Literary speed dating with a sequel

Yesterday I attended the Macmillan Winter Sales Conference along with the team from Ford Street Publishing. Why? Because Macmillan distribute Ford Street’s books. And Ford Street will be publishing my new teen novel, Gamers’ Challenge, sequel to Gamers’ Quest, in September this year. (Actually, I got my advance copy at the conference. Exciting!) It was an odd, exhausting but ultimately fulfilling experience. So I thought I’d tell you about it…

Here’s how it all works. During the conference, half a day is set aside for a publisher’s expo. All the publishers who are distributed by Macmillan come along and set up on tables with their books and promotional material. And each publisher is allowed to bring along a couple of authors and/or illustrators. And then three hours of literary speed dating ensues.

Macmillan sales reps from around the country (and New Zealand) come along and visit each table in groups. Four or five of them sit at each table and the publisher and authors/illustrators get about 20 minutes to promote their books. Then the MC calls swap time and the reps move to the next table. And so it goes until each rep has visited each table.

The whole idea is that the reps become more familiar with the books that they will be selling into bookstores across the country. Given the number of books that are published each year, it is a real asset for publishers to have reps who are actually familiar with their books. And it’s easier for the reps to sell books that they know a little something about. So it’s a win/win situation.

It’s all actually a lot harder than it sounds. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s tiring. But also, ultimately, rewarding.

I was lucky enough to be invited by Ford Street, along with award-winning illustrator Anna Pignataro, whose picture book Ships in the Field (written by Susanne Gervay) will be published in February 2012. This meant that my book got a little extra time, as I was able to spend five minutes telling each group of reps about Gamers’ Challenge, how I will be promoting it, and why I think it’s a book that bookstore will be able to sell. And just as if I had been speed dating, I desperately hope that I’ve made a positive impression in my small amount of time — that the people I’ve spoken to will remember me; and that when they come to visiting bookstores, they’ll say something nice about my book so that the stores will want to stock it.

Like any author, I want my new book — my baby, that I’ve spent months labouring over, and that will now go out into the world on its own — to be liked and to sell well. And this sales conference was one step on the way to that goal.

But there’s still lots more promotion to go!

Tune in next time for a guest post from Hugo-nominated author Sean McMullen.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… speed tweeting, anyone?


Reading like you write

Do you write like your favourite authors?

Over on Cam Roger’s* website, there’s a comment thread getting going on social groups and networking amongst your friends and someone raised an interesting idea; that we are the sum of a few people that we spend the most time with.

This is an idea popularised by motivational speaker Jim Rohn who argues that if you think about the five people you spend the most time with, you are probably the sum (or more accurately, the average) of those people.  Basically, you are who you know. It’s not a ground-breaking idea – we’ve all heard about the dangers of “getting in with a bad crowd” and seen many books for aspiring writers/artists/rich people that recommend surrounding yourself with successful writers/artists/rich people.

(Although, speaking as the struggling writer type myself, perhaps I should surround myself with rich people instead of writers? After all, my writer friends can come up with their own prose, but perhaps someone rich might be able to spare a few pennies for my writing. I reckon it might be beneficial for artists generally to meet less other starving artists over a bottle of homebrew and go out with more people who can shout them a bowl of soup.)

But it got me thinking – if we gravitate towards the people we want to be like, does this mean that we read the people that we most want to write like? It’s an interesting idea, that our favourite books are not so much guests on our bookshelves but a style guide to our thinking.

What about people with very varied tastes? What if you have some Jane Austen next to your copy of Mama Mia, like many women I know? I have friends who are equally at ease with easy-reading humor such as Freakonomics or wading through the thick prose of Tolkien. I enjoy the acerbic abstract brevity of Chuck Palahnuik every bit as much as the frothy levity of Bill Bryson, and I like to temper my taste in biographies with occasional forays into the fantasy worlds of Robin Hobb and George R. R. Martin.

And believe me, if I could write as well any one of them I would be a very happy – and also pretty rich. What do you think? Would you like to write like your favourite five authors? And would mixing their styles even be possible?


* For those of you thinking that name looks familiar, yes this is the same Cameron Rogers who I interviewed on this blog last year. He’s an Australian author and his blog, Wait Here for Further Instructions, is both a useful site full of information on writing and traveling and a repository of some of the strangest and funniest true stories I have ever heard. Don’t believe me? Read this one on coffin-bashing undertakers, the richest man who ever lived in a shed and the Cooktown cyclone.

The Making of Chasing Yesterday by Sean McMullen

Sean McMullen, the author of new young adult fiction adventure Changing Yesterday, tells us about how he researched his new book.

People who have read Changing Yesterday and its predecessor, Before the Storm, tend to get back to me with variations on this question: how did you make such an unexciting period in Australian history so interesting? Well, I like to think that I did a pretty exciting plot, but the answer also has lots to do with Google, and the way that it is changing the way we do research.

First a bit of background on Changing Yesterday. At the opening of Australia’s parliament in May 1901 there is a bombing that brings down the roof, killing most of Australia’s political leaders and some British royals. Evidence is found linking Germany to the attack, and a century of terrible war follows. Finally, two idealistic cadets from the future, Liore and Fox, travel back through time to stop the bombing and prevent the war. They are aided by Daniel, Emily, Barry and Muriel, who are Melbourne teenagers from 1901.

In Before the Storm they stop the bombing by combining their diverse backgrounds in a single team. Fox and Liore have been raised as warriors, and have been trained to solve problems by fighting. Daniel and Emily are from a rich and respectable family, but Barry is a school dropout and petty criminal. Muriel is an artist, and does rather suspect things like drinking coffee and painting nudes. Daniel’s sister is scandalised when he and Muriel fall in love.

By the beginning of Changing Yesterday the conspirators are known to be a British secret society, the Lionhearts. They want to start a war in order to keep the British Empire together. They have not yet been put out of business, and are still trying to start their war. When Muriel dumps Daniel and runs off to Paris with Fox to become an artist, the teenage team that stopped the Lionhearts the first time begins to fall apart. Daniel has a nervous breakdown, so his parents send him to an English boarding school to get him sorted out. The day that Daniel sails, Barry steals Liore’s deadly plasma rifle. Barry flees for England on Daniel’s ship, intending to give the futuristic weapon to the king in exchange for a knighthood and lots of money. Liore sets off after Barry on another ship, but now the Lionhearts also know about the weapon, and are chasing Barry. They want to use the weapon to trigger the war between Britain and Germany. I will not drop any spoilers, but the future is eventually saved, and Daniel discovers that there are lots more girls who are way nicer than Muriel.

Because much of the story involves Melbourne and steam ships in 1901, I needed a lot of everyday details like streets, railways, timetables, the cost of fares, and shipboard life. Not a lot of this was available via Google or Wikkipedia, but I still started my research with them. If the answer to a question was available on the web, great, problem solved. If not, the question went onto a list of things to be researched at the State Library. By starting with the web I saved loads of time.

The web was really good on big-issue history. Early in Changing Yesterday, Barry steals Liore’s plasma rifle and flees on the Adelaide Express – intending to board Daniel’s ship when it docks in Adelaide. Liore steals a motorised bicycle and sets off after him, hoping to catch up with the train at Ballarat. The web provided the history of motorcycles, the history of the Adelaide Express, a description of Spencer Street Station around 1901, and where ships going from Melbourne to England stopped to load coal and pick up passengers. The State Library’s books told me how long a passenger ship would take to get from Melbourne to Adelaide.

Shipboard life was quite a problem to research. There were plenty of pictures and technical details of 1901 ships on the web, and there were great contemporary photographs of  Colombo and Port Said, where they called to fill up with coal. When it came to life on board, however, the details ran out. The State Library had the data I wanted, but it was scattered across hundreds of books.

Now the movie Titanic came to my rescue. From watching the ‘making of’ extras that came with my DVD, I saw that a lot of care had gone into researching shipboard life in 1912 for this movie. The setting was only eleven years after Changing Yesterday, and that was close enough for a general overview. I then checked a couple of autobiographies in the State Library that featured voyages to England in the late 1890s. The main differences involved the greater length of the voyage, and the need to keep the passengers entertained for weeks at a time – the Atlantic run took only a few days. After that, I went back to the web! Now I was looking for the popular songs, dances and fashions of 1901, and I found all the detail than I needed.

Whether you are writing an essay, doing a school project, or writing a book, the lesson is the same. Use the web to get an overview and avoid mistakes, but don’t give up just because what you want is not there. Books and libraries are really good value for finding details that other people don’t know about, because too many people give up if it’s not on the web.

Changing Yesterday is released by Ford Street Publishing on 1 July 2011


News Roundup: The Potterless is More Edition

The Pottermore ship has landed. Or at least, it has been announced. For everyone who doesn’t already know, JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series of novels, has finally announced her secret plans (based on rumours that have been bouncing around the internet for a while). They involve an immersive online game based on the books and a portal to buy the Harry Potter ebooks.

I’ve had quite a few people ask me in the week since this was announced whether this news will drive adoption of ebooks. The answer is – probably not. It won’t hurt, but ebooks are pretty much driving their own adoption at this point. The Pottermore announcement is good news for Harry Potter fans who are also ebook readers, in that they no longer have to go to pirate websites in order to read the novels. It will probably also sell a truckload of ebooks. But it’s also interesting because it sounds like JK Rowling is going to try to sell her ebooks exclusively from her own site without DRM, which will be an interesting digital distribution experiment. It also means it will cut out ebook vendors like Amazon. (Though apparently the backend will be handled by OverDrive, the same people who do the backend for Booku – so you never know!). Having said that, it’s an experiment that won’t have many applications in the future. The Harry Potter series is virtually unique in the publishing world – an phenomenon, written by a living author (who owns her own digital rights) with unprecedented fan attention. It’s not an experiment that can necessary be replicated elsewhere. Nonetheless, it’s fun and I’m really looking forward to delving into the new site and the new movie.

In other news, self-publisher extraordinaire John Locke has just announced that he’s sold a million ebooks. That’s a million. With six zeroes. Despite the fact that there are a legion of (clearly quite jealous) snobs who are getting predictably sniffy about Locke’s writing ability and his $0.99 price point, you can’t argue that this is not a significant milestone. At any rate there are thousands of other authors on the Kindle store with books selling for $0.99 who haven’t sold anywhere near a million copies, so the guy must be doing something right, love him or not. And now he’s written an ebook explaining how he did it: How I Sold One Million eBooks in Five Months. Curious and curioser – Mike Shatzkin thinks he might be selling better and more profitably with a traditional publisher.

In related news, an article by Laura Miller on Slate (titled Spamazon) has drawn attention to the electronic spam onslaught facing Amazon as more and more entrepreneurial authors and collators of out-of-copyright material have cottoned on to the ease of distributing so-called ebooks for a buck or two. Without the curation of either Amazon, an agent or a publisher, the market for ridiculously low-priced ebooks have become so flooded with new material that it’s virtually impossible to tell the spam from the authentic writers. Miller worries that these junk ebooks may actually end up discrediting the whole bottom tranche of cheap ebooks on Amazon – driving legitimate purchasers to the upper levels just so that people buying them will take them more seriously. I’m not sure about this, myself, but it’s certainly something to think about when pricing your self-published books (and when buying them).

Romantic readings for bibliophile brides and grooms

I have never been much of a romantic reader or writer. When my teacher made my class do up our first Valentine’s Day cards, at the age of 8 or so, my offering was “Roses are red, violets are blue, these flowers are dead so I’ll give them to you”.

If you are looking for a love story suggestion, I’m the wrong person to ask. I prefer Macbeth to Romeo and Juliet, and Terminator 2 to Titanic. My complete obliviousness to thoughtful romantic writing had never been a handicap or even something I had thought about up until recently, when friends asked if I had any recommendations for prose that would be suitable for readings at a wedding.

I blanked. Completely. Now, these friends has lots of other friends; smarter, better, more literary friends who don’t neglect the novel in favour of a steady diet of non-fiction, humour and re-reading Game of Thrones. Proper friends, who actually read books nominated for the Miles Franklin award instead of filing them under “after I chortle through Bryson’s “At Home*””. I have no fear that they will be unable to get far better recommendations and I won’t ending trying to scrawl out a short poem for them.

(“Roses are red, violets are blue, you’re getting wed, let’s all go woo hoo” was about as good as I could manage, sadly.)

Literature at weddings as part of the ceremony is something that I’m coming across quite often. Now that it has become less common for wedding readings to be directly from religious text, I’ve heard plenty of variety. Some couples are inspired by Plato, others by Pratchett.  I’ve heard readings from the pages of the Bible and from the pages of the Princess Bride.

Two of my friends took their wedding’s readings from a host of sources, including  poetry by e.e. cummings and  T. S. Eliot (that’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and not an offering from the poems that inspired the musical Cats), an excerpt from Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I had to suppress a smile when the Eco was read out – one of them had loaned me the book a while back and I will never forget the disappointment on their face when I handed it back afterwards saying I found it a bit dull. It was lovely to see a wedding that was a meeting of hearts, minds and bookshelves.

It’s not just readings where the books come in handy – one couple I know gave out copies of The Little Prince in the wedding goodie bags. All this love and all these lovely words on love – and I can’t think of a single decent quotation to throw out there. Can anyone help me out with some romantic words, books and stories that you’d recommend for a reading?

Or am I going to be stuck writing doggerel again?


*At Home was brilliant. I regret nothing.

More Pixels with Henry Gibbens

Last time around I introduced you to Henry Gibbens, CG artist extraordinaire — the man responsible for the Mole Hunt and Gamers’ Quest book trailers — and we had a bit of a chat about how he got started in 3D animation. He’s back again today, to tell us about his book trailer work…

Your first book trailer was for my teen novel, Gamers’ Quest. Given that you made this trailer for me, I know that you had a great deal of creative input into it. I was happy for you to go off and create what you thought would work visually. How did you go about approaching this trailer?

First things first… I read the book. I wanted to get a feel for the ‘tone’ of the book, as well as try and get a feel for the visual landmarks in the story. I then roughed out some storyboards of how I felt those visuals could be put together which I then got you to approve. Once approved, I set about modelling and animating the various scenes using a combination of pre-made elements and custom made models. The trailer was a combination of 3D animation as well as animated 2D elements, which come under the banner of motion graphics.

Your most recent book trailer is for Mole Hunt by Paul Collins. What was the creative relationship like on this project? Did Paul provide you with a brief, or did you read the book and then suggest ways to approach the trailer?

The original idea for Mole Hunt was for me to animate some traditional artwork produced by another artist as a motion graphics piece. Things got a little more complicated when the artwork fell through.

3D character work has always been a no go area for me – I’m at my most comfortable modelling and animating objects, not people. However, there are a couple of pieces of software that allow you to mix and match characters and clothing to produce quite acceptable 3D people. I had been playing around with the software to get a feel for what it could do and suggested that it might be a way to produce the character art for the Mole Hunt trailer.

Paul had a basic overview of what he wanted to see in the trailer as well as a pile of Googled references for how he wanted the characters to look. There was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with the Poser characters until we arrived at something he was happy with. Again, a read through of the novel was a pre-requisite to get a handle on the tone of the book as well as a feel for the visual touchstones. Compared to Gamers’ Quest, this ended up being far more of a motion graphics approach, but that suited the requirements of the brief.

What’s your next project? (As if I didn’t know. :-))

Another book trailer for something called Gamers’ Challenge – I think you might be familiar with it? Just completed my read through of the novel and drawing up a list of potential visuals.

Having now completed two book trailers, and with another one in the works, is this an area you want to continue working in?

Yes! For me, they present a project where I can work on the whole thing, rather than producing just one element of a bigger picture. A lot of CG work is piecemeal — you get to produce a model which someone else will texture and someone else again will animate, before being turned over to a compositor who will put the whole thing together. You end up being a cog in a bigger machine. Book trailers allow me to work on a project as a whole, which I personally find more satisfying. There is also the challenge of trying to visualise what somebody else has created in their head. The written words on the page only represent part of what the author has in their mind and it is fun to try a tease out their ideas in a visual medium.

There is a degree of debate as to whether book trailers are a viable marketing tool, but as you yourself have said, their value cannot be measured in YouTube hits alone. A good book trailer can at least promote conversation about the book in question and add to an author’s armoury when promoting their books.

George’s bit at the end

A huge thank you to Henry for telling us about his CG work. If you’d like to know more about what he does, check out his website. I will, of course, be forcing you all to watch the Gamers’ Challenge trailer on Literary Clutter as soon as it’s been completed. 🙂

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.


Muffed-Up Books And Motion Sickness

Deadly WatersIt’s been well documented that I muffed up the number of books I took to South America last year. In an effort to be a responsible packer and not load my luggage up with books in place of underpants, I took excellent books but not nearly enough of them.

