The return of Edsel Grizzler

Now here’s a post that I’ve been doing my best to avoid writing. I reviewed Edsel Grizzler Book One: Voyage to Verdada a while back (see Catching up with Edsel Grizzler), and I followed it up by doing a two-part interview with its author James Roy (see Catching up with James Roy and More James Roy). In those posts I mentioned how much I was looking forward to reading and reviewing books two and three. Well, I did enjoy reading them very much, but I’m not going to enjoy reviewing them. Why? Because, despite liking them a great deal, I didn’t think they were quite as good as book one.

Okay, let’s start with the plot. Book Two: Rescue Mission involves Edsel returning to the mysterious land of Verdada which he left at the end of book one. Something has gone terribly wrong. It is no longer a land of “forever fun”. The mysterious Mira who had controlled Verdada have gone, and a boy named Ben has taken over. But Ben is not quite how Edsel remembers him from his previous visit. Edsel ends up setting off on a mission to retrieve his friend Jacq, who has passed on to another mysterious place called Widen.

In Book Three: Ghostly Shadows, Edsel and Jacq end up in a place called Grand City, home to the mysterious Mira. Here they find out the truth of what has happened to Verdada and a plan is formulated to restore order. Edsel must return to Verdada alone, for only he can set things right.

Let me start off by saying that these two books are as inventive and engaging as the first. Edsel and the other characters are believable and interesting, and the story exciting. I particularly loved Edsel’s interaction with his adoptive parents in book two. The awkward moments and the emotions feel genuine. Those scenes are a joy to read. The character of Ben is also convincingly developed as he is taken in a very different direction from the first novel. The conclusion wraps things up nicely while still retaining a sense a mystery. All good!

My problem with these two books is a structural one. They felt like one book artificially divided and slightly padded out. I can’t help but wonder if this was a decision based purely on the popularity of the trilogy format, rather than on what the story required.

Book one was a complete story with an epilogue that teased the reader with the possibility of more to come. Not so with book two. I was really enjoying it, when suddenly I came to the end… but the story wasn’t finished. There was no closure. So I moved on to book three, and while I did enjoy it, there were scenes that I felt dragged on too long — particularly in the journey from Widen to Grand City and then the stay in Grand City.

Reaching the end of book three, I thought to myself how much better it could have been if the two books had been joined together and tightened up.

Now, having said that, please don’t let me put you off reading these books… Because they are so definitely worth reading. As I mentioned in my earlier review, book one is pretty damn brilliant. And books two and three are still VERY good. My advice would simple be to read the latter two together, as if they were one book.

Has anyone out there read these books? If you disagree with my assessment (after all, what the hell do I know?), please feel free to berate me in the comments section below.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twiter.

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THE YOUNGEST CAMELEER by Goldie Alexander

Goldie Alexander’s book, The youngest Cameleer brings to life the exploration to the interior led by William Gosse in 1873. She has based her story on Gosse’s own journal.

Goldie has chosen to tell this story from the point of view of 13 year old Ahmed Ackbar, the youngest cameleer who has to cope with homesickness and the perils of the expedition.

He is also grieving for his father who died in mysterious circumstances that Ahmed is determined to get to the bottom of. Ahmed suspects that his father’s brother, Uncle Kamran was involved, an added uncertainty he must deal with on the trip.

Goldie Alexander blends fact and story seamlessly in The youngest Cameleer to create a fascinating work of historical fiction that both informs and entertains.

She also captures the unpredictability of the Australian wilderness.

“It being close to dusk, we were trekking along a dry riverbed when I heard the sound of rushing water. I ran to where the bed takes a sharp turn. To my astonishment a stream of frothing brown water was heading straight at me. Meanwhile up ahead came cries of ‘Watch out! Flood’!”

Ahmed is an engaging character and the reader is introduced to his Muslim lifestyle and the cultural differences of the participants of the expedition.

There was also plenty to learn about camels and the way they live and how their bodies have adapted to the harsh environment in which they live.

The youngest Cameleer is told in diary form with Ahmed giving all kinds of details of the trip and his experiences.

“The nights are so cold, I wear my pakal and my coat, and even then I’m half-frozen.”

As the expedition continues so does Ahmed’s story and when he confronts uncle Kamran about his father’s death, the truth is not what he expected.

The youngest Cameleer is a book for readers who enjoy history and adventure. It is published by Five Senses Education. Teachers’ Notes are available on Goldie’s website www.goldiealexander.com

 

Killing me softly – fluffy bunnies and character deaths

I’ve always been a softy when it comes to literary characters and, in hindsight, taking both Black Beauty and Watership Down on the holiday may have been a bad move. For books about bunnies and ponies, they both have surprisingly high body-counts. My family had hoped to enjoy a quiet week away with the seven-year-old me occupied by ponies and rabbits, instead they got a week of hysterics as key fluffy characters died and then had to listen to my musings on mortality over every meal. Not really the holiday they had hoped for.

It’s not just fluffy characters I mourn; when it comes to books I’m a full-on optimist with a massive sentimental streak. I find it hard to say a final goodbye to favoured characters, hoping for final reprieves and unlikely escapes long after the point where it becomes obvious that they are due to get the chop. I’m capable of holding out hope even if they have been declared long since dead and unlikely to come back (unless as a zombie). When it comes to losing characters, I’m far better at “au revoir” than just saying a straight goodbye.

Which is odd as this sentimentality doesn’t apply to other art forms. I find it annoying when movies are unwilling to follow through on threats, sparing everyone and wrenching the plot to ensure that everyone walks away in the end. (If you are going to have a move called The Expendables, expend someone). I’m more than happy to see characters killed in full and glorious techicolour. So why is it so difficult for me, and many other readers, to deal with the death of literary characters?

It’s not just readers that finds the death of literary characters difficult. J.K. Rowling had sketched out the deaths in the Harry Potter series years before she started to write the scenes and cried as she wrote some of them. She made herself follow through for the sake of the continuing story, despite pleas from friends, family, her fans and other writers (John Irving and Stephen King famously begged her not to kill Harry Potter in the final book of the series).

“Otherwise what would you do? You would just write very fluffy, cozy books,” she said. “You know, suddenly I [would be] halfway through ‘Goblet of Fire’ and suddenly everyone would just have a really great life and … the plot would go AWOL.” Rowling also pointed out that King and Irving were not in a good position to ask for characters to be spared, with their own high literary body counts. “When fans accuse me of sadism, which doesn’t happen that often, I feel I’m toughening them up to go on and read John and Stephen’s books,” she said. “It’s a cruel literary world out there.”

Not all writers feel so conflicted – or so moderate – in their dispensing of death. You don’t get much crueler than George R R Martin, whose pen scythes it’s way through supporting and main characters alike. But Martin has always been a tough cookie when it comes to killing characters, as he reveals in one interview where he says that Gandalf should have stayed dead:

“I do think that if you’re bringing a character back, that a character has gone through death, that’s a transformative experience. Much as I admire Tolkien, I once again always felt like Gandalf should have stayed dead. That was such an incredible sequence in Fellowship of the Ring when he faces the Balrog on the Khazad-dûm and he falls into the gulf, and his last words are, “Fly, you fools.”

What power that had, how that grabbed me. And then he comes back as Gandalf the White, and if anything he’s sort of improved. I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead.”

And it’s not just the deaths of human characters that reader can find hard to deal with. When Stephen King had a character kick a dog to death in his novel Dead Zone he received more letters of complaint than ever before.”You want to be nice and say ‘I’m sorry you didn’t like that,’ but I’m thinking to myself number one, he was a dog not a person, and number two, the dog wasn’t even real.” I’m not the only one with a sympathetic streak for ponies, puppies and all things fluffy; readers can clearly emotionally invest in anything and everything in a book. So why would a writer choose to kill off characters, and choose to do so with seemingly reckless abandon?

John Birmingham, who’s most recent offering opens with the death of 300 million and goes from there, is unapologetic. After being told he was a “nasty author“, he agreed wholeheartedly.

“I am, I really am. I do terrible things to characters. I try my best to build them up, give them lovable quirks, amusing back stories, make it so you just want to be their friends and know you’ll miss them when the last page is read. Then I shoot them in the throat, or crash the plane into the ground at 1000kmh, or break up their marriages, or … well, I don’t want to give away any After America spoilers, but yeah.

Is that such a bad thing though? When you write books full of explodey goodness, I think you’re shortselling the reader if some of those explosions don’t kill off the odd character. Even a favourite character. One of the great joys of reading a story or watching a movie where you’ve bonded with a character who is in great peril is not being quite sure whether they’re going to survive to the end… Nobody really likes to lose a favourite, but losing them every now and then is what makes having them in the first place so precious. And that can be so of both high culture and low.

When Norman Mailer was asked about the cruelty with which he treated his characters in The Naked and the Dead he replied with a brief lesson he learned about characters from reading Tolstoy. “Compassion is of value and enriches our life only when compassion is severe, which is to say when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum of us as human beings is probably a little more good than awful. In any case, good or bad, it reminds us that life is like a gladiators’ arena for the soul and so we can feel strengthened by those who endure, and feel awe and pity for those who do not.”

Which is, I guess, a reasonable way of saying that characters should serve the story and sometimes that story includes pain and mortality.

But I’d still still prefer if we could let the fluffy ones live.

 

 

Infuriating Amazon spurns us again

International customers are furious with Amazon this morning, because neither the new Kindle Fire, a $US199 7-inch tablet, nor the e-ink Kindle Touch, a $US99-189 6-inch keyboard-free ereader, will be available outside the US in the foreseeable future.

There had been an Apple-like build-up based on rumour and hype in the lead-up to Amazon’s Kindle Fire announcement overnight.

Some of us had been hoping that, as Apple, Kobo and Sony do, Amazon would schedule an international rollout for its new gadgets that would include Australia.

Instead, there was no mention of timing.
We’ll have to be content with the $US79-109 (prices for all e-ink models vary depending on whether you are prepared to wear special offers and sponsored screensavers, and for the Touch models, on whether you choose wifi or 3G) “all-new Kindle”, which is wifi-only and has a 5-way controller rather than a multi-touch screen, or one of the older models with the clunky keyboard. Thank God that’s on the way out.

Shoppers on Kindle’s UK website vented their anger after the launch, but those posts have mysteriously since disappeared.

Here in Australia, we’re used to being treated as second-class citizens by Amazon. The previous Kindle was available in graphite or white in the US and certain other markets, but only graphite in Australia (the new price for this soon-to-be obsolete model is $US99-189).

I got round that by ordering a white one to be sent to my stepbrother in New York. He handed it on to my father who delivered it after a US trip a couple of weeks later.

It felt like Christmas for a day or two, until I realised that most of the books I wanted to read weren’t available via Amazon, and that fruitless hunting for them using the appalling keyboard was infuriating.
I couldn’t transfer my existing non-Kindle ebook library to the device (not easily, anyway, there are workarounds, but I’m looking for a seamless, one device solution for ereading).

Because the Kindle lacked email, video, diary, Australian newspapers and social media, I found I had to carry my iPad with me as well.

So I sold it, and said good riddance.

Am I considering ordering a Kindle Fire or Touch the same way I did the last model?

No. And nor should you.

The Kindle Fire, like all the Kindles, is largely locked into Amazon’s content line.

Amazon has not yet got to the stage where they’ll allow you to easily read books bought from Booku or any other retailer on their devices.
Amazon’s cloud storage, a key feature of the Fire, is not available outside the US. Nor is Amazon Prime, the retail giant’s movie and TV streaming service.

While the device is based on Google’s mobile operating system, Android, it’s a tweaked version, so there are no guarantees existing Android apps will work on the device.

There’s a dedicated Amazon Appstore, but again, it’s unlikely its contents will be available to Australian customers without complex workarounds.

In any case, for the foreseeable future the iPad is the way to go if you want access to all ebookstores and existing libraries, the best apps and dedicated Australian content. You won’t be able to watch ABC iView on the Fire.

As for e-ink, given the Kindle walled garden, you would be better off looking at the new Kobo eReader Touch, due in Australia next month, or the next generation Sony Readers, which offer wifi and touch screens and are available for pre-order now from Sony’s Australian website (I note with some sadness that they’ve discontinued the cute little silver PRS350SC, which was the 5-inch model, though – probably because at that screen size, we may as well read on our smartphone).

Speaking of smartphones, stay tuned for the iPhone 5 launch at 4am on Wednesday (10am Tuesday, California time). I’ll be blogging about it early that morning.

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.

REVIEW – TAJ AND THE GREAT CAMEL TREK

I’ve always had a fascination for Leonardo da Vinci and camels. Leonardo, I understand – the camels, I can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s because camels are such a good example of nature’s ability to create animals with incredible skills and characteristics that enable them to adapt so well to even the harshest environments. How can an animal survive so long with such meagre food and water? For me, camels are a constant source of wonder.

Okay, so you know I love camels. So it probably comes as no surprise that I was enthralled with Rosanne Hawke’s new book, Taj and the Great Camel Trek from start to finish.

The book chronicles the adventures of explorer Ernest Giles on his second attempt to cross the Australian desert.

The expedition is based on historical fact and Rosanne has obviously done an incredible amount of research as demonstrated by the double page spread of sources and research materials quoted at the back of the book.

It’s rich in history, but Taj and the Great Camel Trek is told through the eyes of a fictitious character, Taj, the twelve year old son of the group’s cameleer.

It’s Taj’s perspective that makes this story so accessible to kids. Taj is desperate to be chosen for the trek with his beloved camel, Mustara but he soon discovers that an explorer’s life is nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds.

Taj and the Great Camel Trek has a strong narrative arc but it’s also an accurate account of Australia’s early exploration.

Seamlessly interwoven with the story of the expedition is Taj’s own personal journey and his discovery of family secrets and what really happened to his mother.

I love this kind of book for the fact that it teaches the reader so much about history and the human spirit without them realising they are learning. For the reader who doesn’t want to delve below the surface, Taj and the Great Camel Trek is a cracking adventure.

“wild dogs, scorpions, poisonous snakes and a constant shortage of water mean they are never far from disaster.”

This book also a tribute to the Afghan camel drivers who helped explore Australia and the beasts who endured such hardship on expeditions.

Taj and the Great Camel Trek informs and entertains. It is a captivating read for adventure lovers, historians and readers who simply enjoy a study of interesting and well crafted characters.

Taj’s voice is so strong that I found myself living inside his head as I followed his journey.

This exciting story by award-winning author, Rosanne Hawke depicts tough times in Australia’s history.

Taj and the Great Camel Trek is published by University of Queensland Press for 9-13 year old readers.

 

TAJ AND THE GREAT CAMEL TREK

Me riding a camel at Kings' Canyon

Anyone who knows me well will know that I have a fascination for camels so this week I couldn’t resist celebrating two great books for kids on just that subject.

Today, Rosanne Hawke is visiting Kids’ Book Capers to talk about Taj and the Great Camel Trek. I’ll be reviewing her book later on this afternoon at Kids’ Book Capers.

