Wording Up

Word UpAs a Gen Y myself, I never quite understood adults’ alternating bemusement and frustration at our constantly evolving language use. I may have even rolled my eyes once or twice during my awkward teenage years when, in an attempt to show they were down with the lingo and could totally relate to me on my terms, my parents threw the term ‘dude’ into a sentence when ‘dude’ was, like, so passé.

But I’m fast entering my parents’ world of combined and constant bemusement and puzzlement as I ‘grow up’. The generations behind me are now bandying around terms in contexts that I truly don’t understand. That’s even occurring within my own generation, with a friend and fellow Gen Y recently dating another Gen Y who was about four years younger.

That’s not an entirely giant age difference, you wouldn’t think. But clearly something’s happened to language and language use in those four years with my worldly, witty friend completely unable to decipher his younger girlfriend’s text messages.

He handed the phone over to me in exasperation one night and asked me if I could make out what she was trying to tell him. I knew it was English, but it was—without exaggeration—utterly foreign and utterly unintelligible.

I think he ended up calling her—something our parents used to do to us and that we used to be annoyed by, thinking ‘I already told you this in the text message’. Meanwhile I debated internally whether I was getting old or whether technology and language were evolving so fast that even a year or four’s birth difference could result in writing and speaking so completely differently.

The Power of GoodUnsurprisingly, and without borrowing clichés about communication breakdown, my friend’s relationship didn’t work out. But what’s remained with me has been an ongoing fascination with language origins and evolution.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle and his co-writer Emily Wolfinger have tackled just this in their latest book, Word Up. The book’s an updated and expanded version of a guide McCrindle wrote a few years back on how to communicate with Gen Ys—something that proved popular and well-thumbed and regularly requested.

I’m impressed by the book, both as a writer and as a Gen Y. It’s not flashy in terms of expensive, glossy, colour images, but it’s aesthetically pleasing, well laid out, and strong on communication design. Themes and chapters are organised logically, and tables are used to good effect to break down, group, compare, and communicate key concepts.

For example, two of the first tables we encounter outline each generation’s key information and influences, which include the prime ministers, celebrities, historical figures, and scientific breakthroughs to which they’d have been exposed.

Another table outlines newly formed words based on celebrity couplings, such as ‘Brangelina’, ‘TomKat’, or ‘Bennifer’, while yet another provides explanations of text- or chat-room acronyms/initialisms.

Thankfully, though, this book examines different generations’ lingo without making it seem twee and, well, a bit kids-these-days patronising. Instead it meshes quantitative and qualitative research with concise, accessible language, and a sense of humour. It also shows that, far from being parrots of Americanisms, we Australians pick and choose the terms we wish to adopt.

There are sections that include the most memorable jingles (think ‘Happy Little Vegemite’, ‘Louie the Fly’, and ‘My Dad Picks the Fruit’) and one-liners (think ‘Tell him he’s dreamin’’ and ‘That’s not a knife, this is a knife’), which are fantastic memory-triggering trivia and that I bet, having just been reminded of them, are still playing out in your head.

The sections that will perhaps prove most useful, though, will be the Glossary and Youth Language Lexicon at the back, which include such terms as:

  • ‘book’—one of the first mobile phone autocorrect amusements and mishaps
  • ‘chillax’—a term that grates me no end and clearly grates others as it hasn’t 100% taken off
  • ‘Harvey Norman’ and ‘whitebread’—both of which are reportedly mainstream and bland
  • ‘totes’—totally (and yes, I totes used this one regularly myself)
  • ‘taxed’ and ‘ninja’d’—both AKA to steal.

I don’t get ‘swag’, something that I’ve encountered in recent times. I don’t think I ever will. But I do get that language is rapidly changing and that there are some fascinating terms out there (like ‘fruit ninja’ and ‘hulked out’, which I heard in common usage just today), some of which I am determined to adopt. Word Up is available now.

Tempus fugit

You know what I like about books? They don’t keep reminding you how old you are.

Lately it seems that every second article I read is about the anniversary of something that I could swear only happened last week. Empire Magazine online, for example, was kind enough to inform me that it has been ten years since Peter Jackson’s take on Lord of the Rings sent the tricksey hobbitses off trekking through dangerous elf-infested lands and made all my mates debate endless on Aragorn/Legolas or Arwen/Éowyn (or, in some cases, both).

The correct answer is, of course, Aragorn. Totally Aragorn. Elves may look pretty, but you’ll never get your hair-straighteners back off them and the fights for the bathroom in the morning will be murder. And both Arwen and Éowyn seem like a good bet for a night out, provided no one surprises them while they are holding cutlery.

And if that didn’t make me feel old enough, Entertainment Weekly was all over ever feed I read as they had put together a (utterly lovely) reunion photo-shoot of the Princess Bride cast to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of year when we all went, “Mmm. As you wish.”

Twenty five years? Inconceivable. It seems like – well, not yesterday, that would be silly – maybe 15 years since it came out? 18 at a push. Has it really been that long? Robin Wright’s luminous portrait photo says no but Cary Elwes’, sadly, says yes indeed it has. Time flies or, more accurately, flees.

I tried to cheer myself up by listening to the radio, only to be reminded that it was 20 years since Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and grunge crashed its way onto my walkman and that both my teen spirit and my walkman are long in the past.

Books are that bit kinder about letting the years slide by. The Princess Bride was released in 1973 but it’s easy enough to pick up the book and forget that it’s heading for forty years of age. You can read and re-read and not be reminded that when first you read it you had braces on your teeth and now you have a brace on your back.

Lord of the Rings is positively spritely about the fact that it is heading for sixty while still topping the best-seller and best-loved lists and wearing the weight of being definitive while still being widely enjoyed. Harry Potter did grow up a bit but doesn’t keep reminding you that he’s gotten fifteen years older, unlike Daniel Radcliffe who grew up extremely quickly and confrontingly. (Equus, anyone?)

Books are kind when they wrap you in memories. While movies feel dated, and music often reminds you of who you were dating (and what were you thinking?), much-loved books are like a re-union with a friend. Full of happy memories made fresh again and not rubbing in the years that have past because, like you, while their pages have been turned a bit and the cover has been bashed a little, they’re still the same thing you always loved on the inside.

And now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to catch up with some old friends on my bookcase.

Review – Sounds Spooky

What’s that noise in the deep dark night? Something spooky? That’s for sure. Creaking, whispering, something dropping. Could there be a stranger creeping through the house?

When three little kids explore a creepy old mansion with torchlight and eyeballs wide with fright, they can never imagine their tentative meanderings may just be as scary – if not more so – for a resident ghost, happily minding her own business with her pet be-tentacled creature that lives under the bed.

Who could possibly be more afraid? The invading children? The ethereal little girl? Or the reader?

Using suspense-driven repetition, peppered with palpitating onomatopoeia, author Chris Cheng has penned a spooky tale that will delight children. A charming twist on typical ‘bump in the night’ fear lends whimsy and unexpected emotion to Sounds Spooky – especially when we learn about the death of our little ghost girl via newspaper clippings found in the house, and we can’t help but wonder where her parents are – and why she is all so sadly alone.

But not for long.

The illustrations in this extraordinary book are a feat in construction. Sarah Davis has created a palette that defies and tricks the eye. Has she used oil paint? Clay? Computer-generated art? Photography?

After spending considerable time examining the images in wonder, I raced to the back of the book, hoping for more information – and there it was … Davis has not only created models of each of the book’s characters, she even created an entire haunted house from cardboard and plaster! Combining photography, illustration and computer whizzbangery, the end result is an eye-fest that will entrance all ages. The fine detail is also extraordinary – from the detailed tiles in the kitchen to the gossamer ghost of a girl – this is beautifully-crafted work.

Although Sounds Spooky is an all-round delight, I must admit, the highlight of the book for me was the faces on the children (and the ghost) when they finally meet. Sarah Davis has admitted this is also her favourite page – and it’s no wonder. I doubt the face of a real child could capture more priceless emotion.

A breathtakingly book that’s at once laugh-out loud funny … and frightfully good fun.

Sounds Spooky is published by Random House. Be sure to check out www.sounds-spooky.com!


Whilst reading through this extraordinary new book, I found myself asking lots of questions (of no one in particular):


Paintings? Computer-generated art? Models? A blend? What the?


Already completely enamoured with the superlative talents of multi-tasking artist Sarah Davis, I was simply quite boggled as to how this picture book was put together.


It wasn’t until the end of the book that all was revealed (I love it when books reveal the artist’s medium!) 0 and quite astonishingly, Davis has not only created models of each of the book’s characters, she even created an entire haunted house from cardboard and plaster.


You will be boggled by the astonishing detail, from tiles on the floor to dishes and torchlight and the most incredible gossamer ghost of a girl, who floats through the rooms of the house, trying to not ‘be scared’ by the strange noises in the dark… noises created by three cute and very brave little ‘invaders’ keen to explore a local haunted house.


Yes, it seems Sarah Davis has scored the motherlode of artistic talent. Her sculptures in Sounds Spooky are extraordinary alright, but the highlight is the children’s faces, especially at the climax of the book – the emotion is breathtakingly good and laugh-out loud funny.


Chris Cheng has penned a suspense-driven tale that will delight children, using a clutch of divine and inspirational onomatopoeia that really sets the spooky mood as our dear little ghost girls navigates her fears and those bumps in the night. Repetitive story elements will keep kids guessing, and really effectively build the drama.


Spooky, charming and frightfully good fun.


Check out www.sounds-spooky.com!

Michael’s Blaze of Glory

In my last post I told you about my worries in reviewing Michael Pryor’s Blaze of Glory (see “Aubrey Fitzwilliam and the reviewing dilemma”). And now here I am, throwing caution to the wind, putting pen to paper (or, more accurately, finger to keyboard) and reviewing this book. Here goes…

Blaze of Glory is the first volume of The Laws of Magic. It had me right from the opening…

“Aubrey Fitzwilliam hated being dead. It made things much harder than they needed to be.”

Aside from the opening and the exciting plot, there are three things, in my mind, that make this book exceptional.

One: The setting.

It’s alternative history, set in an Edwardian-esque time that never was. It’s a timeline where magic has developed alongside science. In fact, magic is approached in a scientific way, with laws governing its application in the same way as other rational laws, such as the law of gravity. It is codified and experimented with, just like any other scientific discovery.

As the world teeters on the brink of war, political machinations and personal bids for power form the backdrop for this novel.

