brains and impress family and friends with. There are cartoon style illustrations and easy to follow text.

ASHES HANDBOOK – The Ultimate Guide for Young Cricketers

For cricket enthusiasts like my boys, this book provides a feast of fascinating facts about cricket’s ultimate contest between England and Australia.

There are funny bits, fab bits, personal bits and there’s the opportunity for readers to be a selector or to do their own quiz.

AUSTRALIAN & WORLD RECORDS 2011

Even boys who don’t read much will have their interest peeked by the this book of diverse facts.

In this full colour production they’ll find information on Australian records involving Big things and culture, sport, recreation, nature, science, popular culture, human-made records, money and mega trivia.

Who knew that more than 70 canines were used in filming Hotel for Dogs…or that most of them were rescued from animal shelters…or that the ‘star’ dogs trained for more than 16 weeks for their roles?

There are more than 250 amazing records in this book.

K-ZONE PRANK PATROL

I don’t know if you have a practical joker in your house, but I have two of them. I suppose this book might be seen to be encouraging these antics, but on the upside, it can also encourage them to be creative.

And even if your prankster doesn’t put any of the suggestions into practise (which I hope mine don’t), it will give them something to giggle about.

This book carries a warning for pranksters not blame the publishers or contributors if they end up grounded.

Interview with Author Tony Park Pt 2

Tony Park is an author, adventurer and reader of digital books, so I thought I’d interview him to get his unique point of view on the experience. Tony’s currently hooning around somewhere in Africa in his Land Rover, writing his next book and doing the occasional safari, but he was kind enough to take some time out to talk to The Smell of Books. This is Part 2 of the interview. You can read Part 1 here.

Does anything about the experience of reading ebooks annoy you?

There are a couple of things I’d like to see Amazon change on the Kindle. Firstly, I think there should be a ‘blurb’, the back cover summary of what the book’s about, up front when you start the book. Also, there seems to be little easily accessible information about a book, other than reviews by readers, when you actually buy the book online or via wireless. Having said that, I’ve actually found it quite fun to start a new book and not know the first thing about the plot.

Secondly, the Kindle expresses your progress through the book as a percentage of the total book, at the bottom of the page. Honestly, I’d rather know I’m up to page 221 of 663, rather than be told I’m at 33 per cent.

How long have you been reading digitally now? What positives about the experience stand out that you think digital sceptics might not have thought about?

We’ve had our Kindles for about two years now. I’ve found that two of the best things about Kindle that the sceptics probably haven’t thought about are swimming and drinking.

If you’ve just come out of the pool or walked out of the sea and you’re dripping wet and/or covered in sand, you can prop your Kindle a little way away and just reach out with one (dry) finger and turn the pages. You don’t end up with a book whose pages are caked in sand and swollen around the edges from water damage, and you don’t lose your page if the wind picks up.

Same goes for drinking (and eating). It’s a lot easier to turn the pages with a single finger while eating chips and drinking beer than it is to do all that and keep a book balanced on your tummy.

Oh, and another good thing is that you can have several readers on the one Amazon account. This means that both Nicola and I can be reading the same book at the same time, which avoids the fights we’d have over who’s going to read a paper book first.

As an author, do you worry about piracy in a world of easily downloadable books (and devices to read them on)?

Yes, that does concern me. However, it’s a bit like someone telling me that they’ve read one of my books that they borrowed from a friend, or bought at a second hand shop. There’s no money in either of those cases for me, but as an author who’s still relatively new on the scene and hoping to build up my readership I’m just happy that that book is being passed around, so I can get some more exposure. If I was at the other end of the authorly spectrum – selling millions of copies like Wilbur Smith, then I’d probably have too much money to be worried about piracy.

What are you reading now?

Michael Connelly’s The Reversal, on my Kindle, of course. I just finished Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants on Kindle and if I’d had that as a paper book I would have needed to buy a trailer for my Land Rover to transport it.

That’s it, folks, thanks for reading. While you’re waiting for Amazon to ask for Tony’s endorsement of the Kindle (“It’s a lot easier to turn the pages with a single finger while eating chips and drinking beer”), you can read a sample chapter of The Delta here, and if you like it – buy it. His backlist is here. You can visit Tony on the web here.