She is the author of 17 published books and consistent themes in her books seem to be about displacement and culture –  covered in Taj and the Great Camel Trek

ROSANNE’S TIPS FOR WRITERS

1.  Be persistent – if you feel this is what you were born to do, then keep practicing, reading, learning the market.

2.  Never compare your work to another’s unless it is to learn something for there’s a place for all of us as long as we’ve done our best. Comparing only leads to a lack of confidence and jealousy. When you read a book that is better written than yours, thank God for the talent of that writer and learn.

ROSANNE TALKS ABOUT AJ AND THE GREAT CAMEL TREK

What inspired you to write this book?

After I wrote Mustara, the picture book, I’d look at those beautiful end pages that Robert Ingpen painted and I’d think, This story isn’t finished yet.

What’s it about?

It’s the story of Taj and Mustara joining Ernest Giles exploring expedition to Perth in 1875 and what happens on the way.

What age groups is it for?

Ten plus.

Why will kids like it?

It’s an adventure, it’s exciting, and it’s basically true, except for Taj.

Can you tell me about Taj and what you like/dislike about him?

Taj is a twelve-year-old boy with an Afghan dad and an Irish mum. He does have a problem as he can’t come to terms with his mother leaving. He thinks she didn’t love him. This makes him a bit wary of making new friends and he can get a bit solemn at times. But there are other characters who teach him a lot about loosening up.

Are there any teacher’s notes, associated activities with the book?

Yes on my website there are teachers’ notes and other info. I’m still putting more of this up. UQP and Penguin also have the notes on their sites.

Is there something that sets this book apart from others?

It is totally based on a true event and I have tried to show the culture, language and thought processes of Taj and the other members of the expedition faithfully.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Getting to know Taj better – he’s really nice and likes Emmeline so much. It would be interesting to see what they do when they are older.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

It was very difficult getting the balance of history and fiction right so that it would be an exciting read for modern kids. It took me four years to write.

Thanks for visiting, Rosanne and sharing your journey with us. This afternoon, I’m reviewing Taj and the Great Camel Trek here at Kids’ Book Capers.

 

 

Is It Possible To Be In Love With An Inanimate Object?

I just celebrated a not-insignificant milestone of a birthday (but I’m not telling which one). My girlfriends and I had decided that this year we were going to chip into a significant present for each other. Say, a piece of jewellery. The non-birthday girls would chip in a nominated amount, and anything above and beyond that would be contributed by she who was celebrating her birthday.

I couldn’t afford the Tiffany diamond ring I’ve been lusting after for all eternity, so I requested something else significant but that I probably wouldn’t buy for myself: an antique typewriter.

It was a big ask for my friends, I later realised, as they had to scour antique stores and online sales and find out what a reasonable price was for such a thing. Coincidentally, it was announced earlier this year that the last ever typewriter factory was shutting its doors, so typewriter values may have immediately astronomically increased.

I also didn’t give my friends a whole lot of help, stipulating vaguely only that if the typewriter were old and metal, I was pretty much guaranteed to like it. What they found (and what they gave me just last Saturday) was this masterpiece:

I honestly couldn’t have imagined a more perfect typewriter. It now sits front and centre in my lounge room and I’ve sat entranced examining its every detail—is it possible to be in love with an inanimate object? I’ve googled it too.

The typewriter’s an Underwood, a name that until Saturday meant nothing to me. I think it’s a No. 5, the most common but also the most iconic of the Underwood typewriter models (if you’re a typewriter expert and I have this wrong, please feel free to correct me). Here’s what I’ve found out (in no particular order):

  • The Underwood family used to make typewriter ribbons and carbon paper for then typewriter manufacturer Remington. When Remington decided to make their own ribbon and carbon paper, the Underwoods decided to make their own typewriters.
  • The first Underwood typewriters they made were called ‘No. 1s’ and ‘No. 2s’. Sorry, but it did make me teehee.
  • The No. 5 was the most successful (and recognisable) typewriter of all time.
  • Underwood typewriters appear often in pop culture, including (if Wikipedia is to be believed):
    • In the 1991 Coen Brothers film Barton Fink, the character Jack Warner says: ‘Actors? Schmucks. Screenwriters? Schmucks with Underwoods.’
    • In Catch Me If You Can, which starred Leonardo Di Caprio, Carl Hanratty says he made a forged cheque with ‘a stencil machine and an Underwood’.
    • Jessica Fletcher, the main character in Murder She Wrote, used an Underwood typewriter.
    • Authors William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald used Underwoods.
    • To Kill A Mockingbird character Mr Underwood types on a typewriter all day.
    • Award-winning Australian film Mary and Max features an Underwood.
    • Video game BioShock refers to ‘Under Tree’, a comical reference to ‘Underwood’.

Did I mention that I love this typewriter? Sure, I’ll never use it. In fact, I’ll never even move it from its resting/display place, having discovered just how entirely, unfathomably, made-from-buckets-of-metal heavy it is. But I will love and adore it. Besides, surely owning an antique typewriter makes me more inspired, talented, and writerly?

The Non-Exhaustive List Of Books I’d Recommend

I tend to draw an embarrassing blank when people ask for book recommendations. I think it’s less a case of not having books to recommend and more one of not knowing where to start.

Either way, my brain seizes up and instead of saying, ‘Why yes, I can recommend a bucketload of books that I’ve relished’, my brain butts against my skull, I get tongue-tied, and people get a look that’s part confusion, part regret for having asked me what they thought was a simple question.

Without the on-the-spot pressure and with the visual assistance of my bookcases, I recently jotted down a non-exhaustive* list of books I’d recommend in no particular order and have posted it below. From now on, I’ll point people to this blog when I’m asked that question…

Non-Fiction

Fiction

*Non-exhaustive in number, but exhaustive in having to go through and hyperlink them all 🙂

Everyone’s Reading (The) Room On The Tube…

Seeking out and reading a book because you’ve heard that everyone’s reading it on the Tube (as in the train system in London) seems an unlikely way to hear about and come at a book. But that’s precisely what I did. I’m glad I did, too, having had a friend (who was stumped to remember the title) recommend the book in this way.

Admittedly, had she recommended the book based on the premise that everyone was reading it on the bus in Brisbane, I’d have dismissed it immediately and snobbishly. But, just as there’s something exotic and in-the-know about London’s fashion scene, there’s something ahead of the game about its public transport.

The book turned out to be Emma Donoghue’s Room (no ‘The’, which annoys me a little, as the stand-alone word doesn’t roll off the reading tongue and snags my that-can’t-be-right senses). It’s an award-winning work of fiction that offers insight into what it would be like to be held captive in a single room for years on en—ala Joseph Fritzl’s captive daughter.

You know, the one who turned out to be held in the basement for, like, forever, and who bore him countless numbers of children while his wife (and her mother) reportedly knew nothing of it. Or like any number of the girls plucked off the streets and given up for dead being discovered living in a makeshift caravan in said abductor’s backyard, entirely visible on things like Google Earth.

You know, the one’s we’re completely, simultaneously, voyeuristically shocked and fascinated by.

Donoghue has successfully sidestepped the expected fictional take: that of a first-person narrative from the abducted girl’s perspective. She’s instead opted to tell the story from the wide-eyed perspective of Jack, the five-year-old child the girl, known only as Ma, has borne to her abductor, known only as Old Nick.

It’s an ambitious move, and one that could have fallen very, very flat. I tend to find books from a child’s perspective tedious and trite, with the character all too often coming across as a clear vehicle for progressing the narrative by asking questions that the writer’s not able to convey in more sophisticated and subtle means.

But Donoghue nails the voice and the innocence, using (but not overtly, taking us out of the story) Jack as an effective means of illustrating the day-to-day experience as well as highlighting its reality and horror.

Jack has never been outside and doesn’t know there’s a world beyond Room. To him, objects are characters, they’re assigned capitals as proper nouns in the text, and Jack wishes Room, Kettle, etc. good night and the like. It takes a bit of getting used to, but works.

The first third (or more) of the book outlines the existence he and his Ma lead through the games they play. While all of the games fully utilise the space and scarcity of tools they have at their disposal, they are clearly designed to pass the time and keep him entertained. We readers quickly realise some are much more. Scream, for example, involves Ma and Jack making as much noise as possible, ostensibly to attract attention and rescue.

I have to say that I found this part, which made up the make-or-break opening chapters of book, tedious and would have stopped reading but for three facts. One: I knew my friend who’d recommended it enjoyed it and would ask how I found it. Two: I somehow inadvertently bought myself two copies of the book so felt doubly inclined to read it (I clearly wasn’t paying attention when doing my ordering from Boomerang Books. Doh!). Three: I surmised that ‘everyone’ reading it on the Tube couldn’t be wrong.

I’ll concede that this tedium may have been by design—that is, to illustrate precisely what it’s like to live your life trapped in a tiny room. But I’ll say that I got the point early on and just wanted Donoghue to get on with it.

Still, the book was well done and, without ruining anything for those of you who haven’t yet read it, I was glad I stuck it out. The book continues beyond the (*spoiler alert*) escape and is very real in the way that it tackles the complexities of life beyond the room.

For those of you who are keen on the emerging multi-channel storytelling, Room also comes with its own trailer as well as interactive website thingy.

Book trailers and interactive pages that aren’t particularly interactive aren’t really my thing—I think they haven’t yet found acquired the sophistication and polish they require and instead come across a little clunky. For example, I envisaged Room being dark and dirty and not nearly so, well, kids-colouring-book cheery. I also wanted it to do something or provide something extra beyond the book.

But whatever gets people reading, I guess, is fine by me. Maybe I’ll see people reading it on the buses in Brisbane.

 

HEROES OF THE YEAR – REVIEWED

The Ernie and Maud books are full of humour and heart for newly independent readers.

In Ernie and Maud’s latest adventure, Heroes of the Year, kids will relate well to MC, Ernie who has never won at anything…and Marvellous Maud, the ‘greatest sheep in history’.

Now Ernie has a chance to win something. As trainee Superheroes, he and Maud could be in the running to win the “Heroes of the Year”.

“Ernie’s eyes were drawn back to the centre of the photo. ‘That trophy,” he said. ‘Is that — is that what the Heroes of the Year get?” His mouth had turned dry. A ribbon was one thing, but a trophy? A trophy was better than a ribbon…A trophy was better than three ribbons! ‘I’ve never won a trophy before,’ he added shyly.

In Heroes of the Year, Ernie and Maud are on a quest to catch, Pencil Pete, a moustache drawing fiend who has ‘passed through Beezerville and wreaked havoc all over town.’

Of course there are plenty of obstacles standing in their way but the more Ernie sees of the trophy, the more he wants it.

“Ernie felt something stir inside him as he gazed at the glowing trophy. He could just imagine the look on Lenny Pascale’s face when he saw it. Suddenly, he wanted a golden trophy more than he’d ever wanted anything before.”

Ernie looks for clues in Super Whiz’s book, 100 Handy Hints for Heroing. Maud is happy to be involved in Ernie’s quest but she is a gymnastics enthusiast with a goal of her own – to be able to do the splits.

The two use masterful disguises and determination on their mission, but will it be enough to catch the clever Pencil Pete?

The humour, action and quirky characters make these books an enjoyable read. Although Maud seems to go against current publishing trends, I for one enjoyed meeting a talking sheep in a children’s book.

Frances Watt’s fun text is accompanied by hilarious illustrations from Judy Watson

Heroes of The Year is the fourth book in the Ernie & Maud series from ABC Books.

 

Click here to “like” Social Reading September

It’s not just the way we read, write, publish and buy books that’s changing. It’s the way we talk about them, too – today’s announcements from Kobo, GoodReads and Facebook are just the latest in a series of social reading developments.

GoodReads is set to integrate with Facebook's new 'timeline'.
The Federal Government’s annual Get Reading! campaign (which continues till the end of this month – you can buy the books here) is once again leading the way when it comes to social ways to bring us back to books.

Their website includes forums like this one on ereaders (you can sign in using your Google, Facebook or Twitter account) for the first time this year. They’ve also got active and friendly Facebook and Twitter profiles.

You can post your own review of the “50 Books You Can’t Put Down” (here’s my brief equivalent: I’ve read Jessica Rudd’s short story “Pinata” in the free book available to those who buy one of the 50 titles, 10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2011, and found it poignant, romantic, clever, fun and original).

Get Reading! offers dedicated iPhone, iPad and Android apps too.

I’m surprised to see that according to the PDF catalogue of the 50 books on the Get Reading! site, there are still some titles that are not available as ebooks. OK, surprised, and ANNOYED. With the publishers, that is. Come on, people, catch up with your customers’ needs and wants.

Another initiative to encourage Australians to get reading is The Novel Challenge, the adult equivalent of the MS Read-a-thon. I looked forward to the latter every year as a child, and am finding myself feeling the same way about the grown-up version.

It’s a great way to push yourself along with the reading, and raise money for a good cause at the same time (they’ve raised more than $70,000 so far this year). The program has been underway for a couple of months, but you can sign up to read as many books – and attract as much sponsorship – as possible in 30 days during October.

And why wouldn’t you? You’re probably going to be reading anyway.

I love the fact that you can sign up as an individual or team, and track your progress in comparison with other participants online. The website allows you to set up a Facebook-like profile page to document books read, those you’re planning to read, and funds raised. Buttons allow easy sharing of the link on several social media platforms.

Feel free to sponsor me. I need an incentive to get into my current book (not a strong opening chapter, obviously, as I put it down a few days ago and have felt no compulsion to return).

In any case, I feel somewhat frustratingly as though I’ve been too busy talking about books and writing (in new, digitally social ways) to get much reading done lately.

In the past month I’ve participated in setting the program for if:book’s Bookcamp unconference on the day it was held as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, and contributed $45 via crowd-funding platform Pozible to ensure the Emerging Writers Festival’s Digital Writers Conference in Brisbane actually happens on October 14 (see their website to find out how the organisers raised $4000 ahead of the event, and for program details).

At another event in Canberra, the Australian Security Research Centre’s forum on developments in e-publication, there was no need to take notes during sessions or swap contact details with delegates during the tea breaks. The Centre collated selected business cards and PowerPoint presentations and emailed them to all attendees a few days later.

Highlights of that event included hearing about ANU E Press’s ground-breaking digital publishing model (they have 3-6 staff and publish 50-60 ebooks a year), the National Library’s ebook program (next month they will publish three titles simultaneously for print and digital readers while work continues on a multimedia or enhanced ebook due out next year), and the ACT Government’s iCabinet program (IT staff worked – with some tips from Federal spooks – to “lock down” iPads so that ministers can securely store and view cabinet documents on the go).

As for talking to my friends about books, while I continue to attend regular book club meetings (we’re talking about The Slap this month, timely given the television adaptation is about to premiere), I’ve also signed up to the aforementioned social reading platform GoodReads.com.

GoodReads allows you to quickly and easily share your thoughts on books you’re reading or have read, and to view reviews and star ratings from fellow book lovers.

It offers lists of must-read titles in areas of interest (the best books of the 20th century kept me scrolling and clicking for hours), and even allows you to scan barcodes from the books in your existing library to add them to your own chosen categories.

It’s a great way of keeping track of what you’ve read and what you like (or don’t), and making sure you retain a healthy ratio of classics and literary fiction to genre and trash in your mix.

So, Facebook friends, beware, GoodReads updates aplenty are coming your way.