It turned out that I didn’t take enough underpants either, and endured some embarrassing moments. The first was at the hostel reception, where the staff were trying to dissuade me from putting in a small bag of washing for 20 Reals, They were adamant (and hung up on the fact that) it was expensive for such a small bag of smalls. In the end I blurted out something that stopped every conversation and turned every head in the room: ‘I. Have. No. Underpants.’

The second was at the laundromat I eventually took my bag of smalls to. I’m not sure if it’s a Brazilian thing or just a that-laundromat thing, but they picked through, held up, inspected, and counted out every pair of undies before assigning them to a washing basket and me a pick-up time.

Note to self: don’t pack scungy undies for overseas trips where you’ll have to endure having them laundered in public. Note to you: they weren’t scungy so much as practical and cotton, honest. I was there for a football event, so packed the practical Bonds and left the impractical lace at home.

But I’ve gotten off track. The point of this blog is that these incidents were at the forefront of my thinking while I was packing for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany. I’m here covering the Westfield Matildas’ World Cup campaign for such sites as Girls FC. I managed to pack plenty of the right undies, but the book packing once again stumped me.


So many books, so little time to read them. Then having this compounded by the fact that a passionate hate for air travel ups the ante for requiring books that will grab and distract me from my motion sickness and claustrophobia means that the pressure was on to pick well.

What I realised is that although I have about a billion books on my to-be-read shelf, not many of them make for great international-travel reading. Sigh. I buy a lot of ‘serious’ non-fiction books. They’re brilliant, and I wouldn’t change that for the world, but there’s a reason why they’re not the bestsellers at the airport.

I mean, Half The Sky: How To Change The World, The Accidental Guerrilla, Slow Death By Rubber Duck, and Songs Of Blood And Sword, are incredibly worthy reads, and ones I absolutely cannot wait to tackle.

But they require more brainpower than I’m able to give them while hating being cooped up in a too-small seat next to a bossy woman with elbows that seek out parts of my body like sharp, probing magnets. It took all my willpower to resist buying new, different, air-travel-safe books at the airport: Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series was top of the list.

It turns out that I didn’t get to read any books on the flight. Or, in fact, rue not buying any at the airport: I got spectacularly sick on the 15-hour leg to Dubai. Stress + motion sickness + sheer exhaustion are always a lethal, migraine-inducing combination for me. I almost fainted and vomited in the toilet, stripping to try to cool down and prevent both. Then the plane hit turbulence and the return-to-seat light went on. Doh.

I’d always wondered who pressed the call-for-assistance button in the toilet. Now I know. I put enough clothes back on so as not to appear entirely naked when the air hostesses burst in, and then spent a fair amount of time surrounded by not one but five of them as they tried to assess what to do with me.

The flight was choc full to the luggage cabinets and there weren’t any seats left in economy (even my promised aisle seat turned out to be a wedged-in-the-middle one instead). There was some talk of putting me in business class, but that was quickly kyboshed by the senior hostie: I think it was because I was likely to vomit. Note to self for next time you get a migraine on a plane: don’t admit you’re going to blow chunks.

But I’ve digressed again. Sadly between illness, jetlag, and hitting-the-ground-running work hectic-ness, I haven’t had a chance to read any of the books I agonised over when packing. Here’s hoping I find some time to do so soon, especially the review copy I have of Deadly Waters, which contains an in-depth examination of Somali pirates far exceeding what we see in news grabs. Heavy material though it covers, that one I’d be super, extremely keen to read.

A Super Sad True Love Story

I promised myself that after reading the desolate, desolate Oryx and Crake, I would turn my thoughts to dystopian novels that are more reasonable. Whatever that means. Super Sad True Love Story seemed like one such ‘reasonable’ dystopian, but in retrospect it has affected me just as much as Atwood’s, though not in entirely the same manner.

I feel it’s important to note that this was my first pick for our newly-fledged book club. To date, we’ve read fiction: I Am Legend, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and now Super Sad True Love Story. Next time, we’ll be subjected to some non-fiction with Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (what an awesome name for an author, huh? Novella). We’ve all chosen books so far that we haven’t read ourselves – though since our regular members are limited to about five or six, it shouldn’t be too long before my turn comes around again and I’ll choose a book that I’ve read and loved. I’m pleased, however, that I went outside my comfort zone with this unusual piece of fiction.

Even though Super Sad True Love Story is a dystopian in that it’s set in a distinctly unfavourable future, it’s also a lot more than that. Lenny Abramov is a cringeworthy nerd, son of Russian immigrants, who falls impossibly in love with one beautiful, young Eunice Park. Reading Lenny through his dairy entries and Eunice through her chatroom-style messages to friends and loved ones, I can’t help but think of that old saying by Charlie Chaplin: “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”

There are some absolute gems scattered throughout the novel – Shteyngart has this incredible ‘speed-style’ way with words, like he’s knocked back a few too many Red Bulls, and yet it feeds so well into the whole fast-paced future thing that the prose will be loved by literature lovers and sci fi fans alike. Shteyngart’s imagination makes the radical seem possible, and even comfortable: I found myself borrowing phrases for my facebook messages to friends, and attempting to visualise what on earth the all-the-rage ‘onionskin’ jeans would look like (if anything at all).

As for the love story part, it’s there, but it’s certainly not traditional. Lenny’s love for Eunice is a little lopsided – Eunice takes a while to warm to his embarrassingly low ‘hotness rating’, his ridiculous contentedness with growing old, and his penchant for reading those smelly old things called ‘books’ – but the love story is beautiful, indeed both supersad and supertrue, and also kind of hilarious. I’m not one to laugh in books, but one morning reading this on the bus to work – the only seat left being that horrid two-seater that faces the back of the bus so everyone can watch your nose run in winter once the bus heater cranks up – I laughed out loud, and didn’t care for once who was watching.

Super Sad True Love Story is not an entirely easy read – mainly due to its length and its strange habit of going off on seemingly-unrelated tangents, but it is a worthy one. Tell me if you don’t laugh at least three times while reading it. Especially during the sad parts.

The Boy Might Be A Genius, But The Author Is Too

Artemis FowlIt’s taken me almost 10 years and something like 20 attempts to read Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, but I finally managed it this week. It hasn’t taken so long and so many tries because it’s a tricky book to read—more because I until this week didn’t own a copy and was attempting to read it in surreptitious snatches.

Those reading snatches took place when I worked casually as a bookseller (I was reminded of my Artemis Fowl reading attempts while writing my previous blog about a certain dodgy customer who used to frequent said bookshop, but that’s an M-rated blog, while this one’s G).

Working more than five consecutive hours meant I was entitled to a 15-minute break, and said breaks took place in the back room, which also housed bulk stock, vacuum cleaners, and all other manner of retail menagerie. Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, with its shiny, glittery, come-read-me cover was stacked just near the step I perched on to munch my muesli bar.

Any avid reader will tell you that there’s no such thing as too much reading, and that nothing is as frustrating as being forced to tear yourself away from a good book. Especially when it entails going back to working in retail, which in turn involves contending with the likes of shoplifting customers like Mr Itchy or erotic-fiction-exchanging ‘customers’ like He Who Freaked Us Out Too Much To Be Named.

PluggedAnd a good book Artemis Fowl is. It grabbed me from the outset and in every subsequent passage I read (or even re-read, as I didn’t own the copy I was reading and subsequently couldn’t dog-ear the page to mark my place). In fact, even though I hadn’t read it in its entirety, I used to proffer Artemis Fowl to furrow-browed parents who implored me to help them find a book to get their sons reading.

I mean, what boy (or girl) could resist a book about a 12-year-old genius criminal mastermind intent on taking over the world? Especially given that Fowl is constantly battling against fairies and goblins and trolls who have all manner of technological and magical wizardry at hand? What adult, male or female, for that matter, could resist such a book?

The latter is a question I’ve been asking myself as I devoured this book this week. It’s pitched at kids, but the adult me was astounded at Colfer’s ideas and execution. The sheer, mind-boggling cleverness of his ideas, the firmness with which he captures and holds your attention, the pace at which he propels you through the story, and the wit with which he does it are, well, things I wish I were capable of.

Colfer’s protagonist might be a genius mastermind, but I think the author is too. It’s not going to take me another 10 years and 20 attempts to read the rest in the series—I’m off to buy them and the unrelated, but adult book he’s just released now.


Pushing Pixels with Henry Gibbens

Henry Gibbens is a veterinary surgeon based in Melbourne. In his spare time, he swaps his stethoscope for a computer and moonlights as a CG artist. After working on a number of film and television projects, both amateur and professional, he has now entered the ever-expanding domain of book trailers. His first book trailer was for my teen novel, Gamers’ Quest. Now he has produced a trailer for Mole Hunt, the new YA science fiction novel from Paul Collins.

Today, Henry joins us to have a little chat about his CG work…

Hello Henry. Welcome to Literary Clutter.

Thank you for having me.

Can you tell us a little about how you developed your interest and skills in computer generated imagery?

I’d always been interested in computers since the late 70’s, but it was not until the late 80’s that home computers were mature enough to start producing even basic computer graphics. Check out this link to see what was considered ground-breaking on a consumer computer at that point.

I started with a program called Imagine on an Amiga 500 in the early 90’s, moving on to Lightwave on the PC in the late 90’s. Spurred on by the use of computer graphics in shows such as Babylon 5 and seaQuest DSV, I endeavoured to teach myself as much as I could about modelling and animating in 3D. I had never been that proficient with traditional artistic tools, but 3D software seemed to work for me.

I eventually ended up doing animated opening videos for a number of science fiction conventions in Melbourne in the late 90’s, through which I became heavily involved in the Star Wars fan film scene in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Once I had gained enough confidence, I started working on a freelance basis. Initially I partnered with Cameron Smith — a long-time collaborator on fan projects — to start a small company we called ‘Fingers To The Bone’. When he eventually left to join Weta Digital in New Zealand, I started working for myself.

What was your first professional project and how did it come about?

That would have been the Alpha Chrome project for VIA technologies. Friends of mine worked for VIA, a chip manufacturer based in Taiwan. They were launching a new set of graphics chips under the banner of Alpha Chrome. They wanted some fancy chrome robots for use in video and print material to advertise the launch – ‘Fingers To The Bone’ was there to help. Think I still have a scan of the cheque buried somewhere as memento of our first paid gig.

You’ve worked on a number of film and television projects. Can you tell us a bit about what you did for Jimeoin’s feature film, The Extra?

My role in The Extra was to make Melbourne look bigger! The producers decided that in a number of shots, Melbourne’s skyline was not expansive enough. They wanted it expanded digitally. The fun part was that the shots they wanted expanded involved a moving camera, which would entail 3D camera match moving. As I had already taught myself camera match moving while working on the Star Wars fan film Broken Allegiance, I ended up working on these shots. Once I had a digital camera that mirrored the movement of the film camera, I created an expanded digital skyline through a combination of photographic elements and digital skyscrapers, which when filmed with the digital camera could be composited back in to the shots.

What’s the oddest piece of CG work you’ve had to do?

Oddest paying piece that I have worked on was providing CG elements for an ad for an adult services firm. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, nothing salacious was involved. The company needed elements to illustrate worldwide communication via satellite and the web in an attempt to show that they could meet their clients ‘needs’ internationally.

Oddest non-paying piece I did was to model and animate a singing triffid for a friend’s karaoke party. No way was I going to sing in front of an audience, so I got the triffid to do it for me!

CG work is a sideline for you, as your main profession is as a veterinary surgeon. How do you juggle the two?

Very carefully! I’m not the sort of person who can come home from work, sit down and switch off. My brain tends to be a little overactive and always wants to be occupied. I find graphics work a good counterpoint to my veterinary work – it gives my right brain some healthy exercise while my left brain gets to put its feet up for a while. It can get a bit stressful when there is a CG project with a looming deadline and the clinic is running me flat out, but I manage to keep all the balls in the air — most of the time.

George’s bit at the end

So now we all know how Henry started working with pixels. But that’s not the end of this story. Tune in next time to find out about his more recent work with book trailers. In the meantime, check out his demo reel…

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.




Sherryl Clark was born in New Zealand and learnt a lot about European history at school but nothing about Australia. She had no idea how the government worked, or that the states were independent until Federation. Now she lives in Australia and in writing the story of Our Australian Girl Rose knows more about Federation than most Aussies!

Sherryl is visiting Kids’ Book Capers today to share the journey that she and Rose have taken together.

What did you enjoy most/find hardest about the research process?

Initially, I thought that Federation would be really hard to write a fictional story around, until I discovered this was also the time when the suffragettes were really active in their battle for the vote for women.

The more I researched about this, the more my story started to come alive. Then I came up with the idea that Rose would play cricket, and be really good at it, but of course at that time it would be frowned upon.

The best part of Federation research was discovering that this was very likely the time when the big Melbourne-Sydney rivalry started! The hardest was, as always, verifying facts – dates, who said what and when. I liked finding out things such as the bubonic plague in Sydney.

What did it feel like to walk in Rose’s shoes?

I searched on the internet until I found an old photo that looked like how I imagined Rose, my character. That, along with the suffragette information and the cricket/bowling talent helped to bring Rose to life for me.

I like to work from images, so I found a photo of a house I thought might have been her family home, and old photos of Bourke Street where her father’s Emporium might have been. All of the photos I found helped in one way or another – I could then imagine Rose in the middle of all of that, and what she would have been most interested in.

What is the most inspiring thing you discovered about Rose?

Although I loved turning Rose into the “real” Shane Warne with her spin bowling talents, what I think really brings her to life is her growing realisation of how life is for the poor in her city. Her family is wealthy, but simply from observing and listening, Rose comes to see that her life is privileged and that she is lucky – it makes her compassionate and someone who wants to help in real terms.

How do you think you would have survived living in Rose’s  era?

I think I would have hated living in that era! The clothing was ugly, the corsets were damaging to women’s bodies and the food wasn’t very nice either.

I would have been a troublemaker like Aunt Alice, throwing off the corset and staging sitdown protests. Women were treated like pieces of furniture, and I get mad enough about inequality now, let alone back then.

What significant historical events are covered in your books?

Federation, of course – the lead-up, the proclamation and the first sitting of Parliament, and also the death of Queen Victoria. Melbourne at that time had very few houses with electricity or telephones, there were few cars (although some enterprising Australians were building their own), and we still had hansom cabs, cable and horse-drawn trams and trains.

One of my favourite things to write about was Coles Arcade – there was a lot more I could have included but space restrictions meant it had to be taken out.


Rose is the only one of the Our Australian Girls who comes from a privileged background where there is plenty of money and food but Rose has hardships of her own.

Rose is a feisty adventurous girl struggling to be ‘herself’ in a world of corsets, oversized hats and hairpins that made your head ache. She wants the freedom that boys have – to climb trees and ride bikes.

She wants to be like her beloved Aunt Alice who refuses to wear a corset and is campaigning for women’s right to vote.

In book one, MEET ROSE, readers meet Rose at her large house in Melbourne where she would rather play cricket and have adventures than be a ‘lady’ – where she is constantly in trouble for going out without her hat and parasol.

When Aunt Alice comes to stay, Rose’s life changes for the better, but unfortunately her mother and her aunt don’t see eye to eye. Rose has a loving older sister, Martha and a brother Edward whom she idolises, but seems to have problems of his own.

In book two, ROSE ON WHEELS, things get even worse. Mother seems intent on hiring a dreadful new governess, Miss Higgingbottom. Rose doesn’t want a governess, she wants to go to school like her brother, Edward.

Then it looks as if Aunt Alice is going to move to Adelaide to accept a teaching position and Rose will have nobody who truly understands her.

Rose borrows a bike and rides to Melbourne to her father’s work. Her intention is to get him to persuade his sister Aunt Alice to stay.

But things don’t go according to plan and what happens to her while she is riding Aunt Alice’s bike is going to incur the wrath of both parents and her aunt. Will she be able to persuade Aunt Alice to stay? Will she get her wish and be sent to school and avoid the awful Miss Higgingbottom?

Rose lived in an era when it was a lot harder to get around than today. There were few cars and most forms of transport were pulled by horses. Bicycles like the one Rose rides became very popular.

Rose’s story is full of historical detail, and young readers will be fascinated with Rose’s world and the things that young girls weren’t allowed to do back in the early 1900s. I loved her feisty character and think readers will do. Rose is not afraid to flout convention and stand up for what she believes in.




Trailblazers: Caroline Chisholm to Quentin Bryce by Susanna de Vries

Reviewed by Hazel Edwards –

At a time when gossip-manufactured ‘celebs’ are featured merely for being thin, it’s a relief to read about ‘real’, historic females. ‘Trailblazers’ includes fifteen women from Australia’s past, and a few contemporaries  who achieved significant goals, solved problems for others or tackled challenges as the ‘first’ in their field.