It’s an intriguing world that Pryor has created. Full of wonderful detail and originality, it is quite unlike any other setting I’ve come across in a fantasy novel. The setup of “the laws of magic” is fascinating, and its great the way they are revealed within the context of the story rather than just being stated right at the beginning.

Two: The language.

I love the language Pryor has used. It’s old-fashioned yet accessible, often slightly tongue-in-cheek, and wonderfully appropriate for the historical setting.

“The entrance to the Fitzwilliam residence was grand. A sandstone portico that would have done justice to a minor pagan god sheltered the door from the elements. The door itself was painted a glossy, dark blue. A bell pull on the wall didn’t draw attention to itself, but was there for those who were brought up well enough to know what to look for.”

Three: The characters.

Aubrey Fitzwilliam is a seventeen years old schoolboy, gifted magician and son of former Prime Minister, Sir Darius. He also happens to be sort-of (but not quite) dead. He is ably assisted by his best friend — fellow schoolboy George Doyle. Their friendship has the ring of truth about it, and often comes across as rather ‘Holmes-and-Watson’. These two are the perfect heroes — loyal, likable, but flawed. It is very easy to let them carry you away on their adventure.

There are a host of other wonderful characters, from Aubrey’s family to his rivals at school, from his father’s political allies to the royal family of Albion, from the likeable to the villainous. Caroline Hepworth is particularly interesting — a suffragette, a pilot and an expert at hand-to-hand combat, she is the girl that Aubrey has eyes for.

Blaze of Glory has quite an epic feel to it. It sets up much that will, no doubt, be dealt with in the remaining five instalments. I can’t wait.

Catch ya later,  George

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Seeing as it’s bunny week at Kids’ Book Capers, Tania and I have invited some special guests to hop over and talk about their favourite books. Yesterday the white bunnies talked about their favourites, today it’s the  brown bunnies’ turn.

So please put your paws together today to welcome Max McCartney and Cosi White.


Knuffle Bunny – written and illustrated by Mo Willems.

Hello. I’m a very fluffy, brown lop-eared rabbit. After a rather confronting run in with ‘the snip’, I must admit I’m not the powerhouse I used to be. Although I may not be ‘all there’ – and now prefer reading a good book to gadding about – I can still pack a punch when need be.

Another thing that packs a punch with me is Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny series. I laughed so hard when I read book one – A Cautionary Tale – I blew a grass seed out my nose. True story.

Knuffle Bunny belongs to Trixie. He’s a soft, floppy rabbit who suffers the indignity of being left in the wash cycle at the local laundromat. Horrified to learn Knuffle Bunny is missing, Trixie goes into meltdown until her bunny can be found.

This book is hugely indicative of the love little kids feel for rabbits. Doesn’t matter that they’re real or a little unreal – there’s just something about a bunny that pulls the heartstrings. I know I can sit in front of a mirror for hours, admiring my own fluffball of cute.

Mo has since written more books in the series – book two A Case of Mistaken Identity and book three – An Unexpected Diversion. Bring on book four.

Rabbit’s Year – written by Melissa Keil, illustrated by Jedda Robaard.

My owners, Ella and Riley, spent four years of their childhood in China, and although I’ve never been there, I really love this book about a really cool Chinese bunny who makes for an excellent friend. It’s especially poignant during this Year of the Rabbit.

I know I already have a very close friend in Mango (sometimes too close), but I must say I would like to make a friend of Rabbit. He’s a shy bunny – a bit like me, especially since ‘the snip’ – but he’s also a courageous soul.

Rabbit likes to play music but is too shy to join the other animals of the Chinese Zodiac – until one day, he begins playing his music louder and louder and louder, until the other animals can’t help but acknowledge him.

This book is not only really amazing to look at, I just love how it goes on to explain the varying personality traits of all the other Zodiac animals… and the best thing of all is that rabbits, as always, come out best.

Favouritism? Me???

Cosi Rabbit


The House of 12 Bunnies – written by Caroline Stills and Sarcia Stills-Blott.

My favourite book is The House of 12 Bunnies. It’s written by Caroline Stills & Sarcia Stills-Blott and I love the pictures drawn by Judith Rossell.

I love living with Pickachew Rabbit in our burrow, but I sometimes think I’d like to live in The House of 12 Bunnies because it looks like so much fun. There are bunnies in the bath, at the piano, sitting in chairs and doing all kinds of fun bunny things while they are looking for something they have lost.

That happens to me sometimes, the juiciest carrot goes missing…then I see it in my friend, Pickachew’s mouth.

My favourite part is at the end when the 12 snuggly bunnies are warm and cozy in bed together.

Princess and Fairy by Anna Pignatoro

I also really like the Princess and Fairy books because they are so full of pretty things and they are Look and Find books so it’s lots of fun to turn the pages and ‘pawse’ to look at the great pictures.

Princess and Fairy are two rabbits who always look pretty and do fun things like play dressups and imagine stories and read them ‘under the fair starlight.’

After I’ve had my bunny nap I like to open the pages and look for all the small things in the pictures. I’m very good at spotting them.

I like the way Princess and Fairy dress up in costumes, have fun with the friends and do all sorts of things that small rabbits like to do.

Tania and I have had such fun having Pickachew, Mango, Max and Cosi to visit. We hope you’ve enjoyed it too.


Win a Jessica Rudd book-pack

Jessica Rudd is hilarious. I’ve just finished giggling my way through her very clever second novel, Ruby Blues (due out Monday through Text Publishing at $29.95), and have a copy of it, and its predecessor, Campaign Ruby (see review below, $18.14 through Booku.com here), to give away to one of you.

I’ll be posting a Q&A with the 27-year-old author on Monday (check back to find out whether Jess has her eye on a political career and more).

Jessica will be touring the country to promote the new book, starting with this event at the National Library in Canberra on November 1.

To be in the running for the two-book prize (printed not ebook – though I read a PDF review copy of Ruby II and recommend reading both that way – they’re the sort of page turner that is perfectly suited to ereading), you’ll need to take to Twitter or Facebook. This is apt, because both platforms make highly amusing appearances in Jessica’s new book.

Visit facebook.com/ebookish, “like” it (it’s a great way to receive updates on blog posts here at Booku.com), and answer the question below in a post there.
Or follow @ebookish on Twitter, and address your tweet entry to @ebookish.

Just tell me which of the following hashtags you’d be more likely to use and why: #bringbackkev #getrealjulia or #jessruddforpm

You can enter as many times as you like between now and 3.30pm Monday (when I’ll be choosing a winner then heading to the post office with the prize), but the answer the judge (ie me) deems the wittiest, funniest or most surprising will win.

Last August, I reviewed Rudd’s debut novel, Campaign Ruby, for The Canberra Times. Here’s that text (add 14 months to the time references).

Poor Jessica Rudd.

A former lawyer and public relations consultant now living in China, the 26-year-old daughter of Kevin decided more than a year ago to write a novel. It would feature a young English woman who accidentally lands herself in the middle of an Australian election campaign – a campaign sparked by the ”swift and seamless” ousting of the fictional prime minister by his treasurer, Gabrielle Brennan. Ms Brennan is not a red-head, but she does quickly visit the Governor-General to ask for an early election. Her ex-boss, Hugh Patton, meanwhile, is deemed ”unlikely to serve under his challenger and successor”.

Canberra-born Rudd, who wrote the book 14 months ago, must’ve been mortified when Julia Gillard replaced her father as PM on June 24, only days before the inadvertently prophetic Campaign Ruby went to print and well after her deadline for making changes to the text.

Still, there can be no doubt the art-meets-life element of it all will help boost sales of this entertaining debut novel. Not that it needs any help. Rudd is a natural writer who has written a page-turning book that injects lots of fun and froth into the corridors of power.

”Imagine Bridget Jones on the campaign trail”, the publisher spruiks, and for once the comparison is apt. Accidental political adviser Ruby Stanhope is terribly Bridget. A Brit, she’s unlucky in love, lives alone in a Notting Hill apartment, drinks too much pinot noir, writes lists at every opportunity, and has a knack for landing herself in sticky situations (think flushing her boss’s voice recorder down the loo, locking herself out of her hotel room in a T-shirt and knickers, appearing in metropolitan dailies wearing only thongs and a belted beer singlet at a press conference, and attempting to vote in the election despite her lack of any Aussie credentials).

We meet investment banker Ruby in London as she’s opening an email the HR department has sent to sack her. One drunken night and an impulsive Qantas booking later, she’s on her way to Melbourne. Planning to drink more wine and visit family while holidaying, Ruby instead finds herself joining the campaign team of the Leader of the Opposition after a chance meeting with his badly dressed and over-worked chief of staff, Luke Harley.

What follows is a vivid (and, true-to-life, utterly exhausting) account of Ruby’s time on the campaign trail, written as only an insider could. There are 4am starts, outfit changes in taxis, flirtations with hot (but off-limits) television journalist Oscar Franklin, a debate, campaign launches, endless flights to catch, and, in Ruby’s case, an uncanny ability to make snap decisions on everything from policy to fashion that help her boss, and his party’s candidates in marginal seats, win voters’ hearts.

It’s tempting to look for traits of Rudd’s parents in her Leader of the Opposition, Max Masters, and his smart, supportive wife, Shelly. Surely there is an element of Jessica or her brothers in her depiction of their children (and their treatment by the media), too.

Speaking of which, Rudd does wrap a couple of serious messages into the essentially fluffy plot: on the importance of family; and on retaining integrity in the face of political pressures to do otherwise.

Meanwhile, the ambitious ”pretty boy” Oscar is as beguiling to the reader as he is to Ruby. He may or may not remind some Canberra readers of a journo or political staffer they’ve seen holding up the bar at the Kennedy Room or Holy Grail in Kingston on a Wednesday night. Will Ruby be able to resist his charms? Could she be the one to change his bad boy ways? Let’s just say that the romantic subplot to this novel is everything you’d expect from a pink paperback with a handbag, mobile phone and high heel on the cover.

Jessica Rudd has said she hopes this novel won’t be her last. It seems, then, that she is set to join the likes of Maggie Alderson, Anita Heiss and Melanie La’Brooy as a regular contributor to Australia’s contemporary commercial women’s fiction scene.
Here’s hoping.

Remember to check back on Monday to read uBookish’s Q&A with Jessica (you might also like to follow @jessrudd on Twitter).


It’s the Year of the Rabbit so Tania and I thought we’d let the rabbits have their say this week on Kids’ Book Capers.

We’ve brought our bunnies, Cosi and Pickachew (who live at the White household) and Mango and Max (who are fluffy McCartneys) along this week to talk about their favourite books.