Speaking of being wary, part of me is just that about Facebook’s announcements today, but hopeful too. Personal recommendations from like-minded friends and colleagues are a great way to find new favourite authors and reads.

Don’t you think?

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.

MEET JUDY WATSON, ILLUSTRATOR OF “Heroes of the Year”

Today, Judy Watson, the charming illustrator of 19 books including the Ernie & Maud series is visiting Kids’ Book Capers to talk about her creative journey.

Have you always enjoyed illustrating?

Oh yes! Just try to stop me! My Grandma worked that out when I was about 3. She gave me coloured chalks and sent me out to draw on the paling fences in the back yard. Then, embarrassingly, but strangely pleasing too, she called all her neighbours over and made them admire my scribbles.

How did you become an illustrator?

Well, first there was Grandma and the chalks. (Thanks Grandma.) Then there was a lovely art teacher named Cecily Osborn at my school. (Thanks Mrs Osborn!) A little later on there was a lot of painting and drawing and a bit of living the artistic life in London.

Then I came home to Australia and met some publishers and got to know some other illustrators and writers in Melbourne and found my way around the publishing scene.  And eventually, a publisher phoned me to ask me to illustrate a little reader called Yucky Poo! I was earning money doing freelance graphic design work at the same time, so it didn’t matter that it took a little while for each illustration job to come along.

Where does your inspiration come from?

When I’m illustrating somebody’s story, the inspiration comes mostly from the text. As I read a manuscript for the first time, images pop into my head, sometimes in a vague way, and sometimes complete with the medium and other details.

As for the characters, well, if it’s a Frances Watts text, it’s pretty clear to me what the characters look like, because she describes them so well. Not just their appearance, but their personalities and little quirks too. And the rest of the inspiration comes from my childhood, my two children and the world around me!

What inspired you most about illustrating this book?

Well, a real villain in Baxter!! How exciting! And all those disguises. What brilliant fun to put a false moustache on top of the superhero costume. A double secret identity!

Who is your favourite character and why?

That’s a tough one! I’m very fond of HouseCat Woman, because she says so little and yet her presence is there all the time, listening, raising an eyebrow, even stretching if she’s feeling very energetic. And she can fire up most wonderfully if required. Fabulous claws!

But on the other hand there’s the irrepressible Desmond, and the almost irrepressible, yet deep-thinking Maud. No wonder Desmond loves Maud. They are both so positive about life.

How did you decide what the main character would look like?

Well, despite what I said earlier about finding Frances Watts’ characters easy to draw, the first time I drew Ernie, I got him wrong. He was too ‘super’ looking. Not at all the person he is supposed to be. I foolishly gave him extravagant curly hair and a self-assured super pose with head held high. What was I thinking?!

Frances tactfully reminded me what Ernie was all about, and soon we hit on the brown-haired, kind-hearted, slightly self-conscious little fellow that he is today.  Ernie isn’t an athlete. His feet turn inwards a little on the cover of the first book. He is very brave, but a little shy, so he carries his chin lower than Superman. And sometimes, he hides his eyes behind that floppy bit of hair at the front.

Can you tell us about the illustrating process for this book?

In this case I already knew the characters from the previous three books. That made it easy, right? Well, sort of. But I did need to get to know them again. The first drawings of Ernie and Maud weren’t right at all!

So first I did some scribbles, to practice. Then I got straight into putting down pencil sketches for the actual illustrations required. If the pose was tricky, I either did an internet search for helpful reference images (‘enthusiastic sheep in cape and leotard, jumping over gate’) or made a note of it and took photos of my husband and sons doing the required action. (That was funny, I can tell you!)

The pencil roughs were scanned and emailed to the author and editors who gave me feedback. I then made any changes required and inked the illustrations. The inked pictures were scanned and tone added on the computer, and the finished work was emailed through to the publisher for comment. Finally, after any necessary alterations were made, the artwork was emailed to the publisher again, and forwarded on to the typesetter.

What was your favourite part of the illustration process?

The colouring in! Oh well, you know what I mean. The ‘greying’ in.

When all the tricky bits are over – getting the hands to be on the ends of the arms and the thumbs on the right side and so forth – then I can sit and listen to a talking book as I colour in the pictures and watch them take on a little bit of three dimensionality.

And adding the shadows. I love shadows. Did you notice? ( I did, Judy. They are great. I’m an author so to me, shadows seem really hard to do well.)

What was the hardest part of the illustration process?

Getting the idea in my head to appear on the paper the way it does in my head! In a few of the pictures I never quite managed it, even at the end. This tricky part is usually at the pencil rough stage.

Oh, and there’s a little thing called ‘character continuity’. What a pain that can be!

Did you get to collaborate with the author or did you work fairly independently?

The Ernie and Maud books are definitely a collaboration, although Frances was so busy this time around, that she didn’t have time to say much more than ‘bravo!’ or ‘A little more to the left!’

Our wonderful editors Chren and Tegan were able to help with more detailed feedback. ‘A little more to the right and up a bit!’

Can you tell us about the medium you used to illustrate this book?

I used a dip pen (with a nib) and Noodlers Ink to do the drawings. And then I scanned them and added the grey tone on my computer in PhotoShop. It’s lucky that I can use PhotoShop because sometimes I accidentally do get the thumb on the wrong side of the hand or forget to draw somebody’s ears or something.

Happily I can draw the ears or the new hand on a separate bit of paper, scan it and alter the original picture on the computer. I use such tiny stitches that you can hardly see the scars. Have you spotted any?

How long did it take to illustrate?

About 4 months

Any tips for people who would like to become children’s book illustrators?

Practise drawing lots of people, especially hands. That way you’ll probably get the thumbs on the right side and be able to draw anything you like! Practise drawing backgrounds too. It’s really good to be able to draw a bathroom, or a toaster, or the inside of a cupboard, the underside of your bed, or the top of a dog kennel looking down from the tree house.

Take a little sketchbook and pencil with you in your pocket, and you’ll be all set to draw at a moment’s notice.

Note: I often forget my little sketchbook, and that is one of the reasons my house is full of little bits of paper with doodles on them, and also the reason I have so much trouble drawing the top of a dog kennel.

Thanks, Judy, I really enjoyed your honesty and insights into your creative process.

This afternoon, we’re reviewing Heroes of the Year here at Kids’ Book Capers.

 

Four Launches and a Funeral

Over the last couple of months I have been present at four very different launches. They were for a festival program, a literary initiative’s website, a book and a school playground. Let me tell you about them.

The first of the launches was for the unveiling of the program for this year’s ‘A Thousand Words Festival’. And what a great program… featuring the likes of Michael Pryor (The Laws of Magic), Leanne Hall (This is Shyness), Steph Bowe (Girl Saves Boy), Fiona Wood (Six Impossible Things), Cath Crowley (Graffiti Moon), Sally Rippin (Billie B Brown), Tim Pegler (Five Parts Dead) and many more. The launch was held at the Kent St Bar in Fitzroy and was a lovely opportunity to meet the people behind the festival, as well as generally mingle with participants in Melbourne’s literary scene.

Bec Kavanagh launches the festival programme

If you’re interested, the festival is taking place this week, on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 September. Check out the festival website for more info and program details.

The second of the launches was the soft launch of The National Year of Reading 2012 (NYR). The official launch will be happening on 14 February at the National Library in Canberra, but they decided to hold a mini-launch to unveil their new-look website and announce the winners of their short story competitions. NYR patron, William McInnes, gave an amusing speech and did a fine reading of one of the winning short stories.

Attendees at the National Year of Reading soft launch

The launch was held at Bialik College in Melbourne. Although the speeches all took place in the auditorium, the drinks, nibblies and mingling took place in the school’s rather fabulous library — a perfect place for such a launch.

The NYR is a terrific initiative with many events taking place throughout 2012. Take a look at their Love2Read website for some more info.

The third launch was actually mine. Around 50 people gathered at the Richmond Library in Melbourne, on Saturday 17 September, to help me celebrate the launch of my new teen novel Gamers’ Challenge. Many thanks to Ford Street Publishing for organising the event and to the one and only Michael Pryor, who launched the book with an eloquent and amusing speech. In case you’re curious, here’s Michael’s speech…

Did you laugh at Michael’s binary joke? If you did — congratulations! You are a true geek!

Finally, on the day after my launch, my kids and I walked down to my eldest daughter’s school for the launch of their new playground. Unlike all the other launches I went to, this one only had one very short speech. The rest of the time was spent playing. 🙂

I like launches! (You may have guessed this already.) They are a great way to celebrate something… anything. I particularly love attending book launches. I say this both as a reader and as a writer. As a reader, it’s an opportunity to hear an author speak, meet him or her and get an autographed copy of their latest book. As a writer I find them a useful networking exercise, as there are usually lots of writers, editors and publishers at these things. Plus they are fun… and there’s usually nibblies and drinks involved!

If anyone has attended any interesting launches lately, leave a comment and tell us about them.

Now, about that funeral… tricked you! No funeral (thankfully). I just needed a catchy title. Feel free to not follow me on Twitter if you feel like I lured you here under false pretences. 😉

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll hold a launch for my next blog post.

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Nothing Says Procrastination Like The True Blood Omnibus…

True BloodNothing says procrastination like the True Blood omnibus. I mean, you promise yourself you’ll get back to work just as soon as you’ve finished this page…this chapter…this book. Except that this book is actually three books neatly packaged into one giant doorstop of a pageturner.

Ah, the pleasure and pain of not only having a series of books you’re desperate to devour (no pun intended; well, maybe a little one) bundled into one, impossible-to-put-down bound cover.

I’ve come to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series the wrong way around, having watched the TV series in quick, pausing-only-for-bathroom-breaks succession, all the while marvelling at Alan Ball’s and HBO’s genius at bringing brilliant stories to screen.

Admittedly a part of me has also been wondering where this idea came from and whether admitting that you enjoy the show is a little bit like admitting you like soft porn. Because that is, in some sense, what the show is.

I figured the books wouldn’t be quite so raunchy and cracked open the spine both to compare them to the series (even though I came to them the wrong way around, I could be belatedly annoyingly snooty and dismissive, going ‘the books are better than the show’) and to avoid my mounting, relentless tsunami of deadlines (you can only use jetlag as an excuse for so long, although I maintain I’m far from over it yet).

I didn’t expect to find the books quite so good, nor so close to the TV series. Apart from the series amping up the relationship with her friend Tara, and potentially making up the Jason/Lafayette illicit V-drinking/V-acquiring/V-draining storyline (that or I just haven’t gotten up to that book yet), they’re almost identical.

In fact, I’d say that Harris is an incredibly visual writer, with the first three books being supplanted almost straight off the page and onto the screen. And damn they’re clever. And witty. In an entirely random, self-referential and pop-culture-referencing way.

The problem is that even though I technically know the bulk of the story and reading the books is like words prompting a wee familiar, fun TV show playing out in my head (I see the characters as the TV show actors entirely), they’re as addictive and un-put-down-able as the series was un-pause-able. Sigh. Somehow avoiding work is extra guilt-inducing when you’re technically reading/watching repeats.

Maybe I’m trying to cure myself of jetlag. Maybe, gulp, I’m trying to avoid not-fun deadlines such as the two grant acquittals I have to write this weekend. Maybe I’m trying to wean myself off Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy by rushing headlong into another brilliant, addictive vampire series (and yes, I’m acutely aware that’s not weaning, it’s displacement and is probably serving to heighten and lengthen my addiction).

Maybe it’s that I’m developing a thing for books written by talented women about strong, sassy, sexy female characters and vampires. Maybe I need you to recommend which series I’ll need to tackle next. I should be done with Sookie by the weekend.

FRANCES WATTS, AUTHOR OF HEROES OF THE YEAR

Today, Frances Watts visits Kids’ Book Capers to talk about her journey and Heroes of the Year, the latest book in the popular Ernie & Maud series.

How did you become a writer?

The first step to becoming a writer was by becoming a reader, and falling in love with books and stories. That certainly inspired me to write my own. But it was really through writing my first book—Kisses for Daddy—that I developed the confidence to keep writing. And the act of writing one book unleashed a floodgate of ideas!

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

There are so many things I love about writing it’s hard to say what I enjoy most! I particularly like bringing characters to life, becoming so caught up in their stories that they seem real to me. And, of course, it’s wonderful when those characters become real to other people.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

It can be hard sometimes to make the words on the page live up to the ideal in your head. And the ideas don’t always flow when you want them to.

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

I was—and still am—a book editor, a job I find very rewarding. I work freelance and divide my time between editing and writing.

What is your greatest writing achievement?

I’d say that touching people with my books is the greatest achievement. Having parents tell me that Kisses for Daddy is a book the whole family loves and shares, or a teacher say that she uses Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books with her students, or a child tell me that the Ernie & Maud books are the funniest things they’ve ever read or that they can’t wait for the next book in the Gerander Trilogy. It’s when readers connect with my books that I feel like I’ve really achieved something.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on the final book in the Gerander Trilogy. It’s exciting to be revealing secrets I’ve held on to since the first book, The Song of the Winns—but also sad to be saying goodbye to characters who have been living in my head for a long time.

Do you have any tips for new writers?

Definitely I’d say: read. And think about what you’re reading, think about how the book is crafted. Then I’d say: write for yourself. Don’t try to write for a market or follow a formula; write because you have a story in you that’s busting to get out. Once you have written that story, find yourself a reader, someone who will give you honest feedback, and be prepared to keep working—rewriting and editing—until your manuscript really represents the best you can do.

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

Because I write for several different age groups, on the surface they don’t necessarily have that much in common…Then again, I think there is a certain idealism, a certain quirky sense of humour—and there’s usually a talking animal or two!

How many books have you had published?

My new book, Heroes of the Year, is my tenth book.

What inspired you to write this book?

Heroes of the Year is the fourth book in the Ernie & Maud series. In each of the books in the series the main characters face a moral dilemma and, through their friendship, learn something about themselves. This book in particular was inspired by the idea of learning to accept that it’s okay to lose.

What’s it about?

Extraordinary Ernie and Marvellous Maud are two very unlikely superheroes—Ernie because he’s just an ordinary kid, and Maud because…she’s a sheep. In Heroes of the Year Ernie and Maud are in the running to win the Superheroes Society’s Heroes of the Year award. But when they’re faced with a terrible dilemma, they have to decide how far they’ll go in their quest for the prize…

What age groups is it for?

Ages 7-10.

Why will kids like it?

It’s full of false moustaches! I think kids will love the humour, while identifying with the characters. And Judy Watson’s illustrations are, as always, hilarious.

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

I love Ernie for his honesty and good-heartedness, and Maud for her loyalty and determination. (There is also a group of older superheroes who act as mentors to Ernie and Maud, and they are terrific fun to write, having very human flaws and foibles.)

Is there something that sets this book apart from others?

Did I mention the moustaches…?

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

It’s great to have the opportunity to revisit much-loved characters and see them grow and develop across a series. I also really loved plotting this book and working to achieve a humorous trajectory that ties together different threads in a satisfying resolution.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

See above re the humorous trajectory and satisfying resolution!

Thanks, Frances for visiting Kids’ Book Capers.