Series book covers

I’m still on the topic of book covers. This time, I thought I’d look at some covers for books that are part of a series. With a series, it’s really important for covers to be recognisably part of a set, and yet still have enough individuality to not be mistaken for another of the books in the series. It’s a tricky balance.

One of my all time favourite Australian authors is Terry Dowling. He has written four collections of science fiction short stories about a character named Tom Tyson, who travels the deserts of a future Australia abroad his sand ship Rynosseros. The four books have been published many years apart and by different publishers… but they have all had the award-winning artist, Nick Stathopoulos, illustrating the covers, maintaining the stylish look that he established with the first book back in 1990.

Another of my favourite Australian authors is Carole Wilkinson, who writes the marvellous Dragonkeeper series of children’s novels. The first editions of the first three novels had gorgeous covers. I love the combination of photography with illustration, and the use of colour.

With the release of the fourth book, all the book covers were given a make-over. Although the new covers are still good, my preference is for the originals.

Philip Reeve’s Larklight novels (whimsical, children’s steampunk) have all been illustrated by David Wyatt. Although the paperback versions show more of Wyatt’s lovely illustrations, it is the hardcovers that I like best. The illustrations are contained in ovals in the centre of the covers, creating a very stylish look, and the different colours make each one instantly recognisable.

The first two books in the new YA steampunk trilogy by Scott Westerfeld have been very eye catching, indeed. Nice and shiny and embossed, the covers for Leviathan and Behemoth do indeed do justice to the fabulous stories within.

That brings me to the end of my display of favourite covers. There are, of course, lots of other covers that I love — enough to fill many, many blog posts. But I figure I should do more than just endlessly post covers. So… Tune in next time for a more personal view of the subject, as I chat about the covers of my books.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… mmmm… shiny!

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2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival Program School Days

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has just announced the 2011 School Days Program.

For the second year in a row, the program features five primary school days held across Sydney, Parramatta and Penrith, with a day offered for free to NSW priority schools at Sydney Town Hall.

The line-up for the primary school days features Deborah Abela, Morris Gleitzman, Richard Newsome, Garth Nix and Sean Williams.

Secondary schools will have programs held at the Sydney Theatre and Riverside theatres, Parramatta, featuring Belinda Jeffrey, Michael Pryor, Bernard Becket and Cassandra Clare.

To see the full School Days program and for ticketing info, click here.

Love to say I told you so

In August, we featured Bill Condon on the blog to talk about his book Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God (click here to catch up). It really stood out for me when I read all the YA releases of last year – it was charming, funny, and as I’ve said a thousand times, Bill set it in 1967, which takes a lot of guts. At the time that Bill dropped by, I was still a little incensed that he hadn’t been recognised on the CBCA Older Reader’s longlist, let alone the shortlist. But now, proof there’s some justice in the world. Since he appeared, his Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God (I don’t think I can link to it enough) has gone on to win the PM’s Literary Award f for YA.

So, Bill, from everyone at the Boomerang Books family, congratulations on your big win. And if you’re having trouble finding a way to spend that tax-free $100,000, you know how to get in touch 😉

Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God REVIEW
In a time when publishing for young adults seems to privilege the here and now (and sparkly paranormal romance), Bill Condon had the guts to set his Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God in 1967. There are no token youth-of-today references – there’s not an iPhone or a Facebook fight in sight – instead, readers are confronted with an affecting narrative, authentic teenage voices, and an honest reflection on the adolescent male experience. It’s a timeless story with real heart.

What Not to Gift – Part 1, the Kris Kringle

Christmas is coming, and your co-workers want their pressies. Much like your credit limit and your waistline, office relationships can be stretched to breaking point by Christmas’s excesses. Gifting books in the anonymous Kris Kringle may seem like a great way to solve who-to-buy-a-present issues, but you can still get it wrong.