Not surprisingly, every book they chose features a rabbit or close relative.

So please put your paws together today to welcome Pickachew and Mango rabbit talking about what they love to read. Today it’s the White Bunnies turn and tomorrow the Brown Bunnies will be here to talk about their favourites.

Pickachew Bunny


Squish Rabbit – written and illustrated by Katherine Battersby.

Pickachew is a white rabbit just like Squish in Katherine Battersby’s new book, Squish Rabbit.  This could explain why he likes Squish so much, but Pickachew says he has other reasons.

Squish is just like me. I was a lonely rabbit with no friends until Cosi rabbit hopped into my house. Every rabbit needs a friend.

My friend, Cosi is like Squish’s friend, Squirrel; cute, kind and loves to play. Squish Rabbit is one of my favourite books because I know what it’s like to be a little white rabbit in a big world.”

The Fidgety Itch – written by Lucy Davey and illustrated by Katz Crowley.

“Twas only a niggle…

the teensiest titch

but that fidgety feeling grew to an ITCH.”

I love this book, not just because it features my cousin, Fuzzy Hare, but because I can so relate to that feeling of having an itch that just won’t go away, that really needs to be scratched.

I’m lucky I have my friend Cosi Rabbit to do it for me.

I really like all the friends Fuzzy O’ Hare has in this book too. Like Timpkin the mouse, “gleefully gobbling his cheese beneath the fru-fru trees”. And Possum Pie and Feather McDoo.

The pictures are great and I like the way everyone helps each other in this book.


The Rabbit Problem – written and illustrated by Emily Gravett.

I’m a soft, white Netherland dwarf – but don’t let that fool you – I’m also a feisty bunny with big ideas …. just like Emily Gravett, who is one of my fave authors because she really knows her bunnies.

In The Rabbit Problem, we meet a pair of rabbits who come together to… er… multiply. It’s not done in an obvious way or anything, so it’s totally suitable for kids.

When, seemingly overnight, the multiplication gets kind of out of hand, the pair realise overpopulation is not their only problem. There’s also teeming rain, a carrot shortage, a plague of crows, a too-hot summer and carotene-fuelled weight issues.

Like any intelligent species, however, they soon work out just what to do. Complete with chew holes and pop-ups, this book makes me feel like ‘home’.

Wolves – written and illustrated by Emily Gravett.

I know, I know – it’s another Gravett book, but I already told you I was a serious fan.

Now, many would say this book is anti-rabbit … but I disagree. It’s important that young rabbits are made aware of the dangers out there in this big bad world, and Wolves certainly tells it like it is – no carrots barred.

The star of the book – a RABBIT – goes to the library to burrow [sic] a book on wolves. As he reads through it, he becomes more and more wide-eyed and nervous – clearly, too much information may not be a good thing … especially when the rabbit discovers what wolves like to serve up for dinner.

I know for a fact that no rabbits were harmed in the making of Wolves – and I do feel that although this book is somewhat confronting, there’s nothing wrong with injecting a little fear into the current crop of young upstart rabbits who think they’re utterly invincible.

Wolves are everywhere. This is an important book.

Pickachew and Mango had so much fun playing together today and talking about their favourite books. Tomorrow, Cosi will meet Max rabbit and they’ll be talking about the Brown Bunnies’ Best Books. Hop on over and meet them.





Aubrey Fitzwilliam and the reviewing dilemma

I’ve just read a book that I absolutely adored and I really want to tell you about it. But I know the author. In fact, he launched my latest book just last month. So what do I do? This is a dilemma that I often face because I am both an author and a reviewer of books.

Many reviewers have a policy of not reviewing books by authors who they know personally. Fair enough! It allows them to maintain an image of impartiality.

But, being an author myself, I happen to know (or at least have met) many other Australian authors. I write for kids and teens — and the children’s writing scene in this country is reasonably small, and most people seem to know each other to some extent. So, if I were to exclude books by authors I know, a good half or more of my reading list would be un-reviewable. So I can’t do that.

I know other reviewers in a similar circumstance to myself. And I know that some choose not to review books by authors they know, unless they are able to give them an honestly favourable review. If I were to lay my cards on the table, I would have to admit to occasionally doing this. Sometimes, when I know that my opinion on a certain book may cause grief and difficult times, I will choose not to review it. But that doesn’t happen too often. Mostly, I will just review honestly, whether I know the person or not.

Not that I would ever completely trash a book. I know how much work goes into writing, and there is no way that I would completely negate the work of any author. And most books, even if I don’t particular like them, will contain within their pages something worth praising. But, I will also point out anything that I didn’t like, and why.

I often find myself worrying that readers may think that I’m saying nice things about a book simply because I know the author.

So we come to my current dilemma — Blaze of Glory, the first book in Michael Pryor’s series, The Laws of Magic, which follows the adventures of Aubrey Fitzwilliam. I can’t write about this book without being gushingly complementary. It’s that good! But I know Michael. Okay, so we’re not, like, best buddies. I don’t hang out at his place every weekend. But we are pleasant acquaintances. We chat when we meet at bookish events and I happen to think he’s a nice guy. The problem is that he launched Gamers’ Challenge for me last month, and he said lots of really nice things about it (you can watch the vid here, if you’re curious).

So… when people read my review of his book, will they be thinking that my review is a kind of literary payment for his launching of my book? Because it’s not! I ALWAYS review honestly!

Then again, maybe I just worry too much? Maybe no one cares? Maybe no one even noticed that I know a lot of the authors that I write about… until now that I’ve brought your attention to it, that is. Hmmmm!

Anyone have an opinion on this?

And don’t forget to tune in next time for my gushingly complementary review of Blaze of Glory. (Does that count as a spoiler?)

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.



As part of Bunny Week at Kids’ Book Capers we are thrilled to welcome Katherine Battersby, creator of Squish Rabbit, a picture book that’s bound to delight all ages.

Clearly, Squish is a character who is very close to his creator’s heart.

Squish is such a great character. He could be any young animal or even a child. Why did you decide that Squish had to be a rabbit?

Thanks Dee! I didn’t really choose his form so much as Squish demanded to be just what he is. I often find myself chasing my characters around my mind, trying to capture them on paper, as opposed to feeling like I really create them myself. Squish has taken on a few different forms over the years but he has always been a rabbit. He’s always been kind of soft looking and squishy, and always very small.

He’s like that little whimsical part of me that never really grew up and certainly never grew any taller. I always did feel kind of short as a child!

What have you loved most about creating and getting to know Squish?

Squish was the first time my illustration style really came together as my own. It was such a thrill when he appeared on the page, and I could see from people’s reactions that he was something a little bit special. Once I found it, his story and illustrations came at a rush. For me, Squish is such a joyous little guy to spend time with. He’s tiny and cautious and a little self-doubting, but he’s also clever and loyal and wonderfully quirky. He’s certainly a character I can relate to, and I think my affection for him probably comes across in his story.

How have you drawn on your own experiences to create Squish?

As a young writer I was frequently told to ‘write what you know’. I’ve learnt over time that this isn’t meant to be taken literally – it actually means ‘write to your emotional truths’. If you write about the feelings you know and have sat inside of, then your characters and stories will be that much more alive.

Looking back on my childhood, Squish Rabbit certainly captures my emotional truths. I recall vividly what it was like to feel small in a big world. I remember the first time I lost my mum in the supermarket – the panic was so big it filled up my small body, so that I honestly believed I would never see her again. I remember having important things to say in a world where big people get listened to first. I recall having thoughts and questions and ideas bubbling up inside of me, and yet having no clue how to say any of it.

This is ultimately why I started writing and drawing – to express all those things I had trouble voicing. This is also where Squish comes from. He is that small part of me that was at times unseen and unheard. I suppose he is that secret part of anyone that has ever felt small or different and alone in it all.

How long did it take for Squish to hop from an idea in your head to the bookseller’s burrow?

This can be a tricky thing to pinpoint as ideas brew and broil together in one’s mind over many years. Squish Rabbit was actually one of the very first stories I wrote (when I first began pursuing writing seriously) back in 2006, although like with most first stories … it was really bad. Luckily I kept writing and drawing, and many years later rediscovered this little character filed away in my drawer (and my mind).

My style had developed a lot over that time so when I started drawing Squish again he looked quite different. I decided his old story was well and truly deceased, and spent some time with him to figure out his true story. It emerged in early 2009, and mid-year it got the attention of my wonderful agent who sold it to Viking (Penguin US) on my September birthday that year. I developed it with my publisher over the next year, then it sold to my amazing Australian publisher, UQP, in early 2011. It’s now been in bookstores nearly 2 months, coming out over here August 29th.

Do you have any more adventures planned for Squish?

He’s so alive to me, I can’t help but daydream what other adventures Squish gets up to. I had a secret little hope I might get the chance to tell another Squishy tale, so when my publisher asked for book two I was thrilled. His second book should be in coming out August 2012…

If so, can you give us a sneak peek at what he might be up to next? Does Squirrel join him on his next adventure?

Yes, squirrel plays more of a starring role alongside Squish this time (and she even gets a name!). The story is about another problem Squish encounters due to being small – namely that there are many big things to fear. His greatest fear is the dark, which is so big it’s everywhere. He’s pretty good at hiding from his fears, until Squirrel goes missing late one afternoon … I only hope Squish can find the courage to go out into the dark and find her.

Thanks for chatting with me, Katherine. I’m so pleased to hear there will be another Squish adventure. I can’t wait to hop into it.

A ‘Squish’ Review

Squish Rabbit is a little rabbit with a BIG problem…he doesn’t have a friend.

Simply told, this book is so insightful. It delves right into the heart and mind of a small child, making up a pretend friend because he doesn’t have a real one.

Then he meets a squirrel who invites him to play, but can Squish save his new friend from danger?

Squish has a very large heart but nobody can see it, because they don’t look at him, seem to notice he’s there. As small children, how often do we feel unnoticed and afraid in the big wide world?

Although Squish is a rabbit, his feelings, emotions and fears are very genuinely those of a small child.

Squish thought no one was watching so he threw a tantrum.

This response is so childlike yet even when he is scowling and throwing himself on the ground, just like a small child, Squish manages to look cute.

The authenticity of Squish’s dilemma and the way he handles it makes the story all the more poignant.

Katherine Battersby has clearly captured her characters feelings of being alone and small in a big world. Even as adults, we still experience these feelings and this is probably one of the reasons this book will appeal to adults as well.