Tomorrow, Judy Watson will be here to talk about the illustrating process and in the afternoon we’ll be reviewing Frances and Judy’s new book, Heroes of the Year. Hope you can join us.

 

Imma let you finish – the Top 100 books of all time

Booklovers, trivia gatherers and spreadsheet aficionados, rejoice, it’s that time of year again. The Guardian has released its annual report on the Top 100 books of all time and spreadsheets of all the glorious data that went into the making of that list.

The data comes from Nielsen Bookscan who are the world’s largest book tracking service, collecting transaction data directly from tills and dispatch systems of all major book retailers and consolidating all that delicious data into a neat spreasheet for your perusal. There are some issues with it; by best “of all time” they mean since 1998 when Nielsen started recording that data. (That’s 14 years of sales or long enough to finally get Celine Dion’s wretched Heart Will Go On, which was the first number one of the new year in 1998, out of your head.)

And the list consists of books sold in the UK only, so perhaps we can lie to ourselves and say that in Australia Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer don’t make up all of the Top 10. Whatever about the issues with the records being British and only dating back 14 years, it’s still a fascinating read. Did you know that Twilight made £10 million in the UK alone? Or that Delia Smith outsold Jamie Oliver to the tune of 140,000 books, but that Dr Atkins managed to outsell both?

They also offer a breakdown of the non-fiction sold in the same time, both the hardback and paperback lists. Looking over them, I am tempted to write a cookbook. Jamie’s various offering have netted him a very pleasant £13.5 million from his hardback sales alone. That said, I would probably have to learn not just how to write about food, but how to cook it properly. Perhaps I could employ a chef to cook and I could write about it? Gordon Ramsey reportedly makes $7.5 million a year, I could hire him for a few months to transcribe his cookery and still be quids in after to the tune of over 10 million sterling, even allow for all the swearing breaks he’d need.

If you are looking for food in the non-fiction paperbacks, you’ll find it in Elizabeth Gilbert’s navel (along with the rest of Eat, Pray, Love) or on the Dukan Diet. Are these the best books of all time? Care to do a Kanye and tell the world what books they missed?

Hardback
Title Author Volume Value
1 Jamie’s 30-minute Meals Oliver, Jamie 874,546 £11,297,761.32
2 Guinness World Records 2011 421,372 £4,028,921.96
3 Kitchen:Recipes from the Heart of the Home Lawson, Nigella 312,846 £4,166,929.64
4 Fry Chronicles,The:A Memoir Fry, Stephen 273,379 £2,906,898.71
5 Journey,A Blair, Tony 261,858 £3,563,737.86
6 Life and Laughing:My Story McIntyre, Michael 235,987 £2,466,064.41
7 Devil Rides Out,The O’Grady, Paul 210,796 £2,178,470.92
8 Simples Life,A:The Life and Times of Aleksandr Orlov Orlov, Aleksandr 208,536 £1,314,312.84
9 What You See Is What You Get:My Autobiography Sugar, Alan 194,379 £2,043,636.06
10 Jamie Does Oliver, Jamie 181,495 £2,294,563.97
Paperback
Title Author Volume Value
1 Eat, Pray, Love:One Woman’s Search for Everything Gilbert, Elizabeth 316,083 £1,780,869.34
2 My Shit Life So Far Boyle, Frankie 172,440 £931,006.06
3 Nurse on Call:The True Story of a 1950s District Nurse Cotterill, Edith 112,636 £521,013.99
4 Driven to Distraction Clarkson, Jeremy 100,327 £563,908.31
5 Operation Mincemeat:The True Spy Story Macintyre, Ben 96,922 £552,539.38
6 How Could She? Fowley, Dana 93,686 £415,624.59
7 Eden Project:The Guide Books, Eden 89,964 £449,802.25
8 Dukan Diet,The Dukan, Pierre 79,857 £658,769.21
9 Bad Science Goldacre, Ben 77,508 £491,597.84
10 Greatest Show on Earth,The:The Evidence for Evolution Dawkins, Richard 77,301 £477,648.60

The great digital newsprint struggle

The book industry has handled the transition to digital with greater intelligence, foresight and strategy than the newspaper business.

In the space of two years (given the Kindle arrived in this market in late 2009 and the iPad and Kobo in May 2010), all major book publishers and many smaller operators have begun to publish ebooks simultaneously with printed titles. Larger book retailers were either already selling ebooks, or moved as quickly as they could to partner with businesses that would allow them to do so. Customers who adopted ereader technology understood from day one that they would need to part with cash to buy ebooks, just as they had physical books.

Newspaper publishers have posted their content online since the mid-90s (making it available to their readers for no charge in most cases), but many are still trying to find a digital model that will make their business sustainable.

Perhaps it’s because newspaper editors are so flat out getting the next day’s edition together, they don’t have time to research, plan, and ponder their likely future, whereas book publishers are used to thinking long term.

Perhaps, like many who are opposed to taking action on climate change, the newspaper bosses see the so-called digital threat as a problem for their successors, and thus one they can ignore or pay lip service to without taking genuine steps towards a sustainable model.

Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times examines some of these issues, and is a must-see for anyone who is interested in the changing face of the mainstream media. It’s showing in arthouse cinemas in Australia now.

A poster for Page One.
Rossi spent a year in The New York Times newsroom, focusing particularly on the media desk as it covered the dramatic changes affecting the reporters’ own industry.

During that year, the paper’s editors debated how they would cover WikiLeaks’ Afghan war logs, the release of the iPad, the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company (some serious scandals in that one, I’m definitely keen to read more about the workplace culture that filtered through to the LA Times and Chicago Tribune among other papers), NBC Universal’s merger with Comcast, media staff cuts impacting on coverage of the White House and the end of US combat in Iraq.

The film also looks at the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller incidents, the rise of Gawker, Pro Publica and new models for investigative reporting and charging for news online (the Times introduced a metered model of charging regular users of its website during filming).

The lively characters who fill the newsroom and those who commentate on the future of the Times for the cameras provide intriguing side-stories within the larger narrative. Media and culture columnist David Carr, a former crack addict whose 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, was a New York Times bestseller, is a star of the show.

But it is the newspaper itself that plays the leading role, surviving by adapting to make best use of new tools like Twitter and blogs and (as has been the case in newspapers here) cutting staff.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of newspapers. Do you still read them? How often? In print or online? Or via apps for smartphones or tablets?

Do you prefer to read native apps (purpose-built for tablets) or replica versions of the print editions, like those found in the PressReader app?

Or do you find you now read only the occasional newspaper story you’ve found via Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms?

Would you be prepared to pay by the article, ebook-style, to access quality, well-researched long-form journalism?

Finally, do you think newspapers will even exist in five or ten years?

I’ll write a follow-up post with some of my own thoughts on these questions (as a former online editor of three newspapers, including one that introduced a paywall a decade ago) soon.

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.

The Happiest Refugee

The Happiest RefugeeI like Anh Do. I’ve been impressed with how likable, affable, down-to-earth, and funny he’s been each time I’ve seen him on TV. So I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t want to read his book. Or maybe I do, although I’ll admit my reasons are entirely superficial and arbitrary.

Even though I’m a massive non-fiction reader (as in I’m a voracious reader, not that I’m larger than the average person), The Happiest Refugee isn’t a title that sells itself to me. I guess it’s meant as some irony—both a reference to Do’s humour as a comedian and perhaps his gratitude at being able to make good in a new country. It likely also alludes to the tragedies his family has survived.

Still, it puzzles me. I like to understand why something’s the way it is, and I haven’t yet been able to do that with Do’s book’s title.

While I’m talking superficialities, I really, really, really dislike the book’s cover. Its orange and brown hues do the book a complete disservice. Its cheap design that includes a disproportionately large pic of Do superimposed in front of the photo of what we can assume is a fishing/refugee-transporting vessel doesn’t cry ‘pick me up and buy me’.

I’m surprised the book’s sold at all, and it’s probably testament to Do’s strong profile and not-to-be-dissuaded-by-poor-design fan base that it has. Truthfully, the only reason I read the book is that it recently won a bunch of awards and has had praise and controversy heaped upon it in equal measures (more about said controversy later).

Cover aside, I loved the book. It was light but extremely readable and perfect reading material for the long-haul flights during which I tackled it. Do’s a pragmatic storyteller who gives you plenty to contextualise and flesh out the story, but doesn’t waste time on flowery language. You can tell it’s written by someone well used to standing up and conveying stories in succinct, sharp bites that will hold your attention.

I should say that, bad cover or not, such pragmatic storytelling will always win me over. I quickly lose patience with speculative fiction, with its myriad manufactured languages and 73 million names for an orc depending on which species/tribe/magical caste a character belongs to. I find it distracts from the story, doesn’t in any way advance it, and catapults me out of the tale and into Frown Land as I try to recall what made-up words mean—call the orc an orc and get on with it.

But I digress from non-fiction written by a comedian who arrived in the country as a refugee to made-up worlds with orcs…back to Do’s book.

Do’s a nice guy with a wicked sense of humour. I completely understand why The Happiest Refugee has sold in spite of the design shortcomings (which aren’t Do’s, it must be noted—I’d say that the publishing house didn’t go all out on the design because they didn’t realise they were onto a winner). And why the book’s won awards.

It’s also Do’s storytelling style and sense of humour that makes the story even more heart wrenching. He disarmed me with humour and socked me with sadness—I was smiling about how his younger brother had to wear dresses when they first arrived in Australia, because that was what was donated to them, while at the same time feeling morose that that’s how dire their circumstances were.

That’s how the entire book felt to me—Do makes situations where he couldn’t afford text books or new sports shoes funny, while simultaneously showing us how tough it is to arrive in a country as a refugee (I kept thinking this book goes a long way to showing the real refugee story—read: human, rather than Today Tonight media panic trollop—and would help demolish racist stereotyping if we could just get the right people to read it). At no stage, however, does he come across as self-pitying or gushingly smarmy, and that’s a hard tone to strike and maintain.

There’s been some (alleged) ghostwriting controversy, but whether the book’s Do’s writing or his ghostwriter’s, it’s Do’s voice, and those stories can only have come from Do himself and his family. In fact, I’m less surprised that he had some help with getting the story down on paper than that he had it from a stranger and not his wife, who is apparently a writer.

I’d recommend The Happiest Refugee for a read if you can ignore the cover. My guess is that now that it’s proved a financial boon for them (and clearly it sold because of Do and not because of the artwork), Do’s publisher will be redesigning the book and re-releasing it at some stage with a much-improved design.

I WANT MY HAT BACK – MEET JON KLASSEN

Jon Klassen is the author and illustrator of the delightful new picture book, I Want My Hat Back. Today he’s visiting Kids’ Book Capers to talk about his journey and creating this book.

1. Can you tell us briefly about how you became an author/ illustrator?

I went to school for animation, but the part I liked best about making animated films was designing the backgrounds and figuring out the colours. I worked for some studios doing that for a few years, and got more interested in doing smaller things on my own. I’ve always liked books and book illustrations, so I guess my own things alluded to that and I got lucky and some publishers saw my work.

2. What was the idea for I Want my Hat Back inspired by?

It was thought of first as the title matched with a hatless character on the cover. A bear seemed like a good choice because you don’t really know what he’s going to do about it. 

3. How long did it take you to create this book from start to finish?

About 4 months, give or take. The roughs were pretty straightforward, and although it took a little time to figure out a good technique for the final artwork, once it was nailed down it was a pretty smooth process.

4. Can you tell me about the main character and what you like/dislike about them?

The main character is a bear who has lost his hat. He is polite about asking around for it, but near the end he realizes he’s been deceived and his politeness is sort of forgotten. I like that he is polite, but also I like that he sort of loses himself for a second in this story. I think at the end he’s not quite sure what to think of what’s gone on. 

5. This is the first book you have both written and illustrated? How have you found this process different from previous works where you’ve illustrated books written by someone else?

It’s much different. Getting the chance to do both is a real privilege. You get to tailor the writing to the pictures and go back and forth between the two things until they are both working together.
Doing illustrations for something written by someone else is fun too, because you get to take something you didn’t know about before and interpret it and the results are always a bit of a surprise because most of the time it’s not something you would’ve thought of doing.

6. What did you enjoy most about writing and illustrating this book?

I really enjoyed doing the final illustrations. They are very simple, but they had a context I liked thinking about and working to, and that makes illustrating really fun. 

7. What was the hardest thing about writing and illustrating this book?

The writing was tricky. It took some time to figure out that it could be done with just dialogue. Before that, I was a little intimidated by narration, but after that was done away with, the writing came easier.

8. What is the target readership for your book and why will readers like it?

I’d like to think it can be for a number of age groups. We tried to make it a book where the basic story wouldn’t be lost on anyone, but where the explanation of the events at the end was subtle enough that older kids would pick up on some things that younger kids might not.
Thanks for visiting, Jon. Enjoy the rest of your tour. Check out the schedule for all the other great blogs Jon’s visiting.

 

 

Bloodlines

BloodlinesFew people look forward to returning from overseas trips and I’m no exception. For once, though, I was prepared to tackle the back-to-reality jetlag head on: Richelle Mead’s latest Vampire Academy installation had been released while I’d been gone.

I’m starting to wonder just how many entries of this here blog I’ve dedicated to Vampire Academy and I readily admit it’s reasonably extreme to be emailing home ahead to confirm that said book, Bloodlines, had indeed arrived and was awaiting my arrival back in Oz.

I’ll also say that there are few better books to have handy when you are so unspeakably tired you wish you could slip into a coma but are instead awake and cursing your body, your body clock, and your insensitive, noisy neighbours with a rage so fierce you are in danger of spontaneously combusting.

I would have been in a sleeping tablet coma had I been able to find a 24-hour medical centre (although it’s debatable whether I in my crazy-eyed, crazy-haired state of distress could have convinced any doctor that I wasn’t out of my mind; that I was just seriously, I’ve-been-awake-for-36-hours-straight-and-there-might-be-a-homicide-if-my-shrieking-neighbours-don’t-be-quiet sleep deprived). Fortunately for my rude neighbours’ health, I found other ways to fill my waking hours.

VAI had mixed emotions about cracking Bloodlines’ spine—I knew it was a spin off from the original six-book series and that its two main, kick-ass characters and love interests, Rose and Dimitri, weren’t going to feature. You’ve heard of second-book syndrome; I was wondering if there was such a thing as second-series syndrome.

I was dubious that Mead could produce a book as strong in story and (frankly) lust-worthiness with them out of the picture. Seriously. Dimitri makes Twilight’s Edward look like a complete ponce (Twilight critics, bite your tongues—that’s not an opening for you to pan Twilight :). And really, why can’t she just continue Rose and Dimitri’s journey?

But as one Book Burglar Blog reader and fellow Vampire Academy fan commented on a previous post, she figured that once she was a few pages in she’d be rapt in the new characters and plot and her concerns would melt away. That’s precisely what happened to me.

Sydney the alchemist, a Hermione-like character who featured late in the original series and who I really dug, replaces Rose as the strong female lead. The book opens with Sydney being woken in the middle of the night to be sent on a secret mission: to guard now-Queen Lissa’s half sister, Jill, whose life is in danger.

It’s vital that Jill doesn’t get topped, because vampire law decrees that in order to rule, the queen has to have another living relative. Jill, the recently discovered illegitimate half sister is, conveniently for the storyline, the only one.