Not a great idea, even if their name is Bruce Banner.Make sure, first off, that your gift doesn’t identify you, in addition to being selfish. Don’t gift your co-workers a voucher for your side-business or an obviously pre-read book midway through a series you have been raving about. Don’t gift them books that you ask to borrow before the wrapping has come off. Try not to draw attention to their short-comings; resist to urge buy them books like “Anger Management for Dummies” or books on job-hunting.

And well-meant presents can go wrong too. Don’t gift your co-workers – no matter how much they might appreciate them – with semi-pornographic fiction, non-fiction or How To Make Love Like a Porn Star, which might bring a little joy but also a lot of attention from HR and Legal.

It might seem tempting to buy a business book, given that it’s professional. But this can not only be disappointing for the receiver, it can lead to MORE work in the New Year if they are the easily impressed type.

I still haven’t forgiven someone for introducing a former manager of mine to Jim Collins’s business development classic book, Good To Great. When we re-opened in the New Year we discovered we were stuck with endless meetings on the Hedgehog Concept (which isn’t a reference to partying like Mad Monday at the NRL, for those worried) which required discussing what our company could do better than anyone else in the world in order to clarify our business plan.

Business books are meant to be inspiring, but for those of us who are occasionally visited by the Reality Fairy thinking like this can be little difficult. I mean, best in the world? Seems a little unrealistic to set the bar that high, kind of like aiming to get eleven out of ten  – impossible unless you are a Fortune 500 CEO or on Junior Masterchef. But the book is firm on the matter. So, in order to satisfy the frothingly insane enthusiasm of the Jim Collins fan, you end up doing ever more specialised “best” parameters. “We believe are the best in the world at being a SME accounting firm who all wear purple.”

No?

“How about who all wear purple and speak in a Monty Pythonesque Frenchman accent?”

(Good to Great also required that we talk about our BHAG, or Big Hairy Audacious Goal, which reminded me more as a phrase of parts of the anatomy usually covered by pants than work-related. Come on, if a stranger on a train asked if you wanted to see their Big Hairy Audacious Goal, you’d be switching carriages pretty fast, right?)

So, what should you get co-workers? Good ideas include books that suggest you know they have a life outside the office, such as a book on their hobbies, interests or destinations. Most foodies will enjoy a cookbook (and most cookbooks, such as Pho’s Kitchen, are also pretty as coffee table books) and many gardening books can be far more fun to peruse than actually getting out there and working on your yard. Or, if you’re not sure of any of their interests – or even what they look like – you could go for something interesting but unlikely to offend, such as the hilarious Is That Thing Diesel, or the Gruen Transfer‘s offering.

And if you don’t think you can get them a gift without insulting, offending, or ignoring their interests? Well, there’s always gift vouchers.

Some book covers

You can’t judge a book by its cover. A very true statement. Many good books have crap covers and many crap books have good covers. But people do often judge books by their covers… or, at least, they make their reading choices based on covers. Unfair? Yes! But a fact of marketing. A book’s cover can affect sales. Today, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite book covers.

Clive Baker’s The Thief of Always, a children’s horror novel, has gone through quite a number of different covers over the years. Here are a few examples:

But it is this cover, that I like the best. It’s eerie, it’s intriguing and it captures the feel of the novel.

The Jelindel Chronicles, a series of YA fantasy novels by Paul Collins, have all had good covers, but for me the stand out cover was the final one. Cathy Larsen created this beautifully stylish cover for Wardragon.

Author Neil Gaiman has had a long association with artist David McKean, who has illustrated and designed the covers of many of Gaiman’s comics. McKean illustrated and designed this cover for Gaiman’s collection, Angels & Visitations.

Covers are often designed using stock photographs and illustrations, rather than being specially commissioned illustrations. One of my favourites in this vein, is this cover for Iain Lawrence’s children’s novel, Lord of the Nutcracker Men.

Interestingly, there was another version of this cover, where the photo of the toy soldier is larger and more prominent. I prefer the version with the smaller soldier. There was also another, more cluttered cover, which lacks the impact of the simpler cover.

I also really like this one for Caiseal Mór’s YA fantasy, The Harp at Midnight.