Katherine has an obsession with textures and she has brought this to the story, using all sorts of materials to provide the layered illustrations in the book. Her use of this method is combined with clean lines and bright colours to provide an original and striking look for Squish Rabbit.

The words and pictures work in perfect harmony in this book. So much is left unsaid in the text and told in the pictures.

The illustrations are deceptively simple, yet they convey so much. The text is sparse with not a word out of place, not a word wasted.

Squish Rabbit is beautifully produced to evoke maximum response and even has a squishy cover.

I can see this one being handed down through the generations.

Squish Rabbit is written and illustrated by Katherine Battersby and published in Australia by UQP. I look forward to Squish Rabbit’s next adventure.


One, Two, Skip A Few…

The RetributionI picked up Val McDermid’s new book by pure chance at the airport bookshop the other day, stumbling across it while I performed a community service: covering up copies of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap*.

The latter’s a book that I’ve made no secret I think it truly awful and that has, much to my chagrin, just been re-released with a new cover to coincide with the release of the TV series that it has (again, much to my chagrin) just been turned into. I figured the fewer copies on display, the less likely unsuspecting travellers might buy it and be as bitterly disappointed as I was. Truth be told, I felt pretty good about doing it too.

The unexpected benefit of that early morning Slap effort was that I realised McDermid had a new book out. Entitled The Retribution, it sees everyone’s favourite serial killer Jacko Vance escape from jail to seek revenge on everyone’s favourite profiler Tony Hill and his sidekick Carol Jordan.

If you’re anything like me, you weren’t aware Vance had actually been caught and sent to prison. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of McDermid’s books but I’ve read them in entirely random order. Seems like it’s been a case of me reading one, two, skip a few…

I almost wrote an entire blog a few weeks back about how important it is to clearly communicate the order of books in a series—I’ve completely muddled myself on Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series and have missed at least two of the similarly titled books in the process.

But then I couldn’t think of much to say except ‘it’s really important to clearly communicate the books’ order’—if not in the books themselves, which I understand gets tricky or even impossible depending on when they’re published, then at least on the authors’ or publishers’ official website. Then I realised they’re pretty self-explanatory statements.

Either way, I was hugely surprised from the foreword to learn that The Retribution was McDermid’s 25th—25th?!—book. I’ve read maybe four of them, so clearly have some oeuvre visiting to do. The Tony Hill series is, from what I can tell, her strongest work (much like the Kay Scarpetta series is Patricia Cornwell’s strongest), but I like McDermid’s stories and style well enough to warrant reading the others too.

I’m off to order them now (and probably to sort through my hate mail from Tsiolkas and his publisher). It was a community service, honest.

*Note that I’m so grumpy about the book, I refuse to link to it on this here good bookstore lest anyone accidentally buy it.


Huggable Hero – An Interview with Squish Rabbit

He’s cute. He’s fluffy. He’s small. But he has some big things to say. On friendship. On feeling lonely. On being brave.

Today we welcome the totally squishable Squish Rabbit and his gorgeous author Katherine Battersby – with this exclusive (and v. cute) interview!

Hello Squish, hello Katherine – so lovely to e-meet you!

Hi, this is Katherine, the one who observes Squish run around her writing desk (and the inside of her head), desperately trying to capture in words and pictures all he does. Squish is a rather shy little guy, and he has a very small voice, so he’s going to whisper in my ear and I’ll translate what he says. Here goes…

Oh, so cute! Tell me, has Squish always been small?

Yes, Squish was born tiny and has hardly grown since. He’s so titchy he can sit atop a flower and climb inside a child’s sock. He’s often overlooked by larger rabbits and has a hard time being heard or understood. In fact, he’s so small he’s never really made a true friend. Until now of course!

What do you think of the saying that the best things come in the smallest packages, and it’s the smallest creatures that have the biggest hearts?

So true! Squish is a great example of these delightful sayings. Even more than being small, Squish feels small, which prevents him from achieving his dreams. But when another creature is in danger, Squish conjures the courage to intervene and discovers he has big and beautiful things inside of him. I have a lot of empathy for kids trying to express themselves in a world where big people often come first – I remember feeling that way myself. I think this is why Squish’s story is so important to me (Squish just did a little twisty jump, showing agreement – I believe this rabbit move is called a ‘binky’).

Rumour has it a large, green, scaly creature once trod all over Squish. Has he fully recovered? (and I bet he doesn’t let people walk all over him now!)

Poor Squish. He’s just so little the other forest creatures don’t see him. Yes, he’s been trodden on, tripped over, run into, and sadly … squished. But he always bounces back! He’s a little trooper. And for those that have read his story, you’ll know what he discovers that means he’ll never be trodden on again.

Does he still have an imaginary friend?

Squish doesn’t let any friend fall by the wayside, real or imagined, but he has discovered that there’s much more you can do with a real friend. A pretend friend is rather hard to play hide and seek with (they’re not very good at searching). And they’re not so skilled at playing tag (running can be a problem). But they do have their positives – they’re very good at keeping secrets!

How important is it to reach out to people who are smaller?

I think we’ve all felt small at times in our lives. Even adults feel small sometimes, when the world gets big with stress and demands. Squish feels it’s particularly important to be good to those who are smaller than us because we never know when we will next be the ones who need help. Even little rabbits believe in Karma. Then again, Squish has never met anyone smaller than him…

What would Squish like to say to little creatures who are too scared to use a big voice?

Squish says we all have special things inside us. He says not to worry about what others can do, but instead find those things you love. Find the things that make your heart sing. Once you’ve found those, it’s much easier to believe in yourself and find the courage to speak up. Believing in yourself is also sure to make you feel much bigger.

Squish would also like to say something to you Miss Tania: great questions!

Aw, thank you! They have been totally inspired by his story. I wonder how it feels to be a real life hero – being that Squish saved Squirrel’s life and all …

Wow, Squish has never seen himself as a hero (he just did another little binky in excitement!). He’s quite a humble little rabbit, so more than anything he was just happy to have found another creature his size. And he also feels a little shy about the whole incident – after all, it may just have been his silliness that risked Squirrel’s safety in the first place. But Squish definitely did himself proud in the end.

Are Squish and Squirrel still close?

Very. I don’t think there have been two closer friends. As it turns out, Squirrel was feeling pretty small and lonely too. They do most things together now. Although they have quite different personalities, which I think can be a real strength in a friendship. They balance each other well. While squirrel is much braver than Squish, Squish is a deep thinker and very empathic.

What do they like to do together?

They love to play games and get up to all sorts of cheekiness. You may just have to wait until book two to see exactly what kind of mischief they get up to …

I wanted to ask Squish what you’re really like as an author?

Squish has gone a little rosy-cheeked and shy at this question. If I could get him to fess up, I think he’d say that I am quite like him in many ways. I definitely feel small some days, and have trouble speaking up for myself and believing that I can do big things. But I do have some amazing friends in my life who help me feel strong and capable.

Oh – Squish does has something to say. He says to tell you that I always sing while I illustrate. He doesn’t mind my voice so much, but wishes I’d sing more about cabbage and burrows. And he says that sometimes I draw him with a rounder belly than he has in real life. He insists he’s been cutting back on carrots. Hmm …

Can you reveal a little bit about the next Squish adventure?

Squish is living his next adventure as we speak, and I am racing to get it all down on paper, one page at a time. It’s another tale about a problem Squish encounters in being small – namely that there are many big things to fear. He’s most afraid of the dark, which is so big it’s everywhere. But one day Squirrel goes missing and it starts to get dark outside. I just hope Squish finds the courage to go out and find her.

Thank you so much, Squish and Katherine for joining us during this very special Bunny Week on Kids’ Book Capers! Where can we learn more about what you’re up to?

Squish has his own little animated book trailer and I have a website you can visit which may just have some secret rabbity surprises hidden around it … www.katherinebattersby.com. I also keep a blog, where I put all my latest projects and musings, plus the occasional new Squishy illustration. Squish also has a special page with his US publisher and his Australian one, too.

Thanks for letting us drop by your blog! Squish sends love and carrots. x

Squish Rabbit is published by University of Queensland Press. Stay tuned for Dee’s review of Squish Rabbit – this Friday!


In A State Of Wonder

State of WonderUntil recently, Ann Patchett was for me one of those authors who name is familiar but whose work I’d never read. She was also one of those authors everyone seemed to assume I knew lots about.

She came out to the recent Brisbane Writers Festival (which I missed as I was overseas), and lots of well-read friends breathlessly stated both that they were going to see her and then, afterwards, that she was simply magic.

I composed my blank ‘I know exactly what you mean, when actually I don’t know at all’ face and nodded sagely, then scurried off to order myself one of her books.

Now I not only no longer have to do the ‘look like you’re in the know’ face while madly thinking ‘don’t let on you don’t’. Fittingly, given my ass-about-ness, I unwittingly ordered her recently released book, State of Wonder (probably because I didn’t know enough about her and this title sprang to mind; probably because it was the new book she was here to spruik and it had popped up in promo material).

No matter. It was exquisite (I’m trying to resist saying ‘it left me in a state of wonder’) and, if it’s anything to go by, her award-winning first book, Bel Canto, is doubly so.

That’s effectively one of the highest accolades I can give a fiction book, given my seriously non-fiction bent. I was rapt from the first paragraph of the first page, which opens with the following simple, highly visual, scene-setting sentences that immediately set the book’s tone and that throw us squarely into the middle of the story:

The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things?

This single sheet had travelled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.

‘What?’ she said finally.

He opened his mouth and then closed it. When he tried again all he could say was, ‘It’s snowing.’

Bel CantoTruthfully, State of Wonder was a book that both inspired and destroyed me simultaneously as I marvelled at Patchett’s simple-yet-flooring turns of phrase. I did wonder how much of it poured directly and perfectly formed from her head and onto the page/computer screen. I also wondered whether I’d ever be capable of something so simply sophisticated and compelling. Methinks not.

I had to stop dog-earing pages that contained sentences that blew me away because I’d have to dog-ear every page. One example includes:

At that moment she understood why people say You might want to sit down. There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.

Doesn’t seem quite so impressive on its own, but when you collate it with pages and page and pages of such understated elegance it’s, well, both awe-inspiring and a little depressing.

The long and the short of State of Wonder is that a doctor developing a fertility drug in the depths of the Brazilian jungle goes AWOL. The drug company she’s contracted to send another doctor to go find her. He winds up dead and yet another doctor is dispatched to find out what happened, bring him home, and also establish where the drug development is at.