Bit-part players in the previous books, Sydney and Jill are rotated to the fore of the storyline, along with other secondary but charming characters, such as spirit user, party boy, and lovable rogue Adrian. Mead sends them to warm, sunny, dry, and apparently vampire-less Palm Springs, because it’s entirely opposite from the previous books’ settings. Sydney has to pose as Jill’s sister and heads back to high school in order to protect her.

It feels, I must say, a bit irksome and too close to bad Hollywood films—returning to school has been done to death, no vampire pun intended. But it for the most part works and I read the book in two sittings (or lyings, if we’re getting into technicalities) so the book definitely gets the thumbs up.

Sydney and Adrian, in particular, transition easily into being lead characters—there’s enough substance and spunk to them, and you are glad you get to better know them. And Mead is a good writer, whose creativity and sass never fail to impress me.

There are a few things that bugged me, though, including that Mead alludes to Jill’s attempted murder, but doesn’t do a whole lot with it. The other alchemist character, whom Sydney hates, is a bit too two-dimensional and her reason for hating him to convenient and trite. He starts the book as a baddie and leaves it as one, without any real character development or he’s-not-the-bad-guy-we-thought-he-was surprises.

There’s also a massive, glaring, and arguably inexcusable plot hole: despite being charged with guarding her 24/7 Sydney and the guardian leave Jill unattended at school for the bulk of the book. They’re in a traditional, non-vampire, and completely unprotected school and this just doesn’t make sense, especially as Mead doesn’t really use this absence to further the plot (I’m not going to give the story away, but suffice to say, Jill being on her own at school doesn’t really result in anything climactic or juicy happening, as it should). I also have to say that although Sydney and Adrian carry the book well, they’re still not Rose and Dimitri.

In all, I enjoyed Bloodlines, but not as much as the original Vampire Academy series. It’s in part due to the characters, but mostly because I don’t think the plot was as original or strong—Vampire Academy surprised me; Bloodlines was at best predictable or took turns that made me think ‘Really? That’s the best you can do with that plot opportunity?’

Ultimately, less creative or not, I’m grieving finishing the book and wondering what else on earth I’ll be able to read that will grip me as much and help me jettison (or at least temporarily take my mind off) shrieking neighbours and jetlag. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I’m seriously considering starting back at book one of Vampire Academy. There’s no book like Vampire Academy

Thursday Next

Once upon a time… a friend of mine thrust a book by some guy with an odd name into my hands saying “Read this. You’ll love it!” The author was Jasper Fforde, and book was The Eyre Affair. As it happens, I didn’t love the book. But I did like it enough to read the next book in the series, and then the next, and then the next. I thought it was about time I told you about these books.

The Eyre Affair is the first book in a series about literary detective Thursday Next. It is set in 1985 in an alternative universe where history has progressed rather differently than in our world. England is a republic, Wales is a socialist republic, Russian remains under the rule of a Czar and the Crimean War is still going strong. Genetic engineering is quite advanced in this world, and so our lead character can have a pet Dodo named Pickwick. But there is a lot more to this novel than just the alternative history setting…

Due to the invention of a Prose Portal, it is now possible for people to enter a work of literary fiction. In The Eyre Affair Thursday is trying to stop a master criminal from entering the original manuscript of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and changing the story. A weird concept… but somehow Fforde makes it work.

Fforde has created a truly bizarre and fascinating world in this novel, but seems to have gotten carried away with his own inventiveness. He gives so much attention to the world, that the plot occasionally suffers and the characters rarely rise above being two-dimensional. And this is why I liked the book rather than loved it. But as I said at the start, I did like it enough to seek out the next one…

Lost in a Good Book gets even more bizarre and fascinating as Fforde expands on the world he has created, and takes Thursday into new uncharted waters. Thursday’s new husband is eradicated from history, the original manuscript of Shakespear’s lost play Cardenio is discovered, we meet Thursday’s father (a renegade ChronoGuard who travels through time) and we find out about Jurisfiction — a police force within literature that employs fictional characters to ensure that things remain orderly and that plots remains as their authors intended. I enjoyed this book more than the first. Characterisation and plotting are a lot better. So I had to go on…

In The Well of Lost Plots Thursday is now a Jurisfiction apprentice studying under Miss Havesham from Dickens’s Great Expectations. Pregnant with the child of her non-existent husband, she takes a holiday in an unpublished detective novel. Could things get any more bizarre than in this novel. Yes they can…

Something Rotten is the most bizarre and, frankly, the plot defies description. But by this book, I had grown to love the characters and become totally immersed in Fforde’s universe. Things are definitely wrapped up at the end of this novel, and we have a fitting end to the adventures of Thursday Next. Or so I thought…

I’ve now discovered that there are a further two books I was not aware of. They form a second series of adventure for Thursday — First Among Sequels and One of our Thursdays is Missing. I shall have to seek them out.

Has anyone else read the Thursday Next novels? What did you think of them? Leave a comment!

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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Here an iPad, there an iPad, everywhere an iPad

The iPad featured heavily in my Facebook feed this morning, and one of the posts was a timely reminder (for me) that we’re all at different stages of embracing digital reading – and that Apple’s ubergadget is taking over our lives.

The first message came from a former editor of Australian homemaker and women’s magazines now working as a blogger and ebook publisher in the US: “If you were wondering just how dead paper-made magazines are, I sat in my hairdresser in Soho [New York] reading magazines from the comp iPad that is attached to every chair. Yep, that dead.”

The iPad is infiltrating our lives.
I tend to agree with her. It’s only a matter of time before we’re all reading much shinier and more readily available versions of our favourite magazines. I love Zinio and PressReader and already read most of my newspapers and magazines this way. Our home is much less cluttered as a result.

The second ebookish Facebook post came from a newspaper cartoonist friend who is often to be seen drawing on his Mac with iPod headphones to block out the newsroom buzz.

“Arrrgghh. I’ve just ‘swiped’ a piece of paper to turn the page I’m reading. I’ve obviously spent far too much time reading on the iPad.”

Oops. Have to confess I’ve done the same thing more than once, and I’m sure we’re not alone.

The third message that struck me as I thumbed through the feed was from one of my oldest and best friends who has worked as a lawyer, English teacher and book editor, and has limited time to devote to her bookish passion given she has four young children.

“Wow! I have just logged onto FB on my new iPad (oh, the joy!) after months in the communications wilderness, and have discovered all these lovely birthday messages. Thanks so much! X”

This last poster is not completely new to digital reading – she received a Kobo last birthday and immediately put me to shame by reading War and Peace on it. I think my first Kobo book was a Sophie Kinsella.

Indeed, she’s a lot more savvy in such matters than another magazine publisher I spoke to yesterday who didn’t know what an ebook was and had never heard of a Kindle.

So, it’s not safe to assume to everyone out there knows what I’m talking about when I drop Google+, iView, TuneIn Radio, QR codes, Calibre, GoodReads, TweetDeck, Things, DropBox, UrbanSpoon, Sony Reader, Android or even Booku into a conversation.

If some or any of those words are gobbledegook to you, stay tuned for upcoming posts that will make sense of them all.

Can’t wait? Try looking them up on Wikipedia.

BEN & DUCK by Sara Acton

Ben & Duck is a beautiful story about a boy who befriends a curious and fun loving duck.

Written and illustrated by Sara Acton for readers aged 3 and over, Ben & Duck is the story of a boy who goes to the park and meets a duck who becomes his special friend.

Duck isn’t just ‘any’ duck. This duck squeezes under hedges, climbs trees and follows Ben everywhere…until he hops on the bus.

Ben & Duck is a story of friendship and sharing and what it’s like for a boy to have a true friend. They accept each other’s differences unconditionally and find common ground for their play and friendship. Ben & Duck are happy to play games and eat food that’s different from what their first choice might be.

With these themes gently introduced into the book, Ben & Duck lends itself to discussion both in the classroom and the home.

Ben & Duck is a very simple story with uncluttered, expressive illustrations and a gentle narrative as Ben and Duck develop their new relationship.

The beautiful watercolour images are full of movement and tenderness. This is a heartwarming story that will appeal to young readers, especially those who love animals.

Ben & Duck is published by Scholastic Australia and comes in 32 page hardback format.

 

Review – Granta 115: The F Word by John Freeman

TITLE: GRANTA 115: The F Word
EDITOR: John Freeman
PUBLISHER: Granta (12 Addison Ave.London, W11 4QR, U.K.) (1 June 2011)
ISBN: 978 1 905881 34 5         272 pages.

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

Buy Granta 115: The F Word by John Freeman here…

GRANTA, if you have not met it before, is one of the very best literary magazines. It has no manifesto but it “believes in the power and urgency of the story both in fiction and non-fiction”. Since 1979, it has consistently published the best writing of new and established authors, and many who made their debut in Granta have gone on to become well-known. In recent years, photo-journalism and poetry have become a regular part of Granta’s offerings and it has begun to publish the work (in English) of writers from around the world. Frequently, too, it publishes large samples of work-in-progress which will shortly be published in full by major publishing houses.

I have been a reader of Granta for many years now and generally each issue has a theme. Selecting at random from earlier issues, I find ‘The Best Young Writers’, ‘Travel’, ‘History’, ‘The Best New Nature Writing’ and, from 1980, ‘The End of the English Novel’, which includes chapters from a new work by Salman Rushdie calledMidnight’s Children, and contributions from Angela Carter, Russell Hoban, Alan Sillitoe, and Emma Tennant, amongst others.

Granta 115, ‘The F Word’, with its theme of feminism is an issue to which I was not initially attracted but, as usual, the contents are surprising, entertaining and thought -provoking. What is new about Feminism? How radical do you have to be to be called a feminist? Aren’t all women feminists? Has feminism in earlier times changed anything in the world? All the usual questions are raised but in interesting and unusual ways.

There are the thoughts of a Japanese migrant woman adapting, with her children, to a new culture. There are the childhood perceptions of an African women in a male-dominated world. There is a man’s perspective (written by a woman); a poem about Ariadne, her god/lover and an empty tomb; a lesbian encounter; and the view of the ‘other woman’ in an adulterous relationship. Most vivid, terrible and extraordinary is the account of the experiences of a group of French women who, in 1942, were arrested on suspicion of having links with the French Resistance and who were held in  the Nazi death camp, Birkenau. Through mutual support, fifteen of the thirty-five women arrested survived.

Louise Erdrich explores enslavement. Laura Bell describes her feelings about willingly giving up her independence to be a so-called “kept woman”. Clarissa d’Arcimoles’ photo-essay recreates and compares childhood photographs with shots of the same family members fifteen years later. And to prove that things have changed for women in the world, A.S Byatt recalls being told by a male lawyer that “women can’t be ambassadors”  when, as a teenager, she expressed this ambition.

For a complete list of the contents of this and earlier issues you can go to the Granta Home page at www.granta.com/Magazine/. And there you can also sample some of the stories – be they fiction, non-fiction, essays, memoir, poetry or reportage.

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

Mandy Magro shares inspiration behind debut book Rosalee Station

Today Mandy Magro explains the inspiration behind her debut novel, Rosalee Station. Next week, we will be giving away two signed copies of Rosalee Station, courtesy of the author. Be sure to visit us again next week to enter the giveaway!

mandy magroG’day, I’m Mandy Magro. It’s lovely to be here and a big thank you to Boomerang Books for having me drop by!

Today I would like to share with you the inspiration behind my debut novel, Rosalee Station.

The red dust flowed out like a river behind the Landcruiser as we coasted along the Plenty Highway towards Tobermorey Station, dodging livestock left right and centre and hitting sections of bulldust that gripped the tyres, pulling us off the side of the dirt road. I was beside myself with excitement and wondering what adventures lay ahead of me as camp cook out on a 1, 517 000 acre cattle station. I’d never been this far into the heart and soul of Australia, it was exhilarating and intimidating all rolled into one! An old Toyota bonnet resting against a massive ant hill pointed the way to Tobermorey’s entrance with a bold red arrow. I looked up into the night sky that was filled with millions of glittering stars and smiled, I was finally here.

My new boss ushered me and my bag full of too many “in case” thing to my home for the next few months. The stockmen had kindly erected a tent which I’d be sleeping in whilst we were at camp. I’d later discover the luxury in this when we were out mustering for days on end with the earth as my bed and the dazzling night sky as my ceiling. I snuggled into my swag as the hum of the generator lulled me into my first nights sleep, my dreams full of mustering and outback sunsets.

At 4.30am the following morning I was cooking up a storm in my camp kitchen, Garth Brooks keeping me company on the portable stereo as a horse came galloping through the camp, sending all the stockmen into utter chaos. Swear words hung heavily in the crisp morning air as men stumbled from their swags to avoid being trodden to death. Minutes later they were all sat at the table, munching on bacon and eggs, laughing at how hilarious each of them looked as they scrambled for safety. I loved their laid-back attitudes; it was splendid to be surrounded by such true blue Aussie characters.

The days began to turn into weeks as the stockmen left the camp before the sun had even had time to rise, returning only at nightfall with dust covering their every inch, their Akubras shadowing their tired faces as they hobbled into camp. I was always keen to fill their bellies with the food I had spent all day preparing. Everything from roast dinners right through to homemade syrup pudding. Some days I’d go with them if they were going on the motorbikes or if I was offered to go in the chopper. Those days out mustering will remain etched in my heart forever.

The motorbikes were always thrilling as we chased after rouge bulls, all four tyres often leaving the ground as we sped over the rocky terrain. I’d return home with dust in places I never imagined possible! Once I went to drop lunch out to the stockmen and returned with a calf as my passenger, it was too weak to walk the long distance so I offered to give it a lift back to camp. It stayed deathly still as we bounced along the dirt track, its big bright eyes staring at me as I scratched it behind the ears and spoke to it like a long lost friend. The chopper mustering was a whole other ballgame, playing chicken with a snorting, belligerent bull whilst the back propeller of the chopper whipped up the dust off the ground was at times a little unnerving! I swear I could’ve stepped right out of the chopper we were that close to the ground! Then up we would whisk, the ground rapidly fading away as we sped off after cattle that were making a break for freedom from the mob.

Whilst out on a 6 day muster I learnt how valuable a packet of wet wipes could become. There was no water for baths so I used to wait until I knew I wasn’t going to be caught butt naked then I’d slowly pull a single wipe from my packet and clean myself down. I used to hold that wet wipe for dear life in case I dropped it in the red dust! The things we must do! You also begin to crave for things that are just ridiculous. I remember sitting there one day, all day long, as thoughts of an icy cold can of creaming soda trickling down my throat haunted me until I thought I was going to go crazy! Needless to say the first thing I did when we got back to the station was to buy a can of creaming soda from the little shop there (they have a shop because they were also a camping ground for travellers in the outback) and I skulled it until the last sweet drop fell from the can. It was a simple pleasure that we tend to take for granted, one of the many that I came to discover.

My time as camp cook was a life changing experience. The adventures I had in the vast untamed land and the memorable people I shared it with were the inspiration behind Rosalee Station. The beauty and magic of the outback has captured my heart and I’m so blessed to be able to write about it in my novels.