‘Trailblazers’ anthology of chapter biographies includes reasonably well known women such as migration activist Caroline Chisholm, (on the bank note, despite her straitened circumstances late in life) as well as lesser known names. Chisholm’s chapter provided a rounded  insight into her motivations and the financial challenges of balancing family, travel and public life. Politician-parent Dame Enid Lyons also comes across as well organised and compassionate.

However nursing sister Anne Donnell, pioneer-mother  Eliza Hawkins and expeditioner-travel writer  Mary Gaunt were new for me. A resurgence of interest in the unusual oil painting style of Hilda Rix Nicholas  makes her chapter timely.This portrayal  had depth of passion about the challenges Hilda faced in acquiring her skills and an insight into the financial and emotional support of her mother and sister.

Money or lack of it, and husbandly support or lack were significant variables in whether these women could act unconventionally in a society which had strong expectations of female roles. A marketable skill, or at least the charm to convince others to support the project, plus hard work seem to be the common traits.

Filmic interest in translator Madame (Nell)Kerensky has been mentioned, and certainly action-woman (Nell Tritton) was a fast-driver, which was an asset for her Russian ex- Prime Minister husband being sought by assassins . They left the scene fast. But her choice in husbands, especially the non-opera singing , free-loading charmer Husband No. 1 did not indicate shrewd judgement. Her ambition appears to have been to marry a famous man. She married a notorious womaniser, twice.

Several of these women appeared to be in circumstances where interesting things happened, or they travelled because their families paid the bills. The philosophical  dilemma is:  Adventurous risk-taking, ego  or stupidity? This could have been discussed further.

War correspondent Louise Mack worried me.  But maybe that is my bias of wanting admirable traits in historic females. Not just ambitions related to personal fame. Re-entering Antwerp just prior to the German invasion, put others at risk for the sake of Louise Mack filing a story. Is this courage, stupidity or ego?  De Vries extract use of Mack’s diaries was a clever insight into the personality.  De Vries is an experienced historian and especially good at placing her characters in context. The endnotes are well documented and the index works, so this has been a thoughtful study. Interesting photos add to the portrayal of the women’s lives.

I have to admit another bias.  de Vries’ ‘Blue Ribbons and Bitter Bread’ is an earlier  biography about  refugee worker Joice Nankivell Loch which  I’ve recommended a lot. I’m a keen reader of history about significant females motivations and we all need heros.

In ‘Trailblazers’ there are nine chapters, each devoted to a specific woman,  except Chapter 8 tends to bundle all the ‘politicals’ together, but this is also the dilemma of including living and recent  role- changing females. Having the Governor General on the front cover is a statement, especially as she’s called Governor of Queensland in her chapter and the reader gets the impression the latter chapters on Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Quentin Bryce tend to include recent ‘news’ rather than a broader, historical evaluation of their roles. A work in progress is hard to evaluate historically.

I’d recommend  ‘Trailblazers’ but more discussion of the rationale for inclusion would be a bonus. And whether there are any common characteristics?  Or is the subjective elements of what attracted the compiler, a valid  rationale? Was the choice from each major field or from the material available? The section on Quentin Bryce is very personal-author related.

‘Trailerblazers’ is a good resource for those wanting accessible history to inspire younger women ( and men). How about a docu-drama based on ‘Trailblazers’?

Maybe there are more ‘anonymous’ females in our history who didn’t have wealthy families nor the time to write diaries of their lives. Heroines without headlines?  But ‘Trailblazers’ is a good start.

Hazel Edwards ( is an Ambassador for the 2012 National Year of Reading and the Victorian Premiers’ Reading Challenge. Author of ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History’ she has also contributed to the Aussie Heroes series with ‘Sir Edward ‘Weary Dunlop’ and ‘Dr Fred Hollows’.

From Paddock to Plate by Louise Fitzroy

The ongoing and seemingly endless love affair between the media and food or food sources has ensured that an apparently inexhaustible mine of food and cooking publications finds their way onto book retailers catalogues.

We can take our choice from over-rated celebrity cookbooks, chef memoirs, hastily penned food-themed novels and any number of glossy themed recipe books – although the literary or culinary merit of many new editions is, to say the least, arguable.

With the big named authors commanding the lions share of the publishers PR dollars, it can be easy to overlook some of the less prominent works and, in some instances, that would be a shame.  With that in mind, I want to draw your attention to a recent ABC Books publication, From Paddock to Plate, by Louise Fitzroy.

From Paddock to Pl
ate is a journey into the rural heartland of Australia, giving the reader the opportunity to meet with Australian food producers, learn a little of their stories and share a recipe or two of theirs.  Louise is an ABC journalist and last week I had the opportunity to chat to her about her journey from the family farm in Guyra, in the New England region of New South Wales, to her innovative Western Australian food safari radio show, The Cold Esky Challenge, which resulted in her book.

It’s a long way from Guyra to Western Australia, isn’t it?

Louise was brought up on a mixed family farm and was exposed to all the fickleness and vicissitudes which come with a farming life.  On completing her journalism degree at the University of Armidale, she headed overseas for a time before returning to a sports media job which eventually morphed into the life of a rural reporter moving from Tamworth to Alice springs then on to Port Lincoln, before finding herself in Bunbury, Western Australia.

And the “Cold Esky Challenge”?

The Cold Esky Challenge came about as a result of a trip Louise took herself on to try out the wares of the renowned wine-tasting area of Margaret River in WA.  Once there, she realised the extent and diversity of the range of local food production.   She was amazed to discover that, with no prior planning, she was able to trace a dish from the seedling to the table when she followed up a visit to an apple orchard with a trip to the local bakery who were more than happy to bake the apples into a dish for her.  Thus began her hunt into the provenance of a range of local specialities and the quest to share the knowledge of this with the local inhabitants of the region.  Her later move to rural Victoria was when she decided to broaden her scope and expand her research nationally.

What were the selection criteria?

Louise decided that she wanted her book to demonstrate to Australians the diverse range of products which we grow here and chose her inclusions based on their variety and, occasionally, the unique nature of the food produced.  She relied upon word-of-mouth to source her producers, sometimes putting a call out on her radio programs to spread her search out.   Thus the book covers growers and producers from all of the Australian states and territories with crops ranging from the familiar potato or tomato, to the exotic custard apple and on to some surprise inclusions (well, to me, at least) like saffron and wasabi.  Each entry gives us an introduction to the people behind the produce and a recipe (or two or three) that they share to maximise our enjoyment of the fruits of their labours.

And the most enjoyable and rewarding aspect?

When I asked Louise what she enjoyed most about putting this project together she had no hesitation in citing the generosity, kindness and friendliness of the folk she met on her journey.  From the bush man that she met near the Canning Stock Rout who taught her how to make a genuine damper, to the Western Australian country house wife who bottles all her neighbours excess produce, then donates it to raise money for the local community, Louise was struck by the eagerness to share and the strong sense of community inherent in the various people she encountered.

One of Louise’s hopes in penning this volume was to help guide and inform all consumers, but particularly  urban dwellers, about where their food comes from and how it gets to them.  Food security in general, and food security in Australia is an issue which we all need to be more aware of, if we are to have any control over it.  I think that developing a more direct relationship with the providers of the food on our plates is a very good place to begin.



Gabrielle Wang is the author of the four Our Australian Girl Poppy series featuring Poppy, a Chinese-Aboriginal girl growing up on the goldfields in  the 1860s. Gabrielle is fourth generation Chinese Australian and her maternal great-grandfather came over to the Victorian Goldfields from Guangdong, China in the 1850s.

Gabrielle is visiting Kids’ Book Capers today to talk about Poppy’s journey and her creation.

Gabrielle talks us through the research process for Poppy’s story

As Poppy is part Aboriginal and part Chinese the first thing I needed to do was to contact someone who was Aboriginal. I contacted FATSIL (The Federation of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Languages and Culture Corporation) and The Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne, and they put me in touch with Koorie elder, Uncle John Sandy Atkinson.

Uncle Sandy is a well-known and respected Elder of the Koorie community and also an actively involved member of the Bangerang community. Because my story is set along the Murray River, land of the Bangerang people, he was the perfect person to be introduced to.

I met with Uncle Sandy over the course of five months while I was planning the books. He was so very generous with his time, and the person who gave Poppy and Gus their Aboriginal names of Kalinya and Moyhu. With each book, I also worked closely with Maxine Briggs, the Koorie liaison officer at the State Library of Victoria. Maxine read through each manuscript providing invaluable insights into Aboriginal culture as well as advising me when I was touching on sensitive issues.

I could not have written the Poppy books without Uncle Sandy and Maxine’s help, and I cannot thank them enough. This part of the research process was hard but thoroughly enjoyable.

I also visited the State Library of Victoria and worked for many hours under the beautiful dome in the Latrobe Reading Room. Reading old newspapers stored on microfilm I would too often find myself being sidetracked by an intriguing story that was completely irrelevant to my research. The easiest research was done from home on Google, what a joy that search engine is! I also bought reference books sourced from all over Australia. Once the basic research was completed it was time to begin writing. But this is where the tricky part begins.

There was so much interesting material, I wanted to put it all in. But one of the basic rules of writing for young people is branded onto my brain – if it doesn’t move the story forward, then it has to go.

Apart from meeting Uncle Sandy and Maxine, I really enjoyed making a weekend trip to Beechworth and Wahgunyah.

What did it feel like to walk in Poppy’s shoes?

Poppy’s journey takes place along the Murray River between Echuca to Wahgunyah then on to Beechworth. This was the country my great grandfather travelled during the 1880’s when he cleared land for the pastorialists. So this became almost a personal journey for me.

What was the most inspiring thing you discovered about your character?

There were many surprises. Once I had brought Poppy to life she more or less took control of the story. I didn’t expect Poppy to be so moralistic or so confident. I wanted her to be a little less brave but she wouldn’t have it. I’d find her standing up for herself when I would have expected her to give up. She was very strong.

How do you think you would have survived living in Poppy’s era?

People in the 1800’s were tough, especially women on the goldfields. They endured all kinds of hardships and most lost children. That’s why they had so many to make sure some would survive. I don’t think I would have done very well in those times.

What significant historical events are covered in Poppy’s books?

The rapid decline of the Aboriginal tribes through murder, disease and starvation. The rounding up and putting into missions the remaining Aborigines. The rush for gold which brought thousands of foreigners to Australia. The beginning of the railroads in Victoria and the demise of the paddlesteamers and bullockies.


Poppy is a gold rush girl who dreams of a better life. Her aboriginal name, Kalinya means ‘pretty one’ but Poppy also has Chinese heritage in her blood.

In book one, MEET POPPY, it’s 1864 and Poppy is living at Bird Creek Mission near Echuca. She hates the mission, especially now that her brother, Gus has run away in search of gold.

When eleven-year-old Poppy discovers she is going to be sent away to Sydney Town, she knows she has to do something. If she goes, how will Gus ever find her?

Poppy decided to escape from the mission but there are so many dangers out in the bush for a young girl. To minimise the risk, Poppy disguises herself as a boy, but all the while worries that her secret will be discovered.

She escapes the mission and embarks on a dangerous journey in search of her brother encountering bushrangers and other perils along the way. She also has to feed herself out in the bush. If only she had been born a boy and taught bush craft to aid her survival?

Poppy will need all her courage and endeavour to survive. She is helped on her journey by a dog called Fisher who becomes her constant companion.

In book 2, POPPY AT SUMMERHILL, Poppy is caught in a dingo trap and found by an aboriginal, Tom who works at Summerhill. He takes the injured Poppy there and she makes a new friend, Noni.

But Noni’s twin brother, Joe seems to have taken an instant dislike to her and believes she is hiding something. Joe is constantly snooping and Poppy wonders how long she is going to be able to keep her secret safe. What will happen if Joe finds out she is a girl?

When Joe tricks her into riding Gideon, the horse that throws everybody, Poppy, who has never ridden before, thinks her life will be over.

Her dream of finding her brother Gus, and living in a magnificent house together seems to be slipping away.

Poppy’s story is set at a time when life could be brutal, particularly for an orphaned Koori girl with nobody but a faithful dog to protect her.

Author, Gabrielle Wang is fourth generation Chinese and the character of Jimmy  Ah Kew is based on her mother’s grandfather.

Young readers will be captivated by Poppy’s story and will keep following  her journey, hoping that she finds the better life she dreams of.







Alison Lloyd is an immigrant Australian girl too. She came on a plane from the USA with her family and enjoyed making mud pies, playing dress-ups and reading. Writing the four Our Australian Girl Letty books felt a lot like pretending to live in the olden days and travelling by imagination back into the past, and those games she used to play.

Alison is visiting Kids’ Book Capers today to share her writing journey and Letty’s story with us.

What did you enjoy most/find hardest about the research process?

I was moved by the first-hand stories of early emigrants. I read diaries and letters from the 1830s-1850s, and some of them are truly sad. One father tell us what the sailing weather is like each day, then describes how his two children are fading daily from malnutrition. I knew a bit about the First Fleet and convicts, but I hadn’t realised emigration was so common and so gruelling – early settlers took their lives in their hands to sail here.

On a happier note, I really enjoyed researching Victorian fashion: lots of gorgeous pictures of laces and flounces and intricate hairstyles.

What did it feel like to walk in Letty’s shoes?

Life was tough in colonial Australia. Letty isn’t as destitute as Sofie Laguna’s Grace, but she’s vulnerable. She has to earn a living at a young age, away from her family.

Sometimes authors (myself included!) put their child characters through extraordinary things to up the tension, but in Letty’s case I didn’t have to stretch probability at all. Every difficulty she faces was common for Victorian children.

What was the most inspiring thing you discovered about your character?

In spite of feeling insecure, fearful and inadequate, Letty takes risks. She courageously attempts to help others when she knows she might fail.  (And of course, eventually she triumphs!)

How do you think you would have survived living in Letty’s era?

I don’t think I would have lived to adulthood. I’m pretty short-sighted, and without modern glasses I would have been bowled over by a carriage, or fallen into a cesspit, before long.

What significant historical events are covered in your books?

In 1841 Australia was changing – it wasn’t just a penal colony anymore. 170,000 emigrants sailed to Australia from the UK in the two decades before the Gold Rush. Letty is one of them. Single women were particularly encouraged to come, because men outnumbered women by 5:2 in NSW.  Letty’s sister Lavinia comes out under a paid government scheme. But as Letty and Lavinia discover, these young women often had nowhere safe to turn when they stepped off the ship. Caroline Chisholm (remember the $5 note?) was so horrified by the abuse and prostitution on Sydney’s streets, that in 1841 she set up the Female Emigrants Home and Australia’s first employment office. So that’s where Letty too finds shelter for a while.


Letty is the creation of popular Australian Children’s author, Alison Lloyd and her story takes place in 1841.

In MEET LETTY, Letty accidentally stows away on a boat that is taking her sister, Lavinia to Australia. Letty’s life is changed forever.

How is she going to manage when Lavinia doesn’t even want her there and what will it be like on the other side of the world?

Things change on board ship when Letty saves her sister’s life, but once they reach land it soon becomes apparent that their problems are far from over.

Lavinia’s promised job doesn’t eventuate and they find themselves in a strange new country without work, family or anywhere to live.

At least they still have a friend, Abner, a young sailor from the ship, but will this be enough to keep them safe?

Even though Letty has not come to Australia as a convict, her life is clearly not going to be easy in New South Wales.

In Letty’s second adventure, LETTY AND THE STRANGER’S LACE, she and her sister find her way to Mrs Chisolm’s house (Caroline Chisolm is famous in history for how she helped women who were new to the colony by providing lodgings for them in an old army barracks that she transformed into the Female Immigrants Home).

But they can’t stay there. Lavinia finds work, but her employer doesn’t want Letty.

But Letty is resourceful and manages to find her own work with the baker, George and his unusual sister, Mary.

Letty is scared of Mary who seems to carry a darkness with her. Letty, whose own mother died is filled with scorn when she discovers that Mary has a husband and son she apparently abandoned.

But things aren’t what they seem and Letty soon discovers that Mary’s melancholy has been caused by the loss of a daughter in childbirth.

She doesn’t realise that Mary is pregnant with another child until she goes into labour and it’s up to Letty to try and save Mary and the baby.

Finally, Letty’s life seems settled but then Mary decides to take the new baby and return to her husband and son whom she left to come to the city to be near a doctor.

Mary wants Letty to go with her, but can Letty leave behind her sister and a life where she has come to feel happy and safe at last?

Letty is another strong character who can be impulsive but is able to think of others, even when her own life is hard. Letty’s caring and courage will endear her to young readers.