That synopsis doesn’t do the tale justice, and Patchett has woven both a complex narrative of many overlapping, ultimately unveiling layers. Perhaps most fascinating is how she has created believable characters whose actions and motivations morph with such perfection that, rather than adhering to the stereotypes of the two-dimensional baddie and the untainted goodie, they subtly get under your skin and you find yourself admiring, understanding, being frustrated by, despising, and also liking them in equal measure.

Where State of Wonder sits in Patchett’s finger-flexing of her talents I don’t know. It will take me reading her other books to find out. But if State of Wonder is anything to go by, the others—especially the award-winning Bel Canto—are going to be magic.

Not waiting for the end of the series

In my last post, I wrote about waiting for the end of a series before starting to read the first book (see “Waiting for the end of the series” — go on, read it first. This post will make more sense if you do.). I’m not the first reader ever to have done this, and I won’t be the last. As a reader, it’s all well and good. But as a writer, it’s a rather problematic approach. Let me explain…

If every reader was to hold off and not purchase the first book in a series until after the final book was published — then anything beyond book one would never get published. If book one of a series doesn’t sell well, a publisher isn’t likely to invest in a follow-up book. So…

I got to write Gamers’ Challenge because the first book in the series, Gamers’ Quest, sold well. Now, I’m in a holding pattern. I have a third book planned, but my publisher wants to wait. We need to see if book two will sell well enough to warrant a third. And so it is for other authors as well.

So, dear readers, the future of any book series is very much in your hands. If you want to see a series progress beyond book one, don’t wait — get it straight away; read it straight away; and if you enjoy it, tell people about it… spread the word. (But it you don’t like it, then… shhhh!)

I think it probably helps a series if at least the first book can be read in isolation. Richard Harland is an author who seems particularly adept at this. Ferren and the Angel, the first book in his Heaven and Earth trilogy, can be read as a stand-alone — it’s a complete story in its own right, it has closure, but it also leads on to another two books.

Harland’s Wordshaker / Liberator duology is another great example. Each book is complete in its own right. Although it’s better to have read Worldshaker first, you don’t need to in order to understand and follow the story of Liberator. And although Harland has now moved on to work on other things, there is still plenty more scope in the Worldshaker universe for more novels should he wish to return to that series at a later date.

It’s interesting to compare Harland’s steampunk novels with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy. Each of these books is very much part of a large whole. You simply cannot read them in isolation. Much as I have loved the first two books, the story is incomplete and I have been seriously annoyed at the wait. I will not have achieved closure until the third book has been read. (It’s out this month… YAY!)

I’ve aimed for a similar structure to Harland’s books with my Gamers novels. They are part of a series, but each is a complete story in its own right. Hopefully that means readers won’t wait for the proposed third book before getting books one and two… otherwise they may be waiting an awfully long time. 🙂

Catch ya later,  George

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I am wholly obsessed with and terrified by spelling bees in equal measure. Obsessed in that I can’t get enough of watching or puzzling over them, turning the etymology, sounds, and letter combinations over and over in my head like David Bowie juggling the crystal ball in Labyrinth. Except with much less mesmerising skill and slightly less mullet-y hair.

I’m similarly terrified by the thought of getting up on stage and attempting to assemble and utter letters coherently in order to correctly spell something—experience has taught me that I’m an excellent on-paper speller, but a terrible, fumbling, stumbling one out loud.

I truly fear competing in on-stage spelling bees more than public speaking and death combined. But watching them, as long as I know I’m not going to be called upon to get up and participate, is another story altogether.

Spellbound the film (2002) and the annual ESPN coverage of the US national spelling bee brought many of us out of the spelling bee-loving closet and introduced many more to the competition’s magic. ESPN’s coverage, in particular, is stellar—they commentate the event as they would a gridiron or other action-packed sporting match. And who hasn’t uttered the now classic line ‘Can I have the etymology?’ after watching Spellbound?

The Emerging Writers Festival (EWF) was in town with its Digital Writers’ Conference last week. The team closed out the event with a Sunday night spelling bee at the funky, recently opened Jam Jar. Work commitments (and, if I’m honest, a healthy fear of being roped into participating) prevented me from getting down to watch some fellow writers, editors, and spelling afficionados compete, so I chatted to writer and editor Chad Parkhill to find out how it went.

How does a spelling bee work?

The spelling bee I was at—the one at the conclusion of the Brisbane Emerging Writers’ Festival—is really only loosely based on the American-style spelling bees we know from Spellbound and other documentaries/television shows.

Instead of being competitive, it’s a social thing: get a bunch of writers together in a room, add some booze and the challenge of spelling words, and have some fun. Having said that, there was one chap there who had his own spelling bee alias—I’m positive that his real name wasn’t Obadiah—and he seemed to take the whole thing rather seriously.

I can only spell something when I write it down. Is that peculiar to me or if not, how do you manage to overcome that to spell aloud?

That’s not at all peculiar! I noticed lots of the competitors and audience members spelling out the words with their fingers on tabletops and the surface of their jeans in an attempt to get it right. In order to spell aloud, I try to visualise the word printed on a piece of paper, and simply read it out from there.

Have you watched Spellbound/the annual ESPN spelling bee? If so, any pointers you picked up? Did someone ask for the etymology (in an American accent)?

Unfortunately, I haven’t watched Spellbound, but I think that’s because I have a pathological fear of watching small children being intense and dorky. It takes me back to my own days of being an intense and dorky child.

Nobody asked for the etymology of words, but many did ask for words to be used in sentences—mostly for comic effect. (Krissy Kneen, who has just published a book of literary pornography, Triptych, was called upon to use the word ‘tumescent’ in a sentence.)

One important difference between the EWF spelling bee and the American-style spelling bees is that you’re not required to start by saying the word, then spell it, then say it again—you just have to spell it. This means you don’t get a chance to correct yourself if you’ve reached the end of the word and you know you’ve stuffed it up.

Can you remember any of the words you were asked to spell (or that others were)?

My own words were ‘chameleon’, ‘vacillate’, ‘finagle’, ‘gauche’, ‘lymphatic’, and ‘plagiarise’, among others. In general, there were lots of words that everyone knows, but hardly anyone can spell—I think ‘rhythm’ is the best example of this kind of word. There were also lots of ‘trick’ words such as ‘inoculate,’ which nearly everyone thinks has two ‘n’s. (I know I would have been stumped by that one!)

Finally, there were also lots of loan words, mostly from French and German, such as ‘ennui’, ‘cliché’, and ‘doppelgänger’. I was a little disappointed that competitors weren’t asked to place the correct diacritical marks in those words—that would have made things more challenging!

What was the word that stumped you?

‘Fahrenheit’, of all things. I am actually capable of spelling it, but I’d had one too many beers—gone beyond ‘the zone’, as pool players might say—and completely forgot to say the second ‘h’. I guess I should have started by spelling it out on my jeans with a finger!

Can you remember the word that won?

The winning word was ‘synecdoche’, which the winning competitor spelled with ease. It’s supposed to be a stumper, but I think Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York may have had something to do with its popularisation.

Any notable words/moments worth mentioning?

The bee included ‘caesura’, which I thought was a particularly tough one. Oh, and ‘Fahrenheit’. Curse you, Fahrenheit! Your scale sucks, anyway.

Which dictionary did they use (e.g. Macquarie)? Did anyone try to sneak through with American spellings?

The dictionary was, I believe, the Macquarie. Nobody tried to use American spellings, cleaving to -ise rather than -ize.

Were there any crash study sessions/methods applied?

Certainly not on my part! I was actually a last-minute ring-in—I was there simply to catch up with a friend, but got roped in by the festival organisers. I’m glad they asked.

Any heckling? Controversy? Googling of spellings and definitions?

No, everyone was pretty well-behaved.

Hmm, methinks [read: Fi thinks] that’s very civilised!

Chad Parkhill, who was brave enough to compete, writes for Rave Magazine and The Lifted Brow.


VIOLET MACKEREL  thinks she would QUITE LIKE to own the blue china bird at the Saturday markets.

This is not just a SILLY WISH.

It is instead the start of a VERY IMPORTANT idea.

But what she needs is a PLOT.


I wasn’t surprised to see Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot win an honour book at this year’s CBCA awards.

Written by Anna Branford and illustrated by Sarah Davis, this book is one that I can see kids keeping on their bookshelves and handing down to future generations. (Yes I have faith that print books will be around for many years to come).

Violet Mackerel, the central character has a small goal, to own a small china blue bird she has seen at the market where her mother has a knitting stall on a Saturday morning.

But this blue bird is special and it’s going to take a brilliant plot to make it hers.

Violet believes that collecting small things can lead to something big, even brilliant. In fact she has a Theory of finding small things and hopes that this will help her get her blue china bird.

Anna Branford really gets inside the head of a small child in this endearing story. I remember being Violet’s age and wanting a horse. There was one I particularly liked and I used to plan and dream about how I could get it to follow me home.

I think that every small child had goals and dreams that even their parents don’t know about and this is depicted so authentically in Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot.

Violet is very endearing in that she is fiesty, determined, but honest in her goals and how she goes about achieving them. And just as small children do, she becomes totally distracted by another project and forgets about her original goal.

In the end it’s through her kind nature and generosity of spirit that Violet gets what she wants in the story.

Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot is a sensitively told tale that kids will enjoy reading or having read to them.

Sarah Davis’s beautiful black and white illustrations bring Violet’s story to life, showing her character and the emotions and turmoil she is going through. They are lively and sensitive illustrations with a touch of humour and bring the reality of Violet’s emotions closer to the reader.

There are even instructions at the end of the book showing the reader how to make their very own Box of Small Things.

Check out Violet’s website, violetmackerel.com.au to find out more about her adventures.

Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot is published by Walker Books.


’tis the season to post… already?

Ah, Boomerang Books. I like the books and love the bloggers (well, obviously) but it may be some time before I forgive them for the subject matter of their last panic-inducting newsletter.

As they so helpfully reminded me, in massive type, Christmas is only 9 weeks away!

Nine weeks. Wow. Where did the year go? I’ve been a bit busy lately, I know, but it feels like I turned my back for a few minutes to catch up on reading and now I’ve been ambushed by Santa and a whole pile of people I need to find presents for. Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere is sneaky and even more so when you are used to a Northern one. My brain interprets all the spring sunshine as a permanent and balmy August (which is our best month in Ireland) and then it’s suddenly ARGH MISTLETOE AND MULLED WINE WHERE DID THAT COME FROM OH HELP I NEED TO BUY PRESENTS.