Cheers,

Mandy

Buy Mandy Magro’s book Rosalee Station here…

My daughter’s picture books

A few weeks ago my eight-year-old daughter, Nykita, came home from school gushing about a book she had read. She absolutely loved it and wanted to know if I could “please, please, please” get her a copy. So I hopped online and ordered it from Boomerang Books (‘cause they’re the lovely people who host this blog :-)). It arrived on Monday.

The book is called Diary of a Wombat. It’s a picture book written by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whatley. Nykita very excitedly read the book to me as soon as she got home from school (happily delaying her after school routine for a little while). And you know what? She’s right — it’s a fantastic book. It perfectly captures the essence of a wombat in a fun story with delightful pictures.

Monday
Morning: Slept.
Afternoon: Slept.
Evening: Ate grass.
Scratched.
Night: Ate Grass.
Slept.

This got me thinking about picture books — specifically, about all the picture books that Nykita owns (some of which she is now willing to share with her younger sister). I’ve bought her a lot of these. And she has received a fair few of them as presents as well.

Nykita owns some pretty dreadful books (although she’s now given most of these to her sister) with bad verse and bland stories and ordinary (sometimes even amateurish) illustrations. But she also owns a lot of really good picture books as well. So, I thought I’d look through these books, and pick out my favourites — after all, I’ve read them often enough. Now take note please, these are books that Nykita owns, and doesn’t include all the wonderful picture books that I own (and which I’ve read to her), like Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls and Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.

So, in no particular order, my favourites are…

Olivia, Olivia Saves the Circus, Olivia Forms a Band, Olivia… and the missing toy and Olivia Helps With Christmas, all written and illustrated by Ian Falconer.
These are the fabulously insightful, delightful and whimsical adventures of a young pig and her family. Brilliant stuff! You may notice that I have not included the latest book, Olivia Goes to Venice, which I felt did not live up to the previous titles. Also, please note that these books are waaaaaay better than the television series based upon them.

Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten, written and illustrated by Bob Graham.
A lovely book about friendship, perception and giving people a chance. I also love Graham’s How to Heal a Broken Wing… but I own that one.

The Pear in the Pear Tree, written and illustrated by Pamela Allen.
A fun story with good rhymes, a terrific rhythm and great sounds. Perfect for reading out loud.

TWANG-NG! the precious pear came free.
And then the bird, as you can see,
was CAT-A-PUL-TED from the tree.

Dougal the Garbage Dump Bear by Matt Day.
This is an unusual picture book. It is quite wordy and contains photographs rather than illustrations. It is wonderfully unique! It tells the story of an old, discarded teddy bear who ends up in a garbage dump, where he finds some friends. Nykita also has the sequel, Dougal and Bumble and the Long Walk Home, but it doesn’t quite recapture the charm of the original.

Who is the World For?, written by Tom Pow and illustrated by Robert Ingpen.
A lovely story about animals and the environment and how the world should be shared.

Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The first is a classic, loved the world over. The second is not as well known, but should be. I love the fact that the three cooks in In the Night Kitchen all look like Oliver Hardy.

A Friend for Boots and Bathtime Boots, written and illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura.
These are very simple books for young kids, with minimal words and basic illustrations… but they are absolutely charming.

Mister Magnolia, written and illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Wonderful, wonderful rhyming story about Mr Magnolia and how he only has one boot.

Just look at the way that he juggles with fruit!
The mice all march past as he takes the salute.
And his dinosaur! What a MAGNIFICENT brute!
But Mr Magnolia  – poor Mr Magnolia – Mr Magnolia has only one boot…

Guess How Much I Love You, written by Sam McBratney and illustrated by Anita Jeram.
A lovely story about Little Nut-brown Hare and Big Nut-brown Hare, and just how much they love each other. I always get a little misty-eyed when reading this one.

So there you have it — a small selection of wonderful picture books. What are your favourites? Leave a comment and share!

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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NEW HAZARD RIVER ADVENTURES

The Hazard River series, by J.E. Fison continues with two new action-packed stories, Toads’ Revenge and Blood Money. Julie started the series after a family holiday on the Noosa River, but she looked to another waterway, a little further south for inspiration for one of her latest adventures.

Author, J E Fison says,

Kids, adventure and money – it’s a heady combination, so I couldn’t help getting excited when I picked up the Sunday newspaper one weekend and found a story about two teenage brothers who were fishing in a quiet creek west of Lismore and found a bag containing one hundred thousand dollars! The bag of cash had apparently been washed into the creek during a flood. The boys agonized for two weeks about what to do with the cash before handing it in to police.

The news story went straight into my journal (which is more of a plastic folder than a journal) and emerged a year later on the banks of Hazard River, in the latest adventure, Blood Money.

Just like the boys in the real story, the kids at Hazard River find a bag of cash and just like the real boys they face a moral dilemma about what to do with the money. Add to this a few snakes, some troublesome meatballs and a nasty neighbour and everything is in place for a rough ride for the newly cashed-up kids of Hazard River.

In Toads’ Revenge the kids of Hazard River find themselves thrown into a dystopian toad-infested new world when they accidently fire themselves into the future. Although it’s a bit of a departure from the usual Hazard River story line, it’s not too far from the real world.

Cane toads, once confined to northern Queensland have advanced as far south as Sydney and into Western Australia, threatening native animals and fragile wilderness areas along the way. These super-resilient, poisonous reptiles are incredible breeders. Females lay up to 35,000 eggs at a time and the toads’ march across the continent is proving impossible to stop. Recent media coverage of the toads’ march inspired me to make them the bad guys of Toads’ Revenge.

For more information on J.E. Fison and the Hazard River series you can visit her website at www.hazardriver.com or read her blog at www.juliefisonwriter.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

HAZARD RIVER – TOADS’ REVENGE AND BLOOD MONEY

TOADS’ REVENGE

Toads’ Revenge features all your favourite Hazard River characters in a new world, literally. They’ve climbed aboard a time machine and travelled ten years into the future only to discover that their beloved Hazard River has been turned into a wasteland by an environmental disaster ten years earlier.

Can they get back to the present day and will they do it in time to prevent the disaster from happening?

Jack, Ben, Mimi and Lachlan will need the help of Josh, the son of Just Orsum, but they’ll also have to rely on their own wits and cunning.

There are some really nasty giant mutant Cane Toads that they’re going to have to outwit and a future they will have to change, but these kids are resourceful.

Toads’ Revenge is an action-packed page turner from page one and there are some really gross bits that kids will love. The characters stay true to form in this adventure and I like the way that Jack always manages to save his younger brother Ben, even if it’s sometimes a bit reluctantly.

BLOOD MONEY

What kid doesn’t want to be rich? Jack’s latest plan for making money is selling coconuts so…

When Jack and his friends find a bag full of money, it looks like all of their dreams have come true.

But as they soon discover, sometimes money buys a whole lot of trouble. It really seems as if the money is cursed. First they’re chased by a red-bellied black snake, then when they find blood on the money, it seems as if things could get even more serious.

They decide to spy and see just who owns the loot, but the stakeout proves fruitless and when they return home, they find Jack and Ben’s father in a fury because someone has trashed his shed. Straightaway, the kids think it could be the owner of the money.

When they realise the money could belong to their cranky neighbour, they go looking for clues and discover endangered reptiles in cages – something is definitely not right in Hazard River.

Blood Money is another new action-packed adventure in the Hazard River series.

As always, the story is narrated by Jack and I enjoy his dry humour.

I take a piece of white soggy stuff out of the tree. I hold it up for Ben to see. ‘It’s toilet paper, not a Mummy’s bandage,’ I say.

The Hazard River books are written by J E Fison and feature amazing covers by Marc McBride. The characters, action and the language make them a great read for even the less confident reader.


Book Giveaway!

Want a free book? Well, here’s your chance. The lovely people at Boomerang Books have copies of my novels, Gamers’ Challenge and Gamers’ Quest, up for grabs. Follow the link and fill in the form for your chance to WIN WIN WIN!

This giveaway is in celebration of the recent release of Gamers’ Challenge. Remember Gamers’ Challenge? I blogged about it a couple of weeks ago (see “How to sell a sequel”). And now it is with much excitement that I present for your viewing pleasure, the book trailer…

This trailer was created by Henry Gibbens (see my previous post “Pushing Pixels with Henry Gibbens”), who also put together the trailers for my previous novel, Gamers’ Quest, as well as for Mole Hunt, a YA science fiction novel by Paul Collins. Although I loved the trailer he made for Gamers’ Quest, I’m even more enamoured with the new one. It’s more dynamic and has a greater sense of drama.

The music was again composed and performed by the talented Marc Valko (who happens to be my brother-in-law). It’s the same basic theme as last time, but more upbeat and techno. A great reworking of the original music.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve shown the trailer to Year 5, 6, 7 and 8 students during a school talks. The reaction has been terrific! Lots of positive feedback. So I’m happy.

At the risk of over-dosing you all on info about MY NEW BOOK (can you tell I’m a little excited?), I have one last thing to tell you. Although Gamers’ Challenge has been available since the 1 September, it will have its official launch celebration this coming Saturday (17 September) at 12.30pm at the Richmond Library in Victoria. The book will be launched by Michael Pryor, author of The Laws of Magic series. If you’d like to come along, here are the details…

Book launches are a lot of fun to attend (although rather nerve-wracking to organise). There’s usually a couple of speeches, a reading, a bit of autographing and some drinks and nibblies. I was lucky to have had Richmond library host the launch of Gamers’ Quest a couple of years back, and now we’re back again for Gamers’ Challenge. In a library, surrounded by books… great atmosphere for a book launch.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post in which I’ve done very little other than blather on about MY NEW BOOK. Forgive me… I’M EXCITED! (I may have mentioned that already.)

And tune in next time, when I promise to blather on about someone else’s books. 🙂

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll renege on my promise and post some more about MY NEW BOOK. 😉

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Going postal at Australia Post – D&D style

While I love the convenience of browsing through and ordering my books online I’m not always delighted that it places my books in the fickle hands of the Australian postal system.

Australia Post and I have this love-hate relationship; they love to make me hate them. Previously they had just engaged in low-level irritant stuff. Failing to leave the first notice card for items was a favourite trick of theirs, meaning I got no heads-up my item was at the post office until a stern final notice informing me my package would be shot at dawn the next day if I couldn’t rescue it before then. Occasionally no notices were given to me at all so the stuff would wing its way back to the senders (Aus Post particularly like this method for stuff that comes from overseas) and the sender would then berate me for not bothering to pick it up.

The postie’s favourite is to leave a card that says “We called today but you weren’t home” on days when I am actually home.  This excuse holds even less water than you might think; my “home-office” (this is a fancy way of saying small computer desk, chair and whatever space is free of books) is right next to the intercom. As a seasoned procrastinator who is always on the look-out for any excuse to take a break, even the lightest brush off that bell will have me skipping merrily down to the door shouting “Distraction! Huzzah!” and inviting the postie in to help me open the item and maybe look at lolcats for a few hours.

Australia Post and I had, I thought, carved out an agreement that this was the way things were. They failed to ring, I stormed in the door of their offices at 4.55pm just when they wanted to close up for the evening. They inconvenienced me, I inconvenienced them. Turnabout is fair play.

But no, they’ve elevated things. I received a very polite email this week from Boomerang informing me that my address – the same address that has not given me a squeak of trouble over the last two years – has returned my parcel to them, marked “Check address”. My apartment had apparently ceased to exist and they wanted to know where they send my items on to.

D&D 3rd ed inspired this post.

Now, my apartment exists. I’m positive of this. So was the postie until last week but something has obviously changed. I have come up with the theory that the Australia Post office rolls a dice (a D6, for those of you wondering) and then uses the following information to add a modifier to the result, deciding the fate of my packages. The modifiers are;

  • +3 – I don’t care about the item,
  • +2 – it was free with something and I wasn’t expecting/don’t want it,
  • +1 – and when I get it, I’ll need to do some work related to what’s in it.
  • -1 – It’s a gift for someone,
  • -2 – and their birthday is imminent,
  • -3 – and I missed their last birthday
  • -4 – and that person is my mother.
  • -5 – It’s the final book in a trilogy and/or a brand new release I have been frothing over for months (hello, Dance with Dragons)
  • -7 – It’s a book I wrote for.

How does this system work? Well, they roll the dice and add that modifier and see where my item actually ends up. With a possible score of nine to minus-six, here’s what will happen to my long-awaited post.

  • On a 6 to 9 my parcel is delivered super-early by the friendliest postie in Australia just after I have spent two days bitching about them, meaning I feel vaguely shame-faced for a week after for my meanness.

    4th ed, for the modern people.
  • On a 4-6 my item arrives on time and they fail to ring the bell.
  • On a 3, it arrives but ends up in the depot 2 miles away instead of the one a few hundred metres up the road.
  • On a 2, it arrives straight after I have navigated the online complaints system of the supplier and spent ten minutes filling in forms to report the non-delivery so I then have to mail and apologise to the supplier.
  • On a 1 or 0, it vanishes into the ether for a month, joining my lost socks, house keys and all the copies of my receipts come tax-time.
  • On -1, it ends up being signed for in a suburb forty miles out named nothing like where I live and they then try to blame me for this (yes, this has actually happened).

Now, I had never run into score under -1  before, probably because this is the first time I have written for publication in a book and earned a modifier of minus 7. My address, the same one that has allowed countless creditors to send me bills for the last few years, has vanished into thin air. What, do I suddenly live at number 12, Grimmauld Place? What are Boomerang to do, employ owls or house elves?

Answers on a postcard, please – no wait, my address doesn’t exist. Answers in the comments!

 

This post has been partly inspired by my many adventures with modifiers in D&D 3rd ed, but mainly by the fact that yelling at Australia Post isn’t going to make my book come any faster. According to them, that is. I may try anyway.

Smut by Alan Bennett

TITLE: Smut
AUTHOR: Alan Bennett
PUBLISHER:      Faber  (30 May 2011)
ISBN: 978 1 84668 525 5         EBOOK ISBN: 978 1 84765 765 7          180 pages.

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

Buy Smut by Alan Bennett here…

I was bribed to write about this book. My review copy came with an extra package in which I found a paper bag emblazoned in large letters: ‘WARNING: contains Smut’, and in smaller letters “the wicked new book by Alan Bennett. Inside the paper bag was a lurid orange T-shirt with the command “Ask me about Smut” splashed across the front.

Alan Bennett is surely well-known enough not to need such gimmicky advertising. Who would wear this T-shirt? Young bookshop assistants perhaps? Literature festival devotees? Certainly not me.

And how much does such advertising add to the cost of the book?

More importantly, is the book worth it?

I like Alan Bennett’s writing. I like his humour and his generous appreciation of the foibles and quirks of human nature. I would have written a review without the ghastly T-shirt. But there is no doubt that sex sells and the cover blub of the book says plainly enough what the book is about. It contains, we are told, two “unseemly stories”, both of which “concern women in middle life. Mrs Donaldson, whom sex takes by surprise, and Mrs Forbes, who is not surprised at all”. And Yes, the book is what it says it is: “Naughty, honest and very funny”.