Let’s return to the specially illustrated cover. Here’s the cover for Andy Mulligan’s YA novel, Trash, illustrated by Richard Collingridge. I love the way the title is actually formed out of trash. Have a look at Collingridge’s website to see more of his fantastic artwork.

Christopher Pike has written lots of YA horror novels, and Paul Davies has illustrated many of them. This is my favourite, for the novel Master of Murder, which also happens to be my favourite of the novels (mind you, I’ve only ever read three of Pike’s novels).

Finally, I’d like to mention Kerri Valkova’s Ditmar award-winning cover for Richard Harland’s weird humorous horror novel, The Black Crusade. Yes, okay, I’m slightly biased as I happen to be married to Kerri… but I still think this is an awesome cover. I love its graphic, cartoony quality. I live in hope that one day Kerri will get to illustrate one of my book covers.

Do you have a favourite book cover? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

And tune in next time for series book covers.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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Interview with Author Tony Park Pt 1

Tony Park is an author, adventurer and reader of digital books, so I thought I’d interview him to get his unique point of view on the experience. Tony’s currently hooning around somewhere in Africa in his Land Rover, writing his next book and doing the occasional safari, but he was kind enough to take some time out to talk to The Smell of Books.

What was it that convinced you to finally go digital for reading?

My wife, Nicola, and I had been talking about ebook readers for a while, after seeing a Sony that a friend of ours from the UK was using. We travel in Africa for six months of every year in a Land Rover that we leave with friends in South Africa. As avid readers one of the biggest logistical challenges for us has always been having enough to read while we’re on the road. We read a lot while travelling (more so than at home), and it’s not unusual for us to be out in the African bush away from shops for weeks on end. Outside of South Africa it’s also hard to find decent bookshops on this continent. So we would carry a hell of a lot of books with us. To put it into perspective, we had four large plastic storage boxes in the back of the Land Rover for all our gear and one of these was devoted entirely to books. We thought that an ebook reader would be the ideal way to cut down on weight and bulk while travelling, and, as we tend to move in and out of internet reception, we liked the idea of shopping online or wirelessly for books.

Are you a digital convert for music, movies or TV? Or just books?

Books and music so far. I like the idea of downloading movies, and maybe TV series, but I haven’t cracked the code on how to do that yet. Our internet connection while travelling in Africa is getting better each year (we connect using a mobile phone connected to the laptop), and while it’s no problem to download books to the Kindle and songs to the computer, the speeds we get are not good enough to download movies. I’m evolving, though, and might look at downloading some movies before our next trip.

Why did you decide to go with Amazon’s Kindle?

I was doing some freelance writing work for a PR company in Sydney and one of their American clients had a Kindle (this was before they were released in Australia). I really liked the look of it and the guy offered to get us one and bring it back to Australia on his next trip. Nicola and I decided to give it a test run. It was a bit of a dodgy deal, as we had to register it with a US address, and we couldn’t use the wireless download function in Australia, but we loved it, right from the start. While we were away travelling in Africa the Kindle was released in Australia so we immediately ordered a second ‘proper’ one, and got Nicola’s mum to bring it to us in South Africa when she came to visit us. Before the second one arrived we were fighting over who would use the Kindle next.

Is there anything about good old fashioned books that you (or your wife) miss? And are any of those things enough to drag you back to paper books?

No and no. The first thing people who have never used an ebook reader say when you try and tell them how good they are is, “Oh, but I just love the feel of a book, and the smell of the crisp new pages … blah blah blah.” That’s a load of crap. I don’t miss the paper or the smell or the weight of a book!

However, if I’m in Australia (not travelling) in a bookshop and I see a new release by a favourite author I’ll buy the paper book version if I know it hasn’t been released on Kindle yet. It’s all about the words and the writer, not the medium, so I’ll grab a paper version – even a hardback – if I can’t wait. I’ve also got a few signed copies of books, which I treasure.

Tune in next time, folks, for the final instalment of the interview. In the meantime, you can buy Tony’s latest book, The Delta, and/or visit Tony on the web here. Check out his blog: he’s a seriously funny bloke.