Alison Lloyd’s detailed research and vivid descriptions make it easy to picture yourself in Letty’s world and to understand what she is going through.

Letty’s stories are another page turning set of books in the Our Australian Girl series.







Not for holiday reading Pt 2 – Deadly Waters and tourist ferries

Some books you shouldn’t read while traveling. Avoid Alive if you plan to fly a lot (especially if, like me, you are packing a few extra pounds on your derriere) or The Beach if you are planning on hiking in Asia. And if you are planning on spending a lot of time on slow moving ferries, I would recommend leaving reading Deadly Waters by Jay Bahadur until you get safely back on land.

I got my hands on an advance copy of Deadly Waters, which explores the modern reality of piracy in Somalia. If, like me, your brain instantly goes to Captain Jack Sparrow amusingly asking where all the rum has gone when someone mentions pirates, you’ll find the reality very different. As of 11 December 2010, Somali pirates are holding at least 35 ships with more than 650 hostages. Pirate income was estimated to be about $238 million in 2010 and the indirect costs of piracy are much higher ($7 to 12 billion) as they also include insurance, naval support, legal proceedings, re-routing of slower ships, and individual protective steps taken by ship-owners.

International organizations, including the International Maritime Organization and the World Food Programme, have expressed concern over recent rises in piracy, which increases shipping costs and often impedes the delivery of food aid shipments. While the pirates usually go for large cargo shipping vessels, being a tourist is no guarantee of protection – in February of this year four Americans were killed aboard their yacht by their captors and a Danish family was captured by pirates. It’s very easy to see why pirates are feared and to see everyone not on your vessel as unequivocally the bad guys.

But in their home country, pirates are seen by some as heroes, protesting the illegal fishing that has decimated Somalia’s coastline for local fishermen and the alleged dumping of toxic waste in their waters. Some pirates refer to themselves as badaadinta badah, or “saviours of the sea”, or in the English “coastguard”. Others see piracy as a career choice – a chance to make good money and enjoy the best that life can offer – and are willing to dice with death and imprisonment in the hope of a big break. Still others see piracy as a viable investment offering high returns if it succeeds and caring nothing that the pirates, young men desperate to earn cash, often run out of food and fuel and die in their small skiffs in the Indian Ocean.

This complexity is the more confusing as there is little indepth coverage of piracy – just sensationalistic coverage when an attempt to hijack a vessel goes right – or very, very wrong. Bahadur travels to Puntland in northeastern Somalia to interview and hopefully gain the trust of the pirates, to find out about their  lives; how they spend their money, how they do business and why they are willing – and indeed eager – to risk their lives in often suicidal missions. It’s a fascinating and occasionally uncomfortable look at the reality of an industry and some areas so destitute that killing and dying at sea are acceptable career risks.

Bahadur breaks down the odds of getting attacked by pirates (about 1 in 550 in the Gulf of Aden), as well as what makes you makes you a good target (slow moving vessels with low decks  are particularly easy to commandeer), as well as talking through defense strategies both for the vessels and the governments and maritime agencies involved.  It’s interesting reading and something I would highly recommend – to anyone who isn’t  planning on spending time sitting on a ferry. As it was, I burnt through far too much of my vacation time glaring suspiciously at the local kids who were fishing from their tinnies.


And as a side note, if you have a yearning for free and review copies like this copy of Deadly Waters by Jay Bahadur, have you considered signing up to the Boomerang Critics’ Club? It’s free and easy – you have nothing to lose but hours curled up in a comfy chair with a free new book.

Books in Homes

As an author, I often do signings, readings, talks and workshops. Many of these are in schools. School visits are my favourite sort of author appearance. I love talking to kids. I love their enthusiasm for books — something that is unfortunately often lost in the transition to adulthood. And I love being able to convey my own enthusiasm for books and writing. Occasionally, I manage to inspire some interest in a kid who has previously showed little enthusiasm for reading and/or writing. Those are truly golden moments.

Most of the time, I’m paid to do school visits and there is usually a promotional aspect. After all, I’m trying to make a living out of all this. 🙂 But sometimes I’ll do a different sort of visit. A visit that has nothing to do with promoting myself or my books; a visit for which I am not paid. I did one such visit yesterday…

I went to Hastings Westpark Primary School as a role model for the Books in Homes programme. Books in Homes Australia is a charitable organisation that promotes the love of reading and aims to improve literacy skills. They do this by distributing brand new books, for FREE, to kids in disadvantaged circumstances. Many of these kids come from families struggling to make ends meet and who do not necessarily have the money to buy books. For many of these kids, this programme offers them their only chance to own some new books.

One of the great things about this programme is that it gives the kids a choice of books. There is no easier way to kill off the love of reading than to give a kid a book he/she is not interested in. But give him/her a choice of books — the ability to get a book he/she will love — then you potentially pave the way for a life-long love of reading.

Some of the books kids could choose from this time around included: The Headless Highwayman (Grim and Grimmer #1) by Ian Irvine (who wrote a couple of guest posts here a few of months ago), Lowitja by Lowitja O’Donoghue, The Time Keeper by Emily Rodda and My Australian Story: Cyclone Tracy by Alan Tucker.

So what was my role in all of this? Simple, really — I attended a special book giving assembly at the school and gave a short speech about the importance of books in my life. Then I helped to give out the books. It was a fabulous experience… seeing the delighted expressions on the faces of these kids as I handed them their books was awesome. It was just a small amount of time out of my schedule, but the rewards were big. A huge thank you to Books in Homes Australia for letting me be one of their role models, and to Hastings Westpark Primary School for making me feel so welcome.

To find out more about Books in Homes Australia and the work they do, check out their website.

And tune in next time for a post with pixels.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.




Sophie Laguna was the first Australian Girl born to her parents, a doctor and a nurse who met at a hospital in Sydney after fleeing war torn Europe. Sofie feels lucky to live in a peaceful country like Australia. Here her dreams of writing stories like the four books she has just finished about Our Australian Girl, Grace, has come true.

Sofie is visiting Kids’ Book Capers today to tell us about the journey that she and Grace have taken together.

Can you tell us about the research process?

I thoroughly enjoyed the research process for Grace’s story. With an adult perspective and an adult’s capacity for empathy, I could visit early Australian history more fully, and imagine more vividly what life might have been like in the 19th century for those whose destiny was Australia.

The research gave me the opportunity to really consider the struggle of early Australians and it gave me a greater appreciation for the courage it took to survive. I was awed by how adaptable and resourceful those individuals were in the face of challenge. My research began in London’s crowded, polluted city streets and took me all the way to the open, peaceful Australian bush. I was glad that my character, Grace, eventually found home there, after such a tough and lonely life in England.

What did it feel like to walk in Grace’s shoes?

When I was growing up I lived on a farm and I had my own horse. It was thrilling to revisit a young girl’s passion for horses – their strength, power and grace. The first horse I ever rode was called Peggy.

I loved that Grace eventually had her own horse, and that she named her Peggy. Grace was abused and neglected, like so many children in England at the time. I know she suffered unbearable cruelty and isolation, but I always knew that she would triumph, and it was exciting to be on that journey with her.

What was the most inspiring thing about Grace?

The most inspiring thing about Grace was her ability to hold onto her humanity and her heart when she could so easily have made more destructive and selfish choices. She chose to trust even though life had never shown her that there was much worth trusting. She was kind when she could have been cruel. She saved Sally’s life on the ship, she acted as Dorothea’s eyes in Newgate Prison, and she risked her life to save her mistress’s baby.

She was strong when she could have run away or given up. When she needed help to save Glory, she tracked down Mulgo and used the bush medicine that the aboriginal woman showed her. She was bold and adventurous where she might have been fearful and judgmental.

How do you think you would have survived living in Grace’s era?

If, like Grace, I had lived in 1809 I like to think that I would have been a character a little like Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. Progressive in my own way. Political through living my truth. I like to think that I would have pushed the boundaries somehow. Would I have written? In what ways would my life have been creative? I wonder… so much depended on class and money. Could I have found a way to live outside of those constraints?

If I had made it as far as Beth and Tom, living in a hut in the bush in Parramatta, I hope I would have been as resourceful as Beth, and as open and adventurous.


Grace is the earliest Our Australian Girl and her story starts in 1808 with book one, MEET GRACE.

Grace is a mudlarker, earning her living from finding ‘treasure’ in the smelly polluted waters of the Thames. She is being raised by an uncle who has no real affection for her and spends most of his time being drunk and abusive.

Grace is lonely and miserable but her hardship is not uncommon for a girl her age living in England in the early 1800s.

But it’s Grace’s love for horses that gets her into real trouble. She sees a horse (her Pegasus) being mistreated and threatened with the slaughterhouse. Grace can’t let that happen. Poor Pegasus is hungry and worn out, pretty much like Grace herself.

In her first adventure Grace is arrested for stealing apples and for trying to ride Pegasus away to freedom. Her crimes are considered serious and she is desperately afraid she will be hanged.

In spite of how hard and lacking in affection her life is, Grace is a gentle sensitive girl who will endear herself to readers.


Grace is not to be hanged. Her punishment is a berth aboard the ship, Indispensable bound for Sydney Cove.

Her trip to Australia is difficult with many of the passengers being struck down my fever, but on board ship, Grace meets Hannah and her mother, Liza.

She becomes like a member of their family, even saving Liza from the awful illness that has afflicted so many people on board the ship.

Grace hopes that when they reach Sydney she will be allowed to continue being part of Hannah and Liza’s life, but typically, nothing goes according to plan.

While Grace’s story is fictional, children as young as 9 were sent from England to Australia for crimes they had committed – most of them very minor.

As well as a great story, there is a fascinating historical component to this book. Fact is melded seamlessly with fiction and at the end is a section for readers, “What life was like in Grace’s time,”

Book Two finishes with Grace’s arrival in Australia and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Grace is a brave and endearing character and I’m sure that her plight will touch the hearts of many young readers.




Today is the start of a fabulous Our Australian Girl week at Kids’ Book Capers. We have some great interviews and reviews planned and there are opportunities to win a copy of one of the fabulous Our Australian Girl books from Penguin Australia.

The series took two years and two months to develop and Publisher, Jane Godwin has taken time out from her busy schedule to talk to us about these hugely popular new books and why their 8-11 year old readers are loving them.

Jane, where did the inspiration/idea for the Our Australian Girl series come from?

I had been thinking that a lot of series material available for 8 – 11 year old girls is similar in content and style – tween-orientated, with the story itself often being secondary to the overall package (website, merchandise, sparkles and glitter).This is all fine and good and there is a perfectly legitimate market and desire for this material, but I suppose I kept thinking is this all we can offer our girls?

At the same time, I observed in the young girls around me a sort of lessening in their expectations of what a book could provide.  I’m generalising here, but it appeared that many of them didn’t really expect to have a memorable, rich or meaningful experience with a book. Or perhaps with a contemporary book.  Many have resorted to books from previous eras if they want to read a ‘real’ story.

Meanwhile, parents everywhere appear to be increasingly concerned re young girls having to ‘grow up too fast’ – from department stores selling ‘sexy’ clothing for pre-pubescent girls, to celebrity, fashion and make-up magazines aimed at eight year olds, right through to the fear of the effect on a whole generation of having been exposed too young and too soon to the now ubiquitous nature of pornography.

Therefore I perceived a gap in the market and a need for a different type of book for today’s 8 – 11 year old girls. I also felt a personal responsibility to offer young female readers a rewarding and engaging reading experience. I wanted to make something that would appeal to all types of readers – to cut across social groups and classes, and across reading levels.

There is a series in America (called American Girl) which we were aware of, so some of the inspiration came from learning about that series, although Our Australian Girl has emerged organically as a very different type of series to American Girl.

Your own personal passion for “reading and kids and stories shines through in this series”. Was it hard to find a team that shared these goals?

Well, I was tremendously fortunate and grateful to work with the team that we gathered for OAG.  The four authors (Sofie Laguna, Alison Lloyd, Gabrielle Wang and Sherryl Clark) were fantastic to work with and were also very committed to making their stories the best they could be.  The talented illustrator, Lucia Masciullo, helped to bring the stories and the eras to life with her delicate and beautiful watercolours throughout the books. Davina Bell (series editor), Katie Evans (editor of the Poppy books) Rita Hart (series consultant) and Evi Oetomo (series designer) and I all shared the same creative vision for the series.

It was a small team for so many books and everyone worked incredibly hard to manage every aspect of the series.  Sometimes I think the stars align with groups of people working creatively and I think they aligned for us!

Why do you think the Our Australian Girl series is proving to be so popular?

From the feedback we have had it does seem to have struck a chord with readers themselves, but also with their parents and teachers and other adults in their lives.  I think the kids are loving them because of the quality of the stories and the strength of the characters.  They really are great stories!

Girls are also responding positively to the look of the series, which is very rewarding because so much thought went into the design.  We wanted the books to look pretty but not saccharine pretty, and not like anything else out there in the market place.  Parents are welcoming the fact that these books encourage girls to feel that they can be valued for qualities other than their clothes or their mobile phone – qualities such as strength, resourcefulness, independence, kindness. And teachers can see that the kids are learning about aspects of our history almost without realising it as they read these stories.

How does the Our Australian Girl series complement the school curriculum. Are teacher’s notes available? If so, can you provide a link.

Our Australian Girl taps into so many aspects of the curriculum and can be used widely in Literature Circles, wider reading, history, English, literacy, SOSE, geography, and even in subjects like philosophy as it can be used as a springboard for self reflection and enquiry into one’s own personal history.

And then as the national curriculum kicks in, educators are having a chance to review history teaching in our schools. All this obviously taps into questions of belonging, of identity, of national self esteem, of what it means to be Australian.

We are a culture characterised by diversity and we want our children to grow up celebrating this rather than experiencing cultural and social discord. It feels as if it’s time to provide a fresh angle in interpreting our past for a new generation, and I believe Our Australian Girl is part of this.  And yes, teachers’ notes are available at

Why do you think contemporary readers can relate to Letty, Poppy, Rose and Grace even though the girls lived in a different era?

In many ways the lives of the Our Australian Girls are very different to lives of Australian girls today, but we really wanted young readers to be able to identify with the characters and almost end up seeing them as friends (and remember them in the way that we as adults remember favourite characters from books of our childhood).  The tagline of the series is ‘a girl like me in a time gone by’ and to achieve this we made sure that there were aspects of each character that young readers today could relate to.  Grace loves horses, Letty has a friend who manipulates her, Poppy meets a dog whom she adores, and Rose feels that sometimes the world is unfair and people are not treated equally.

Young readers today are relating to all these aspects of the stories.  And in a broader sense, all the characters are searching for a place where they fit in, they are exploring notions of independence and finding their way in the world, and really those aspects of life haven’t really changed.

I was at the launch of the Our Australian Girl series and it was clear that it had absorbed the lives of everyone involved. Why do you think this series is so important to the creators?

Well, as I mentioned before I do feel a responsibility not only as a publisher but as a mother and as a female and maybe even as a human being (!) to provide young readers with a rich and memorable experience.

I wanted to give them credit rather than patronise them.  I am very concerned about the broader challenges for young girls growing up today, and here was an opportunity to maybe make a small difference to the way girls see themselves and the way they make choices.  And I am working with people who share these concerns and are passionate about making a difference.  We each believe in the goals and ideas behind the project so fervently that I suppose we probably appear a bit evangelical!  But I do feel this in some ways is the most important thing I have contributed (so far!) in my career as a provider of books for children.

Is there an Our Australian Boy series planned?

Yes!  We have had so many people ask us this question and we are in the early stages of developing something for boys.  I won’t say any more about it here except that it will be quite different from Our Australian Girl but still feature great stories and vivid, memorable characters.  And it will link in with Our Australian Girl so that teachers will be able to use the series alongside each other in the classroom.

What are you enjoying most about working on the series?

At the moment I am enjoying seeing the third lot of books (out in July) land on my desk from the printer.  As each lot arrives, we put them all together and just gaze at them lovingly because the design of the books makes them look so appealing all sitting together, either face out or spine out.  We are also just finishing the editing on the last lot of books (book 4, out in October) and we are starting on two new ones for next year,so we’re reading those manuscripts and working on the new covers.

I think at the moment I’m allowing myself just a few minutes (maybe seconds) to feel a sense of satisfaction in what we have achieved – but it’s bittersweet because we are saying goodbye to Grace, Letty, Poppy and Rose (and to the intense and rewarding relationship we have shared with their four authors over the last two years).  It’s also really enjoyable to read the book 4 manuscripts and see how our little girls have grown and changed through their adventures across the four books.

About the Illustrator

Lucia Masciullo, the talent behind the pictures in the Our Australian Girl Books

Each of the Our Australian Girl Books has beautiful illustrations by Lucia Masciullo.

