This Woman is Power Unbound: Interview with Nicole Murphy (Part 3)


Alas, this is the final part to the three-part interview featuring Nicole Murphy, author of Secret Ones and Power Unbound. If you’d like to learn more about the author or the series, she’s also got a featured website and a regularly updated blog which you can access here. But before you do that, check out the rest of her answers below…

9. Recently, you embarked on a ‘writing retreat’ with a group of other fantasy writers. Can you tell us a bit about that experience? Would you recommend writing retreats for budding writers, without reservation?

I love, love, love my writing retreats! A group of us get together and we write lots and talk about writing lots and then we eat and drink and watch fabulous movies 🙂

I can’t recommend writing retreats without reservation because there are a lot of things that make them work. Personality is a big thing – in our case, we’re living with people for two weeks and even people you consider friends can get on the nose in that time. Also, you have to be clear upfront what the expectations are – for some, the retreat is more about the social side, for others it’s the writing and that can cause conflict. I also think it’s something better left after a couple of years of writing under your belt, cause you need to know you really love it in order to do it six to eight hours a day for two weeks!

10. A lot of writers have a particular area where they like to write. Where do you like to write your books?

The romance is the easy part of me – I just seem to have a natural feel for putting characters together, knowing when to test them … What I like to write, however, is the bits that are challenging because they’re the ones that teach me about writing and storytelling and I want to get better with every thing I write.

11. What books are on your nightstand at the moment?

Actually, a Johanna Lindsey – one of the Mallory books. I’ve got a massive TBR pile – friends books, books recommended to me, books I picked up really, really cheap. I’ve just read The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson and loved it – need to get the rest of her books now. And prior to that two short story collections – Dead Sea Fruit by Kaaron Warren (brilliant, brilliant writer and I’m not just saying that cause she’s a friend) and Magic Dirt by Sean Williams (who managed the rare feat of writing a story that I won’t forget – not that I hate stories, but it takes something amazing to make me remember cause I have a terrrrrrible memory – but then spiders do that for me).

12. The failsafe book choice to give your friends for birthday/ Christmas is (aside from your own!):

Actually at the moment I have to say Death Most Definite, by Trent Jamieson. I really think this book has everything – fantasy, destruction, mystery, suspense, romance, death – I do love an anthropomorphised Death 🙂

13. If we look into the crystal ball, what’s in store for Nicole Murphy over the next year or two? Any new writing projects to look forward to?

Oh yes, yes yes yes. I’m currently working on the sequel to Dream of Asarlai – a trilogy I’m calling The Free Ones but will undoubtedly be pitched to publishers as something different cause I SUCK at titles (hopefully I’ll have news about the future of that later this year). It’s set two years after the events of Dream of Asarlai and deals with the fall-out from that and a new future for the gadda. I’ve got several short stories being published in 2011 and I’m hopeful there will be more. I’m planning to break out into other genres as well – erotica and contemporary romance being a couple I’m playing with. And 2011 is the year of the convention for me – so far there’s five I’m attending.

We’ll wait and see what 2012 has in store 🙂

***

A HUGE thanks to Nicole Murphy for just being an awesome interviewee, and of course HarperCollins for the opportunity. GIVEAWAY up next!

The Pen & the Stethoscope

The Pen & the Stethoscope There’s a long tradition of doctors turning their hands to writing, either concurrently or after they hang up their stethoscopes. I think (and here I go making sweeping generalisations) this is in part because many of them always wanted to write but ended up in medicine because they were clever and had a solid way with words.

Regardless of how and why they write, it’s fair to say that we non-MDs sit up and take notice when they do. It might be something to do with the white coat or the fact that we know they’ve spent years cramming their brains full of life-saving knowledge, but we pay doctor-writers a healthy amount of respect.

Which is why, of course, I was interested in the collection of stories brought together in Leah Kaminsky’s The Pen & the Stethoscope. With half its pages devoted to non-fiction stories by doctors and the other half to their short fiction, The Pen & the Stethoscope offers a window into doctors’ writing and minds.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A HatThese include the esteemed Peter Goldsworthy, whose books include the likes of Three Dog Night and Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, and Oliver Sacks, who became a reading household name with his standout The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

As a predominantly non-fiction reader and writer, I have to fess up that I much, much preferred the non-fiction half of the book. I also have to fess up that as a Brisbane-based reader, I’m pretty much all Nick Earls’d out.

Checklist ManifestoBut I was impressed with Atul Gawande’s article about how checklists—yes, humble and oft-dismissed checklists—are cutting infection rates in hospitals (he also expands on this in The Checklist Manifesto, but I feel that the point is less laboured and more concise in this, the Cliff Notes version of the tale). I also enjoyed (although that’s perhaps not the right term) Perri Klass’ tale of being a paediatrician who came down with Whooping Cough. I didn’t enjoy but am glad I read Robert Jay Lifton’s documentation of the horrors enacted by Nazi-sponsored doctors. Most of all, I relished a number of the other doctor-writers’ stories of their initiation into doctorhood as interns.

House of GodThe latter reminds me of the hallowed, must-read for all medicine and nursing students, House of God. It was written in the ‘70s but contains salient and still-current advice and insight into the craziness of being an intern. It coined the term GOMERS and the phrase ‘Be a wall! Don’t be a sieve. Be a wall.’ But that book deserves an entire blog of its own…

This Woman is Power Unbound: Interview with Nicole Murphy (Part 2)

Aaaaand we’re back, like I promised, with the second of a three-part interview with Aussie author Nicole Murphy!

4. What can fans of Secret Ones expect from Power Unbound?

The same mix of magic, romance, adventure and mystery but this time focussing on Maggie’s best friend Ione and her new love, Stephen. Oh, and by the end of the book, you’ll know who Asarlai is 🙂

5. Were any particular scenes in Power Unbound more difficult/ more fun to write than the rest?

Stephen was hard at first – he’s a terribly obsessive man, but I had to show that there was more to him than that; something within that Ione could fall in love with. I played with lots of storylines and ways to do it and it didn’t all come together until the very end of the editing process.

Writing Jack’s scenes were almost too much fun – really, can I get paid for laughing at myself?

6. Speaking of scenes, there are a few scenes in your novels which could be described as, err, steamy – but these scenes don’t seem to overshadow the romance aspect…how important is it for you to ‘keep the romance alive’ between your characters?

Very important 🙂 I wanted these books to show modern relationships, with real people … the bedroom tends to be one of the places where the truth of a person really comes out. But also, I wanted to make it clear that these are relationships for keeps – there had to be more anchoring these two people together. Friendship. Respect. Admiration. Common interests and aims. Hopefully I’ve managed to do both.

7. Are there any spoilers you can give us about Book 3 in the series, Rogue Gadda (pretty please!)?

Rogue Gadda is the story of Hampton and Charlotte. I’m quite nervous about this – most of my female readers have been quite enthusiastic in their – appreciation, shall we say – of Hampton and so telling his story has a lot of potential to go really, really bad. But being a big fan of Hampton myself (yes, I know we’re not supposed to have favourites but Hampton is just soooo bloody yummy…) I had a lot of fun writing his story, and I’ve given him a woman who’s going to challenge everything he thinks and make him eat humble pie in the process 🙂

Plot wise, all I will say is – the person that Asarlai links up with at the end of Power Unbound isn’t her final co-conspirator in the plan to reveal the gadda to the world. Someone will betray the bardria and the guardians big time, and the clue as to who that is lies in Power Unbound.

8. Most authors, unconsciously or consciously, draw on their own favourite writers as inspiration: which are your favourites?

I am a Tolkien girl. In fact, the first romance I read was the appendix of LOTR that told the story of Aragorn and Arwen, so while it might seem weird to note Tolkien as a starting point for a writer of fantasy romance (really, he didn’t try hard to get girls into those books, did he?) it is true. Other formative fantasy writers were Ursula le Guin and CS Lewis but today, I tend to get more from current writers. For example, Trent Jamieson is teaching me a lot about the formatting of a series and I overdosed on Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books. Romance wise, you’re talking Amanda Quick and Jude Deveraux. The first cross-genre romance I read was Johanna Lindsey’s Ly-San-Ter series (science fiction romance) and that was the book that made me think ‘Hmm, I could combine fantasy and romance…’

***

Part three up tomorrow – and then, *gasp*, ANOTHER GIVEAWAY! Hoorah!

USER REVIEW WINNER: 50 Steps to Lose 50kg and Keep it Off by Sally Symonds

50 Steps to Lose 50kg and Keep it Off by Sally Symonds
Reviewed by AliceE

At last, a weight loss book that doesn’t tell you to give up an entire food group or live entirely on protein. Sally’s book is based on personal experience, so all of the steps she gives here are actually achievable for a normal human being.

There are loads of practical and creative strategies to help you incorporate healthy eating and exercise into your life while still going about your daily existence – going to work, doing the school run, etc – and still doing things you enjoy that involve food, like eating out. If there’s one thing this book has taught me, it’s that getting fit and healthy doesn’t mean giving up all the good things in life!

Since Sally’s own weight loss story is the basis of the advice she gives, this is also a much more enjoyable read than most other weight loss books. It’s honest, funny, and inspiring – and if it worked for Sally, it can work for you, too!

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, AliceE has won $50 to spend in Boomerang Bucks.

REVIEW: Beatle Meets Destiny

I’ve been delaying this for a little while, reviewing books is delicate business, and well, Gab Williams is a friend, but I guess I’m gunna have to suck it up and just come out with it: Beatle Meets Destiny is all kinds of fantastic.

I first read Beatle last year, and loved it. But that was after spending a day of laughs with Gab in Hyde Park, and dinner (and wine) with her family at her place. I was very aware of the fact that I may just be a tad bit biased. So, I put it down, and revisited it over the Christmas break.

And when I read something for a second time, I go for broke. I find typos, I analyse the minutia. I figured, if there was one thing that’d expose my bias, it’d be my close second reading. I was part-way through my second reading of the first chapter when I discovered the first crack: the dates didn’t match up (one of the characters couldn’t have been born in the year they were and be the age they were when the novel was set… if that makes sense).

I became fearful, maybe it wasn’t as good as I’d remembered… and then, I felt it happening. Despite the fact that finding everything that was wrong with it was my prerogative, and I was holding it to a higher level of scrutiny than I would’ve if I hadn’t met Gab before I’d read her… I still loved it. Possibly more than during my first reading.

I started to recognise and appreciate the absolute command Gab has over language, the charm of the prose, the effortless way she balances humour and heart. She’s a bro.

The date mistake as a one-off editorial error, and it doesn’t weaken what is one of the most outstanding YA releases in recent memory (and we’ve been spoilt with some outstanding YA in recent times). The voice is confident, the story is moving, and… understated. It’s about a teenaged ****** survivor, but Gab doesn’t milk it for cheap emotional moments, and most importantly, she knows that isn’t enough to build a novel out of.

While most realistic YA novels that deal with sensitive issues deal with them exclusivel (their blurbs usually read: “so-and-so is struggling with x and y“). And that’s it. In contrast, Gab keeps the issue understated and builds a compelling narrative around it. It isn’t even mentioned in the blurb. This is a love story first, issue book second. And that is what magnifies its impact (which is why I censored what it is in the review… it’s something that should be experienced naturally through the narrative).