It might seem Boomerang was getting in there rather early but I appreciate lots of advance warning. My worries about presents are, as always, compounded by the Christmas post issue and the fact that many of my friends and relations live overseas – either you get organised and send them early or you can send them for several million dollars closer to the date. I’m not joking – I recently mailed a copy of Greg Page’s Now and Then to a friend in the States by cheap mail and discovered it managed to make it across the pond in a spritely 4 months.

This friend lives in a city, by the way, not in a cave in the Rockies guarded by bears. I ended up flying to New York a few months later and suspect that I passed the book in transit, possible as it was being pulled across the Pacific on a paddle-boat powered by arthritic tortoises.

Nine weeks. Argh. What if the postal tortoises need a break?

Anyway, for those of you who also tend to be less than prepared for these things, I have some good news; Boomerang have made finding gifts that bit easier by putting together some lists of suggested books. Looking for something for the gourmande in your life? Check out the selection of cooking, food & drink books. I’m holding out for James Halliday Australian Wine Companion 2012 or, even better, someone to come around and cook all of Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals for me.

Looking for something for the teenager in your life? Have a look through the recommended young adult fiction. Need something for the most active person you know? Try browsing the sports books; Kokoda Wallaby is well worth a read if you’re enjoying the rugby but don’t want to dwell on last weekend too much or Cadel Evans’s biography is excellent if you’d like to avoid the rugger altogether.

Here are links to all Boomerang Books’ suggested gifts, happy browsing. Just remember to get them in the post nice and early!

Interview – What Makes a Great Picture Book, with Adam Wallace

Welcome Adam! So lovely to have you join us on Kids’ Book Capers to talk to us about what makes a great picture book. You’ve been writing some pretty great picture books for a while now. Why did you start writing them?

Well I sort of had no choice. I started writing for children, and what burst out of me were picture books. The rhymes and images were in my mind and I had to let them out! I always wanted to write for children, possibly because they are closest to my maturity level. Writing in rhyme was exciting for me, so picture books were the perfect fit.

Which part of the PB writing process do you like the most?

The first draft. Just seeing something take shape before your eyes is awesome. But even the editing is kind of fun, when it’s not boring, because that’s where you get to the stage of reading it out loud and having that moment of, “Yes! That is how it has to be!” And then seeing the pictures is amazing too, seeing your words come to life through someone’s images.

So basically I think I have covered the whole process. To cut a long story short, I love it all!

What three elements do you think comprise a well-rounded PB?

Gold, silver and potassium. Are they all elements? I think so. How embarrassing, I used to study Chemistry!

Anyway, I think humour is number one for me.

Having the illustrations and text complement and bring the best out of each other would be next. If one is much stronger than the other, the book doesn’t sit as a whole piece of art.

Last, but most definitely not least, I would have to say respect for what children enjoy. I think picture books can get lost in being written for awards and adults rather than kids. These books are for children, and to write for children well you have to respect them and what they like.

Why is humour so important?

Because it’s relaxing. Because it opens up doorways for children to discuss things they may otherwise  feel uncomfortable discussing. And because when children are being introduced to books and reading, you want them to enjoy the experience and laughter is not only the best medicine, it is the best thing ever. When children realise that reading and books are fun and interesting and exciting, that is what is going to make them want to read more books. Humour can do that.

Do you think PBs should be heavy on lesson-learning and morals?

No, says he who has written picture books on sharing, healthy eating and being positive. Look, morals and lessons are important to have in books for children, but not as a preachy, overbearing presence. If the lesson/moral is cloaked in humour and fun, that is even better. Dr Seuss was the master of this.

Do you ‘test’ your books on kids before they are published?

Sometimes, and sometimes I will read at poetry nights to adults as well. I have a couple of excellent readers for nephews, and they are always great to chat to for ideas and feedback, although I still haven’t finished one story I sent them the start of! Cathy von Chatterbox. I have to get onto that one day.

How do the kids react to your books?

By laughing like crazy … I hope. As most of my books are soaked with a good dose of humour, laughter is the main response, although I also get quite a few “eeeeewwwwwwwww!”s when reading them Better Out Than In. Just ‘cos there are a couple of mildly gross elements to the stories.

What other elements do you use to make a picture book special for kids?

Hooks? Plot twists? Marshmallows?

Marshmallows help, but usually sugar free ones (is that even possible?). Twists are great. I am just reading Paul Jennings’ biography, and it discusses his use of twists. Kids like to be led the wrong way, especially if they can work out the twist before it comes. I think rhyme is a big thing I use too. For me, I like being able to punch a joke every second or fourth line. Rhyme also often helps the adults who are reading to the children get into a rhythm, and makes it more fun for them.

Where do some PBs go wrong? What style do you NOT like?

I don’t like picture books that seem more for adults, or awards, than for kids. I also don’t like really bad, forced rhyming. Or picture books that talk down to kids rather than treating them like the awesome, amazing human beings they are, capable of so much more than they are often given credit for. Or picture books that give children nightmares and they’re only five for crying out loud why was it so scary and it makes them wet the bed when all they wanted was a cheerful goodnight story with their … oh. Wait. I have said too much.

What’s more important – the text or the illustrations?

Oooh, tricky one! Both are so important, although as The Arrival showed, sometimes text isn’t needed for a picture book to be amazing. I don’t know the answer to this one, and I have just gone cross-eyed. Okay. I think both are equally important, but both must do the job they are there for. We don’t need the story describing everything we can already see in the pictures, and the pictures must bring the text to life, not go off on tangents.

When they work together and are both as strong as each other though, that’s when magic happens.

What are some of your favourite PBs?

There are SOOOOO many, but I grew up on (as in read while I was growing up. He wasn’t on the floor of my house or anything) and still love the master, Dr Seuss. My two favourites of his are The Lorax and Oh, The Places You’ll Go.

Another author from my childhood I am still a massive fan of is Bill Peet. My faves of his are Huge Harold, The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg, and The Whingdingdilly.

Shall I go on? Okay, I will! Just one more. I also love The Short and Incredibly Happy life of Riley.

Which PB do you absolutely wish you’d written and why?

Harry Potter. Does that count as a picture book? There were pictures in some of them!

No, I’m just kidding, of course. I would have loved to have written a Dr Seuss book. Any of them really. Just to have that magic coming off the page, and I truly believe there is magic in the way he uses words. He was a genius.

See more on Adam ‘Wally’ Wallace and all the wonderful picture books he’s penned, at www.adam-wallace-books.com.


Waiting for the end of the series

I’ve always had this philosophy regarding any series of books — I would never start to read the first book until the final one had been published. That way, I would not have to wait the twelve plus months between books — the twelve plus months during which I would forget vital plot points and character nuances. Instead, I could just read one book after another, from beginning to end, and achieve a sense of continuity and completion. But things have changed.

I’m a reasonably patient sort of person. I usually don’t mind waiting, even if it is several years between book one and the final instalment, before starting to read a series. This is the way that I have read many a trilogy. The first time that I broke my own rule was with the Harry Potter series. Seven books resulted in a very long wait between beginning and end. There was a lot of hype and a lot of discussion. I really wanted to read the books; I really wanted to participate in the discussions my friends were having; and I was finding it very difficult to avoid spoilers. So I started reading just after the fourth book was released. I read them back-to-back. Of course, then came the agonising wait for book five… I didn’t like that bit.

But Harry Potter was an exceptional series — so much hype and talk and media. Most books don’t get that kind of press. Spoilers are not usually an issue. So, Harry was going to be my one and only exception (except, of course, those occasional circumstances where I’ve read a book not realising that it was the first in a series… damn, that’s annoying!). But then I started reviewing books.

Becoming a reviewer changed everything. I was no longer browsing bookstores, reading the back cover blurbs, trying to choose what to read next. Now I was browsing lists of upcoming and newly released titles trying to decide which books I should request for review. And those lists are always chock-full of books that are part of a series. And thus I found myself in the position of reading the first book of the Rosie Black Chronicles a few weeks after its release in 2010, instead of waiting. Book two is soon to be released (keep an eye on this blog, I’ll soon be interviewing the author, Lara Morgan), and goodness knows when book three will be out.

Reviewing has also hampered my ability to ever read a series from beginning to end in one hit. I read the first book of Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy in October 2010. I didn’t get to book two until March 2011, and I’ve only just started book three. Why? I’ve got a stack of new review books I’ve agreed to read — so I space out the other books I want to read, between these.

A number of years ago I heard about a series of books called The Laws of Magic, written by Michael Pryor. I read the back cover blurb of the first book, thought it sounded interesting, and placed it on my read-when-the-series-is-finished pile. Well, the final book came out this year. I dug out the first book and read it. I’d love to now read the rest of the series, one after the other. But no… I’ve had to put then aside for the moment. Sigh! Life can be so tough sometimes. 😉

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.


State Shortlists released for National Year of Reading

Be in at the start of Australia’s biggest book group for the National Year of Reading 2012

Australia’s National Year of Reading 2012 starts here, with the opportunity for you to vote for the book that you think should represent your state or territory as one of the eight on our national recommended reading list for 2012. You can help decide the eight books that are the National Year of Reading 2012 collection.

Margaret Allen, chair of the National Year of Reading founders and State Librarian of WA, explains, “For 2012, we’re creating a collection of books which, read together, describe the Australian experience. We all know how very different it is if you’re living in the city or in a remote community; in the Northern Territory or New South Wales. We’re hoping that thousands of readers will take a journey around Australia through the pages of these eight books and come out of it with an even greater depth of understanding about what it means to be Australian.”

The list of eight winning titles and the start of Australia’s biggest book group for the National Year of Reading will be announced at the launch of the campaign on 14 February, 2012, at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. After that, existing book groups, new groups and individual readers can go online and register as a member of Our Story, joining in the discussion about the books the nation has chosen.

The state and territory shortlists, chosen by independent panels of readers, have been announced. The shortlist is available on the National Year of Reading website www.love2read.org.au. Voting commences 1 November 2011, online at www.abc.net.au/yearofreading and in participating libraries and book shops. The closing date is 6 January 2012.

Shortlist for the ACT

Shortlist for New South Wales

Shortlist for the Northern Territory

Shortlist for Queensland

Shortlist for South Australia

Shortlist for Tasmania

Shortlist for Victoria

Shortlist for Western Australia

Famous names behind the National Year of Reading

Australia’s National Year of Reading officially kicks off on 14 February 2012 with a launch at the National Library of Australia (Canberra), hosted by the First Tuesday Book Club’s Jennifer Byrne, much loved actor and author William McInnes, patron of the campaign, and award-winning children’s author Boori Monty Pryor.