Lucia was born in Italy, but moved to Australia looking for new opportunities. She thinks all Australians keep in their blood a bit of their pioneer heritage, regardless of their own birthplace.

Lucia is visiting us today to talk about her journey and her work.

I work full time as a children’s book illustrator. And I love it.

I was born and bred in Livorno, Italy and I moved to Australia in 2007 with my partner.

In Australia I have seen my first books published. I was lucky enough to meet and collaborate with fantastic people in the children’s book industry. Among them Hardie Grant Egmont (HGE) publishing director Hilary Rogers and Penguin (Australia) publisher Jane Godwin. I am sincerely grateful to them for betting on me and my artistic vision.

I really liked to work on the illustrations for the Our Australian Girl series.

The most challenging thing for me has been to find images that I could use as references.

All the four stories are well set in a specific epoch of Australian history and I needed exactly the objects in use in those years.

And some of the objects are very rare to find nowadays: I spent weeks studying peculiar things like what kind of tools were in use during the gold rush for example or what kind of saddle people used in the first Australian settlement or the look of a car in 1900 (I didn’t even know they had cars in 1900).

I think has been also a nice way for me to approach Australian history: I have to confess Italian schools don’t teach very much about the topic and I have been eager to learn more about the country I’m going to be living in. But I was fortunate enough to have the authors and Davina to my side who helped me and gave me feedback.

This was the first time I worked with black and white illustrations: I am quite confident using colours  but this time I had to focus more on the different tones of gray and strokes instead of using colors as a means of expression. I really enjoyed the process and I am happy with the results.

For the 64 final illustrations I used watercolor and I added details with a black pencil. I painted the images slightly bigger than the size they are printed on the book. This allows the final images to have  plenty of details while not completely losing my eyesight.

So interesting to hear how you work, Lucia. Sometimes people don’t realise how much time and research is involved in illustrating a book.

Over the next four days, the authors who created the Our Australian Girl characters will be dropping into Kids’ Book Capers to share their journeys and talk about their books.

In the meantime, don’t forget to enter the competition happening this week at Kids’ Book Capers. There are four great Our Australian Girl books to be won.






There’s No Book Like Vampire Academy

ShiverMy Dorothy-style there’s-no-book-like-Vampire-Academy moan hasn’t stopped since the last few times I’ve mentioned it on this blog. I don’t own red shoes and clicking my heels together to conjure up either more, as-yet-unpublished books in the series or books equal to the task of filling the series’ big, now-empty shoes hasn’t worked.

My friend Kate tried to assuage my sadness (and quite possibly stopper my whinging) by recommending a book she’s found to be pretty good.

Called Shiver and penned by American writer Maggie Stiefvater, it’s a young adult novel about a girl who’s in love with a boy who’s half-human and half-wolf. Grace, the female lead doesn’t initially know the wolf and the boy are the same, of course, and the two watch each other from a distance for a long, long time.

The problem is that cold weather turns human Sam, the male lead, into a wolf and the couple live in a rather chilly, snowfall-is-just-around-the-corner place. Once Grace discovers that Sam and the wolf are one and the same, they become romantically involved and then embroiled in super-human efforts to keep him warm and in human form.

There are further complications with the wolf aspect—and this is where, in my so-very-shallow knowledge of the conventions of young-adult fiction, I think this book offers something unique.

LingerThe complications include that there comes a time when the humans permanently morph into wolf form. That means that Grace and Sam’s recently found true love (and yes, you’re allowed to channel The Princess Bride here) is about to be permanently torn apart.

Also playing out in the background are the storylines that Grace was once been attacked by these wolves, and a newly formed and unstable wolf is causing chaos about town.

As much as I wanted it to be, and as much as I found the cover art very pretty, this book was no Vampire Academy for me. But that’s also an impossibly high and unfair benchmark by which to judge it.

On its own, Shiver is a good book and one that I enjoyed enough to read in a few sittings and for which I sacrificed the hallowed sport of sleep. To continue the Dorothy theme, I should recognise and get over the fact that I’m not in Kansas anymore.

The exchanges between characters were sassy and clever and, although I didn’t think Sam was quite in the realms of Edward (the brooding, vampire love interest from Twilight) or Dimitri (the brooding, kickass vampire love interest from Vampire Academy who kicks even Edward’s ass), I thought he was very sweet.

Shiver also thankfully lacked some of the annoying moral overtones Twilight, in particular, reeked of, or the drawn-out-ness of the will-we-won’t-we love story. Sam and Grace get together, stay together, and there’s no annoying forlorn looks or I’m-a-danger-to-you-so-it’s-best-that-I-leave-you mucking about.

Getting to the final page, I discovered that Grace and Sam’s tale continues, branching out with another one-word-entitled book called Linger. Shiver might not have rocked my world as much as Vampire Academy, but I liked it enough to warrant continuing onto book two. Who knows, maybe the series will grow further on me. Maybe I’ll come to like Sam as much as Dimitri.

Celebrated In One Country, Unknown In Another

Not YetIt never ceases to amaze me how a writer can be celebrated, award-winning, and absolutely massive in one country and yet entirely unknown in another. I found that was the case with Canadian writer Wayson Choy, whose name until recently drew a blank with me (and with, I’m guessing, most other Australians).

Choy’s first book, The Jade Peony, shared the 1995 Trillium Book Award for best book. Its companion book, All That Matters, won the award in 2005 and was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize. He wrote a memoir, Paper Shadows, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Charles Taylor Prize, and the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, and won the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction…

So yeah, Choy’s like a little bit successful, a little bit famous, and a little bit very much liked in Canada.

I haven’t read any of those books—yet. I most certainly will—but I just finished his most recent one. Entitled Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying, it documents Choy’s near-death experiences of asthma and heart attacks and failing internal organs, as well as his rehab. Doesn’t exactly sound like a joyous read or ride, I know, but it actually really is.

The Jade PeonyA gay Chinese man whose name connotes ‘luck’, Choy’s disproved his parents’ fear that he’ll end up alone and unloved. He actually has two families—a city family and a country family—with whom he has lived for decades.

One of my favourite parts of the book is when one of the families’ boys outlines his family tree for his classmates. He says that he has a mother, a father, a sister, ‘and a Wayson’.

Hearing Choy speak on Conversations with Richard Fidler, with his gentle voice and incisive intellect, I began to suspect that Choy’s the kind of guy you fall in love with and want to keep around. I know I fell for him—and that was in just an hour.

It’s not just his voice that I fell in love with. I also fell for his writing. Choy crafts work with a touch as light and poetic as America’s premier essayist, Joan Didion (and no, I’m not really sure what a ‘premier essayist’ is either, but the term is regularly bandied around about Didion and it sounds fancy).

In fact, I kept thinking that there were parallels in terms of theme and style and beauty between Not Yet and The Year Of Magical Thinking, the book Didion wrote about the year after her husband died suddenly of a heart attack.

Both books are exquisite, deceptively simple and brief, and are rawly honest, although Didion’s is probably (and deliberately so) more of a tearjerker.

Some examples? Choy’s explanation of why he ignored the warning signs of his impending, life-threatening illnesses:

Paper ShadowsDuring July of 2001, with my book deadline looming, far from my mind was any thought that these spells could be signs of ill health or worse. Only in Victorian dramas and novels, and in grand operas, does a cough or two foreshadow finis. Certainly, a sneeze lacks any hint of funereal dignity.

His self-deprecation at his predicament:

With great hope, my family now visited to witness my performance as the Recovering Corpse.


‘Wayson,’ she said. ‘Spell out what you want. I’m going to say the alphabet and you tap your finger on my hand when I get to the letter you mean.’ […] ‘Is this what you want: Bring me some of my clothes?’ Kate said. I nodded. After she left me, Kate complained to Mary Jo, ‘Just like an English teacher! All he had to do was spell out two words, ‘bring clothes,’ or just one word, ‘clothes’. But he had to spell out a complete six-word sentence!’

And finally:

‘What’s the matter, Wayson?’ Marie asked.

All That Matters‘I want to be cremated.’

‘Yes, you said exactly that when I first walked you into emergency. Karl thought it very cheerful of you.’

It’s not perhaps the most upbeat note to end on, but I think it in some ways is. I’ve ordered Choy’s other books and, although I don’t know their subject matter yet, I suspect they will be cheery and will definitely be equally moving and beautifully written.

Death of a Bookseller

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve buried the book in my lifetime. The fact is that we haven’t buried the book, and however all this works out, we’re still not going to be burying the book. People are still going to be reading books, and whether they’re going to be reading them on a Kindle or as a regular physical hardcover book or a paperback or on their phones or listening to audiobooks, what’s the difference? A writer is still sending his or her work to you, and you’re absorbing it, and that’s reading. – Super editor Robert Gottlieb in an interview on

If you’ve been reading the book news lately, you will have heard the media, the Australian Booksellers Association and cultural figures large and small ream out the Minister for Small Business, Senator Nick Sherry, for predicting the death of the bookshop. Just to jog your memory, here is what Senator Sherry said:

I think in five years, other than a few specialist booksellers in capital cities, we will not see a bookstore, they will cease to exist.

We don’t need to put our thinking caps on for too long to realise that the Minister for Small business probably made a bit of a tit of himself when he made this proclamation – as a piece of political rhetoric it was clearly a misstep. But just how wrong is the senator, and how upset should we really be?

The pundits would have us believe that we should be furious. As Don Grover, chief executive of Dymocks, said on the ABC: ‘I think it’s bizarre that he’s made that assessment … People love curling up on a lounge with a book, the physical nature of the product. The smell of a book still rates as one of the most significant reasons why people buy books.’

This from Mr Grover’s exhaustive study on the book-buying public entitled, ‘Why We’d Rather Smell Books Than Read Them’.

I mean, seriously, people. If the most significant reason for buying books is the smell, then the book trade is in even bigger strife than Nick Sherry believes. Luckily for those of us who love books, it’s not the main reason people buy them – and even if it were it wouldn’t save bookstores. You see, it is entirely possible to buy nice smelling books from the internet. And that is the threat to bricks and mortar bookshops – the convenience and range offered by online shopping.

The book trade is in flux, and that means physical bookselling is under threat. There will certainly be casualties. Some of them will likely be booksellers. Some of the fallout is likely to happen within the next five years. Get over it.

Conflating the ‘book’ as cultural artefact and the ‘bookstore’ as cultural institution is not helpful. Nobody thinks bookstores aren’t a big part of how people have traditionally discovered, obtained and fallen in love with books. But the changes confronting physical booksellers are an economic and cultural reality. Just as the bulk of independent booksellers were swamped by giant book chain stores over the last two or three decades, so the chains will be eclipsed by online booksellers. However, online bookstores do not, for the most part, provide the same kind of curation and community that bricks and mortar stores do. If booksellers want to remain relevant, then these are issues that need to be confronted head on – not ignored because we have dared question the viability of an existing institution. Not mentioning that bookshops are closing does not mean we didn’t notice the going-out-of-business sales all over the country.

The times, they are a-changin’, but that doesn’t mean we should panic. We are more literate and books are more accessible than ever before. They’re about to get even more so. How we help people find the books they want to read is one of the main challenges facing the industry. So let’s stop the hysteria in response to any suggestion that things are going to change. They are, but booksellers clinging to traditional models will not help them to reinvent themselves.

Famous Dead People

At the recent Continuum 7, Melbourne’s Speculative Fiction and Pop Culture Convention, I attended a panel called “Goodbye Sarah Jane”. It was a tribute to actress Elisabeth Sladen and the character of Sarah Jane Smith, which she played in Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures. Ms Sladen passed away recently and her death has had quite an impact on Doctor Who fans across the globe. And it got me thinking…

Celebrity deaths are an odd thing to deal with for fans. If a writer, musician or actor whose work you admire, dies — how do you cope? How do you express your grief? And what level of grief is appropriate, given that you didn’t actually know the person? It can be really weird.

I remember when Princess Diana died. I was shocked when I heard the news and I remember feeling saddened. But to other people it was a much bigger deal. News reports were full of people crying in the streets. There was a huge outpouring of genuine grief from people who had only ever known her from afar.

Earlier this year, the death of author Diana Wynne Jones affected a lot of readers. The Twitterverse and Blogosphere were flooded with tributes and expressions of grief. But there was also a sense of comfort derived from that fact that her memory would live on through her books.

The thing is, that authors, actors, musicians and other creative people often touch the lives of those they never meet. The characters they create can seem like friends, the stories they weave can affect our lives, and the emotions they bring forth in their admirers can be very real. So, when a person who has influenced our lives, even without ever meeting us, dies… it is not at all surprising or inappropriate to feel grief.

I have only ever shed a tear for two such ‘celebrities’. The first time was in 1990 when I heard that Jim Henson had died. Through his storytelling and amazing puppet creations he had been an important part of my formative years — first through childhood with Sesame Street and the Muppets, then through my teenage years with the mind-blowing films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. I found it impossible to watch the television special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, without crying. One scene sticks with me to this day and still brings a tear to my eye — the Muppets all standing around and looking down, acknowledging their puppeteers and noting that one of them is missing.

The second time was when I discovered that Elisabeth Sladen had passed away. I never knew her and, in fact, had never seen her act in any role other than Sarah Jane Smith. But Sarah Jane was such an important part of my life. She was the Doctor’s companion when I first started watching the series at age ten. She was my first television crush. When she returned to the role in the revived series, over 30 years after she originally took on the part, my jaw dropped. Then in her late fifties, she was still HOT… and I found myself having my little fanboy crush all over again. So when she died earlier this year, I was not all that surprised at feeling genuine grief.

To see how much the character touched the lives of a whole new generation of children with The Sarah Jane Adventures, take a look at these messages left by kids after Elizabeth Sladen’s death.

As with Diana Wynne Jones, Henson and Sladen will live on through their body of work. Of course, there are also books — many books on the works of Jim Henson and many novels featuring the character of Sarah Jane. And there is nothing like a book to cheer me up when I’m feeling sad.

What about you, dear reader? Which writers/actors/musicians/etc have you grieved for? How have they affected your life? Leave a comment!

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.



Lennie the Leopard is the latest book in author and wildlife photographer, Jan Latta’s True to Life Books for kids.

Jan’s books are narrative non-fiction. They are unique in that real photos are taken by Jan of animals in the wild to help tell fictional stories. Jan spends months or even years collecting the information and pictures for stories like Lennie the Leopard.

To create the True to Life Books, Jan follows animals every day, taking photographs and notes which she then uses to create her children’s books on endangered animals.

Lennie tells his own story of his life in the wild – growing up in Africa with his family. He takes readers into the wild on his hunting journey and introduces them to some unique facts about the way he lives.

Jan’s photos are truly stunning and it’s hard not to fall in love with the adorable  cub, Lennie.

As well as telling Lennie’s fictional story, Jan presents the reader with all sorts of true facts about leopards and their habitat at the end of the book.

She talks about why these animals are endangered and what can be done to help them. There are great websites for children to check out and interesting facts that they can use in school projects.

Jan’s pictures tell amazing stories and Lennie’s growth from a cute cub to an elusive hunter is remarkable to witness. Anyone who reads his story will be enchanted by his beauty and power and drawn into the plight of endangered animals.

Lennie’s story is easy to read and a stunning visual adventure. It’s a story that needs to be told. Lennie the Leopard will engage readers of all ages and help them understand the ways of the wild and the importance of protecting our endangered animals.

More about Lennie, the True To life Books and Jan’s amazing adventures as a wildlife photographer and author can be found at her website

You can also buy Jan’s books direct from her website


REVIEW: Into the Heart of Life by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Title: Into the Heart of Life
Author: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, PO Box 8500, 83 Alexander St. NSW 2065, Australia.
Date: 30 May, 2011

Reviewed by Louise Gilmore

More than 20 people from around the world joined Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo last year for a pilgrimage to the cave in the Indian Himalayas where she had spent 12 years meditating.

Many of us were out of condition and some were ill or injured. The climb itself snaked across a system of nearly vertical goat tracks at over 4000 metres altitude and took four hours. The climb down required us to traverse a steep slope covered in scree – tiny loose pebbles – and lasted a leg-wobbling three hours.

Mysteriously, no one had even so much as a stiff muscle the next morning. Was it the simple exhilaration of the achievement, or, I wondered, could the powerful practice of Tonglen have been involved? After all we were travelling with a highly realised practitioner; some would say a living dakini, in an area known as the Land of the Dakinis (Dakinis are enlightened energy in female form). Also we were waved up the mountain by a tiny group of her fellow nuns; ancient women who have been practicing meditation in this remote area for many decades. (Tonglen is the energetically alchemical practice of taking on the pain and suffering of others and transmuting it to goodness and happiness).