And the dialogue! It sparkles with wit. I think, that will sell the book more effectively than me yapping on about how good it is. So, here’s an excerpt. The context: the titular Beatle and Destiny are sitting in a booth, it’s their first night out together, and they’re talking about… peas:

‘So that’s peas covered,’ Beatle said, arching an eyebrow. ‘What about your Qs?’
He intertwined his fingers with hers. Looked at the contrast between his hand, the big, blokey fingers, compared with her small-and-pleasantly-delicate-against-his ones.
‘Well,’ Destiny said, biting her lip, ‘I’m not crazy about them. But seeing as we’re talking letters, I’d quite like to have a look at your Rs.’
And she slid her eyes down to his arse, just for a moment, then collapsed in a fit of giggles.
‘Omigod,’ she said, putting her hand over her mouth, ‘the things that are coming out of my mouth tonight! I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’
Beatle looked at her seriously.
‘I hope you don’t mind me saying,’ he said, ‘but I suspect you might be a bit of a Ts.’
She laughed.
‘A?’ she cocked her chin.
Beatle looked closely at her. He moved towards her. His mouth close to hers.
‘Hang on,’ Destiny said, holding a finger up to Beatle’s mouth, preventing him from moving any further forward. ‘What’s the etiquette here?’
Beatle frowned at her.
‘The etiquette?’
‘You know. I met you on the tram stop. I’m just not sure what the kissing etiquette is in this type of situation.’

Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams
A young adult novel that doesn’t quite go along the traditional boy-meets-girl lines. For one thing, Beatle never normally goes out on Friday the thirteenth, but this night is an exception, and how can he avoid talking to the attractive girl who is wearing sunglasses and reading a book while waiting for the tram? Not only is her name Destiny, but her surname is McCartney, and since his real name is John Lennon, and for a whole heap of other spooky reasons as well, it seems destined that they will be together. But Beatle already has a girlfriend. Not that he’s in any hurry to tell Destiny about her… Click here to read the first chapter.

This Woman is Power Unbound: Interview with Nicole Murphy! (Part 1)

This woman is fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. Nicole Murphy hails from a location close to me (Queanbeyan) and her hubby is – get this, you fellow Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fans – one of the top croquet players in Oz. Well, get your flamingo mallets ready, cos we’re lucky enough to have Nicole Murphy on the blog for not one, not two, but three interview posts. Her answers are fascinating, so be sure to grab your cup of tea and settle down in front of the computer to hear more about this romantic Spec Fic author…and post two goes up tonight, so you don’t have too long to wait for more answers, my pretties. Just be patient…

1. Secret Ones is the beginning to your Dream of Asarlai series, and continues with the most recent release Power Unbound. How would you describe the series to potential readers, in 25 words or less?

Dream of Asarlai is a series of romances played against the background of a secret magical race, a quest for world domination and political infighting.

2. If Secret Ones was being made into a movie, who would you pick as your perfect cast for the main players of the novel, and why?

Ah, the dream of every novelist – having a movie made of their book. A dream more for the money you receive than because Hollywood gets it right every time, cause they don’t. A couple of the characters are quite clear to me – I’ve always pictured Lucas as a David Boreanaz type, while Hampton is more your Keanu Reeves (funny – that’s all the hot guys. Hmmm….) Physically, that is. In terms of personality, Hampton’s a bit more Gabriel Byrne, while Lucas is – well actually David Boreanaz still fits 🙂

As for the girls – Ione’s kinda a young Tilda Swinton and Maggie? I’m thinking Scarlett Johansson – Maggie’s absolutely gorgeous, but there’s a real depth to her as well which I think Scarlett can pull off. Or maybe Reese Witherspoon, if she were prepared to put on a bit of weight to get some really bodacious curves.

The rest of the cast – not sure, except that I’d love to have Martin Sheen play John O’Hara. If only to be able to sit next to him and say ‘You know, I think Charlie’s really hot but seriously, WTF?’

3. Can I just say here that I love strong female protagonists? The first book in the series very much focuses on the female as harnessing the magic, rather than the male… do you believe that women harness a type of magic in real life? Do you feel it an important task to represent women in novels as being strong, capable types equal to men?

I think it’s very important to have women in novels be strong, capable and equal to men. I think it’s also important to show that across a range of feminine strengths, and not just through kick-arsery. I love kick-arse heroines, but that’s making a woman take on a societally accepted masculine strength, you know? One of Maggie’s great strengths is her adaptability (having been a primary school teacher myself, I KNOW how important that is) and so it was great to show that as something that can be used to hold your own against the men.

As for magic in real life – I think that while there are downsides to the ways women have traditionally been brought up, there’s upsides as well and one of those is a greater awareness of people and their needs. Now while that was instilled in us to make us good little girls who will do what’s right for others and put them first, I think an effect of that is we can develop an understanding of the world and our place in it that men aren’t generally taught to have and if we’re smart, we can use that to beat them 🙂

***

Remember, post number two tonight!

I Like Big Books And I Cannot Lie

Some blogs back I wrote of how bewildered I was that there were people who didn’t read for pleasure. I’d made the awful discovery courtesy of a now ex-boyfriend who didn’t/doesn’t—gasp, swoon—read. The relationship didn’t go or end well although, in retrospect, a writer and rapacious reader trying to find common ground with a non-writer and non-reader was always doomed to spectacularly fail.

The blessing in disguise (and I’d have to say a heavily cloaked, visible-only-if-you-squint-and-happen-to-be-a-glass-half-full-kind-of-person disguise) was that this guy inadvertently ‘helped’ me realise I have not one iota of interest in dating someone who isn’t a reader so voracious that you have to hide your books from them lest they snarfoo and devour them before you’ve even cracked the spines.

So what I love is the following video, which is cheesy to the hilt but so, so clever on so many levels.

It ingeniously encourages kids (especially boys) to read by:

–        involving the kids in the video

–        connecting with them using a hit pop culture song with a fun and memorable rhythm and lyrics

–        using a non-reading tool of delivery (You Tube), but one with which kids are familiar

–        utilising social networks and viral marketing to convey its message (I found out about it via a friend in London posting it on Facebook, and I’ve subsequently posted it myself)

–        making nerds and reading sexy (hooray!)

–        breaking down the high vs low literature debate by encouraging kids to read, whether it be graphic novels or John Steinbeck

–        targeting all kids, but particularly boys, as the protagonist who’s surrounded by lots of reading ladies throughout is male

–        not taking itself too seriously.

It even contains an incisive, insightful literary quote from Mark Twain (which I didn’t personally know): ‘A man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read’. Mmmm, deep.

I’m sure reading habits have increased in this school and plenty of kids are now rapping the lyrics to this brilliant video. Me? I can’t get the song out of my head and am heading back to rewatch it and learn behind ‘I like big books and I cannot lie. Informative or sci-fi…’

Lists

Last week, author Kate Forsyth blogged her Best Books of 2010 list. Kate reads A LOT and she reads widely. So much so, that her list is broken up into ten categories covering everything from fantasy to historical to memoir to non-fiction. It made me think about my best books of 2010 list, which I blogged a few posts ago. And now I feel the need to explain myself a bit.

For those of you who can’t remember (and who don’t want to go back and look up that post), here’s the list again:

  1. Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (I’d also include Leviathan, which was published in 2009, but which I did not get around to reading until 2010)
  2. Trash by Andy Mulligan [read my review]
  3. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger [read my review]
  4. Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski [read my review]
  5. f2m: the boy within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy

I’m not the fastest reader in the world, and with two young children and a career to maintain, I just don’t read as much as I used to. And because I only read a limited amount, I don’t read as widely as I used to. I tend to read books that I’m pretty sure I’m going to like. So my list has been put together from a much smaller and narrower set of books than Kate’s.

Also, my list is only of books published in 2010. When I came to writing the post, I looked at the pile of books I had read during 2010, which was divided into two groups — those published in 2010 and those published earlier. I went through the 2010 group and picked out what I thought were the truly outstanding books. There were others that were really, really good, but I chose only those that had that extra spark. It happened that there were five of them… so I made a Top 5 list. BUT, it should have been a Top 6 list. There was one other book that should have been there, but I had accidentally placed it in the ‘not published in 2010’ group. 🙁 My bad. That book is Shirley Marr’s Fury, which I’ve previously reviewed on Literary Clutter. I feel terrible at having left it out, as it is a superb read.

Now, if I were to extend that list further, and include all the books I read during 2010, it would become a Top 8 list. There would be two pre-2010 entries that I would need to include…

Human Nature (from The New Doctor Who Adventures series) by Paul Cornell, which was published 1995. One of the best Doctor Who books I have ever read. A complex tale with a very unique approach, it ended up being the inspiration for the televised two part story, ‘Human Nature” and “Family of Blood”. Well worth a read if you’re a Doctor Who fan.

The Tripods books by John Christopher. There is the original trilogy published in 1967/8 (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire) and the prequel published in 1988 (When the Tripods Came). I’ve previously blogged about these books, and as a set they would have taken out the Number 1 slot on my list.

And now that we’re in to 2011, I’m still reading books that were published in 2010. So as this year progresses, my 2010 list could theoretically expand even further. But I think I’ve rambled on enough about lists!

So, tune in next time for a guest post about punk music.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll make up another list.

.

MR TRIPP SMELLS A RAT

Mr Tripp Smells a Rat is a hilarious Walker Story from Sandy McKay and Ruth Paul.

Walker Stories are great for newly independent readers because they comprise three short and entertaining stories, offering reading in manageable bites. This means a new reader can enjoy the satisfaction of reading an entire story on their own from start to finish.

Mr Tripp Smells a Rat is a fun ratty collection about an escaped rat, a surprise birthday party and an itchy insect invasion; just the sort of thing to delight young readers.

Each story features Lily and her teacher, Mr Tripp.

Mr Tripp is awesome. He is round like a teddy bear and he wears a red shirt that comes out over his tummy.

In the first story, Mr Tripp Smells a Rat. Ricky’s pet rat escapes in the classroom and it’s up to Mr Tripp to save the day, overcoming his own fear in the process.

Mr Tripp also tells terrible jokes that the kids love and this is how the second story, Mr Tripp Eats Some Fish starts. In this story, he keeps everyone entertained with his seafood diet – but there’s a big surprise for Mr Tripp at the end.

The trilogy finishes with Mr Trip Finds a Nit, a great story on a contentious issue. This is a great story for helping take the stigma out of the nit issue common to most classrooms.

This charming early reader has themes of pets, health and hygiene – and there are plenty of jokes and riddles to keep young readers giggling all the way through.

The text by award winning, author Sandy Mckay is hilarious and the young readers will find Ruth Paul’s comical illustrations irresistible.

A second Walker Stories title featuring this loveable character will be published later this year. Keep your eye out for Mr Tripp Goes for a Skate.

Interview with Will Elliott – Author of the Pendulum Trilogy

Today’s special guest on the blog is Brisbane author Will Elliott. He’s stopped by to have a quick chat – his Pendulum trilogy is a creepalicious brand of fantasy, beginning with Pilgrims and continuing with the recent release of Shadow.

Now Will, I read somewhere online that you’re not into “genre labels”…how would you then describe your book series, in your own words, to potential readers?

This is fantasy, I suppose on the darker side of fantasy. What I meant was genre labels don’t bother me. Some people get all worked up about it, which I’ve always found strange.

Shadow follows on from the first book Pilgrims: what can fans from the first book in the series expect from Shadow?

More characters introduced, some of the questions / mysteries set out in book one being revealed and new questions asked. The nature of the world and the grand conflict between dragons and gods is delved into a little more, whereas in book one it was more about the human characters.

Any authors/ fictional works that have particularly inspired the Pendulum series?

I set out trying to incorporate those fantasy and sci fi elements I’ve enjoyed in Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, Mervyn Peake and Lovecraft. Not to compare myself with these masters of course, but I meant to use little touches here and there of what I enjoyed from their works. There is also a lot of non-fiction work which was key, but this relates to mythology and the paranormal (so-called) rather than the work of particular authors.