The campaign has been initiated by Australian public libraries, state and territory libraries and library associations. It is supported by school libraries and the National Library of Australia. TAFE, University, government and other special libraries are also behind the campaign.

All kinds of household names will be active in the National Year of Reading campaign – notably the ABC, Dymocks, Madman Entertainment, Scholastic and The Walt Disney Company – and in addition to Jennifer Byrne, William McInnes and Monty Boori Pryor, ambassadors will include Anita Heiss, Bryce Courtenay, Andy Griffiths, Morris Gleitzman, Susanne Gervay, Anh Do, Ted Egan, Robyn Archer, Anna Goldsworthy, Steve Parish and the Melbourne Football Club.

More than 200 writers, publishers and organisations involved in reading and literacy are partners with the National Year of Reading – organisations such as the Centenary of Canberra, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the Pyjama Foundation, Speech Pathology Australia, Student Edge, Vision Australia, Writing Australia.

Funding has come from the Australian Government, the Australia Council for the Arts, the Copyright Agency Ltd, the Sidney Myer Fund and Australian libraries.


Today I’m pleased to welcome Anna Branford to Kids’ Book Capers. Anna is the author of the highly acclaimed, Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot. This beautiful book, written by Anna and illustrated by Sarah Davis was an Honour Book in this year’s CBCA awards.

How did you become a writer?

I suppose I’ve always been writing something or other ever since I first learned to write, but I started writing children’s stories right after I finished my Ph.D thesis. Maybe doing all that disciplined, analytical writing made me crave the opportunity to write something more creative and colourful. Also, as part of my Ph.D research I read lots and lots of children’s books, so my mind was brimming with stories and ideas.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

One of the most exciting parts is seeing the illustrations. There is something really magical about dreaming up characters and places in the privacy of your own imagination and then getting to see what they look in the imagination of another person – especially if that other person is someone like Sarah Davis, who is already a bit magical to begin with, I think.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

For me the hardest thing about being a writer is trying to be other things at the same time. As well as being a writer I am also a full-time lecturer at a university. So sometimes I’m right with Violet, figuring out one of her theories, and then the phone rings and I need to snap out of her world and into the world my students are in, of tricky questions and lost essays. At other times I’m in the middle of explaining a complex idea in a lecture and suddenly a good idea pops into my head for a story I’m working on. I love both of my jobs, but I don’t always love trying to do them at the same time.

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

For two very long weeks I was a truly dreadful waitress. Then for a little while I worked in an aged care facility, mainly delivering people’s lunches and making them cups of tea and cleaning, which I was a bit better at. Then for many years I worked in crèches and childcare centres and as a nanny, which I loved. And for the last few years, as well as my university job, I have been a maker of dolls and other things.

What is your greatest writing achievement?

Well, it was very, very exciting to be nominated in the CBCA awards and even better to find out that Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot was an honour book. But I have also had two kind messages from people saying that the book was the first story their child read independently and that they had made it all the way through and enjoyed it. I vividly remember the satisfaction of the first book I read independently and I am very honoured that someone experienced something similar with Violet. I think that might be the achievement I’m most excited about so far.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have a few different projects I’m working on. One is a fairy book, which is a brand new genre for me, and another is a new installment in the Violet Mackerel series.

Do you have any tips for new writers?

Yes –read, read, read absolutely everything in the genre you’re working in. I think its good to read a balance of your own childhood favourites but also brand new books, to keep you in touch both with what you love in a story but also what others are loving.

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

I didn’t notice while I was writing them, but I think in retrospect that all my main characters share quite an important characteristic. They’re all people who think very hard and very resourcefully about the problems they need to solve and are brave enough to put their plans into action. Those sorts of people (whether child or adult) are my own favourite sort, so I suppose it’s natural enough that they should find their way into my books!

How many books have you had published?

So far I’ve had four books published – Sophie’s Salon, Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot, Violet Mackerel’s Remarkable Recovery and Neville No-Phone. The next book in the Violet Mackerel series, Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat, will be out in October.

Anything else of interest you might like to tell our blog readers?

Perhaps just that I have a blog of my own at http://annabranford.com which, in addition to all sorts of random thoughts and ideas and updates, has a few detailed posts on how I came to have my stories published that I hope other new writers might find helpful.


What inspired you to write Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot?

I first had the idea of the Mackerel family when I was at an early morning market selling dolls I make. It’s quite a special market just beside the Yarra Ranges in Victoria called St Andrews, and it feels particularly magical there very early in the morning when it’s still dark and everyone is unpacking and setting up. Some families who work there have children with them who I got to meet and chat to a little bit. They were lovely and they gave me all the ideas I needed for the characters in the book.

What’s it about?

The book is about a girl called Violet whose family works at a morning market. She has spotted something there that she really wants. It’s a blue china bird, just the right size to fit in the palm of her hand. But it costs ten dollars and she doesn’t have any money, so she goes about devising a plot.

What age groups is it for?

I wrote it with seven-year-olds I knew in mind, but it could certainly be read aloud to smaller children and I’ve been lucky enough to have lovely emails from adults who enjoyed it too.

Why will kids like it?

I think children will like it because Violet is the sort of character who helps you to think differently about things, because she has an interesting sort of family who are fun to meet, because her plot takes all kinds of unexpected twists and turns and because Sarah’s illustrations are so utterly exquisite.

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

I don’t think there is anything I dislike about Violet! She is exactly my favourite sort of person – a deep thinker, a noticer of small things, someone who acts bravely even when she is nervous or disappointed and someone who has excellent ideas.

Is there something that sets this book apart from others?

In some ways I hope not. I would love it to slip in among the sorts of books I read as a child and carry children some of the way along the same journey I was lucky enough to travel. But I do think the Mackerels are quite a unique family and that Violet in particular has an unusual and special way of viewing the world. So I hope perhaps the book might offer something new in that respect.

What did you enjoy most about writing Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot?

I especially enjoyed sharing it with my Granny who lives in England and is nearly a hundred years old. Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot is dedicated to her. Sending her new drafts as I wrote them, then copies of new illustrations as Sarah drew them, then a copy I bound together myself and finally the real thing – perhaps that was the best part of all.

What was the hardest thing about writing Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot?

I think it was just that I kept having to stop – to go to work, to feed the cat, to make the dinner, to answer the phone. There was nothing hard about the project itself. I loved every part of it.


Emerging writers get digital in BrizVegas

I’m rubbing my eyes today after waking at 3am to get ready for an early flight home from Brisbane, where a crowd of emerging writers spent a festive weekend discussing all things digital.

Check out #ewfbris on Twitter and the Emerging Writers Festival’s website for a full run down of the action – I’ll be posting some more on it here soon.

Festival organisers Karen Pickering and Lisa Dempster in Brisbane.

As requested by a couple of attendees, here’s my presentation from Saturday’s Working online event (“Our panellists hash out how they make new technologies work in their writing careers, from finding markets, marketing to making money!”).
Hopefully some of the social media tips will be of use.

Self-marketing via social media to build profile and network with your tribe wherever they are (or you are) in the world

18 months ago I had an argument about Facebook and Twitter with a writer friend who worked for a federal minister.

She couldn’t see any business or government application for Social media, believing it would only ever be a tool for communicating with friends and family.

Try telling that to the makers of hazelnut chocolate spread Nutella now. They have 11 million international Facebook fans.

Or in Australia, to Chux. With posts like “who wears the washing up gloves in your house?” they’ve attracted 14,000 fans – all happy to read about dish cloths alongside updates from friends in their Facebook feed.

Facebook has more than 10 million unique Australian visitors per month. YouTube is not far behind with 9.9 million. Blogspot and WordPress combined receive 6.6 million unique visitors, linked in 1.8 million and Twitter 1.6 million.

Social media marketing expert Tom Voirol, of digital agency Reading Room, told me this month that not being present in social media is like cancelling phone lines or email accounts. He also provided a great analogy: if advertising is like archery, social media is like ping pong”.

So it’s not about broadcasting to your followers or fans, but engaging with them, by starting and joining conversations, by sharing compelling, useful, original and relevant content, and by being an authentic online voice.

So, how does an emerging writer get started with social media?

I’d recommend you do some online research. Check out Wikipedia definitions of platforms, and blogs about social media like Mashable, ProBlogger, Digital Buzz and Social Media News Australia.

Looking at how others are using digital communications tools is a vital and ongoing part of the process.

Where are the conversations you’d be interested in taking place? Who are the influencers? What are they talking about? When?

The members of today’s panels would be a great place to start. I’d also recommend you follow Bookseller & Publisher, this very festival and ifBook along with your state writers centre.

Once you’ve sussed it all out, you can join in, either as an individual, or by creating a brand as I did.

Either way, choose a niche you’re passionate about and in which you have some expertise, and build your persona around that. It might be corgis or chick lit or cottage gardens. For me it was vegetarian Italian food and, separately, ebooks, digital publishing and related technology.

Lock that brand in for yourself across the major social media platforms and Register domain names.

I recommend WordPress for blogging, Crazy Domains for registering a domain name and JustHost for web hosting.

Set up a LinkedIn profile for professional networking, Facebook page (not a straight profile – for business purposes you need a page so that you can attract everyone rather than just those who actually know you to like your work), Twitter account (to follow anyone in the world who might be talking about an area of interest), Google + profile (it’s the newest of the major platforms, and allows you to divide your networks into categories called circles) and a YouTube channel for video or slideshow content sharing.

Take lots of photos and videos to share. The iPhone 4 and the DropBox app changed my life on this front.

Get some business cards printed. Include details of your social media accounts (make sure you get vanity URLs first).

Start commenting on your blog on everything that happens in your chosen field.

Attend every relevant launch, conference or jam jar opening and post on it.

Pitch opinion pieces, reviews and features to relevant newspapers, magazines or websites.

Comment on similar blogs and related stories on mainstream media sites.

Retweet links to blog posts or articles by fellow bloggers and writers.

Set up a list of your most useful Twitter contacts and check it religiously.

Make sure you monitor all your channels regularly and respond quickly to direct messages and often to mentions. You’ll need to set aside time to do this just as you would for any other tasks that are essential to a business, like paying bills or responding to emails or phone calls.

Share information and knowledge freely and generously … But advisedly. You want to be recognized as a trusted source.