I was reminded of this mystery when I read Tenzin Palmo’s new book, Into the Heart of Life. It contains one of the simplest and most beautiful descriptions of the practice of Tonglen that I have ever read.

Tenzin Palmo is an English woman who became a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition nearly 50 years ago. Her initial naivety about spiritual training was soon dispelled as she realised that she, along with all the other nuns, would not be receiving the same teachings in the science of the mind, leading to enlightenment, that the monks got. In fact they were expected to be little more than servants for the men. In the early days she had to fight for every teaching she was given.

This experience inspired her determination to reach enlightenment in the body of a woman, traditionally thought to be impossible. Has she done so? She’s not telling, any more than she would discuss whether she used Tonglen to help us climb the mountain. Her proviso on enlightenment is ‘no matter how many lifetimes it takes.’

She may not be enlightened – yet – but she has written a most enlightening book. Into the Heart of Life is a collection of teachings on Buddhist philosophy taken from her years of travelling and speaking around the world. Each chapter is a complete teaching, followed by a selection of questions and answers that tease out some of the main points.

And although this is absolutely a book of guidance on Buddhism, it contains such accessible descriptions, stories and examples, in such clear language, that it is really a simple guide to decent living for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

Her lineage, the Drukpa Kagyu, values experience over philosophy. In line with this, she teaches from a deep and embodied personal knowledge. There are chapters on the meaning of Buddhist staples such as impermanence, karma, happiness, renunciation, ethics and more.

And for those of us who struggle with trying to balance a spiritual life with everyday and family responsibilities, it is instructive to have a celibate nun tell us in the context of loving kindness that: ‘Our family, our children, our partners, our parents – they are our practice. They are not the obstacles to our practice.’

She describes the teachings in language that we can all understand. The traditional dualities most of us face – our longing for pleasure, praise, acquisition and a ‘good name’ and our fear of pain, blame, losing what we have or being disgraced, become, in her language, the eight worldly ‘hang-ups’.

Go to Page 68 and there is a simple three-stage meditation to bring us into a sense of ease with ourselves and later, teachings on shamatha (calming the mind) and vipashyana (developing wisdom). She urges us to grow up, take responsibility and work towards becoming spiritually mature.

Underlying the book like a fine steel wire is her determination to change a tradition and belief system about the role of women that has held sway for more than 1000 years. Proceeds from the sale of the book go towards the nunnery she has built near Dharamshala in Northern India, where local and Tibetan refugee women now receive most of the trainings they were previously denied.

I also need to note that the Australian publishers have made an unfortunate decision to use an unusually small and light typeface, which is somewhat challenging to read.

Still, it is worth it. Get your glasses, sit under a strong light and prepare to enjoy.



Jan Latta is a wildlife photographer and author who spends weeks, months and sometimes years researching for her next book in the True to Life Books series.

Jan is visiting Kids’ Book Capers today to talk to us about how and why she started creating her books for children about endangered animals.

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer after coming face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in Rwanda. When my guide said there were only 600 mountain gorillas left in the world, I decided to write books for children about endangered animals. Grandy the Gorilla was the first book.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

Writing about endangered animals. I want to speak for them.

I want to write about animals and their survival so children can learn about them.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

For me, it’s finding the wild animals to write their story. I will search for weeks to find the animal that is the focus of the next book. Lennie the Leopard took 15 years because leopards are the most difficult animals to see in the wild.

What were you in a past life before you became a writer?

I was a creative director in an advertising agency.

What is your greatest writing achievement?

Writing a 20,000 word journal for the Diary of a Wildlife Photographer book.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m creating 2minute videos of five of the twelve True to Life Book series.

Do you have any tips for new writers?

Follow your passion and just start writing. Try to get a good mentor or a writer’s group to help you through the tough times.

How many books have you had published?



What inspired you to write Lennie the Leopard?

The leopard was a challenge. I wanted to find the elusive leopard in the wild and write about its survival. I wanted to take photographs of this magnificent animal in its natural habitat.

What’s it about?

It’s about the most secretive animal in Africa. Children will discover Lennie the Leopard through his narrative. The photographs tell the story about what he eats, how he hunts and how he survives. Then there are facts about the other leopards in India, China and the endangered sub species.

What age groups is it for? 5 to 8 years

Are there any teacher’s notes, associated activities with the book? Yes. Some fun activities, questions and poems.

Is there something that sets this book apart from others?

Yes. All the photographs have been taken in the leopard’s natural habitat

in Africa. I have written the story from first-hand knowledge of  a leopard in its daily life.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Living in a tent in Africa so I could research leopards to write their story.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

15 years of searching.

On Friday we’ll be reviewing Jan’s beautiful new book, Lennie, the Leopard here at Kids’ Book Capers.

More about Jan, including links to her stunning videos is available at her website

You can also buy Jan’s books direct from her website

Jan’s new book, Lennie the Leopard is reviewed on Friday at Kids’ Book Capers.


Not for holiday reading Pt 1 – Kingpin and your Credit Card

My parents were on holiday and enjoying a nice dinner when they got the phone call from the bank. The clerk wanted to know if my father had recently decided to purchase $9,000 of South African diamonds online. My mother was somewhat disappointed to hear that he hadn’t, and they were both filled with dismay when they realised the truth – their credit card details had been stolen. They thought it was swiped by a waiter the previous night but couldn’t prove it, and ended up spending the rest of the vacation glowering at any retail staff who touched their card suspiciously.

Another friend who set off on a round the world trip with a brand new card found herself cashless after the very first time she used it, on her stopover in Bangkok. Not twenty minutes after she walked out of the store, her bank called her to report it had been used 5 times, and was now frozen, leaving her alone and without access to funds until she could get a replacement sent from Australia.

Not much fun.

I’ve  had my own card frozen – the bank raised an alert and flagged my card when item were purchased in three different countries over two days, which does sound suspicious, but is easy enough to do when you decide to take the cheapest all-stops flight from Australia to Ireland at Christmas and need to buy gifts en route.  Almost everyone I know has experienced either card freezing or worse, actually having their card used, so it was with some interest (and no small amount of irritation) I sat down in deckchair while on holidays to read Kingpin.

Kingpin is the story of Max “Vision” Butler, a brilliant hacker who played both sides of the law,  serving as a consultant to the FBI at one point and staging a hostile takeover of the online criminal fraud network not to disable it, but to coordinate the chaos – to consolidate and make more efficient vast online-fraud supermarkets stocked with credit card numbers, hacked bank accounts and the means of making fake cards and  IDs.

It could be heavy reading, but the story flows well. The author, Kevin Poulson, manages to write about a technical subject without drowning a casual reader in the details. It’s fascinating to view credit card fraud from the other side, that of the perpetrators, and infuriating to hear that those who do it often view it as a crime with no victims but the amorphous evil that is big  banks. Anyone who has ever stood in a petrol station with an empty tank and frozen card or had their card declined unexpectedly at a grocery or pharmacy can tell you that credit card fraud is not a victimless crime. The bank may normally pay the monetary cost but the time racked up in phone calls, waiting on new cards and feverishly checking statements exacts its own toll in stress.

However much I ground my teeth at the idea that credit card fraud is somehow okay, I found the book really fascinating. Perhaps not ideal as a holiday read, replete as it was with information on how easily a card could be skimmed (or have the details stolen via Internet Explorer). I’m not sure I needed to look quite that sternly at the waitress when she moved out of sight with my card for twenty seconds. I probably didn’t need to glare at the fourteen year old in the ice-cream parlour either. They were probably after $12 I owed for a chocolate cones, as a opposed to a nine-thousand dollar diamond necklace.

Kingpin is a excellent book, and I do recommend reading it. Just not while you are on holidays unless you don’t like the waitresses.

The post-Continuum post

Over the long weekend just past, I attended Continuum 7, Melbourne’s Speculative Fiction and Pop Culture Convention. For me it was a rather surreal experience. I did some speaking, I did some listening, and I did a lot of wandering around in a vague haze. That’s what happens when you come down with a nasty headcold the day before a convention and have to dose yourself up with a combo of paracetamol and codeine to get through the weekend. Why in the world would any sane person do this, rather than staying home in bed? Simple! The Continuum conventions are such great events, that there was no way I was going to allow a damn headcold to stop me from going!

And I’m so glad that I didn’t miss it.

To be perfectly honest, I had never heard of either of the guests of honour — Catherynne M. Valente and Dave Freer — prior to attending. But, as I always do, I went along to listen to the guest of honour speeches to find out about them. They were both excellent and interesting speakers, and I’ve gone away interested in giving their books a go. In the case of Dave Freer that will be an easy follow-up as he kindly gave me a copy of Much Fall of Blood, a novel he co-wrote with Mercedes Lackey and Eric Flint. And before you ask, there’s nothing special about me. Dave actually gave out a number of promotional copies of his books, kindly supplied by his publisher.

Aside from guests, there were a plethora of other authors appearing on panels. So I got to hear Richard Harland talk about alternative history novels, Jack Dann and Lucy Sussex discuss the topic “Can Writing be Taught?”, and Narrell M Harris talk about her Melbourne Literary iPhone app. There were also three book launches — Richard Harland launched his YA steampunk novel Liberator (sequel to Worldshaker), Paul Collins launched his new YA science fiction novel Mole Hunt and Lucy Sussex launched her new short story collection Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies. Other authors speaking and/or reading over the weekend included Kirstyn McDermott, Janeen Webb, Karen Healey, Meg Mundell, Joel Shepherd, Sue Bursztynski and Jason Nahrung.

Aside from all the great authors, there were also a bunch of pop culture related panel discussions and presentations. The most memorable for me was “Goodbye Sarah Jane”, a rather tearful tribute to recently deceased actress Elisabeth Sladen, who portrayed the character of Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and her own spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures.

I had grand plans for my attendance at Continuum 7 (if you have plans, you might as well make them grand). I was going to run around with my video camera and interview authors as I did at Aussiecon 4 (check out the post), with the intention of inflicting them on you, here at Literary Clutter. But … you know … *cough, cough, splutter, sneeze* … and all that. I only just managed to hold my concentration in place for the panels I was speaking on… and completely forgot about the videos. In fact, I almost forgot about photos as well. I only managed a couple — one each from the launches of Liberator and Mole Hunt.

Despite feeling like crap (are you sick of me whinging, yet… well tough… I don’t believe in suffering in silence), I still managed to enjoy the weekend. And I’m already looking forward to Continuum 8, which will also double as next year’s Australian National Science Fiction Convention. So it will be even bigger and better! More info about it will soon be available from the Continuum website.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll cough in your general direction.


Thoughts on: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those literary phenomenons. You know the ones – plucked from relative obscurity, a story that doesn’t seem like it would appeal to the masses somehow does, and before you know it millions of copies are sold and book clubs everywhere are discussing it and your friend tells you it’s a must-read.

Well, The Elegance of the Hedgehog finally made it onto my book club’s agenda.

Translated into English from its native French, The Elegance of the Hedgehog involves the thoughts and movements of two characters, the first being Renee – a Paris apartments concierge, and the second being Paloma, an adolescent who contemplates the correct frame of mind in which to commit suicide. Her family resides in the apartments at which Renee works.

Our book club had a fairly heated discussion about the novel once we had all finished it, fuelled by wine and tapas at our local haunt. People were of similar opinion – they liked it – up to a point (well, one person hated it and didn’t mind saying so), but overall found it to be a – dare I say it –pretentious read.

The idea of the novel appears to be that the two are largely ignored by the world, but that they are clearly very intelligent and can do such things as ‘appreciate art’, while the rest of the guests and staff at the apartment appear to see them as below the station befitting their intelligence. Paloma’s perspective is distinguished from Renee’s because it takes the form of diary entries with ‘Profound Thoughts’ as titles…but otherwise I couldn’t tell the voices apart. And I wasn’t the only one at book club to have this problem. There are some humorous depictions of fellow guests, but largely the book seems to hinge on addressing the importance of these two characters and their recognition of supreme intelligence in each other. Renee, the book tells us, is the hedgehog, with a refinement belying her external prickles. But i tired early on of being told who was refined and who was not, and found the characters strangely typed, rather than multi-dimensional beings with which I could experience a connection.

While I am glad I read it (it’s so annoying when you’re the last person in the world to read something and so your opinion about unread book means diddley squat), I also didn’t find it a particularly enjoyable read. I would much rather a book that is simple and says what it means to say, than a book that appears intelligent, but allows the message to degenerate into froth and puffery. You can decide for yourself which category The Elegance of the Hedgehog falls into.

Year of Publication: 2008.
Number of Pages: 336.
Book Challenges: None.

Under Pressure

Pressing down on me
Pressing down on you

Wherever you have the opportunity to quote something by the immortal David Bowie, do. Freddie Mercury? Ditto.
The reason I’ve started this post with song lyrics (accompanying a tune which is now stuck in your head, most probably), is that I’m feeling – you guessed it – under pressure. Through no one’s fault but my own. And a particular book’s.

My first introduction to Haruki Murakami happened in high school. A friend recommended me Sputnik Sweetheart to read, saying I would love it – I don’t think I was wise enough to truly appreciate the talent that went hand-in-hand with the weirdness of Murukami’s magic realism bent. It was nothing less than a test of our friendship. A friendship which would surely crumble if I did nothing less than love every inch of the Sputnik Sweetheart‘s strange skin. Although I now count magic realism as my favourite literary style to soak in, all I can remember about that first taste of Murakami is the awkwardness of expectation. Expectation not only from my friend, but an expectation from myself that if he liked the book, then I should, no, I must love the book just as much. The characters of Sputnik Sweetheart to my current mind are hazy at best, the storyline non-existent. I’m sure that somewhere in the universe is my parallel self, enjoying the language and the atmosphere of Sputnik Sweetheart without any of the agonies of expectation I have in this world – but unfortunately it’s this world my current self lives in – I had to tell my friend that I didn’t think the book was anything special. Not in those words, of course. I must have sugarcoated it to save feelings. But friends know when you’re not telling the full truth, anyhow.

Since then, I’ve managed to avoid another Murakami book for close to ten years. Up until a few weeks ago, that is.

Murakami must have it in for me.

A friend has chosen Norwegian Wood as his pick for book club. Thus far, each book choice has been unread by the party who chose it. But Norwegian Wood is one of his favourite.books.ever. I respect the guy – and think we’re similar in tastes. Let’s face it, I admire him. His type of intelligence has a certain air of sophistication that I struggle to emulate. And so I’m afraid to read Norwegian Wood, lest I’m found to be a fraud – someone unable to appreciate the beauty of real literature.

The weight of the world is on my shoulders, my friends. I really hope I like this book!


Do you ever feel under pressure to like a book?

The Psychopath Test

The Psychopath TestI’m acutely aware that the excitement I expressed and the enthusiasm with which I sought out a review copy of Jon Ronson’s forthcoming book about psychopaths might have made me appear a little, well, mentally unhinged.

So I want to say a massive thank you to the Pan Macmillan publicity team, who agreed to send me a copy and then followed up to check where said copy was when it didn’t arrive quite as quickly as I’d hoped.

I also want to say a massive thank you to those of you who dutifully received and responded to my text messages:

  • first that I’d just found out that Ronson had a new book coming out
  • second that a review copy was on its way to me
  • third that the review copy had, after days of me checking the letterbox as if it were Christmas, finally arrived, and my review reading was underway.

I first discovered Ronson via Radio National’s The Book Show, when he was in Australia to talk about his simply titled (and by simply, I mean that its one main word doesn’t often sound like a title and you have to repeat it, explain it, make sure you include the subtitle of the book) Them: Adventures With Extremists. As in extremists who believe in conspiracy theories such as that shape-shifting giant lizards rule the world. For. Real.

The Men Who Stare At GoatsIn it, and with a mix of suspended cynicism and a frank interviewing and writing style, Ronson gives the interviewees enough rope to hang themselves and us a sly wink to know that we’re in on the joke.

He also surprises us by taking the tales in unexpected directions and you find yourself not sniggering at peoples’ naïve and off-the-wall beliefs, but instead understanding how and why they believe them and how sometimes those beliefs aren’t so far-fetched at all.

I’ve blogged previously about how much I enjoyed Ronson’s books—so much so, that I’ve even broken my no re-read rule for them. I still muck up the order of his name—Jon Ronson doesn’t seem to roll off my tongue quite the same way Ron Jonson does—but his distinct, waspish English voice is embedded in my brain courtesy of his stories on Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life (if you haven’t subscribed to this podcast, stop reading immediately and go do it. Do it.).

Which is, coincidentally, where I heard the story seed of what became his forthcoming book, The Psychopath Test. Long story short, ‘Tony’ faked mental illness to avoid a prison sentence for grievous bodily harm. The plan backfired when he was determined to be a psychopath and was imprisoned in Broadmoor, a mental asylum for the baddest, most infamous psychopaths.