You’ve won quite a slew of awards which has garnered you international attention. Do you feel happy with how your books have been received? What’s your stance on reading reviews/critiques of your own work?

I have no more ego in this game. I used to very much tie my identity and self-worth with how my books were received, but that is a load of nonsense. It is certainly pleasing if someone appreciates the craftsmanship, but I am entirely comfortable that not everyone will like something I’ve written. That’s fine with me.

I remember you appearing on a special episode of the ABC TV show The First Tuesday Book Club a while ago (I like to go through the website’s video archives from time to time)! I have to say, I am incredibly jealous that you were able to converse with the bright and shiny Jennifer Byrne…how was that experience?

Intimidating. Not Jennifer per se, but being on TV, which I have since come to regard as a source of much evil in the world. I would not want to go on TV again. TV is for reality control and brainwashing.

I also remember that the TV episode was something to do with vampires, and that you considered Bram Stoker’s Dracula to be an important read. Do you think there is room for people to relate to/ read Dracula in this Twilight-obsessed era?

I think we need to put fiction about vampires aside and start looking at the real ones. They do indeed exist, they just look different to what most people expect.

Name one thing people would be surprised to learn about you:

I cannot play the banjo.

What book/s are you reading right now?

“The Dulce Wars.” It’s free online as a PDF, fascinating true story.

A new year, a new beginning. Any writing/reading resolutions for 2011?

I’ll be doing a new trilogy, if there is sufficient interest. A more back to basics setting for a story which is probably as involved as Pendulum, plot-wise, with many new creatures / entities. The world itself may be a bit less dynamic to the story, just because Pendulum was a very delicate balancing act. The ideas are quite new at this stage so there’s little to reveal… I’m now working out characters, locations and so on.

And finally, the most important question of the night: what would be written on your tombstone?

“Better red than dead.”

***

Thanks to the fabulous HarperCollins for lending us Will. Keep an eye out for a giveaway coming up in a few days time!

The Not-so Silver Lining of Cloud Ebooks

I’ve talked about ebooks in the cloud on this blog before, but with the launch of Booki.sh (partnered with Readings) and the imminent arrival of Google eBooks, we have two very viable cloud ebook systems setting up shop in Australia. Despite very different backing and support, these two platforms share a similar philosophy – ownership of and access to a book is essentially the same thing.

Technically, if you buy an ebook these days, you’re not really buying the book itself. It’s a common complaint and criticism of ebooks – the ebooks that are for sale are crippled with unreadable and ignored user agreements and with DRM (copy protection software). You can’t resell an ebook and you can’t share it with a friend (with some notable and limited exceptions). You don’t actually own anything physical, just the bits and bites of ones and zeros inside your e-reader or computer.

The Booki.sh  and Google eBooks systems don’t really give you any fewer rights to your book than if you bought it via the Kindle or iBooks stores. The difference is that there is no file to download. Instead, you access your book directly from Google or Booki.sh’s servers using your e-reading device. Your computer may temporarily store (or cache) a copy of the book so that you can read it while you’re not connected to the internet, but you never actually download a file to your desktop that can be moved around, copied or accidentally deleted.

The functional difference between accessing your ebook through the cloud or by downloading a file is negligible, and the possibilities offered by cloud ebook systems (instantaneous bookmark/notes/social network syncing etc) are exciting. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that a book I buy through a cloud ebook store is not really mine.

I do understand the frustration of people like Joseph Pearson, one of the people over at Booki.sh, who spent some time this week defending the concept of ebook ownership in the cloud to readers on the company blog. As he says:

And this is the point: if you “own” the ebook file, locked up with DRM — that’s actually the most anemic definition of “ownership” I can think of. I don’t see how — short of hacking it — that file is any insurance of your continued access to the book if you’ve purchased it from any of the major ebook platforms.

And this may well be the rub. When I buy an ebook, I like to think that given some light Googling and a bit of an investment of time, I can probably strip the DRM off the sucker. That means I own that file no matter what happens to Amazon or Apple’s servers. I don’t, in reality, bother doing this very often – but I know I could if I had to. Relying on cloud-only access to my book makes it feel more like rental than ownership – even if the DRM on an ebook makes it functionally the same.

Having said that, I doubt most ebook buyers think about this at all. So I’m interested in what you think. Do you buy ebooks? If so, where from? Would you consider buying ebooks through a cloud service like Booki.sh or Google eBooks? If not, why not? Do you consider the ebooks you do buy and download to be yours, and is DRM a consideration when you purchase? Even if you’ve never bought an ebook in your life, let me know whether this is something you think matters or would affect your purchase (or even the price you’d be willing to pay). Sound off and let me know in the comments below.

Jane McCredie on Making Girls and Boys

In 2007, when a 12-year-old child successfully applied for hormonal treatment to prevent their female puberty because they wanted to live as a boy, it got Australian writer Jane McCredie wondering, what is it that makes us a boy or a girl? From cradle to grave, our perceived gender has a fundamental affect on what we choose, how we live, and how we think about the world and how the world sees us. But are sex and gender really that simple a matter?

The belief that differences between the sexes are fixed or “hard-wired” in the brain has been labeled “neurosexism” and it’s a concept I am seeing crop up more often. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender was one of my most interesting reads of 2010 dealing extensively with the pseudo-science around sex.  The word neurosexism is up for nomination as the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year 2010.

Evolutionary psychologists, trans-gendered people, children playing with trucks and dolls, hormone specialists – they all have different stories to tell about what makes us girls and boys and Jane’s book, Making Girls and Boys, interlaces those stories to look at sex, gender and identity, both in the labs and on the streets. I caught up with her to ask a few questions.

Why did you decide to write Making Girls and Boys, and why now?

In 2007, a 12-year-old child successfully applied to the Family Court to have hormonal treatment to prevent female puberty because, despite being born anatomically female, he wanted to live as a boy. In the wake of the case, I wrote a feature for a doctors’ magazine about what clinicians call gender identity disorder — it could also be called transsexualism — and particularly its manifestation in childhood. I was surprised to discover in the course of my research how early transsexual feelings appear, generally in toddlerhood. If a three-year-old child could have an absolute conviction they belonged to the other sex, I found myself wondering, what did that say about how all of us come to know which sex we belong to and what meaning that has in our lives?

So, when the publishers approached me shortly afterwards to ask if I was interested in writing a popular science book and did I have any ideas, that was the first thing that came to mind.

Neurosexism has been in the news a lot, including being nominated for the Macquarie Dictionary word of the year. Why do you think this topic is now attracting attention?

It’s definitely relevant. Science tends to look for, and exaggerate, differences rather than similarities between whatever groups it is studying. The new technologies of neuroimaging are giving us an unprecedented ability to look inside living brains, but I think too much is often read into some fairly inconclusive results, leading to claims about “female brains” and “male brains” that can be pretty hard to substantiate.

Gender is an interesting and contentious subject. How did people react when you told them what you were writing about?

Most people are fascinated. We all have to go through the process of becoming men or women — or, in some cases, not quite either or a bit of both. So it’s relevant to everybody. There have been some very successful books based on the premise that men and women are irreconcilably different, that we come from different planets or some such rubbish. Simplistic ideas like that can be seductive, but I think most people know that we human beings are a lot more complex and we don’t really fit into boxes very well. I think people are hungry for more complex, more nuanced information about men and women.

What was the most interesting part of researching  Making Boys and Girls?

I think the most interesting thing for me was probably the personal stories. I feel very grateful to the people who shared their various experiences of gender with me. Often, these were very different experiences from my own and it took a lot of courage for some of these people to go public. But it was also fascinating talking to the scientists and reading the research and seeing what the science really has to tell us beyond a lot of the myths that get created in an area like this.

While you are experienced in writing, did you find that writing a full-length non-fiction book for a general audience brought any specific challenges? What is the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

Writing any book is a hard, hard slog. Something I found difficult in the beginning was working out how to put myself into the book. I realised early that I couldn’t write a dispassionate, removed account of this topic as though it had no relevance for my own life. It probably would have helped if somebody had told me at the beginning just to relax and just let the personal material become part of the story when that seemed the natural thing to do.

Any advice for non-fiction/science writers looking at a topic and thinking, “I could write a book on that?”

Just do it. By all means try to get a publishing contract first as I was lucky enough to do. But the only way to write is… to just sit down and write.

Jane launches Making Girls and Boys on Thursday February  10th in Sydney, at Ariel Books (42-44 Oxford Street, Paddington). If you would like to attend, the launch is at 7:30pm – please RSVP to marketing@arielbooks.com.au or (02)93324581.

REVIEW: Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini

TITLE: Proust’s Overcoat
AUTHOR: Lorenza Foschini
TRANSLATOR: Eric Karpeles
PUBLISHER: Portobello Books. (Allen & Unwin, PO Box 8500, 83 Alexander St. NSW 2065, Australia. January 2011)
ISBN: 9781846272714   128 pages.

This is a curious little book. It is not so much about Proust’s overcoat or about Marcel Proust himself but about a collector, a bibliophile, Jacques Guérin, whose passion for acquiring anything which had belonged to Proust – manuscripts, furniture, photographs, even his old overcoat – reads rather like a detective story.

Guérin was the bastard son of the famous French perfumier, Jeanne-Louise Guérin, whose own story, briefly told in this book, is as complex and fascinating as that of her son. As a young man, Jacques was trained by her as a ‘nose’ (one whose special olfactory gifts allow them to create unique and enticing perfumes) and he eventually took over the highly successful business of Parfums d’Orsay which she had founded. His real interest, however, and the primary focus of his life, became his growing collection of rare books, manuscripts and other ‘treasures’: and he had the wealth to indulge this passion.

Lorenza Foschini begins Proust’s Overcoat by describing the way in which an interview with costume designer, Piero Tosi, which she undertook for a television programme, led her to Guérin’s story. Tosi had begun to work on a  Visconti film of Proust’s most famous book, In Search of Lost Time. The film was eventually abandoned, but as part of his research Tosi had met Jacques Guérin, had been shown Proust’s overcoat, and had heard Guérin’s amazing story.

As a young man, Guérin had become a fascinated reader of Proust’s books. Then, a bout of appendicitis introduced  Dr Robert Proust, Marcel Proust’s brother, into his life. Calling on the good doctor after his  operation, Guérin was intrigued to learn that the massive and imposing bookcase and desk in the doctor’s rooms had been inherited from his brother. He was even more interested to be shown a stack of manuscript notebooks inside the cupboard which comprised the complete works of Marcel Proust.

In 1935, shortly after the announcement of Dr Robert Proust’s death, Guérin was exploring an antiquarian bookstore in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré when he discovered some proofs annotated by Marcel Proust. Talking to the bookseller about these, he learned that the bookcase and desk which he had seen in the doctor’s room were also for sale. He was introduced to a Monsieur Werner, who, over the next few years (and after much prodding and questioning) would sell him many Proust treasures which he had come to own through contact with Dr Robert Proust and his wife, Marthe. The final treasure, which Werner parted with after much delay, reluctance and embarrassment, and which he gave to Guérin free of charge, was a battered and worn overcoat which Mme Marthe Proust had given him to keep him warm when he went fishing. This overcoat, a dark, heavy woolen coat lined with otter fur, had been worn constantly by Marcel Proust from the time it was given to him by a friend in 1901. It had become legendary amongst his friends, because he was always seen in it, even at dinner. Finally, in the days before his death, it had kept him warm as he lay in his bed in unheated rooms (kept cool to help his asthma), pen and notebook held aloft, frantically finishing his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. Guérin, of course, was thrilled to have acquired it.