The large image of a keyhole on the book’s cover is appropriate, because ‘smut’ is what we primly label all those sexy things which go on behind closed doors. In this book, Bennett lets us look through the keyhole at a huge range of sexual antics, predilections, sexual fantasies and embarrassments. All of which happen to seemingly ordinary, upright (well, not always upright!), moral citizens. Whether readers find this prurient or not depends on their view of sex. Mostly, Bennett enjoys the contradictions between the way in which we humans present ourselves to the world and, often, to our partners, and the secret thrills, untapped desires and bizarre situations in which our sexual urges are likely (or unlikely) to embroil us.

Mrs Donaldson, after an exemplary moral life as wife and mother, finds unexpected rewards when her husband dies and she takes in a couple of impoverished students as lodgers. One of her lodgers is a medical student and, at her suggestion, Mrs Donaldson becomes a part-time demonstrator at the hospital, acting out medical conditions to test the diagnostic skills of a group of student doctors. This is just part of her adventure, but when the students fall behind with their rent the sexual revelations which follow are equally novel to her and unexpectedly stimulating and addictive.

Mrs Forbes’s husband is very much alive, but his secret homosexual predilections cause complications which she is well equipped to handle, having secrets (especially financial secrets) of her own. His troubling and troublesome liaisons are described in some detail, but so too, are her dissimulations as good, submissive, financially incompetent wife.

In the end, for both women, keeping up appearances becomes less important than the thrills of exploring their own secret selves.

Alan Bennett show us that so-called ‘smut’ is a fact of life. And that the thrill of discovering smutty secrets about others is a common human failing. Look through enough keyholes and you will no doubt discover this for yourselves. But maybe the advertisers should have added this to the T-shirt: “WARNING: you may never regard your ordinary seeming neighbours in the same way again”.

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

 

Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick

TITLE: Machiavelli’s Lawn
AUTHOR: Mark Crick
PUBLISHER:  Granta  (1 April 2011)
ISBN: 978 1 84708 134 6       111 pages.

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

Buy Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick here…

I am not sure whether Mark Cricks’ skill is ventriloquism or parody. Whatever it is, this small book purports to be full of the voices of  “great writers”. Bertolt Brecht, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Martin Amis and Machiavelli are just a few of the writers whose style Crick mimics in order to offer us expert gardening advice. It is an ingenious notion, but it relies on us having read enough of the work of these authors to recognize a few distinctive features of their style in Crick’s versions of their horticultural guidance.

The patronized “little squirrel” wife of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, for example, is re-cast as ‘Julia’ in Act 1 of a play called ‘Planting a Fruit Tree with Henrik Ibsen’. Julia, pretending to be a helpless wife, does all the work whilst her husband, Helder, looks on and criticizes from his bath chair. Secret passions and secret liaisons are hinted at. A boy and a gardener are glimpsed and the importance of “good root-stock” is emphasised. Underlying psychological games-playing pervades the scene and it ends with the threat of devastating revelations.

Machiavelli , who humbly introduces this book to “the magnificent reader”, tells us that it offers the learning, knowledge and worthiness of “great gardeners and plantsmen”.  He also instructs us, later, ‘On The Art of Mowing’. Gardens are, after all, akin to Principalities, about which he was an authority, and good governance of a lawn requires “rules and discipline”, a willingness to be severe, and the determination to “punish delinquent plants” which threaten the borders.

Alan Bennett, it seems is an expert on ‘Caring for Heather’. Heather is a performer of Scottish ancestry whose unexotic career and sturdy and reliable performance make her the star of civic presentations. She features in sea-side shows, fund-raising ventures and, latterly, as a star performer in the overheated communal lounge of a nursing home.

Other writers demonstrate surprising skills. Raymond Carver, it seems, knows all about ‘Planting a Hanging Basket’; and Pablo Neruda writes loving instruction on ‘How to Prune a Rose’.

If you are not familiar with the genuine writings of Crick’s gardening experts, the irony of the pieces will be somewhat lost on you. And if you are very familiar with a particular author’s genuine work you may find Crick’s parody amusing but limited.

My own familiarity with Sylvia Plath’s work, for example, made the maternal theme in Crick’s ‘Burying Bulbs in Autumn with Sylvia Plath’ seem quite appropriate, but his oblique use of her suicide in his final paragraphs I found un-necessary and distasteful.

Parody, as Nabokov once said, is a game. Crick’s mimicry and his versions of art works by “famous artists” are clever, inventive and good games-playing, but this is a light-weight book in every sense. It is amusing to dip into but quickly forgotten.

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

Dr Ann Skea, Sydney, Australia.
[ann@skea.com]
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

 

Douglas Adams, the Rocket and me

When US book industry blogger Kassia Kroszer told me she’d been writing about digital publishing since 1998, I got to thinking about when I’d first contemplated, and written about, the ebook concept.

Reading the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as a teenager no doubt helped my thinking on the subject along. What a tragedy that its Mac-mad author, Douglas Adams, wasn’t around to see Steve Jobs launch the iPad. He would have been beside himself (like Zaphod Beeblebrox) with excitement.

I interviewed Adams in April 1998 for The Sydney Morning Herald’s Icon section. He came to Australia to promote his Starship Titanic computer game at that year’s Sydney Writers Festival. Our discussion inevitably came around to the future of the book.

I asked Adams whether he thought the book was under threat from new media.

“No. No more than it was from films, TV and radio. Each of these had an impact on the book, and indeed on each other, but it’s mostly a question of adjustment,” he said.

“Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. I’d be interested to know how many books will still be printed on paper in 10 years’ time and how many will be printed electronically.

“But the idea of the book, in its form if you like, in other words 100,000 words arranged into a story, will persist, whatever other forms come to exist alongside it.”

Adams died three years later, but his predictions have played out. By 2008, major publishers’ titles were available (in the US at least, it was later here and in the UK) for the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader among other devices. In Australia, as many as 5 per cent of book sales are now digital, but we trail the UK (11 per cent) and US (20 per cent).

What do you think he would’ve made of the iPhone and iPad? I suspect he’d have started an app business, creating enhanced ebooks that would have made our minds boggle.

I wish for his sake and for ours that he’d lived on to be a part of all this.

That profile wasn’t my first writing on the ebook.

There was plenty of talk (and writing) on ebooks in the late 1990s.
In October 1997, Icon’s editor, Tony Sarno, published a joint print and digital project called The Online Book Fair. As Icon’s web site producer, I helped coordinate the online publication of extracts from 15 new Australian books (including a couple by authors who became all time favourites: Madeleine St John and Linda Jaivin), and an interactive online novella started by Bryce Courtenay with contributions by our readers. I interviewed Jaivin and two more of the authors, Emma Tom and Richard Ryan, on camera to produce short video clips for Icon’s Net TV section.

I remember being incredibly jealous of my colleague Sue Lowe, who wrote the main feature for the print edition. She interviewed local and international booksellers, who were just starting to sell their physical books online; authors who were thrilled at the prospect of their work reaching new audiences via the web; and publishers who even then were wrangling with the complex issues around digital publication.

Lowe spoke to Allen & Unwin publisher Elizabeth Weiss, who remains one of industry experts on digital in Australia, for the 1997 story. Weiss said Allen & Unwin was hoping to start publishing online late in 1998, allowing sections of text to be downloaded and charged for separately.

“We’re not talking about entire novels, but [a service for] people who want a single chapter of a book and are willing to pay to have it immediately available at home,” she said.

Back then, the online experiments were limited because people didn’t want to read large amounts of text on computer screens, which were tiring on the eyes and not portable.

Fast forward to 2011, and readers are increasingly taking advantage of “chunking” to buy novellas, individual short stories and long form journalism in ebook form on their handheld smartphones, ereaders and tablets.

Lowe’s piece ended with a reference to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology experiment in ereader production. Their prototype of a leather-bound book with electronic pages would allow its users to “be alerted the day the manuscript is finished and download it from the publisher – or even the author. No printing, distribution, no territorial licensing, no expensive inventory and no returns”.

These were more predictions that have proven to be spot on, then, particularly the move to self-publishing for authors, though territorial rights continue to exist and confound in our 2011 ebook world, and few are publishing raw, unedited manuscripts.

By 1999, when Penguin published my little green book about the Internet, Weird Wild Web, online bookshopping was such a big deal I devoted two pages to it. The last couple of lines?

“Eventually, of course, you’ll be able to download novels to groovy little electronic book viewers, like the Rocket eBook (check out www.nuvomedia.com for more).”

I had forgotten all about the Rocket until I thumbed through the book last week, and that link no longer exists because NuvoMedia has long since been swallowed by a bigger fish, but here’s some info on the device from a press release on launch that same year:

“The Rocket eBook and future Rocket eBook-enabled readers will allow users to easily carry a small library with them, wherever they go. This 22-oz. (627 grams) hand-held information appliance can hold at least 4,000 pages (about 10 novels) of text and graphics at a time. Its user interface is designed for reading with optimised screen technology that is easy to read in all lighting situations. A battery life of 17 hours with the backlight on and 33 hours with the backlight off will provide users uninterrupted reading whether in the office, at home or on the go. Being digital, books read on the Rocket eBook can be browsed, searched, annotated, highlighted, bookmarked, linked and indexed in ways impossible with a paper book.”

Ten novels, eh? Compare that to the 1000+ books we can load onto an e-ink reader these days and it’s no wonder the Rocket didn’t take off.

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.

Changing Yesterday

A couple of months ago, author Sean McMullen wrote a guest blog for Literary Clutter about his new YA novel, Changing Yesterday (see Sean McMullen Changes Yesterday). At that stage I hadn’t read the book. Now that I have, I thought it was time to put in my two cents worth…

Changing Yesterday is a sequel to McMullen’s 2007 novel, Before the Storm. Four years between books makes it a little difficult to remember all the details of the first… but my strongest memory of the first book, is that I loved it. Ideally, I would have liked to reread Before the Storm, before plunging into Changing Yesterday, but due to the rather large pile of review books awaiting my attention, I didn’t have the luxury of doing so. And thus, with a shaky memory, I picked up Changing Yesterday.

Let me start with an aesthetic comparison. The new book has a way better cover. The cover concept for Before the Storm wasn’t bad, but the execution was rather cheesy. Pity, as the cover may have put off the uninformed reader from discovering a great story. No such worry this time around. The same cover artist, Grant Gittus, has excelled with a stylish and steampunky cover.

Thankfully, the first few chapters of Changing Yesterday give you all the necessary information about the first instalment that you need in order to understand and enjoy the sequel.

The story centres around two cadets from a future that hopefully will never be, who have travelled back to 1901 in order to stop an extremist group of British loyalists (the Lionhearts) from starting a war with Germany. With the help of some teenagers from 1901, the cadets managed to foil the Lionhearts’ attempt in the first book. But these guys are not done for yet and have set new plans into motion. Meanwhile the teenagers find their cohesive little group beginning to fall apart. Can they overcome their feelings and work together one more time to stop the beginning of the Hundred Years War? Well, you’re gonna have to read the book to find out. 🙂

Changing Yesterday is an action-packed, rollicking good, time-travel science fiction story full of twists and turns, and a surprise or two. But it also has great characters. These characters are taken in new directions and really put to the test this time around, sometimes even surprising themselves with their actions. All the while, McMullen tempers the whole thing with a wonderful sense of humour.

“If only my mother could see me now. Lying in bed with a boy in a first-class cabin, with two pistols under my pillow, pretending to be a French courtesan for the benefit of some armed men from a British secret society who are trying to start a worldwide war.”

Changing Yesterday is a complete book in its own right, able to be read without needing to read the first book (although I highly recommend that you do). Although it provides closure and ties up the loose ends, it also opens things up for a potential third book — a book that would take things into a very different direction. Here’s hoping McMullen writes it.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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Always the reader, never the author?

If you are one of the many bibliophiles who has penned your own manuscript but despaired of ever seeing it in print, there’s no time like the present to try! Writing Australia, the new national body committed to promoting writing and literature around the country, have announced the launch of their Unpublished Manuscript Award which comes with a whopping $10,000 for you and another $2,000 allocated for you to spend on guidance from a writing mentor of your choice.

The award is intended to aid in the development of an unpublished manuscript and is the brainchild of new national literature organisation, Writing Australia. Writing Australia is a new body, formed in January 2011 from the Writers’ Centres in SA, TAS, NSW, VIC and the ACT, with the aim of taking the best programs of each of the five state writers’ centres across state borders to benefit writers throughout Australia. One of its first projects is to take a number of established writers out on the road to give workshops on a variety of elements of writing craft, and it also expects to launch a biennial national writers’ gathering and a writers’ residency network in the near future, as well as providing business advice and online workshops.

One of their first acts is to launch the Unpublished Manuscript Award, which will see the winner walk away with $10,000 plus a $2,000 mentorship. The mentors available are

  • Valerie Parv, best-selling romance and nonfiction author whose books have sold over twenty-six million copies internationally. Her recent work includes Heart & Craft, a ‘how-to’ book on romance writing.
  • Mark Macleod, Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University, and former Children’s Publishing Director at Random House Australia. He has won the CBCA Lady Cutler Award and the Australian Publishers Association Pixie O’Harris Award for distinguished services to children’s literature.
  • Peter Bishop, Creative Director of Varuna (the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains) from 1994 to 2010 where countless Australian novels, memoirs, and books of poetry or short stories were refined. Peter is an advocate for national writing and, through the LongLines program, has regularly travelled around Australia talking to writers.

The award is for an unpublished work of adult literary or genre fiction and is open to any writer in Australia. You have until Thursday 13 October 2011 to enter via the online entry form on Writing Australia’s website.

Worried your writing isn’t up to scratch yet or needs a stern lookover before you submit? Beth Lewis at “Have Pen – Will Edit” may be able to help. She has – very generously and somewhat insanely – offered to give aspiring authors an honest, affordable, and informed critique for free. Beth has worked in the publishing industry as an editor and publisher for three years and has 1st class degree in Publishing for Oxford Brookes University, and is looking to gain a higher industry profile and more specific editorial experience.  She works on both fiction and non-fiction and can turn her hand (should that be pen?) to everything from commissioning to art direction, product release and marketing. You can see more on her generous (and insane, did I mention the insane) offer here at her blog. She has not said how long she is willing to do this for but – as she is likely to be inundated by hopeful writers – so first in, best dressed!

If you had something shorter in mind, the Age Short Story Competition is accepting entries for short stories of up to 3,000 words. There are monetary awards as well as the pride of seeing your work published in Life and Style magazine and at www.theage.com.au; $3000 for the first prize winner (and at a buck a word, that’s a rate that many freelance writers will envy I can tell you) ; 2nd prize, $2000; 3rd prize, $1000. Winners will be announced in December. For submission guidelines and more details, check here. (Stories for children are not eligible for this competition.)

The closing date is on September 23 and they specify entry closes at 5pm sharp. As someone who has raced a deadline to submit articles at 11:59:59pm way too many times on exactly on the day it was due, this amuses me. The phrase “as punctual as a writer” has not yet entered common use, and with good reason. But with all these deadlines coming up, maybe it’s time to push your pen into a higher gear and go all out?

The clock is ticking – get submitting!