ThemTony quickly realised he’d made a mistake, but found that while it was easy to convince others that you’re mad, the more you try to convince them that you’re actually, in fact, sane, the madder they think you are.

Throw in some friendly local scientologists, some mysterious, cryptic packages that are being delivered to experts, interviews with Al ‘Chainsaw’ Dunlap, famed for his slash-and-burn firing techniques to bring companies back into the black and who may or may not be a corporate psychopath, as well as a training course with the doctor who created the widely used psychopath test and, well, you’ve got a great book on your hands.

I loved The Psychopath Test—the way Ronson looks at the world both makes sense to me and turns my sense of the world on its head. So, with that in mind I won’t apologise for my overexcitement at its imminent and then subsequent arrival. Instead I’ll say read it (and read Ronson‘s back catalogue).

The Single Most Important Reason To Switch To Ebooks

I realised today the most important reason and deciding factor for me moving across to ebooks. It actually emerged from hearing a single, throwaway sentence. Before I continue, I should say that you may not wish to be eating or drinking while reading this blog, because it comes with an ‘ewww’ warning. Oh, and sorry, but this one’s not for the kids.

The sentence? ‘Every time you read a book, you leave a little bit of yourself behind in it.’ No, we’re not talking about some existential contribution to the universe and human knowledge. We’re talking about physical, mostly invisible, sometimes visible parts of you. Like skin cells, hair, saliva, mucus. In short, anything you can shed or spread. Kind of makes those library books a little less appealing, doesn’t it?

I’m not sure what followed this sentence, because hearing it immediately transported me back in time to when I was at uni and worked part-time as a bookseller. And it’s here that the ewww kicks in.

Every retail job comes equipped with some colourful (or not-so-colourful) characters who keep your job ‘interesting’, or who simply provide grist for the writers’ mill (hence this blog post). Many of them become regulars, and new staff members learn these customers’ quirks the hard way while older staff chalk up encounters to the retail chalkboard of horror.

Invariably, the greater the horror experienced by one staff member, the greater the amusement experienced by all the other others who escaped it first hand, but who get to be shocked, awed, and downright thank-goodness-it-wasn’t-me-who-copped-it amused.

My un-funny, uber-eww situation involved an older gentleman who frequented the store and who used to purchase erotic fiction. That in itself is not a bad thing, and more than anything I felt sorry for him. I figured he was a lonely guy, and who knew, maybe he was reading the books for the quality writing and compelling stories.

The problem was that he would then return the books for a refund, with all manner of excuses. He was so frequent and had such a system worked out, that he was known not just in the particular book store I worked in, but others in near-by neighbourhoods.

I can’t remember if he was given a name like Mr Itchy, the rampant, smash-and-grab shoplifter who was known for specialising in stealing sci-fi (that’s another story altogether), but I suspect not—he creeped us young female staff members out too much to warrant a term-of-endearment name.

The refund reasons varied from the books not being suitable, to that they were given to him as a gift, that he realised he already owned a particular one, and so on. Basically, they were the kinds of reasons for which we had to give a refund.

And, even though we knew that he knew that we knew he was full of bull, we were polite young booksellers, he made us feel uncomfortable, there were invariably other customers listening in who weren’t aware of his long history of dodgy-ness, he was careful to hit up different stores each time so it was hard to pin down his story and disprove it, and we weren’t getting paid enough to care enough to kick up a significant stink.

Anyway, the second part to this story is that there were rules about when we staff members could go to lunch, and one particular day I was starving well before my allotted break. So starving, in fact, that every other staff member knew about it. It had become a bit of a joke and I was counting down the seconds of the minutes until I got to go, warning everyone not to get between me and my meal once the time rolled around lest they be eaten by mistake.

Of course, it was really busy when my break time turned up and, feverishly hungry though I was, I felt bad leaving the guys at the counter to contend with the swarm of customers. To help out and to alleviate my guilty, food-focused conscience, I decided to serve one more customer before I went. Of course, I should have sized up said customer before I said that, because it turned out that the next person in line was he who shall not be named but who bought and returned erotica.

The particular book he slid across the counter—and I mean slid, because he never handed you the book and never quite looked you in the eye—had clearly been read and probably carted around in a bag or two too. The cover’s corners were mushed and tattered, the spine cracked and lined, and the book fell open in the hyper-extended manner of one that had been bent back on itself.

One of the conditions of refund is that a book must be in saleable condition. This clearly wasn’t, but the customer continued to assert that he hadn’t read the book, it was given to him as a gift, and this was the condition it had arrived in.

I was trying to politely explain the myriad reasons why we couldn’t accept it back when something caught my eye. For a moment I thought it was a ribbon that he’d used as a bookmark, but closer examination revealed it to be much, much worse. It was a long, grey, curly, wiry pubic hair.

I’d like to say that I sent Mr Erotica packing without a refund, but I think I relented just to get him away from me, us, and the book store. Despite the repulsive proof that he’d read the book (or at least flicked through and handled it), he was adamant that he hadn’t. And really, you can’t reason with a man who’s prepared to stand there and debate you and deny ownership of a pube.

Suffice to say that once he was finally gone, I couldn’t wash my hands enough and was no longer hungry.

So, remember that line about leaving something of yourself behind in a book each time you read it? Yeah. Most of us wouldn’t leave our nether region’s hairs, but the point remains the same. That line and this story reminded me of the single most important reason for moving across to ebooks. Shudder. No more library or possibly refunded books for me. At least if I loan them out, I’m not going to get trace matter on my electronic copies.


Today we have a very special guest at Kids’ Book Capers. Ike, the star of the Grim and Grimmer series has promised us an EXCLUSIVE interview.  He is here to talk about his latest adventure, The Calamitous Queen.

Please be kind to him. He’s never been interviewed before and he’s a bit shy so he’s also brought along his best friend, Mellie.

1. Ike, you have been on such a journey throughout the Grim and Grimmer series. Can you tell us how your adventures have changed you as a person?

‘Thanks for asking, Dee, though I’m not sure how to answer that. I’ve never been much good with words and stuff.’ (sighs). ‘Well, here goes. Um, before I came to Grimmery –’

‘And accidentally betrayed the princess,’ Dee says helpfully.

‘I was hoping you wouldn’t bring that up. Before then I was Useless Ike. I never did anything good; never believed I could. I always gave up.’

‘What made you change?’

‘It wasn’t just me in trouble this time. The princess was going to be killed, because of my stupidity, and I couldn’t bear it. I had to make something of myself. I had to save her, no matter the cost.’

‘How did you make something of yourself, Ike? How did you change?’

‘Er, um.’ Ike struggles to remember the details, blushes, stares at his big feet. ‘Sorry, I’m no good at analysing myself.’

Beside him, Mellie groans, rolls her eyes then elbows Ike out of the way. ‘Luckily I’m brilliant. I’ve been trying to work him out ever since we met.’

‘That doesn’t exactly sound like a compliment,’ says Dee.

‘Who’s telling this story?’ Mellie snaps. ‘Ike learned perseverance under Grogire’s tree, when he refused to give up and made that brilliant, though disgusting, dung balloon. And he overcame his fear of heights when he crawled blind across the beam over the abyss to rescue me from Gorm’s hut. He’s overcome all kinds of fears since he met me.’

‘I’ve had to, the way you keep getting me into trouble,’ mutters Ike.

‘Shush!’ says Mellie. ‘What would you know, anyway? When Nocty attacked the demon, Spleen, as she was carrying us away from Gorm, you showed great selflessness by becoming a night-gaunt to save us.’

‘Great stupidity, you mean.’

‘Yes, but selfless stupidity. Need I go on?’

‘I think Dee’s got the point,’ says Ike.

‘You also learned courage, ingenuity, endurance and so forth. And at the end, you sacrificed one of the most important things in your life, your quest to clear your parents’ names – just to save me.’

‘That was the most painful lesson,’ says Ike.

‘To say nothing of the many faults you’ve learned to overcome,’ Mellie goes on. ‘I can list them, if you like.’ She laughs aloud. ‘I once wrote down all your flaws. Took three sheets of paper.’

She looks up, and the smile fades. ‘Ike’s the bravest boy I’ve ever met, Dee. He never gives up. It’s all because of him that Grimmery has been saved. That’s how he’s changed.’

2. Can you tell us what you like most about your best friend Mellie and why you became such good friends?

‘Mellie is everything I’m not,’ says Ike, eyeing her warily. ‘She’s clever and quick, and … and really pretty too, in a pixyish kind of way. She’s warm and generous, but she’s also terribly reckless, and always carrying out outrageous thefts to prove she’s the best apprentice thief as ever was. But she’s got a dreadful temper, and when she’s cranky even Achernix, the terrible Duke of Darkness, runs for his immortal life.’

Ike ducks, as if expecting her to wallop him one, but Mellie is smiling. ‘I’m not the least bit reckless. I call it bold and daring, and since it got me through my Reckoning, no one can argue.’

Ike stirs, as if to say, But I got you through your Reckoning, then smiles and closes his mouth again. He doesn’t need to say anything.

3. What is the worst thing that happened to you on your journey?

‘I don’t know how to answer that,’ says Ike. ‘Was it the competition I had, as Useless Ike, with Grogire the firewyrm (the most brilliant mind in the world) in her stinky lair? Or the contest with that sly, smirking conman, Con Glomryt, to get through the doors of the dwarf kingdom of Delf? Or my dreadful embarrassment after Mellie’s failed spell blew my bottom up to the size of a small airship, and I spent a whole day bobbing around the ceilings of Delf being mocked by angry dwarves?’

He rubs his bony jaw. ‘No, I think it was the time I had to fight the dreadful night-gaunt in Emajicka’s palace, to stop him tormenting Pook and the other Collected children and stealing their nightmares for Emajicka to bathe in. That was the most awful time I can ever remember. Yet I’ll never forget how brave little Pook was, trying to hold off the monstrous night-gaunt all by himself.’ (Ike brushes away a tear at the memories).

4. What is the best thing that happened to you on your journey?

‘Harrumph!’ says Mellie.

Ike grins. ‘A lot of good things happened, too many to count. One of the best of them was when I worked all night to make that balloon fuelled with exploding firewyrm dung, to rescue the princess. Everyone laughed at me, but when I finally put the balloon together, it floated up into the air just the way it should. It was the first time I realised that I didn’t have to be Useless Ike.’

‘Harrumph, harrumph!’

Ike gives her a sly, sidelong glance. ‘But no, the best thing that happened, the very best in my life, was meeting Mellie and plucking up the courage to ask her to help me, after she’d stolen my magical pen. Mellie’s the first real friend I’ve had, and definitely the best thing that has ever happened to me.

‘Though I wish she wasn’t so darn cranky.’

(Mellie boxes his ear, though she is wearing an enigmatic smile).

5. Where to next for Ike?

I’ll answer that, says Ian. (who has fortunately come along too – otherwise the interview could deteriorate into an Ike/Mellie war.)

Well, Ike’s a Gate Guardian now, though admittedly a very young one, and it’s his duty to guard the four gates into Grimmery and protect this brave little country from all the terrible enemies lurking outside. And none of them have given up.

The Fey Queen Emajicka still wants Grimmery back. Grogire the firewyrm still wants revenge for the dreadful humiliations Ike and Mellie made her suffer, and the Demon Spleen, who is now the Duchess of Darkness, still wants to make them pay for Mellie’s stealing the Bloody Baton and Ike’s burning a hole though the wall of the underworld.

Oh, and Nuckl never forgets. He still wants to eat Ike’s liver.

‘Thanks for asking, Dee,’ says Ike. ‘I’ve never done an interview before. I was really nervous. Hope I wasn’t too awful.’

Thanks for visiting us here at Kids’ Book Capers, Ike, Mellie and Ian. Hope you enjoy the rest of your blog tour (see details at the end of this post about where the blog tour has been already and where it’s going to from here.)


The Calamitous Queen is the fourth installment in Ian Irvine’s hilarious Grim and Grimmer series for readers aged 10 +

In this final book everything comes to a head and if Ike doesn’t defeat the evil Emajicka, his good friend Mellie will perish and Grimmery will be destroyed. And even if Ike saves Mellie, has her family been burnt alive by the evil Fey Queen’s minions?

To make matters worse, Mothooliel is out to steal Ike’s eyeballs, Spleen and Nuckle want to eat Ike’s innards, and Grogire the Firewyrm plans a disgusting death for him. Then there’s the ongoing conflict between Lord Monty and his newly reattached head.

Emajicka and her army of a million Fey are marching on Grimmery, and if Aurora isn’t crowned very soon, the kingdom will be lost – possibly forever.

Ike must get the Book of Grimmery to Aurora in time to prevent this from happening, but how can he when he doesn’t even know where it is?

In The Calamitous Queen, Ian Irvine ties up all the loose ends for the reader. We see Ike come full circle and realise how much he has changed and grown over the course of his adventures from the clumsy boy who couldn’t do anything right to the Gate Guardian everyone is relying on to save the world.

Ike finds out who he really is in both the literal and spiritual sense and Mellie faces her Reckoning. There is so much at stake for all the characters in this book. Will Pook free the Collected children and how will Lord Monty overcome the ultimate act of betrayal?

14 year-old Ike has the fate of the world in his hands in this book.

As well as the non-stop action, the humour keeps coming right to the last line of the book, even finishing with a bodily function. The Calamitous Queen is a hilarious and exciting end to the four book Grim and Grimmer series.

You can find out more about the series by dropping in to the other great blogs that Ian is visiting on tour.


Life after Harry, part 2

Last post I blogged about the Harry Potter books. Today, I move on to the films.

The film version of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was released in 2001, in the long drought between the publication of the fourth and fifth books. I don’t think I have ever been as excited about a film release as I was about that one. My wife and I even dressed up in wizarding robes when we went to see it. (Don’t worry, we weren’t the only ones. It was a special charity screening where people were encouraged to show up in costume.)

My overall impression of the films, is that they are a damn good adaptation of the books. Yes, some are better than others, but that’s the case with the books as well. My only regret with having seen the films, is that my visualisation of the world and its characters has been over-written by the films. Try as I might, I now can’t picture Harry as anyone other than Daniel Radcliffe, or Hagrid as anyone other than Robbie Coltrane. And I am sad that I have lost my initial impressions of those characters. It’s for this reason that I am doing my best to keep my daughters from seeing the films until they are old enough to first read the books. Fingers crossed on that one.

Anyway… back to the individual films.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was a good start. It was the shortest of the books, so was probably easier to adapt than its successors. It was not a brilliant film and the performances of the kids, while good, were not particularly outstanding. What was brilliant, was the casting of kids who really fit the roles… so it didn’t matter if their acting occasionally came across as inexperienced.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was a better film. The actors had settled into their roles and the director, Chris Columbus, created a more cohesive film.

And then Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban changed things. The new director, Alfonso Cuarón, raised the bar in terms of visual style, and the actors really began to hit their stride. And yet, for me, this was the weakest of the films. It lacked energy and just didn’t quite gel.

Another new director, Mike Newell, took the helm with film #4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was my favourite of the books, so I was particularly looking forward to this film. And I wasn’t disappointed. It still stands as my favourite of the films. My only disappointment was that you didn’t get to know and like Cedric as much as you did in the books, so his death was not as impactful.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, now with David Yates as director, was perhaps the most successful of the adaptations. As the waffliest of the books, they were able to cut out a lot without actually losing much plot. It was also noteworthy for its superb casting of Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was not as successful an adaptation. Some rather odd decisions as to which plot points to leave out resulted in a film that retained the Half-Blood Prince title, yet purged the majority of that storyline. It felt a little unsatisfying.

Thankfully the film-makers decided to turn Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two films. (insert huge sigh of relief) It would not have been possible to do justice to the story in a single film… there simply would not have been enough time to include all the major events. So, although leaving the story half-finished at the end of the first film, and having to wait all this time for the conclusion, has been frustrating… I’ve been able to live with it. 🙂

Now, I am counting down the days until the release of HP7.2, as it has become known. But what will I do once it’s all over? I fear that the whole Harry Potter experience will be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I cannot recall a set of books ever having this much worldwide impact. And I cannot recall a set of books having had this special a place in my heart. There are other books I love just as much, and there are other books that I think are better books — but no other set of books has generated the excitement that Harry Potter has; no other set of books has taken up as much of my life as Harry Potter. And yes, I know I can re-read the books and re-watch the films… but it’s not the same. No more NEW Harry Potter! So…

Farewell Harry Potter. (No, I’m not crying. Really, I’m not!) I shall miss you. I shall miss you and all your friends, rivals and enemies. But I look forward to one day introducing you to my kids.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I shall release the Mandrakes.