Guérin, writes Foschini, “had a taste for secrets and a love of hidden things”. Clearly she shares this love of fossicking out treasures and in this small book she follows Guérin’s tracks and tells, beautifully, his story, Monsieur Werner’s story, that of Dr Robert Proust and his wife and something, too, of Marcel Proust’s life. All of this is brought together by that battered relic, Proust’s overcoat, which now resides in a tissue-lined box in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. Foschini’s book contains a number of the photographs of the Proust family which Guérin had collected, and, of course photographs of the coat itself as Foschini saw it, “laid like a shroud at the bottom of the box”. It reminded her, she says, of the words in another Marthe, Marthe Bibesco, whose memoir was published in 1978: “At the ball”, she wrote, “Marcel Proust sat down in front of me on a little guided chair, as if coming out of a dream, with his fur-lined cloak, his face full of sadness, and his night-seeing eyes”. The photograph of Marcel Proust which Foschini includes in her book shows him looking just like this.

************************************************
Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

CHARLIE AND THE RED HOT CHILLI PEPPER

Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper is a hilarious chapter book from Australian children’s author, Sheryl Gwyther.

It’s the story of a very determined girl, Charlie who  loves growing and eating chillies and this year she has a very good chance of winning the Flaming Hot Chilli Competition.

Nobody else in Charlie’s family even likes chillies so this book is a great illustration to young readers that it’s okay to branch out and follow your own dreams.

Charlie is determined to take first prize in the competition but there’s a lot going against her. First she inadvertently almost poisons Dad’s boss with the Chilli. Then she somebody steals her chillies.

All that was left was a tiny chilli bud about the size of my fingernail.

When playing Mozart to her plant doesn’t work, Charlie is just about out of ideas to make her chilli grow.

Her sister, Suzie has a suggestion, but will it be enough to get Charlie’s chilli over the line? Because she now has only one chilli left, Charlie can’t even give it the all important taste test.

Everything seems to be going against her but Charlie refuses to give up.

I loved the humour in this book and Charlie is a great character and role model.  Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper has important themes for young readers including following your dreams and never giving up.

It’s also a great story about family and that it’s okay to be different.

Richard Hoit is a New Zealand based illustrator and his wonderful illustrations capture the humour and themes of the book.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Australian children’s author, Sheryl Gwyther spends a lot of time researching for her books and clearly, Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper is no exception.

For her dinosaur adventure, Secrets of Eromanga, Sheryl even went on a real fossil dig. Sheryl says she enjoys both the research and the writing process.

I’d been crazy about reading books and writing bits and pieces since I was little, but other things got in the way – school, jobs, travel, university, art school. Then one day I knew what I should be doing with my life … writing books for young people.

Sheryl is the author of a number of books and short stories for children. You can find out more about her at http://sherylgwyther.wordpress.com

Read-Along: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins (Pages 310 – 609)

We resume discussion of The Woman in White by the indomitable Wilkie Collins today, specifically the second half of the book. If you happened to miss the first part of my discussion (detailing the story/characters up to page 309 in my edition of the book), you can access that discussion post first, by clicking here. I have attempted in both posts to stop outright spoilers and to limit any hinting inferences for those of you who haven’t read the book yet. If you haven’t had the chance to read The Woman in White I’d still love you to read through my discussion posts so that you can get a bit of a feel for the book, and perhaps pick it up later down the track. Because really, it’s a bloody good read.

Well. It seems like years ago I was wondering about Count Fosco’s involvement in the mystery of the Woman in White and lamenting over the fact that Mr Gilmore didn’t get half as much narration as I would have liked. Now that all the loose ends are tied I’m feeling quite lost, and wondering how the characters are ever going to get on without me. Though, of course, I don’t miss Walter Hartright and that soggy spongecake Laura, thankyouverymuch (…and yet)…

I feel as if, aside from the sensationalist events that happen in the second part of the book, that the characters all went through some profound change within themselves. Interestingly though, Miss Marion Halcombe is the character that changes the least. She is still her stoic, understated self; forever faithful to Laura’s cause. I kept wondering whether she might end up with Walter Hartwright, but t’was not to be (fortunately, really). Speaking of Hartwright, his narrations in the second half were less arduous – after his trek through the jungle and some sad news it seemed as if he had matured somehow, and could finally be the man needed to solve the mystery once and for all.

I’m afraid I can’t say as much about the book as I did in the first discussion post, mainly because I only had questions then, and now I have the answers! Aside from the fabulous plot structure, however, I think I will fondly remember this book most for its depiction of women. Laura is the perfect playtoy to commence the story’s catalyst, Marion is more than a match for the villainous Count Fosco. Madame Fosco is a fabulously complex side character, submissive only to Fosco and ‘viperish’ to the ladies, especially. The housemaids innocently offer unique pieces to the puzzle, Anne Catherick harbours a secret so big her life is at stake for knowing it, and Mrs Catherick stews in her chair waiting for revenge on the man that ruined her. The men may think their secrets are safe, but it is the women of the book who hold the key to unravelling the great mystery.

I must say in closing that I have had great fun participating in this read-along, so much so that I’ve already signed up for February’s option: Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. I’m hoping Allie continues the read-alongs all through the year (hint hint), for the selfish reason that I can brag in book discussions about reading the classics. But also because I’m really enjoying them. I urge anyone who feels like they might want to participate to do so – even if you don’t have your own blog, you can always post in the comments here or on Boomerang Books’ Facebook page.

Farewell, The Woman in White. We certainly did have a rollicking good time together, didn’t we? I promise I won’t forget you. Rest in peace…or at least until I decide to pick you up again.

***

Disclosure: Bought.

Year of First Publication: 1859-60.

Year of This Publication: 2007.

Number of Pages: 609.

Book Challenges: Chunkster Challenge 2011; Gothic Reading Challenge; Victorian Literature Challenge 2011.

GIVEAWAY: Yearn, by Tobsha Learner!

Are you YEARNing for some spice in your life (see what I did there) ?

We have a fantastic Boomerang Blogs giveaway over at the main page which I think would float the boat of some of you readers. So I thought I’d just let you know, because I’m kinda cool like that.

Tobsha Learner’s newest: Yearn is just waiting for some unsuspecting vixen/victim to pick it up and read it. Bawdy and ripe for the taking, Yearn is a collection of no-holds-barred tales from an author who is “that rare beast: a wordsmith that can spin a yarn”. I remember reading Tobsha Learner’s The Witch of Cologne years ago, and so I know firsthand you’re in for a treat.

HarperCollins is being extremely generous this week: not only is Yearn up for the gropes and grabs of 10 lucky entrants, but 5 of those entrants will receive all three of Learner’s latest: Yearn, Soul and Tremble. The 6th will have the pleasure of receiving both Yearn and Soul, without the Tremble.

Let’s face it: these books would be worth winning for the covers alone, let alone the steamy contents!

If you’d like to be in with a chance to win any, two, or all three books, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump over to the main entry page, which you can access here.

Do you think that if I wore a moustache whilst filling out the form I might not be recognised and can enter the draw myself?

Actually, don’t answer that.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? (2)

“It’s Monday! What are you reading?” is a weekly event hosted by Sheila at Bookjourney to share with others what you’ve read the past week and planning to read next.

Finished

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

Immortal Beloved, by Cate Tiernan

Plugging Along

The Magician, by Raymond E. Feist

Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

Pilgrims, by Will Elliot

Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

Secret Ones, by Nicole Murphy

Starting Next

Slave of Sondelle, by Bevan McGuiness

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

Miscellaneous News

Just call me mercurial. There are so many non-fiction books out there that look interesting – I’ve decided to take on a non-fiction challenge. I’ve revised my Haruki Murakami challenge and now I will only be reading one book by Haruki, so I can make way for some non-fiction reads.

I’ll start off with three, and see how I go.

***

It’s Monday, what are YOU reading?

The (Brisbane) Flood

Flood_1I’m back in my apartment and online after—to use the most overused term in Brisbane these days—surreal turn of events: the 2011 Brisbane flood, which kicked off on 11/1/11 and blurred the next week or so’s worth of sleepless, stressful days.

My much-loved apartment was in one of the suburbs that was in the firing line—indeed, my near-water street was named straight up as one from which you needed to move yourself and your stuff—and I’ve struggled to comprehend and explain just what transpired a week ago. I’ve included below an excerpt of a blog I wrote to try to process it (it should give you some indication of the experience if you didn’t happen to be in Brisbane at that time) and, at the end, the book I think that most closely relates to the experience.

The Apartment Background

My brother recently moved into the investment property we’ve part owned for about six years and, after a year of discussing options (because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that no brother and sister can seriously share a place without the sister wanting to kill the brother), it was decided that he’d buy me out and I’d go find a one-bedroom apartment on my own.

We were tossing up between two apartments: one at Wooloowin and one at Windsor and I opted for the Windsor unit. It’s in a beautiful house that was built in the 1930s, that has frescoed (if that’s a word) ceilings, and that was divided into six apartments. It also happens to be on the very edge of and up the hill from—and on principle I feel the need to stress ‘on the very edge of’ and ‘up the hill from’—a flood plain.

The building was affected by the benchmark 1974 flood, but we researched the property and reasoned that:

  • Wivenhoe had been built so that the ‘74 floods would never ever happen again
  • half of Brisbane was inundated in ‘74 so my property wasn’t overly more prone than many others
  • they’d done work around the Clem so the tunnel wouldn’t flood, ergo Windsor wouldn’t flood
  • the building is something like four blocks and a community farm away from the creek that runs directly off the Brisbane River (I mean, compost and straw can be counted on to hold back water)
  • my apartment is up high on the top floor
  • it was a one-off apartment and I really, really loved it. Did I mention it has frescos?

So, my two now infamous remarks, issued as I got on a plane to South America in September, were:

  1. For me to be in trouble, half of Brisbane has to be in trouble.
  2. How often does it rain in Queensland anyway?

I know. It’s hilarious in a blackly comic kind of way.

Flood_2

The Flood

The stormwater drains out the front of my place went before the creek/river did, which was more than a little freaky. I met the local and non-local, sightseeing crackpots who espoused their flood theories. I spent a lot of time wandering the neighbourhood in my pyjamas. I spent many, many hours outside watching the water creep up on my place, and I got sunburnt, because I’d forgotten that the sun ever shone in Queensland, and because who thinks to grab sunscreen when you’re stuffing things into a bag to escape rising flood waters that are predicted to be of biblical proportions?

I realised that floods mean a shortage of food for possums, although power shortages result in a boon of emptied fridges. I was raided by the friendly neighbourhood possum at 2am on the Wednesday and he was not only not afraid of me, he looked me in the eye as he ferreted through my bin, ate all of the organic strawberries (whoever said possums don’t have good taste?) and bread crusts (I know, I know, but I’ve recently decided that I’m no longer five and if I don’t like crusts, I’m not going to eat them). He then did a lap of my apartment and called my wussy bluff by half-heartedly running towards me when I shook an empty Diet Coke bottle at him and told him he really needed to leave.

I learned that harsh reality that even if your apartment is on the top floor, you’re (almost) as screwed as if you’re on the ground if the ground floor goes under. I realised that the idea to fill my cupboards with books and not food was good only when there wasn’t a flood that may leave me stranded. I learned equally that people are stupid at the mere suggestion of an impending natural disaster. Sure, I may not understand because I drink soy, but what is it with bread and milk, people? And why would you buy perishables that, as the name suggests, don’t last long and last even less time when you don’t have power?