HEDGEBURNERS: an A-Z PI mystery

Goldie Alexander’s Hedgeburners: An A-Z PI Mystery was inspired by Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ and she decided to write a contemporary version.

The book is loosely based on a series of actual crimes committed in the recent past where a series of old hedges was burned down by a gang.

The story is told from the point of view Zach Santisi, the reluctant helper of budding detective Anna Simpson.

Anna will stop at nothing to find the truth. Zach is a little less zealous. He’s not into mysteries so much and if he doesn’t get his homework done, he’s at risk of having his beloved breeding birds confiscated.

Zach and Anna are joined in their quest by Zach’s pet rat M, Brett the nerdy journalist and Ruby who wants to be a famous wrestler. It’s the characters and their quirks that add humour to the story.

The problem Zach and Anna face is that just about everyone they come across has a motive and as time goes by, more fires occur and Zach and Anna put themselves in ever increasing danger.

The young detectives are aged 13 and this book will appeal to children aged 10-12 with an interest in mysteries and adventure who enjoy plot twists and turns, and trying to work out whodunnit.

The underlying issues between the adults in the story add another layer to the plot and pave the way for class discussion on a number of topics.

The text is complimented by the clever and lively illustrations of Marjory Gardner. www.marjorygardner.com/

Goldie Alexander is the author of over 60 fiction and non fiction books for adults and children of all ages. You can find out more about her at www.goldiealexander.com

Final Thoughts on Gone with the Wind [cont.]

Gone with the Wind , despite any historical inaccuracies (it is fiction, peoples!), paints a fascinating portrait of the Deep South in a time of social and economic upheaval. The novel details the economical depression the rich Neo- Europeans experienced following the war; Europeans who brought their gallantries and notions of class distinction to the Southern tobacco and cotton plantations of the United States. In the years following the Civil War known as the Reconstruction era, Southern society is dramatically altered. Classes have been turned upside down – the gentility scrabble for food whilst their beloved lands are bought by folks considered ‘poor white trash’…and then there is the arrival of a group called the Ku Klux Klan, whose meetings are held in secret and attended by many of Scarlett’s former gentlemen beaus – fearful of their black slaves now riding around in carriages and petitioning to vote.
In writing Gone with the Wind, Mitchell sidesteps any 20th century bias towards gender, racial and class equality and instead allows the attitudes of the era to be fully realised through her characters. Even Scarlett as the protagonist expects her black nursemaid to know her station, although she admits she loves ‘Prissy’ like her own mother.

The outcome of the Civil War for the Southern gentility is accepted by some, and not accepted by others, of this class. In the novel, love interest Ashley is the debonair dreamer who has trouble conforming to farmhand ways, and fantasises about his past life. At some point Scarlett recognises the stark difference between those like herself and those like Ashley: she will conform to survive because she is looking forward to tomorrow, whereas Ashley can’t function in the new world because he’s still dreaming in the comforting bubble of yesterday. Certainly, no one could accuse Scarlett of giving up and refusing to function, come what may.

In the end, though I thought I would fall in love with Scarlett the way Rhett Butler had, I am left feeling ambivalent about her character. It is true that Scarlett O’Hara is fiery, fiesty and high-spirited, and the epitome of pragmatism. But she is also spoilt, childishly self-absorbed, temperamental, apathetic about the feelings and sentiments of anyone other than herself, and, as I’ve said before, a horribly careless mother.

One thing I will never forgive Scarlett for, is that she is not a lover of literature. So many books that I hold dear to my heart have characters who take immense enjoyment from reading. I can follow their line of thought so easily, but with Scarlett I polarised between thinking “Wow, she’s refreshingly honest!” to “I’m actually offended by what a book character just thought/said”.

Perhaps I’m being too hasty. Perhaps this is the anti-heroine I’ve been waiting for, to combat all those fictional damsels-in-distress I loathe. Miss Scarlett O’Hara may not quite understand what the philosophers and dreamers are philosophising and dreaming about, but she is unapologetically ‘Scarlett’.
I dislike her immensely today, but tomorrow could be a different story. After all, as someone once so eloquently put it, tomorrow’s another day!