There are some books that are so well written they make you hold your breath. They crawl inside you and inhabit your senses – make you wonder how someone could have thought to put words together in such a hauntingly beautiful way.

Tantony by Ananda Braxton Smith is one such book. It’s unusual title comes from the Tantony pig – the runt of the litter – the swineheard’s favourite. It’s the perfect metaphor for Boson Quirk, a young boy who is found dead,

‘face down in a bog of stars’.

Tantony is told from the point of view of Boson’s twin, Fermion and as if losing her brother isn’t bad enough, their mother, Moo has retreated into a world where she no longer speaks.

Moo had let the fire burn out. In the corner where she sloped and faded, a spider had anchored its silk to one of her fingertips and was swinging wallward. There was to be no brew, no fuss or chat. I dropped my wet-sheep bag and muddy bundles right in the doorway where everybody was sure to fall over them. She didn’t even turn.

In spite of standing right up close, I couldn’t hear her breath. I laid my hand flat on her drooping neck and felt her blood still beating there. She was only pretending to be dead.

Something about Boson isn’t quite right but everyone pretends it’s nothing – until he dies and they are forced to acknowledge his differences. Boson’s affliction is never stated, but it’s there in the background, a shadow threaded through the story like the whisper of the wind.

In her quest to discover what really happened to her brother, Fermion discovers startling truths about the town in which she lives, and about herself. Voices in her head tell her that the truth about Boson can be found on “the Other Island, the one that everyone says is bristling with gods and monsters.”

Fermion goes there accompanied by her faithful dog, Mungo, but will they make it back?

This book has everything – tension, beautifully drawn characters, a compelling story and a lilting style that carries the reader along gently, even though the content is quite stark at times.

Tantony is in the Secrets of Carrick series. I have to admit I hadn’t read the first book, Merrow but I certainly intend to, now. Tantony is definitely a stand alone book that you can enjoy without having read the first book in the series.

Tantony is for young adult readers and is published by Black Dog Books.



Ananda Braxton-Smith is visiting Kids’ Book Capers today to talk about being a writer and her extraordinary new book, Tantony and how she created it.


How did you become a writer?

I haven’t always worked as a professional writer, but I’ve always written. I wrote my first stories at about eleven; stories I chose to wrote, that is, not stories I had to write for school. My first paid gig, when I was sixteen, was writing scripts for Let’s Join In and Storytime, two radio (!) broadcasts for primary schools in the seventies.

I became an author by not giving up … and by not really being good for anything else. And by always writing even if I wasn’t being paid, thereby getting better at it and being ready for my opportunity when it came.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

I have to say I really do love the research. For instance, to write Merrow I had to find out how skeletons fall apart over time, what creatures live in the Irish sea, what skin disease could give you scales, and find somebody who knows the language the Vikings spoke. As well, I had to read lots of stories about mer-people, kraken, water-horses and other legendary beings. It was great!

I also love the surprises that turn up while I’m writing. The characters say and do such unexpected things sometimes.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

The sitting there alone, day-after-day, week-after-week, tippy-tippy-tapping at my keyboard, with a sore back and racked with uncertainty, while outside the sun is shining and people are going out to lunch and talking to each other.

What were you in a past life (if anything) before you became a writer?

I was a bad-tempered doctor in Victorian Edinburgh.

And before that, a bad-tempered monk in ancient China.

And before that, a spiky sea urchin.

Just a guess.

What is your greatest writing achievement?

Everything I finish feels like a great achievement.  And everything I manage to turn out that is something like I first imagined it in my mind. I had never thought of writing novels (I like writing short stories best) so conceiving and writing Merrow was a surprising achievement even to me.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m researching the Natural History of the seashore for a third novel in the Secrets of Carrick series. Merrow is the first in that series, and Tantony is the second. I am already half in love with anemones. And did you know sea-stars are carnivorous?

Do you have any tips for new writers?

You have to really, really want to write. Not be a writer, or be published, or be paid; just to write. You have to do it because you love it and it’s what you do. If you do it to be a writer or be published you’re likely to suffer. After that, I would say don’t make characters talk to each other unless they have something definite to say.

And write weather. Weather’s good.

Do your books have any consistent themes/symbols/locations. If so, what are they?

At present I’m preoccupied with the way characters grow out of their landscapes. So the Natural History of my settings (sea, bog etc) is a big theme, and all of nature just bristles with symbolism. Understanding where my people live helps me understand who they are, why they are as they are, and what form their supernatural creatures will take.

How many books have you had published?

I have three books out there. The first was a YA history of the bubonic plague called The Death: the Horror of the Plague. It covers 500 years of the plague in Europe up to the discovery of the microbe. The research for that was both fabulous and revolting.


What inspired you to write this book?

At the end of Merrow one of my more nosey, prying characters mentions the ‘twins down in Strangers Croft, poor things’. Well, that just got my own curiosity up about them. Tantony is a result of that curiosity.

What’s it about?

It’s hard to say in a few words what my books are about. This story concerns a pair of twins and what happens when one of them sickens and dies. The remaining twin must work out a way to live on, and help her family live on as a new kind of family … one now without one of its members. She takes a sea-journey out to an appearing/disappearing island and while out there finds many remarkable things. Some of which help, some of which don’t. But she learns how to go on without her other ‘half’. I guess it’s about becoming a whole person.

What age groups is it for?

Officially it’s for middle years readers, but as with Merrow it’s secretly for everybody.

Why will kids like it?

I’m hoping they’ll like the world of the islands, their characters and creatures, and will recognize the main character’s journey as she tries to make sense of life and death and families. Also, its got whales, gods and monsters … and a spooky bog.

Can you tell me about the main character and what you like/dislike about him/her?

The main character, Fermion, has just lost her twin brother. He has been sickening a long time and she’s had to grow up very fast to look after him, and to take on his duties at home. I like everything about her, even her initial extreme sulkiness. She’s a very determined person with a clear eye for other people’s feelings, though she’s a bit dim about her own. I like the way she lightens up, warms up, over the story as she learns to let her brother go.

What did you enjoy most about writing Tantony?

Researching the Natural History of bogs and their creatures. Finding out about the wacky and marvelous adaptations of life is always a pleasure to me. Then fitting the characters into that landscape so they were a bit like Natural History themselves was fun. And I liked it when suddenly I knew what was going to happen next. It sounds strange but often I had no idea.

What was the hardest thing about writing Tantony?

Not knowing what was going to happen next! It drove me crazy.

As far as the story went, writing the increasingly sad decline of the mentally ill twin was very hard indeed. And the increasing desperation of his sister as she tries to save him. I had dreams about them, poor things.

Tomorrow we’re reviewing Tantony here at Kids’ Book Capers.




Life after Harry, part 1

The final Harry Potter film is due out in a little over a month. I am positively quaking with antici… pation. I have been looking forward to it since the closing credits rolled on my first viewing of 7.1. But once it’s over, what will I do? No more new Harry Potter! How will I cope with life after Harry?

It’s been four years since the release of the final Harry Potter book, so the anticipation of each new film is what has been sustaining me. But now, that too will soon be over. It may seem a little melodramatic to those who are not Potter fans. But it’s a big deal to me. Harry has been part of my life for quite a number of years.

Somehow, Harry Potter became a worldwide phenomenon. Somehow, a series of children’s books captured a reader audience way beyond its target market. The books were even re-published with grown-up covers so that adults didn’t have to feel embarrassed about reading them on their train journeys to work. The world went Potter-mad!

I was a little late jumping onto this particular bandwagon (although I’ve never felt the need for a grown-up cover). I didn’t start reading book 1 until book 4 had been released. It was the insistence of friends that finally convinced me and my wife, Kerri, to read them. With book 4 having been released, books 1 to 3 were on special at our local bookshop, so it seemed like a good time to take the plunge.

I wanted to read it first. But I’m a much slower reader than Kerri, so she insisted she should get first dibs. We argued! Then we decided to read it together — out loud, each reading alternating chapters. By the halfway point of the book, I was doing all the reading and she was doing all the listening. We discovered that Kerri enjoyed being read to, and I liked the sound of my own voice. A win/win situation.

Needless to say, we both loved Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Looking at it critically, the book certainly has flaws, but the overall feel made us happy to overlook those occasional lapses in logic. Rowling had created a fascinating world and peopled it with a wondrous array of characters — characters that we desperately wanted to read more about. Her style was easy to read, but witty and insightful. We had quite a few late nights because we found the book difficult to put down. (This was before we had kids, so we were able to do crazy things like stay up all night reading. 🙂 )

We immediately moved on to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — each better than the previous. The moment we were finished with these, we rushed out and bought Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Our reading experience with book 4 was a little different. We were about half way through when we left for our annual road trip from Melbourne to Adelaide. The friends we were staying with had already read book 4, and not wanting to have any details spoiled, we wanted to finish the book before getting there. So Kerri drove most of the way, while I read.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is my favourite of the books. The thing I remember most is being utterly shocked at the death of Cedric Diggery. I remember struggling on with the reading as I was getting all choked up and teary. This moment goes down as one of my all-time reading highlights.

It was then a rather long wait until Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This was the only one of the books to have disappointed me, mostly because it took way too long for anything to happen. The comparison to the previous book didn’t help. And the long wait we had endured, added to the disappointment. It struck me that it would have been a much better book if it were given a darn good edit.

Not quite as long a wait for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was a huge relief reading this book, as we had feared the previous instalment may have been the beginning of a downward spiral. But thankfully not. Rowling was back on form with this one.

And then came Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The book I never wanted to end… because I knew it was the last. But it was a fitting end. There were heroics aplenty and many deaths; excitement and thrills; laughter and tears — and a definite conclusion. It really was the end.

Oh yes, there were those other little books along the way  — Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them in 2001 — and The Tales of Beedle the Bard would come along after the last novel. But they really didn’t do it for me. They were merely diversionary strolls. The main journey was over.

Except, of course, for the films. Tune in next time for my thoughts about them.

Catch ya later,  George

PS Follow me on Twiiter… or I’ll stupefy you.


My One True Mug

It was meant to be a perk of the job, but my books’ blog mug has been an object of serious contention since I got it.

When I signed up, nearly a hundred blog posts ago, Boomerang Books knew how to lure me in. Not only would I have a platform to discuss my many crazed thoughts on non-fiction, reading trends and the general joy of being a bibliophile, but I would get something even better and more concrete – a free mug. A Boomerang mug, billed as large and generous.

Now, I have been disappointed before by items that were less than described. Any child who has ever got a gift from a department store Santa knows the disappointment of opening the box to discover that what you were promised was not what was delivered. (Although I’m not sure how I ever thought they would fit an Optimus Pony in a small flimsy cardboard box. Clearly you’d need something bigger, with proper handles and steel-plated to stop the transforming pony from lasering its way out.)

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I opened the package when it finally arrived.

And, Boomerang, I am sorry I ever doubted you.

It is a wonderful mug. A paragon amongst mugs. Massive, glowing, imposing, capable of holding enough coffee to get even me going in the mornings. I can not describe the sheer volume of this thing*, but it dwarves the other cups and mugs in the cupboard, laughing at their puny capacity like Andre the Giant drinking towering over Kylie Minogue. Look at it. Can you see the halo? That could just be my sitting room light, of course, but you get the idea.

It is to a normal mug what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy – immense, imposing, definitive. Its handle is large enough so that even the most clumsy and huge of morning paws can slide gratefully in under it, ensuring that my coffee actually goes in my mouth instead of all over the floor when I drop it. It dish-washes to the sort of sparkle that Kate Middleton wants in a wedding ring.

In short, I really like it. Everyone likes it. And there is the problem. My partner has taken to stealing it. Visitors and friends beeline for it like tourists heading for the Mona Lisa when they hit the Louvre. Often when I finally make it to upright in the morning my beloved mug is  already lurking sheepishly in the sink, having been used by bloke who can – obviously enough – spot an excellent mug when he sees one. I can whimper all I want but the early bird gets not only the worm but the pick of the cupboard.

Hell hath no fury like an Irishwoman forced to drink from a clearly insufficient mug. Well, hell hath no fury eventually. When I have actually had some coffee. Fury is kind of hard to dig up when you have to use a small cup.

My mug. I love it.Want your own mug? You can order them online here. And I am going to tell everyone where to get these mugs, and keep telling them, in the hope that someday me and my own true mug will be reunited at last to enjoy each other’s company.


* But CafePress can – 15 oz. ceramic Large Mug. Large easy-grip handle, measures 4.5″ tall, 3.25″ diameter. Which ma be helpful but, I feel, lacks poetry.


Interview with Paul Collins – Author of Mole Hunt

Today we’re speaking with Paul Collins, author of Mole Hunt, Book #1 in The Maximus Black Files series.

Writers have various methods as to how they put pen to paper – or fingers to the keyboard. Some write by longhand and transcribe to computer; some write chapter-by-chapter synopses and then write their novels; others start at A and work their way through to Z without really knowing where their story will end; while some writers think of the ending first and work their way toward it.


We at Boomerang Books wondered how Paul Collins wrote his latest science fiction thriller, Mole Hunt. Especially since it’s just book one of a trilogy called The Maximus Black Files.

Why did you write a trilogy?

There are several reasons. One is that the general plot of the series would be too long for one book. All up there must be over 200,000 words in the trilogy, and for the target audience of 14 year-olds plus, I think that’d be too hefty a tome. Also, authors need books coming out at least once a year, or at a stretch, one every two years. I can’t see me finishing a 200,000 plus novel for another couple of years. So it’s good to get one book out there to give me a breather before starting the next one. So it’s also for practical and financial reasons.

Do you wait for a flash of inspiration before starting a book?

Generally, yes. Of course, ideas for contemporary stories are all around us. But not so for science fiction. I initially thought that I’d like to write about a character who’s an anti-hero. I mean, I’m fed up with nice guys winning all the time. Because the possibilities are limitless in outer space, I figured SF would give me broader horizons in which my character would develop. I also like dystopian fiction, that bleak landscape that can be gritty and fun.

We read a review of Mole Hunt in Bookseller + Publisher. To quote, they thought it was “Bitingly clever and imaginative, it’s like a cross between The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Total Recall and Dexter”.  How correct was the reviewer in matching other works to yours. Is there an influence to your writing, especially Mole Hunt?

Certainly. I used to read Marvel Comics when I was a kid. I loved The Hulk, Captain America and Daredevil. Many others, too. So much of my writing is often described as “filmic” and action-packed. So I think readers will see this in The Maximus Black Files. Too, I love Eoin Colfer’s Artemus Fowl books. I think of Max as Artemis’s evil twin. Other favourite books of mine are Philip Reeves’s Mortal Engine series and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Going back over many years I used to love Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books and Robert E Howard’s work, like the Conan the Barbarian series. I haven’t read the Dragon Tattoo book, but I do love Dexter and I’ve seen Total Recall. Mind you, I’d like to think that what I’ve written is wholly original. Jumble up all the above reading material and you might see a resemblance in Maximus.

How did you get started writing science fiction?

I used to publish a science fiction magazine called Void. At that time it was Australia’s only SF magazine. I met some wonderful Australian authors like Wynne Whiteford, Frank Bryning, Jack Wodhams and Sean McMullen. They all mentored me. I still brainstorm ideas with Sean.

What’s the worst thing about working from home?

I can’t think of too many things I don’t like. It must be lonely for some authors, I think, but my partner, Meredith Costain, also works at home writing. And we have two fantastic dogs, a heeler and a kelpie, that are always there to distract me if I show any signs of getting bored or lonely.

And the best?

There are so many things I love about being a full-time writer. I don’t have to travel to work; the computer is always here for when I want to work; I save money on petrol, food, etc; I can work my own hours; I have no one looking over my shoulder. Stacks of pluses!

Do you experience writer’s block – if so, how do you get around it?

I don’t really have get writer’s block. If I did, I’d simply start another story. You usually find a solution somewhere down the track to any problem. And if you can’t, you can always brainstorm with someone. Two minds are always better than one. Sometimes I might be discussing a problem with a friend, and just by talking about it the solution with present itself.

What are you working on at the moment?

Dyson’s Drop, which is book #2 in The Maximus Black Files. I already have the first draft. So now it’s time to fix all those niggling problems that I’m discovering.

Last but not least, how do you write? Rough drafts first, sentence-by-sentence and not moving on till everything is perfect? How did you approach writing Mole Hunt?

Stephen King says he writes one word at a time! But on a more serious note, I vary my approach. Sometimes I start off not knowing where my characters are going to wind up – this was the case with The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler. Other times, I need a draft. Because the Maximus trilogy is so long and complex, I really needed to know where that was headed. So I actually have a first draft for book #3, too.

Thank you Paul for joining us at Boomerang Books. We hope Mole Hunt really flies for you.