We had to talk down a rubbernecking idiot in a 4WD who was going to joyride through the water immediately out the front of our place. His efforts would have pushed the water over the doorsteps and into the apartments it was lapping and would have quite possibly seen someone pull him from his vehicle to punch him. There were reports of attempted looters who were busted a street away, although I should say that that report came from the close-talking crazy chick who smelled strongly of alcohol and who kept touching me. She may have harassed people who were legitimately checking out their property.

Flood_3I moved more than a million sandbags, as I helped sandbag and then un-sandbag the entire building (I now expect compliments on my guns and shoulders of steel). I learned that ants will crawl up your legs as they search desperately for higher ground and that if you don’t encourage them to move to other higher ground quickly, they will end up in your underpants.

I waded through murky brown, potentially sewage-infested water and didn’t freak out, especially not during the pitch blackness of the 4am peak when my father was a way ahead of me with the torch, everyone was on edge, and that screaming about the something suspiciously resembling the feeling and shape of a snake wrapped around my submerged leg would have seen all hell break loose.

I was horrified and outraged that not everyone looked after their pets during the flood, but I was also heartened that people rushed in to help foster the animals at the flood-swamped RSPCA. I can now confirm that trying to rid your place of sludge is like pushing sh*t uphill. Literally and figuratively. I also found that time expanded and contracted in ways I’ll never be able to articulate, much less understand.

I wondered what to say to neighbours that you know know that you do nudie runs between your bedroom and your bathroom. I did my best what-you-talkin’-about-Willis? face when someone suggested putting a sandbag in my toilet to prevent what I had previously never even known was possible: sewage backflow.

I found that you shouldn’t look at photos of your street from the ’74 flood. Or listen to the stories of the locals who experienced it and who are only too happy to show and tell you how your place went—and will go—under. After days of soggy, wrinkled feet, a phone that didn’t work, and mail servers that had crashed or been taken offline, I realised that I should own a pair of gumboots and a wind-up radio. And that I should buy shares in companies that make them. If I were smart, I’d be going out now to stock up on deodoriser things to mask the rancid sludge smell. And carrier pigeons. A flock of carrier pigeons.

I learned that every millimetre counts, with the difference between euphoria and disaster (we got lucky with the water lapping the doorways but for the most part not spilling over). I found that the most random things end up in your yard once the water subsides. Say, for example, a log and a vegetable peeler. I also wondered why they (they being the people who design and build things, as opposed to the people like me who write about them) would put electricity, hot water, and gas fitting thingys down low.

I’m relieved that the water didn’t go as high as they’d predicted, because I’d have truly been in trouble. But I also feel a little embarrassed that it didn’t go higher and we weren’t as affected as we could or should have been—the relatively minimal damage to my apartment block is inversely proportional to the outpouring of care and concern everyone’s shown. I quickly realised that although I mastered the art of sandbagging, I have yet to master the art of shovelling. I am grateful that while my parents did note that Wooloowin wasn’t flood affected, they didn’t say ‘We told you so.’

I came to realise that there’s no such thing as too much flood footage, particularly when you’re watching things you’ve spent a lot of time on or in float down the river. I was reminded that it’s ok to cry in public and that you’ll do it over things like tug boats saving the day. I was reminded that we all—me included—have too much stuff. I’m disturbed that the money being generously donated will go back into buying more stuff neither we nor the environment need. I felt (and feel) guilty that we’re getting so much attention while the disaster in Brazil is much worse and much less cared about. And I worry that this warm-and-fuzzy feeling won’t last and everyone will be back to mass and mindless consumption and road rage before we’ve cleaned up the last street. As a side note, the property my brother now solely owns is high, dry, and in perfect, un-flooded health.

Flood_4I noticed that despite owning the vehicle of choice for war-ravaged terrain or its equivalent, not a single Hummer driver was out using their vehicle in the clean up. I was also puzzled and saddened that finger pointing and calls for enquiries have already started, as if we can completely control mother nature and it’s someone’s fault that we had so much rain and that they should have known to release water from Wivenhoe sooner. Indeed, we seem to have collective selective memories. We criticised them for releasing water just a few weeks ago.

But on a happier note, I discovered that one of the best text messages you can ever receive is that someone’s place is high, dry, still has power, and that you’re welcome to come over to recharge your phone or yourself. I was reminded that there’s humour to be found in even the darkest moments, with my neighbours engaging in some sandbag-placement bets as to where the high point would be. And I discovered that it’s possible to basically not sleep for four or five days. Then you’ll be struck by a post-stress, post-adrenalin fatigue that’s so sudden and so overwhelming it borders on narcolepsy.

I now know what the apocalypse, should it happen, will be like. That The Road and whatever that Will Smith movie is are pretty much spot on (who thought Will Smith would ever be in a realistic-ish film?). I found that ‘surreal’ became the most overused expression to describe the experience, but that it was also the most apt. I found that everyone will prairie dog it, pausing, head high, to sniff the smell of cooking toast in the air when you’ve been without power for days. I also found that there are few things as blissful as having a hot shower and then dry, clean feet.

I learned that, however clichéd it may sound, friends and family and friends who are like family are pretty goddamn awesome. I’ve been overwhelmed by how many people have contacted me and offered support from all around the world and all around Australia and all around Brisbane. It’s been incredible and humbling and I can’t thank everyone enough. Especially not without breaking down into choked up sobs and awkward hugs.

And if I had to recommend a book to read that would go part way to explaining what transpired here (that is, a book that’s already been published as opposed to be the flood-inspired books that will emerge in coming months and years) it would be Dave EggersZeitoun. It’s a brilliant work of non-fiction that captures the aftermath of a man who stayed behind in New Orleans to protect his business and help during Hurricane Katrina. I’ve blogged about it here before and won’t go into details for this reason and because this blog is already enormously long. We didn’t experience anything quite so drastic in terms of law-enforcement reactions (I won’t say anything more for fear of ruining the story), but the rest of the story holds true. I highly recommend Zeitoun and will keep you posted about any works that come out of this flood experience.

One-Handed Or Two-Handed Reading?

All the iPad/Kindle/e-book debates in the world can rage however much they want. I’ve come to realise that as much as I love paper-based books, they’re impractical for two of my main past times: eating and exercising.

I’m someone who can’t read enough at any time, whose web browser homepage is a newspaper, who can’t walk down the street, stand at traffic lights, or sit or stand on public transport without, courtesy of such things as an iPhone or a Penguin Modern Classic, ingesting some words on a electronic or physical page.

This includes when I’m ingesting food. Sure, it flies in the face of all nutritional and dietary advice that you should pay attention to what and how much you’re putting in your mouth lest your portion control turn into, out of distraction, a vast, lack-of-controlled amount.

But life is short and there are too many books to read in that time. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are times where the multitasking opportunity of feeding both the stomach and the mind are too good to pass up. Which is where e-books and electronic reading devices come in: they’re flat, you can lie them flat or prop them up, you only need the occasional finger or two to scroll, and they can be loaded up with reading material far, far more interesting than the back of a cereal box.

Compare that leisurely and efficient reading experience with trying to hold the pages of a physical book open as you cut food and spoon (or fork) it into your mouth. Use two hands to handle the book and you are physically unable to feed yourself. Use one and you immediately develop a cramp in your pinkie and have to tilt your head to see the words close to the margins as the book binding threatens to overwhelm your single-hand thumb-and-pinkie-page-opening strength.

Transpose this issue to the gym and the issues are the same. Unless you break their spines (and their and my souls) to make them sit in unnaturally flat ways, books don’t adopt easy-to-read, hands-free poses on the treadmill (nor does the treadmill come with handy book-propping or book-strapping arms).

Enter the one-hand, two-hand issue again, with the former giving you a cramp and the latter resulting in some bizarre and off-balanced walking style and potential stack off the conveyor belt that could earn you an entry to Funniest Home Videos. Because we can never get enough of treadmill-accident videos.

And don’t get me started about trying to read while you’re on the reclining, back-supported bike. Hitting my knees on the book and sending it flying into my nose when my arms have gotten tired and I’ve unwittingly lowered the book ever so slightly, just about makes me want to weep with frustration.

Which is why, despite love, love, loving physical books more than is humanly healthy, I’m also very open to ingesting reading material at certain times via devices more suited to those occasions. iPad/Kindle/e-book, anyone?

Tony Bradman talks about writing

Last week I posted part 1 of my interview with anthologist, Tony Bradman. But there is more to Tony than anthologies. He is also an accomplished writer with dozen of books to his credit. Today, Tony is back at Literary Clutter answering my questions about writing.

You are a writer as well as an anthologist. Do you ever include your own stories in the anthologies you put together?

I did once or twice early on, but haven’t for a long time. It’s partly to do with being busy, partly because I thought it just looked bad, almost as if the editor had created the anthology just so he could publish himself, and partly out of a belief that it’s good to have plenty of variety and offer opportunities to others.

What do you prefer — working on your own writing, or working with other authors on their writing for an anthology?

I’m a writer first and foremost, and one of those who doesn’t talk about enjoyment – I find the whole process of writing very tough, an endless struggle with self-doubt and intractable material, words and plots that just won’t do what you tell them to! Although when it all comes together it’s brilliant, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had moments of real joy when a particular line or paragraph or chapter or even whole story works well and I know it. Working on anthologies is much easier. I like editing other people’s stuff, and have also edited some novels in recent years – I’m thinking of doing that on a rather more professional basis this year. I also think I’ve learned enormous amounts from editing other people’s work – a lot of editors know when a story isn’t working, but it’s knowing why and how to fix it that’s important! I sometimes feel like one of the mechanics I used to have to rely on to fix our old bangers – ‘Sorry, mate, I think your big end’s gone and your transmission is shot. You’ll have to get a new plot entirely…’

As an author, you have written a wide variety of material, from picture books to novels to non-fiction. Do you have a favourite type of writing?

I like writing anything that kids like reading. But recently I’ve been feeling that it would be good to write some poetry again – it was my first love and I published a couple of collections of poetry in the 1980s. And at the other extreme I’ve just written a long Viking fantasy novel, which has given me a taste for working on an epic scale. As we say over here in south London – ‘Huh, what is he like?’

Your latest books, the Happy Ever After series from Orchard Books, look at what happens to certain fairytale characters after their fairytale is over. I particularly loved Mr Bear Gets Alarmed, in which Mr Bear is left somewhat paranoid about break-ins after the whole Goldilocks incident. They must have been fun to write. Can you tell us a little about how these books came about?

I had the idea years and years ago, maybe as far back as the mid-1990s. I just always wondered what had happened to some of the characters in famous fairy tales. I started with Mr Wolf – I mean, what if he had a family he needed to feed? Three little cubs who would starve if he didn’t bring home the bacon? And it all just flowed from there. I’m really pleased you like Mr Bear Gets Alarmed as the central character is definitely a portrait of myself; and I also have a soft spot for The Three Little Pigs Go Camping (more autobiography).

What’s next for Tony Bradman?

More of the same, really – there are a number of possible projects bubbling under at the moment. But I’m also hoping to work a bit less! We’ll see…

Tony with his latest grandson.

My thanks to Tony Bradman for stopping by and answering my questions. For those readers who have young kids, I’d highly recommend the Happily Ever After series — my seven-year-old daughter loves them.

Tune in next time for a post about lists. Lists? ‘What sort of lists?’ I hear you ask. Lists of books, of course!

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

.

GIVE ME TRUTH

Author, Bill Condon always manages to get right to the heart of young adults and the issues they face. His book Give Me Truth, a story about family breakdown is no exception.

Teens, Caitlin and David have a lot more in common than they realise. Aside from attending the same school and being involved in the same play, they are both watching their families fall apart in a dramatic and violent way.

They are also alike in that they want to know what’s really going on inside their homes, and they have their own ideas about how it can be fixed.