Interview With Maggie Stiefvater

ShiverThe opportunity to interview young-adult-fiction writer Maggie Stiefvater was an opportunity too good to pass up. I’ve recently been introduced to her books by my friend and fellow writer Kate Armstrong. I figured who better then to help me interview Stiefvater (read: come up with intelligent questions) than her?

I’ve popped Kate’s questions and Stiefvater’s answers below and highly recommend that you both pick up one or all of Stiefvater’s books and catch her while she’s touring the country. This week she’s at the Brisbane Writers Festival and I’m gutted not to be in town to hear her speak in person…

You’ve got a lot of what some would call ‘dark themes’ in your books involving swearing and nudity and consumption of live meat (to name a few). How do you decide how far to push the dark-theme envelope in your writing? And do you think it’s important to include life’s darker side in stories for teens?

The young adult audience is an interesting and rewarding one to write for. Teens are clever and sophisticated readers; I would never ‘dumb down’ my writing for them. As both a reader and a writer, I love my stories to have extremes: very beautiful bits, but also very dark bits to make the beautiful parts shine more brightly.

LingerIs this for every reader? No. But the young adult shelf these days is filled with every flavour of novel out there, and it’s easy for a teen reader—like an adult reader—to find options that fit their comfort level. In short? I don’t hold back. If the story demands it, it’s going in.

As an avid follower of your blog [read: Kate is, but I’m signing up now], I’ve noticed how much time and energy you devote to connecting with your fans. Why is reaching out to readers important to you? And how do you keep it from swallowing you whole?

First of all, I love to write and blog. I’ve had a blog continuously since March 2006, when I began blogging as an artist. It’s great to feel like you’re not working in a vacuum, and having relied on so many author blogs for inspiration during my writing journey, it’s nice to feel like I can be a part of that for other aspiring writers.

It definitely needs to have boundaries, of course, and I’ve suffered quite a lot of growing pains over the years. I’ve gone from having a few thousand hits on my blog a year to over a million, and it means that sometimes I can’t answer every comment any more—a strange and agonising conundrum.

ForeverWhat’s the most interesting fan present you’ve ever received?

I’ve received some pretty darn interesting fan presents. My favourite, however, was a reader who gave me a copy of her favourite novel (other than mine, she was quick to say). It was personal without being creepy and it was a pretty good book to boot!

You’ve commented on your blog that you’ve been surprised by the way readers have bonded with some of your characters. If you could have real-life relationships with some of your characters, who would you be most likely to:

  • be best friends with? James from Ballad
  • get romantically involved with (in a reality where you were single and teenaged)? I don’t date characters. Strict policy.
  • Have heated arguments with? Isabel from Linger

You’ve done a lot of travelling in the last few years promoting your books. How has exploring new places inspired or informed your writing?

Oh, definitely. Life in general informs my writing and so travelling invariably works its way in. There are references to my journeys that I’m sure a very intent reader would see. My latest book (coming out 2012) bears a Ned Kelly reference from my time here in Australia.

What drives your storytelling: a recurring image, a particular character, a theme, a message you want to put out into the universe, or all/none of the above?

Usually the reason why a book cries out for me to write it is because of a central mood or feeling; then plot and characters and theme wander in, generally in that order. Really, it’s like when you go to a movie theatre: you don’t say, ‘I feel like watching a movie with a man embodying his personal demons in order to overcome them as he fights crime in the form of a bat.’ You just say ‘I feel like watching some character-driven action movie!’ That’s how it feels for me. I know what SORT of book I want to write, but not always what it’s about at first.

There are so many reasons why authors say they write. But what is it that really compels you to write, and in the genre that you do?

It’s subconscious, whatever it is. I have to tell stories. When I don’t write them out, I dream them. It’s just who I am. And as for the magic? It’s what I love to read, so it’s what I love to write.

This one’s for avid aspiring writers everywhere: if you could give one piece of writerly advice, what would it be?

Write the book you wish you could find on the shelf, but can’t.

Writers often say that their characters like to take on minds of their own and act as they see fit, with or without the writer’s permission. Have you found any particular characters challenging to work with in this regard? Or have they all been well behaved?

I’m a firm believer that writers should be in control of their own novels. I don’t like to get sentimental about writing or imagine there is a muse exerting influence outside of me. I will say, however, that when I’ve done my job well and I’ve brainstormed and immersed myself in the world of my novel, that I can sort of step outside my body and let my subconscious push the characters forward. I suppose it could feel like the characters are driving the action, but really, it’s the mental groundwork I’ve already done sweeping the novel to its logical conclusion. It’s dreaming the story, but while you’re awake. And that, to me, is pretty magical.

The Scorpio RacesStiefvater is appearing at the Brisbane Writers Festival and touring throughout Australia. I’ve read her first book in the Wolves of Mercy Falls series, Shiver, and am heading home from China soon to read the next two, Linger and Forever.

Her next book, The Scorpio Races, will be released in October, so I should just about be up to date with the other books. Huge thanks to Kate Armstrong for helping out (read: coming up with) the questions. I’m looking forward to writing about her just-published book and book tour on here one day.

We Have A Winner!

I have to say that I’m a little surprised and chuffed at the number of entries we received for the voucher competition about how far you’d go for books—I tend to think that the only person who reads my blog is my mum.

The number and quality of the submitted entries also made choosing a winner incredibly difficult (no, really!).

I’m aware that you’re probably thinking ‘get on with it’ right now, but I’ve never announced a winner before and I find myself understanding why others employ the everyone’s-a-winner preamble I’m now repeating.

I’ve included below the winner but also some entries worth a special mention. Thanks again to everyone for their entries (and thanks for reading). Happy book burgling.

The winner, Chloe, went around the world with and for her books:

I backpacked around Europe with my five favourite books because I couldn’t stand to part with them for the 18 months I’d be away. Not the lightest addition to my already heavy backpack, but I’m still glad they accompanied me on my journey. Not only did I re-read my much-loved books, I discovered new meanings in both the novels and myself and got to share these stories with other booklovers I met on my trip. After having this experience, I know I would go to amazing lengths to track down my favourite reads and keep them in my life—books are invaluable and the journey to find the right one is worth every step.

Chanelle A:

I take my book to the laundry. My family dare not come in for fear that they will have to fold washing. I get at least half a day’s reading done in there.

Julie S:

I would give up my husband’s golf clubs.

Linda C:

In a moment of madness I once promised to clean my mum’s oven—all so I could get my hands on her copy of The Da Vinci Code. I can honestly say it was worth it.

Alisa G:

I live in a small country town Far North Queensland. We have had two major cyclones there in the past five years and it is known as the wettest place in Australia. So, loving to read is a big advantage as long as we have our generator fired up so we can see if the power goes out—suffice to say, I have driven through some pretty big rain squalls to get into town to get some more books to read! Passes the time well and takes me to other world where the sun shines more often!

Helen S:

I would spend a weekend with my mother-in-law if I thought I could encourage her to finish reading so I could ‘borrow’ her copy!

Kristy S:

I had just had a hip operation when I hobbled out of the car into a wheelchair to get my hands on the latest book. I simply had to do it and I pushed through the pain to get my hands on the precious novel…

Lucie C:

I would sneak into my local library and hide until past closing time over a long weekend for some quality reading time 🙂 [I totally get this one—and have thought about doing it many a time myself.]

Kristina S:

Far enough that I could read it all on my way back.

Special mention also goes to those of you who said you’d travel as far as your computer to purchase books from Boomerang Books and then to your letterbox to collect the books when they arrive—I hadn’t thought of that 🙂

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SPOTLIGHT ON RILEY

Today, Riley, the star of Tania McCartney’s beautiful new book, Riley and the Grumpy Wombat is visiting Kids’ Book Capers to talk about his latest adventure. He’s touring with Tania to celebrate the release of his latest adventure and you can find out more about where he’s going if you click here.

Riley has discovered a wombat in his nanny’s garden. But why is this furry creature so grumpy?

Welcome to Kids’ Book Capers, Riley. It’s lovely to meet you and thanks for answering questions about your new book.

Can you tell us about your nanny’s garden? what does it look like? Is it a fun place to hang out?

Nanny’s garden is like heaven. I love it best because it has the coolest mud patch down the far right hand corner, tucked right into the fence. Right near it is a fish pond with those super bright coloured fish, and I’ve seen lots of frogs there, too. There are lots of trees and bushes in Nanny’s garden. Most of them are natives – there are banksia and wattle and some eucalypts, too. Koala likes hanging out there because of the gum trees. The only problem is, when he nibbles on the leaves, he drifts off to sleep. Dragon also likes to sleep, so they curl up together. Panda and Lion love the mud – they dance and play in it – in fact, Lion never stops dancing. Have you ever seen a lion tap dancing in the mud? It gets very messy.

Have you ever been to Melbourne before?

Yes, I’ve been heaps. My Nanny lives there and my Granny and Granda, too. I also have cousins there but they’re all girls, every single one of them. Groan. My sister is a girl, too. So is Wombat, actually. But she’s cool.

What was the thing you liked most about Melbourne?

I like Melbourne because it has all these really amazing things to see and do. There were so many extra places I wanted to see during our hunt for Wombat, but you know – I have to get back to school so can’t stay anywhere too long. Mum gets the irrits, otherwise (and I must admit, I do like school). The thing I liked the best of all about Melbourne… well, there are three things. First – the goodies at the cafes on Lygon Street – oh man, they are delicious. I love the Italian pastries and Mum and Dad go bananas over the coffee (as usual). The other thing I like is the Great Ocean Road just south-west of Melbourne – it’s awesome and it was so cool to fly my plane over the Twelve Apostles. Have you seen these? They are AWESOME! The last thing I loved was digging all over St Kilda beach with my low-frequency robotic burrowing machine. It was the first time I’d tested him out and he did a great job, although I couldn’t get Dragon out of the holes for ages. It was funny, though. We laughed a lot.

What’s it like having books written about you?

It’s fun. I don’t know if you know, but my mum actually writes the books. My sister isn’t happy. Well, she’s ok about it. She’s really patient, as Mum says all the time. Ella wants a book about her and horses but Mum is allergic to horses, so it may not happen. Anyway, back to me – yeah, having a book series written about you is pretty cool. At first, when I was really little, it was kind of embarrassing because everyone would look at me at book launches. We were living in China and people would want to pat me on the head. That was kind of annoying. But since coming home to Australia, it’s ok now – and I’m used to all the attention. I really like having an excuse to visit other countries and other cities and places, too. We’ve always travelled with Mum and Dad – they love to travel and I really like it now. At first it was annoying but now I love it. I really want to set the next book in America because I want to play NFL, but Mum says we need to do more Australian places first. I kind of agree – in a way – because Australia is pretty amazing.

Do your friends like being in books too?

They love it! They think they are superstars! Lion particularly loves it because he’s an extrovert and loves to perform. Dragon spends a lot of time sleeping and Koala acts kind of strange sometimes (it’s all that eucalyptus oil) but they really enjoy it. The one who loves it best of all would have to be Panda, though. He’s been with me from the beginning and he’s a seasoned traveller. He’s my co-pilot, really – and he was really – what do you call it… ‘instrumental’ in helping me create my series of wombat-seeking contraptions for the Melbourne book. He may be small and fluffy and he may eat far too many jam sandwiches, but he’s very clever.

What does a wombat look like close up?

She’s seriously fuzzy. And did you know wombats are super strong? She’s, like, really strong. She could crush me if she wanted to, but she won’t because she’s a cool wombat. You should see what she makes at the end of the Riley and the Grumpy Wombat – I mean – it’s really mind-blowing. Hardly any animal could do that, but Wombat did it. She’s a bit gobsmacking.

Are all wombats grumpy or was this one just having a bad hair day?

I think most wombats are pretty grumpy. I haven’t met many happy-go-lucky wombats. They like to put their head down/backside up and get on with things. They’re not very airy-fairy – they’re practical, strong, no-nonsense animals and spend most of their time alone, digging burrows, living in the dark. Come to think of it, no wonder they’re grumpy. But the best thing about wombats is this… they may take a long time to accept you as a friend, but once you’re in their heart – they’re not letting you go in a hurry. They would do anything for you.

How did you get around Melbourne?

I have this really amazing red tine plane. Mum found it in an antiques market in Beijing. It’s a pretty magical plane. China is a magical place, and some of it rubbed off on that plane. I’ve spent a lot of time adapting the plane – and my greatest achievement has been the contraptions we built into it (with the help of supersonic illustrator Kieron Pratt) for Grumpy Wombat. As each new journey unfolds, another animal joins me for the next book in the series, so pretty soon we’re going to need to swap the plane for a double decker bus or something. Or a jumbo jet. Kieron is working busily on how we can accommodate all these extra critters… we were just talking about it yesterday, and we were thinking of attaching a hot air balloon to the back of the plane and pulling it along. We’ll see…

Where are you off to next?

Canberra! I can’t wait! It’s a great place and I don’t think many kids know how fantastic it really is. The city is going to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2013 – so the book will be released just in time for that. And I’m going to be tracking down a very common animal to the Canberra scene – it’s found frequently on suburban streets, hopping around. My friend even saw one at the end of his driveway the other day. A big one! This particular animal is going to be another girl – and she has a little surprise, too. It’s going to be really great.

Thanks for having me, Dee! I think Kids’ Book Capers is cool, and you’re cool, too. You’re not even grumpy, either.

Thanks for visiting us Riley and good luck with your tour for Riley and the Grumpy Wombat.

Later on today, at 2.00 pm, we’ll be reviewing  Riley’s latest adventure, Riley and the Grumpy Wombat.


 

RILEY AND THE GRUMPY WOMBAT REVIEWED

Riley has discovered a wombat in his nanny’s garden. But why is this furry creature so grumpy? Riley sets off to investigate why the wombat is so unhappy.

Riley and the Grumpy Wombat is the fourth book in the popular Riley series written by Tania McCartney and illustrated by Kieron Pratt.

Riley’s latest adventure takes readers on a tour through some of Melbourne and Victoria’s best-loved places – and some of mine, too.

Riley and his friends visit Lygon Street, Bourke Street, Flinders Street Station, Sovereign Hill and many other iconic sights in search of the Grumpy Wombat which seems to need their help.

Although they are full of wonderful black and white photos and vibrant illustrations, the Riley books are not your standard picture books.

Riley and the Grumpy Wombat is a travelogue with clear educational benefits, but it also features endearing characters and an engaging story line. I really enjoyed the language in this book and the way the author imparts knowledge, but doesn’t talk down to readers.

Riley’s amazing array of gadgets will appeal to young readers. Some of his equipment includes exceptional wombat seeking telescopes, a grumpy wombat search net and automated whiz-bang ground hugging projectiles – and that’s not to mention his cute red plane.

The illustrations by illustrator and cartoonist, Kieron Pratt are humorous and vibrant and will also help engage young readers. I found the smiling wombats skiing on Mount Hotham irresistible.

Riley and the Grumpy Wombat is published by Ford Street Publishing. Other books in the Riley series include Riley and the Sleeping Dragon, Riley and the Dancing Lion and Riley and the Curious Koala.

Riley has toured around Beijing, Hong Kong, Sydney and now Melbourne – next stop, Canberra. I can see Riley and his friends injecting life into a geography lesson.

The Riley books are written for readers aged 6 to 10 years.