One of the strengths of Give Me Truth is that it doesn’t shy away from reality. Bill Condon has created beautiful characters who face a difficult and ugly truth.

Give Me the Truth is about ordinary teens going through common family problems, but it’s they way these characters talk and act that makes them unique and authentic. They are teens who see outside themselves and dare to enter the world of someone else’s pain.

David

I said, Come outside for a while, Dad.’

But he was in another place to us, much too far away to hear. He kicked at the door and broke through the outer layer, leaving splinters and the imprint of his shoe.

Caitlin

Hi Mum,

I’ve gone out looking for boys with Megan.

(To audition for a play, really!)

Won’t be long. Hope you’re feeling better.

Love from your adorable oldest child

and future star, Caitlin

XO

Give Me Truth is another powerful, memorable novel from Bill Condon, the award winning author of Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God.

A Life in Words – Jay Kristoff on Getting Published

One day in Melbourne three years ago, Jay Kristoff decided to write a down a scene that was niggling him. Three years later, he’s about to become a published author. His first book, Stormdancer, which he describes as being set in a feudal steampunk Japan to a Rage Against the Machine soundtrack, is currently in a bid-counterbid shootout between two of the big American publishing houses.

You can expect to see it on the shelves in 2012,  and Jay – in between doing more writing and grinning a lot  – is taking notes on the process and happy to share them with other writers. His blog, Literary Giant (he is 6’7), details his adventures in getting stories from his brain to your bookshelf and has some invaluable advice to offer – including stats, graphs, links and a lot of laughs – in his own inimitable, irreverent and occasionally over-18’s kinda way. I caught up with him this week to get the story so far and some advice for aspiring writers.

Why did you decide to write and when did you start?

I decided to write because I wanted to do something constructive with my free time. I used to spend it playing video games and had sweet FA to show for it.

I started three years ago: I had a scene in my head, so I scribbled it down. Over eighteen months, it became my first novel. It was a half-arsed way to begin, and the book is flawed, but I wrote some scenes that made me realize I wasn’t Vogon-poetry awful. I loved the sense of purpose that writing gave me so I decided to do it “properly” with my next book.

What books inspire you?

Neuromancer, The Windup Girl, Across the Nightingale Floor, AKIRA. (Yes, I read comics. Call the Lit Police.) Which kinda makes it sound like Stormdancer is cyberpunk/dystopian, and it isn’t. But there are traces of the aesthetic and philosophy in there, and hey, look, two words that make me sound like an utter tosser…

What was the best and worst bit about writing? When you are not writing, do you sit in a beret in a garret drinking absinthe or what?

Best bits: When I write something good enough to make my wife cry. The woman didn’t even cry when ET died. So if she cries over my stuff, it must be the opposite of suck.

Worst bit: Rejection. Sending out something you love and watching it get curb-stomped, or worse, ignored. It happens to anyone trying to break into the industry. Repeatedly. But it never stops sucking.

When I’m not writing, I’m being a nerd (more so) or thrilling CG audiences on Guitar Hero (no, that is NOT the same as being a nerd). I did drink absinthe once, but it just made me want to go to the toilet.

You pitched to agents first – why agents instead of publishing houses?

Everything I read said you needed an agent to get published by a “Big House” in America. I figured, if was going to do this, I’d aim high. Having an advocate who knows the industry pitfalls is vital, and my agent (Matt Bialer at SJGA) and his assistant (Lindsay Ribar) are both awesome at what they do.

Plus, I get to begin sentences with the words “My agent…” when I’m trying to impress other tossers in absinthe bars.

What do you think is the main mistake people you can make when trying to get published?

I can’t really speak for anyone else, but I queried too soon. The manuscript was 98% there, but 2% is the difference between a real woman and the dude in “The Crying Game”.

I also made the mistake of sending to my “dream agents” first. That was my “argh” moment – realizing that all those great agents had read a sub-standard query. The only reason I landed one of those dream picks is that my e-query to SJGA got swallowed by the ether, and I re-queried later via snail mail (this time with a decent query letter and that extra 2% polish on the MS).

So yeah, I owe Lady Luck a foot massage.

What are you looking forward to most about seeing your manuscript published?

Just holding it in my hands. It will feel real then. This whole process has taken up so much of my life lately, and there have been so many disappointments. Being offered multiple deals after all those drop-kicks just feels surreal. I’m also getting happy pants thinking about working with an editor, and really making it sing. Stormdancer will be out early-mid 2012. We’re still considering offers, getting down to the business end now.

Any particular tips for aspiring Aussie writers?

It depends on what kind of writer you want to be. If you want to write 2,500 word sentences about a cup of Chamomile or win the Man Booker, I’ve got nothing. But if you want to maybe do this for a living one day, you probably shouldn’t think of yourself as Australian. Just think of yourself as a writer.

Know the market you’re aiming to sell in, know the titles that are selling in it. Don’t write to trends; this year’s Urban Fantasy is tomorrow’s Cyberpunk. Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace. Read Miss Snark, Query Shark and Author!Author! Get onto the AWWC forums. Follow the agent’s submission guidelines. Read my blog. That’s a shameless plug, but my “13 steps to fun and profit(tm)” post is quite relevant. The query letter that scored me representation is also posted there.

Write every day. Every. Single. Day. No exceptions, no excuses.

And for the love of God, no vampires.

GIRL SAVES BOY

I intended to review Girl Saves Boy at Kids’ Book Capers last year, but before I knew it 2010 was over and I’d run out of time.

I sat on this book for a while because I was savouring it. Every time I picked it up I found something different to like about it – the tone, the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the fact that the story hooked me and carried me along right to the end.

Written by teen author, Steph Bowe, Girl Saves Boy is the story of a girl who saves a boy from drowning and in doing so, dredges up a lot of past issues for both of them. So it’s not really about the ‘almost drowning’; it’s about the people involved and the lives they occupy underneath the surface.

I write YA myself, and recently when I felt like I was losing my way with a character, I picked up Steph’s Book and read a few pages. That’s because the voice in Girl Saves Boy is so authentically teen. It’s not surprising given the age of the author, but it’s also a book that has been written with maturity – that handles subtle nuances well – that keeps the reader turning the pages all the way through.

Girl Saves Boy is written from two points of view but the voices are distinctly different and easy to distinguish from each other.

Jewel is the girl in the book and this is how she starts her story.

My brother’s last word was: ‘Polo’

My grandfather’s last words were: ‘I feel better than ever. Stop fussing.’

My grandmother’s last words were: ‘Jewel, pop the kettle on, love.’

As far as I knew, my father was still alive, but the last words he uttered before he left my mother and me were spoken to me.

He said, ‘You should never have been born.’

Sacha, the boy Jewel saves from drowning is a lot less direct in how he tells his story.

The first time we met, Jewel Valentine saved my life.

There was a sudden and forceful pressure on my chest, and someone pinching my nose and pulling my chin down, and then a mouth against mine, filling my lungs with air.

Girl Saves Boy is a poignant and heartfelt novel about two characters that readers will care about and remember long after they have read the book. Author, Steph Bowe speaks with a unique voice that will resonate with both adult and young adult readers.

Thoughts on: Guardian of the Gate, by Michelle Zink

When I first read Prophecy of the Sisters (oh gosh, has it really been two years?) I fell completely in love with the story Michelle Zink had created. Then I began to pursue the Young Adult Gothic/Victorian genre further, and while it left my feelings on the story generally well in the positive, I also began to find the beginning to the series a little pockmarked. If you’re into this particular genre, you’re in luck because there is a veritable velvet pouchful of stories to choose from – Gothic Victoriana is so hot right now! And we have Stephenie Meyer to thank (though only in part, thank goodness).

I’ve already detailed a little about the trilogy here, but I’ll include the blurb to the second book which I will be reviewing in this post, just to be safe:

Sixteen-year-old Lia Milthorpe must journey to the uncharted isle of Altus to continue her search for the missing pages of the Book of Chaos – the pages that could tell her how to end the prophecy that has turned generations of sisters against each other. But the journey will test more than just her courage, it will also test her loyalty to her beloved boyfriend, James. Meanwhile, twin sister Alice will stop at nothing to reclaim Lia’s role as the Gate. And that’s not the only thing she wants from her sister: there’s also Lia’s true love. The outcome of their battle could have consequences of Biblical proportions and, in the end, only one sister will be left standing.

Guardian of the Gate is the second part to the trilogy, and whilst I certainly enjoyed the read, the book doesn’t escape from the issues I had with Prophecy of the Sisters. We can, however, start with the good news: the atmosphere in this trilogy is INTENSE. Like 90%-cocoa-in-dark-chocolate-INTENSE. I still love the woodsy setting, the dark houses on hills and the rushing river. But I guess there’s other things that are supposed to be present in this makeshift world; we just don’t really get to see much of it. So the world-building aspect is kinda weak.
The characterisation is much better than the first book, but still, the romance aspect definitely needs work. In Prophecy of the Sisters, the love interest is one-dimensional and feels tacked on. In Guardian of the Gate, the author has attempted to improve the romance and make it more real, but the potential for love springs out of nowhere this time, and I just couldn’t get into it. Basically, I felt detached from all the characters’ relationships – romantic or not – most of the time.

If you like gothic spins on your basic fantasy formula, then I don’t think you can go wrong with this book. The prose is nice and curly – it’s a bit of a mock representation of speech from the era, but it suits a younger adult audience well. If you’re a bit of a Picky Vicky however, might I suggest as an alternative the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray, beginning with A Great and Terrible Beauty. A book which has a similar feel, but with added extras: there’s some cute and light humour and the characters are much more fleshed out. A Great and Terrible Beauty also incorporates Greek mythology and a fabulous traditional boarding school – you can’t really go wrong with it.

All in all, Guardian of the Gate is a valiant effort and has a real grip on a ‘gripping’ atmosphere. I am still looking forward to reading the third and final instalment to the series and I can still recommend it for lovers of dark, ghostly YA fiction. In truth, though, this doesn’t really hold a candle against its main competition in the field, the wonderfully heart-squeezing Gemma Doyle trilogy. If you like the sound of this series, then you’ll LOVE that one.

***

I was given this book to review, by the luvvvverrr-ly people at Hachette.

Year of Publication: 2010

Pages: 340

Book Challenges: Gothic Reading Challenge

The Subversive Copy Editor

The Subversive Copy EditorThere’s nothing quite like finding a publication that not only ‘gets’ what you go through daily, it both teaches you something and makes you laugh.

That’s what I found when I stumbled across first the blog and then the book by ‘The Subversive Editor’ Carol Fisher Saller (AKA a senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press and editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A). She’s the woman whose job it is to field the public’s (and writers’ and editors’) grammar and style questions. And she gets some crackers.

The book opens with the apt and wry-smile-causing quote that ‘No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft’. It’s incredibly true, with editors daily fighting, containing, or unleashing their inner itch to rejig and rewrite clunky prose.

Saller covers plenty of situations where it is and isn’t appropriate to take to the writing with a literal or figurative red pen, but she also outlines plenty of instances and tools for managing those situations with aplomb. The book’s subtitle is: (Or, how to negotiate good relationships with your writers, your colleagues, and yourself).

We’ve all experienced writing or editing—even those of us who don’t make careers out of it—because most of us have to write something for school, uni, or work, or help out others who do. And we know how it feels both to have your writing slashed and burned, or to deal with someone defensive about even the tiniest edit. As someone who straddles both the writing and editing fence, I have a few horror stories of my own.

I’ve encountered the awful, scathing editor who had an unattainably high standard that she also couldn’t or wouldn’t communicate to those of us required to adhere to it. I’m used to having my work hacked into and if an editor doesn’t, I take it to another editor who will. I’m not high maintenance and I’m certainly not precious about my writing or have some misguided notion that it can’t be improved.

For this editor, I rewrote my five pieces three times each, blindly, because I had no Marco Polo ‘warmer’ or ‘cooler’ guidance as to whether or not I was anywhere near the apparent mark. And I sobbed my heart out and for the first and only time ever considered walking away from a project when the sub editor, who equally had no idea what she was after and who was between a rock and a hard place, forwarded on an email she’d sent to him that was about but not for me.

In the end, only three of my five pieces made it into the book. Even now, a year on, I look at them and think that they’re no better or worse than anyone else’s and that the sweeping demands and edits she made on my work didn’t improve it. In fact, I think they dulled and dumbed it down.

What I find most ironic, though, is that her high standards didn’t extend to the design work. You’d think based on the invisible, flaming hoops she made us writers jump through, it would be the best. book. ever. But the cover design—that is, the thing that’s going to determine more than anything else whether people pick up the book to buy it and even discover the work she made me revise three million times—is terrible both aesthetically and from a legibility and readability perspective. It’s far, far too dark, the images are incredibly bland and not the iconic intriguing representation they needed to be, and the font is difficult to read up close and almost impossible from a distance.

That editor will never commission me to do more work, but in truth I don’t want her to—she’s not that good, she’s unprofessional, and she lacks any ability to communicate her vision or play well with others. The only good thing to come out of that experience is that I am now doubly conscious of issuing clear instructions to writers whose work I edit, sensitive to ensuring that they understand why I’m making changes, and that they understand that it’s not personal.

That’s what’s incredibly endearing and engaging about Saller’s book. She’s a good editor and her book contains sage advice, but she has a healthy dose of perspective and a wicked sense of humour. She doesn’t try to befuddle us with technical terms like a half-pike dangling modifier past participle. She acknowledges that often it’s less a case of black-and-white wrong versus wrong, but one of style. She admits her mistakes and foibles (say, for example, not being able to help but edit superscripts one by one in a document because she was unhappy with how the program formatted them). She makes you chuckle and feel better about your own in the process.

Whether you’re a writer or an editor or someone who may just occasionally write something or need to look over another’s work, The Subversive Copy Editor is a brilliant read (and bible). Me? I’m off to implement some of her tips in my working life.

The Lure of the Tutu

Get out your ballet shoes and dust off childhood dreams of dancing, ballet is back in fashion.

Black Swan, a psychological horror movie  starring Natalie Portman as a technically talented but passionless ballet performer, is hitting the cinemas on Thursday. The movie has attracted a lot of attention, including picking up a Golden Globe for Portman’s performance and re-ignited a lot of interest in the art of dance. All things ballet are tipped to be “on trend” and “fashion forward” and a whole bunch of other terms that I am unsure of the meaning of but I suspect translate to “will look terrible on you”. So we can look forward to a year of ballet flats, overly severe buns and people who should know better insisting leotards and leg-warmers can look good in night clubs (Madonna, I’m looking at you).

I’m not anti-ballet – I’ve seen more than a few performed and, back in my pre-teen years, I had a truly impressive collection of books on the subject. I’m blaming Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes for starting my childhood mania and but I’m told that Angelina Ballerina is a more likely culprit these days for getting tomboys into tutus.

I harboured dreams that I would one day dance The Nutcracker as opposed to using one to rip the heads off my Barbies. Much like Dawn French, whose autobiography Dear Fatty has a photo of her all leotard-ed up and ready to dance despite clearly having a physique better designed for rugby, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. It took a while for me to accept the fact that they were unlikely to change Swan Lake to Rhino Pond, and that my dancing attentions were better turned to less ethereal pursuits.

(It wasn’t that bad, I also wanted to be a nun on roller skates, jockey, fighter pilot, both the princess and the knight in shining armour, a teacher, vet, writer and artist. I think I may also – after seeing The Last Unicorn – have wanted to be a unicorn as well. So, let’s face it, something had to go.)

For those of you who’d like to stay “on trend” without squeezing yourself into a pink tutu, there’s plenty of ballet reading out there. If you’re not sure you can take a whole book of pirouetting, try Bloomsbury Ballerina, the biography of Lydia Lopokova which links her dancing and wild life with war, revolution and the economic policies of the super-powers via her marriage to John Maynard Keynes. Or read about the fiery Nureyev, “ballet’s first rock star”.

Another excellent ballet biography is the justly celebrated Mao’s Last Dancer, Li Cunxin’s story of his childhood at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy, his subsequent stellar career and his defection from China. (For that additional local “you couldn’t make this up” angle, Li is now a senior manager at one of the biggest stockbroking firms in Australia and was named the 2009 Australian Father of the Year.)

Fancy reading about things further afield, or looking for a gift for someone you suspect already owns every ballet book? Cuban Ballet by Octavio Roca is due to be released later this month, and is a lushly illustrated tome exploring the unique history and spirit of Cuban ballet by focusing on the life and career of Alicia Alonso.

There’s plenty of reading for people inspired by the movie but make sure you don’t pick up the book called The Black Swan. While it is an excellent read, it’s a non-fiction tome on probability, forecasting and random real-life events, with narry a tutu – nor Natalie Portman – to be found.

Proudly Australian and Paying GST

Over Christmas there was a lot of coverage in the media about overseas online retailers and the fact that they don’t have to pay Good and Services Tax (GST) on goods supplied to Australian customers. In response to perceived Australian Government inaction on this issue, domestic retailers Gerry Harvey, Myer et al. have threatened to take their retail operations offshore in order to avoid the GST and to achieve a ‘level playing field’.

At this juncture, we thought it was appropriate to tell you where we stand on the subject.

We’re an Australian business, we’re located in Australia (and always will be), we predominantly sell Australian books to Australian people, we support Australian authors, and we buy books from Australian publishers and distributors.  Unlike Amazon, The Book Depository and other foreign online bookstores, Boomerang Books pays GST, employs Australians, pays Australian contractors, supports Australian charities, and contributes to the environment by being carbon neutral.  Boomerang Books is a proud member of the Australian Made Retail Supporter program and proudly carries a distinctly Australian name.

We don’t believe that the GST situation is going to change any time soon.  Australian consumers will continue to have access to products from overseas retailers who don’t pay GST – and we believe that’s a good thing.  After all, we’re consumers too and we like to get a good deal ourselves!

In spite of the prices on offer overseas, we hope that you will consider shopping at an online bookstore that is proudly Australian, socially responsible and environmentally friendly.  And paying GST.

REVIEW: A Small Furry Hope by Steven Kotler

TITLE:  A Small Furry Hope: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life
AUTHOR: Steven Kotler
PUBLISHER:      Bloomsbury (December 2010)
ISBN: 9781408817344        307 pages.

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

Never judge a book by its cover. Especially this one! When the Australian edition arrived on my doorstep and I saw the title and the cute sleeping puppy on its cover, my heart sank. But Bloomsbury is not a publisher noted for cute and sentimental books and they have not let me down. The sub-title of the book explains it all: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life.

There is plenty of love in this book, plenty of heart-warming doggy stories and plenty of funny stories, but Steven Kotler’s experiences running a dog rescue sanctuary in Chimayo, New Mexico, prompt him to consider some very serious questions about our own lives and behaviour.

At the age of 40, suffering from Lyme disease, a growing dissatisfaction with his life, and prompted by a deepening attachment to Joy, who was already committed to dog rescue, he invested all his money and hope in a small farm in New Mexico. There, he hoped, he and Joy might create a sanctuary for dogs away from Council and landlord interference. This was the start of a steep learning curve, and his interaction with the dogs, the neighbours and the local area are often hilarious. Balancing this, his descriptions of dog-pounds, puppy-farms, mindless cruelty and terrified dogs, as well as his own reactions to the inevitable deaths, is shocking and moving.

Kotler has a strong ‘Californian’ voice, a blunt way of saying things, a wonderful sense of irony and a philosophical turn of mind.  It is this last which, towards the end of the book, tends to bog the reader down in ethical argument and scientific research as he marshals arguments to support his belief that animals, like us, have rights which deserve to be recognized. His small furry hope is that he can convince us of this, if not by letting us into the fascinating world he shares with his dogs, then by rational argument. Along the way, he covers ethics, altruism, shamanism, homosexuality, bereavement research, how wolves became domesticated dogs, and much more.  I was alternately delighted, intrigued and horrified. I laughed a lot, pondered a lot, and learned much about doggy behaviour, mirror neurons, the collective unconscious and flow states.

Running “real dog rescue requires real sacrifice”, says Kotler. And he defines ‘real’ rescue as the sort which aims to take the most abused, most disturbed, most threatened dogs from the pound and to try to rehabilitate them to adoption standards or to make what remains of their lives happy. This is what he and Joy do. And the day-to-day reality is of shit between the toes, sharing a bed with assorted dogs, spending all your money on vet fees and the best dog food, the agony of loss, and the agony of choice, whether of deciding which dog to rescue from the pound or when euthanasia is the best and kindest option. The reality, too, is  of the euphoria of hard-won success, the joy of being with the dogs, the wonderful characters and the amazing behaviour of some animals and, as a by-product, the fitness that comes from huge exercise routines undertaken  to calm aggression.

I treasure the image of Kotler walking assorted Chihuahuas (one wearing a pink, rhinestone-encrusted, ‘Playboy Special’ coat bought at a going-out-of business sale in LA) past  a gang of leather-clad Hells Angels bikies. And of him agreeing to hold the head of a half-anaesthetized Mountain Lion: “The fucking thing is bigger than a bowling ball. Absolutely, I’ll hold its head. And afterwards, to keep the party going, let’s drink some hemlock”. And I can still see him repeatedly following the bull-terrier, Igor, vertically up a canyon wall and precipitously down again: it felt, he says, “like being a skater on a ramp. Or a snowboarder in the half-pipe. It felt like I was eight years old. It was so much fun that I forgot what I was doing and just kept doing it”. Three hundred yards later he looked behind him and saw seven other dogs following them up and down the walls, and he swears they were laughing.

I am not convinced by the conclusion Kotler draws from his potted history of ethics: Plato to Nietzsche in a single paragraph, then on from Darwin to Richard Dawkins in a couple of pages. But his arguments for a better understanding of our own place in the animal kingdom and for greater respect for members of species other than our own are convincing.

This is a funny, sometimes shocking, thought-provoking and most unusual book. Steven Kotler is a dog-besotted philosopher, and whatever you think of his choice of life you have to admire him for his courage, his powers of observation, his capacity for endurance and for his determination to cling to a small furry hope for a better future for dogs.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? (1)

“It’s Monday! What are you reading?” is a weekly event hosted by Sheila at Bookjourney to share with others what you’ve read the past week and planning to read next.

I thought this might be a new ritual to start in 2011, and it’ll help me to keep track of what I’m supposed to be reading and what I haven’t quite finished yet.

Finished

Guardian of the Gate, by Michelle Zink

When God was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman

Plugging Along

The Magician, by Raymond E. Feist

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

Immortal Beloved, by Cate Tiernan

Starting Next

Pilgrims, by Will Elliot

Slave of Sondelle, by Bevan McGuiness

Miscellaneous News

Against sensible judgment, I have decided to sign up for another read-along challenge. I have wanted to read Villette, by Charlotte Bronte for years – now seems like the right time for me.

***

It’s Monday, what are YOU reading?

Amazon: Still Evil After All These Years Pt 1

Last week I discussed, among other things, the rise and rise of Amazon’s Kindle in the ebook space over the past few months, and how difficult it is going to be for other retailers to get into this space. Despite this, I’ve been happy with my choice to buy a Kindle, and still think that Amazon has the best overall ebook platform for readers. I also said that I hoped Amazon would not do anything too evil in 2011.

Then I read this. For those who don’t have the time to read a ten-page investigative report on Amazon and the book trade, allow me to break it down for you. For a number of years, Amazon has been using their clout (they are responsible for about 75% of online book sales in the US) to demand larger and larger discounts on sales from publishers. This is pretty much par the course for large booksellers, and it’s been happening the world over since the 80s. What disturbs me more than this, however, is what booksellers call the ‘co-operative advertising’ element of Amazon’s demands on publishers.

For those who don’t know, co-operative advertising, or promotional allowances (known as co-op) is the term used by big booksellers for the fees charged for premium placement at the front of a bookstore for that publisher’s books. For example, if you go into a Dymocks or Angus & Robertson bookshop, the books that are placed right at the front of the store in big carousels and piles are not there by accident. Their publishers have paid to ensure that they get good placement in the store. These payments even extend to the so-called ‘Top 10’ areas in many stores – which are often not even the real top ten or bestseller lists at all, but a list of books that publishers have paid to be placed there. Evil, you might say, but these payments are pretty standard now, and according to the Boston Review article linked to above, publishers (at least in the US) now allocate approximately 4% of their net revenue for co-op payments.

Where Amazon is different is the scope of what they can charge for, mostly because of the technology they have access to. For those of us used to using Google, we assume when we search for products on a store’s website, we’re getting a kind of ‘best pick’ attempt to find what we’re looking for. Apparently this is not so:

“Amazon also may turn off the search options to publishers’ books, making it possible to find a title only when the correct name of the book or the ISBN is entered.” What publishers were supposed to get in exchange for this co-op, was, essentially, not being made to disappear from the Web site.

This is a two part post. Please click here for Part 2.

Amazon: Still Evil After All These Years Pt 2

The following is the second part of a two-part post. Click here for Part 1.

More amazing to me is the co-op payments involved in Amazon’s recommendation engine. If you’ve ever bought anything from Amazon, you’ll have seen the panel at the bottom of every screen telling you what other products people who liked this bought. I’ve always seen it as a useful way to discover books I may not have heard of, through the purchases of readers who buy similar books to me. I assumed there was some kind of mysterious Google-like search algorithm at play, and that it was designed for me to find books I want to read. Not so:

Most customers aren’t aware that the personalized book recommendations they receive are a result of paid promotions, not just purchase-derived data.

But wait – there’s more. Not only are Amazon’s explicit advertising, search and recommendation algorithms a result of publisher co-op payments – the very price you pay for a book on Amazon is determined by yet another algorithm.

Algorithms can also affect how much customers pay for books. Individual customers may get different discounts on the same book depending on their purchase history. The practice is euphemistically called “dynamic pricing.”

So, Amazon is certainly not the benign dictator I kidded myself into thinking they were. But here in Australia, where we don’t have a homegrown Amazon distribution network, and people still have to pay exorbitant shipping fees to get their books out here, one has to assume they have far less sway.

That is until ebooks really take off. Despite the fact that we don’t have a local Amazon presence, this makes absolutely no difference whatsoever for Australian ebooks. And Australian ebook sales are overwhelmingly dominated by the Kindle, and are likely to remain so for some time. At the moment, it’s unlikely Amazon is charging these kind of co-op fees for ebook promotion, because very few publishers are making enough money out of ebooks to justify payments. But you can guarantee they will.

So my question for you today – what do you think of Amazon’s bully boy tactics? Is this just the new reality and publishers should simply get used to it? Or should they be fighting the web behemoth every step of the way? Does information like this make you less likely to buy from Amazon? Does it even come as a surprise? Sound off in the comments and let me know.

First image of Breaking Dawn movie

The first image from the film adaptation of Breaking Dawn has been released, and it’s certainly going to whet fans’ appetites. Sourced from a new issue of Entertainment Weekly in the States, the pic shows Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in a bed, presumably, doing it. I’m sure the wait for the film just became that much more excruciating for fans. The film will be split in two, and directed by Bill Condon (not to be confused with the PM’s literary award for YA winner). The first part is expected in theatres at the end of this year.

First Look: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Hollywood movie

The first pictures have surfaced of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s adaptation of the massively successful The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The pictures come via W magazine (via Collider). The biggest (and most controversial) news to come out of the project recently is that the film will differ from the book in some substantial ways:

“The script, which captures the novel’s bleak tone (its original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women), was written by Academy Award winner Steven Zaillian, who wrote Schindler’s List, and it departs rather dramatically from the book. Blomkvist is less promiscuous, Salander is more aggressive, and, most notably, the ending—the resolution of the drama—has been completely changed. This may be sacrilege to some, but Zaillian has improved on Larsson—the script’s ending is more interesting.”

So… are you fearful of this new adaptation? Honestly, I can’t wait for it. If anyone can be trusted to do the property justice, it’s Fincher, the director of this year’s brilliant The Social Network

2011 Australia Day Ambassadors

The 2011 Australia Day Ambassadors have been announced, and it’s great to see so many authors on the list. There’s Bruce Venables, Catherine De Vrye, Jacinta Tynan, Jill B Bruce, Jonathan King, Libby Hathorn, Susanne Gervay and Valerie Parv. Australia Day Ambassadors are invited as guests of honour at celebrations around the state and are often part of the activities and events on the day. As part of the celebrations, Ambassadors are asked to deliver the keynote address which captures the true spirit of being Australian. The full list can be viewed here.

Read-Along: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins (Pages 1- 309)

This read-along discussion, as suggested by host Allie, will be in two parts. The first 300 or so pages are to be discussed between 14th and the 17th January on the participating blogs, and then we reconvene between 24th – 27th January for the remaining 300 or so pages of Wilkie Collins’ classic The Woman in White.

I’m 309 pages in and I’m starting to get a feel for this woman in white. Mysterious, suspenseful, but not wholly terrifying (I’m a bit of a scaredy-pants – have you noticed?). I am, of course, biased towards its gothic feel – there are fragile ladies complete with fluttering handkerchiefs and doe-eyed expressions; educated gentlemen who delight in ladies’ fragility; soft-spoken invalids and sensible females who (alas!) can’t rely on their femininity to get them through life because they’ve been beaten over the head with an ugly stick. A spinster without a thought for marriage. Oh yes, Wilkie Collins goes there.

When I began the book this time (my second attempt), I was only glad I had committed myself in front of other people (the other read-along participants) because I found the story to be insufferably slow and meandering. The words wanted to move against each other at a particularly languid pace, so if one wanted to make sense of the sentences it felt like years before I was allowed to turn the page! It seemed that despite readers saying that the story starts slow but then becomes an addictive read, I wasn’t going to fall in the same boat.

Then, as if being tipped off balance and by complete surprise, I fell into the boat with a thud.

The infuriating snail pace of the book sped up as soon as I left Mr Hartright behind. As the first narrator of a mystery novel which holds a number of narrators, I was relieved to find that (in comparison to the other characters) Walter Hartwright had spoken and narrated like an absolute ninny, and I wasn’t going to be subjected to his narratorship any longer. It was as if someone had shoved seeds down his throat and the resulting flowers had grown upwards and addled his brain. I was irritated by his complete lack of wit and his ability to so easily fall under his student Laura’s spell. I also couldn’t stand his girly ‘stolen glances’ and the overriding fearfulness that his feelings for Laura should be found out by someone in the household, even Laura herself.

And as for the clear-eyed, soft-haired, sweet-natured Laura – she frustrated me equally. Weak and trusting, the only time Laura displays a backbone is when there is a clear indication she’s making the wrong decision for herself and others. All signs point to the courting Sir Percival as a gold-digger, with her most trusted advisors (Miss Halcombe, Mr Gilmore) being against the union, so what does she do? Propels herself into the marriage and takes poor Miss Halcombe (the expected spinster) with her, to live in perpetual discomfort with a husband who seems to be motivated by a mysterious-but-definitely-nasty personal agenda.

As compensation, Miss Halcombe is a highly likeable female character with more than a few masculine traits to make up for the dandified Hartright and the paper-thin Laura. Miss Halcombe seems to have appointed herself as Laura’s emotional and financial guardian when all this reader wants to do is give Laura a kick in the pants (bloomers? petticoats?). The result of Miss Halcombe’s sensible nature is that she tends to echo the natural reader response: most notably that she is suspicious of Sir Percival’s motives for the quickie marriage to her beloved Laura. Although my favourite narrator so far is the family’s lawyer, Mr Gilmore (who tells his small part in the story with heroic gusto), the sensible penmanship of Miss Halcombe tends to reveal the most about the story’s central events and characters. Count Fosco is perhaps my favourite character depiction: for some reason he reminds me of Marie Antoinette’s archnemesis Du Barry with his fondness for exotic creatures. I know the Count can’t be trusted and he’s creepalicious but I love him! And I hope he plays an important part in unravelling the mystery of the woman in white.

I can’t help but think that these amazingly-drawn love-or-hate characters are in for something big later on in the novel…

I hope I’m not disappointed!

***

Do you love the Penguin hardcover edition of this book as much as I do? Really evokes that strange, dark-night atmosphere. In part two of the discussion I will be displaying a softcover edition which is much more gregarious to look at, but to my mind equally as enticing.

USER REVIEW WINNER: Good Oil by Laura Buzo

Good Oil by Laura Buzo
Reviewed by peacelove

They say ‘age is just a number’ – but when you’re at the tender age of 15 and he’s 21, the difference can be worlds apart. This isn’t an action packed story nor is it wrought with twists and turns and revelations in every second chapter. It’s a story about two people and the genuine connection forged between them. The growing attraction and the hopelessness of it ever becoming something more. It’s about growing up.

This is told in both Chris and Amelia’s POV – not alternating between each chapter, but we’re given access to their notebooks in large chunks for each POV. Chris’ time was shorter than Amelia’s, but oh how I loved reading from his perspective. Not only do I love his personality, I think what I liked most was how real he was. Both of them, in fact. Chris is the easy-going, funny, loveable guy that gets along with everyone. He’s intelligent, but makes some incredibly stupid choices along the way. His life is just as messed up as the average 21-year-old who’s still working in Woolies, studying sociology and doesn’t know what the hell to do with his life. He’s suffered his own heartaches, hangovers and stupid choices and he’s gorgeous and charming and flawed.

Amelia brings back a whirlwind of 15-year-old-me emotions. Those times when the day comes to an end and with a sigh you analyse everything about The-Unattainable-One. The guy you want, the guy who commandeers 99% of your daytime fantasies, the guy who you hold onto every hope that maybe, just maybe one day he’ll be holding YOUR hand, the guy you know that in the end, will never be yours. What I loved so much about this book were that the characters were so relatable. I was Amelia. I had a Chris. Haven’t we all? The relationship formed between these two was… oh why, why, why couldn’t she be just a few years older? It has you hoping so dearly that these two can be together, but you just know it’s not going to happen.

They’re both at different stages in their life – Amelia has so much to learn and experience, so much more to discover about herself and the world before she’s ready for a Chris. Chris too has much soul-searching to do, to rest his past demons and explore life and where he fits into the world. The ending was bittersweet and while I’ve no idea if there will be, part of me would love to see a sequel written. I want to see what happens to these characters in a few years when they meet up again, if anything will ever happen after they’ve grown more. But I think it was the best ending – despite the sadness of it, it was real and honest and still left a little room for a spark of hope for the future.(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, peacelove has won $50 to spend in Boomerang Bucks.