Be a good digital citizen. Respect the copyright of others. Credit and link back when possible. Don’t vilify or defame anyone (and that includes Andrew Bolt).

Post as often as you can, without setting precedents or creating expectations you can’t live up to.

People will ignore you if you just log on once a month to tweet out a link to a blog post, or tell them where to buy your new ebook.

Consider establishing yourself as an influencer on specialist platforms like social reading site Goodreads.com.

Once you’re established, you can think about campaigns to build follower numbers or promote particular events or publications. Tom Voirol suggests building a campaign around a core idea that is easy to grasp for the public, aligned with your overall goals, measurements and success criteria, and, most importantly, has social interaction at its core.

Speaking of measurement, it is important to track your success. Facebook offers great analytics to users of its pages. There are plenty of standalone free and paid tools you can use to assess the reach of your blog posts. Stats like these can help you decide when to post, and which topics have the most traction.

Will any of this work? Like anything, it’ll depend how much you put into it.

For me, the vegetarian blog, vegeterranean.com.au, fulfilled my desire to write restaurant reviews and cookbook reviews, and led to my recipe creator mother having a meeting at Penguin about a possible cookbook.

I’ve devoted more time and energy to ebookish.com.au, which solved my problem of being a former literary editor and tech writer who would love to be more involved in the book industry but is stuck in Canberra. It’s helped me to make friends and build a network of contacts in the publishing hubs of Sydney and Melbourne and further afield.

It led to a paid blogging gig for online bookseller Booku.com [Yay Booku!] which I love, board membership of the ACT Writers Centre, a series of teaching and training gigs in social media, and an invitation to look at doing a PhD on a related topic.

The biggest surprise for me has been discovering that there are plenty of completely like-minded ebook and social media geek friends in Canberra after all. I just needed to get onto global forums to find them.

Review – Grumpy Little King

Once there was a grumpy little king. He was always grumpy – every day and all day long – because he was tired of being a little ruler in a little nation. He wanted to be a big ruler in a big nation.

His advisers knew just what to do. Start a war. If the king started a war, he could become world-famous, and his country would soon expand.

The grumpy little king loved the idea. He called his general and amassed lots of big guns and tanks and planes and explosives. Then he recruited bakers and farmers and builders and turned them into soldiers. Then he picked an ememy – the lanky king – and packed his men off to war.

The grumpy king’s men faced the lanky king’s men on the battlefield. Guns were drawn, they were ready to fight – but wait! Hang on a second! Where was the grumpy little king? Why, there he was – at home in his palace, sipping a nice cup of tea!

‘Not on your life!’ thought the soldiers, who gathered up both their kings, stood them in front of each other, gave them guns and then packed up their gear and went home.

Can you imagine what the kings decide to do?

After working as an illustrator in London for several years, German-born Michel Streich moved to Sydney in 2000. He has been published in several formats and has an inherent passion for human rights – a characteristic that becomes more than apparent in this thinly-veiled tale of madness.

Clever, witty, biting, funny, sad and flagrantly showcasing the ridiculousness of war, Streich has hit every mark with this beautifully-written picture book, which will appeal to both the very young and the very old. Featuring illustrations so charming you want to gobble them up on toast, Grumpy Little King is a classic in the making. It’s also important.

Grumpy Little King is published by Allen & Unwin. You can learn more about Michel’s work here.


Come Back Soon

Henrietta LacksThe adage that you don’t know what you’ve got until its gone rings incredibly true. But I’m not sure what the apt adage is for knowing and appreciating what you’ve got when you’ve got it and then knowing and appreciating it even more when it’s gone. Whatever it is, it should be applied to Richard Fidler, the former Doug Anthony All Star and current ABC Radio host.

He’s only gone temporarily—I feel I should get that in early lest I freak anyone out—but even temporarily is too interminably long. It appears Fidler’s taking a research sabbatical courtesy of a hallowed Churchill Fellowship and is visiting some of the top radio shows in London and New York. Melodramatic as it sounds, his absence is, for me at least, a giant, gaping, nothing-comes-near-to-replacing-him hole.

Conversations with Richard Fidler is, hands down, the highlight of my day. Five days a week (I’d like to make it seven), he interviews a guest for an hour and manages to draw out some of the most fascinating, compelling tales I’ve ever heard. The show’s motto is ‘things you’re interested in and things you don’t know you’re interested in’, and his guests are incredibly varied. Some are famous, but many more are not. It makes them no less interesting. Sometimes their ‘ordinariness’ and the fact that we’d otherwise not hear their tale makes them more so.

Fidler has a lot to do with this, of course, and the show in anyone else’s hands wouldn’t work as well. We see this with the Conversation Hour in Melbourne, which sells itself as being a similar product, but is actually an unstructured hour of nothing much that drives me batty.

The Good SoldiersFidler (ably supported by his behind-the-scenes team, of course) is effectively the radio version of Andrew Denton. His interviewing skills have reduced me to tears on more than one occasion—in a good way, of course.

There’s a real and nuanced skill to interviewing that I’m coming to increasingly appreciate. Fidler manages to get people to open up and tell the stories without getting in the way. He’s incredibly clever and well read, but never comes across as a know-it-all. It’s something that I think neither Ramona Koval, host of ABC Radio National’s The Book Show, nor Jennifer Byrne, host of the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, manage to do. They too, I’m afraid, drive me batty.

For me, they get in the way of the interview, imposing their thoughts and opinions on it. I say that not as someone being hypercritical, but as someone who hasn’t anywhere near yet mastered Fidler’s interviewing skills, but who hopes and dreams of one day doing so. I also can’t help but think that Koval and Byrne wish that they were the ones being interviewed.

ConfessionsAnd yes, I couldn’t help but note the irony that Koval, held up as an authority on the area, released a book about interviewing techniques and then had a mega interview debacle with Bret Easton ‘Delta Goodrem’ Ellis at the 2010 Byron Bay Writers Festival.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write that I can barely wait for Fidler to return. No really. My weeks without him just haven’t been the same. He’s also a magnificent book recommenderer (that’s a technical term). Through him, I’ve discovered some truly incredible books and/or authors. Say, for example:

You’d think his absence would have given me some time to tackle the tower of unread books teetering precariously on my bedside table, but sadly no. That pile just seems to continue to lean and grow. Fidler should be back in early November and there should be a new stack of books for me to salivate over and acquire. I cannae wait!

Mid-month round up – the war edition.

It’s the middle of October and my bookself doth overfloweth with far too many excellent recent releases which all seem to tie back into conflict. If you are looking for a non-fiction read this month, here’s are some recommendations; from a war-correspondent looking for work-life-romance balance in Kabul, to a woman who mobilised a nation for peace, to John Birmingham deciding to be very unpleasant to most of the planet. Enjoy.

The surreal one – The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker

If you’ve ever wondered what war reporters do to wind down in the evening and who the hell they find to date, this is the book for you. Kim Barker started  as a new war reporter in Afghanistan in 2003, when the war there was a side story to Iraq and her pieces were constantly side-lined by other bigger, better, more glamorous wars. While she learnt over the next few years (very slowly, and occasionally through hilarious errors) to navigate Afghan culture and a world often without electricity the stories grew from a forgotten war to what would become the front line of the so-called war on terror.

While she was learning the ropes, Kim dined with warlords and war reporters, managed to self-sabotage every romantic interest she met, dealt with an amorous Pakistani former prime minister, and got far too tangled up in the complicated and neurotic love lives of other ex-pats. As the conflict gradually escalates, Kim chronicles the reality of a job that involves dealing with danger and deprivation on a daily basis and how you gradually became acclimatised and maybe even addicted to a life on the edge of conflict.

If you are looking for an in-depth political analysis of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this is not the book you are looking for. But if you’re interested in how war correspondents and peace-keepers work and, more importantly, live and love in a war-torn land, Taliban Shuffle is a fascinating, funny and often surreal look at the reality of life as interloper in a growing war zone.

The uplifting one – Mighty Be Their Powers by Leymah Gbowee.

This is not a traditional war story. It is about an army of women in white standing up when no one else would—unafraid, because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us…. You have not heard it before, because it is an African woman’s story, and our stories are rarely told.”

Leymah Gbowee wanted to be a doctor but when civil war erupted in Liberia, the conflict tore apart her life and dreams. Years of  fighting destroyed her country and claimed the lives of relatives and friends. Gbowee survived the civil wars but became a young mother, trapped in an abusive relationship, without the resources to free or even sometimes feed herself.

Mighty Be Their Powers tells how she changed her own destiny and the destiny of her nation. An impoverished mother of 4, she trained as a trauma counsellor, working among girls and women raped by militiamen and those militiamen themselves. In 2003 she mobilised women from across Liberia’s highly-polarised ethnic and religious divides into a peaceful protest calling for an end to Liberia’s brutal 14-year civil war. Her book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War is both the story of those protests, which led to Gbowee being awarded a Nobel Peace laureate, and of her own struggles with the price that her activism demanded of her personal life and her family.

The not quite non-fiction one  –  Without Warning by John Birmingham

So my last recommendation is not non-fiction but an alternate history that blends reality with sci-fi to pretty much put the entire world in peril. John Birmingham is not, by his own admission, a very nice man when it comes to the world he builds for his characters or what happens to them once they are there.

“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 spoilers, but yeah.”

His most recent series opens in 2003, just before the Gulf War starts, with the disappearance of almost everyone in the USA.  Birmingham was inspired to write it after hearing someone say the world would be a better place if the United States disappeared, and – while you can make up your own mind on that one – this page-turner presents a vivid and terrifying picture of one way events could unfold in the USA simply ceased to be.

The book trailer search experiment

My previous post was about the book trailer for Matthew Reilly’s latest novel, Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves (see “Scarecrow and the book trailer”). I’ve decided to stay on the book trailer theme for one more post and conduct a little bit of an experiment…

I went to YouTube and typed in “book trailer”. What do you think showed up at the top of the list? Well, the top five were all trailers that I’ve posted here on Literary Clutter in the past. In order they are:

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters with 319,874 views.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart with 185,420 views.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld with 385,208 views.

Night of the Living Trekkies with 179,578 views.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls with 315,259 views.

At number six position was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, another trailer I’ve previously posted, with 740,343 views.

It’s interesting to note that the YouTube search didn’t bring them up in order of most viewed.

The next two on the list were not individual trailers, but YouTube Channels that showed book trailers — Cosproductions’s Channel and Irreference TV.

It’s only once we get to nineth position that we start to get trailers I haven’t posted before. In fact, these next few were trailers I’ve not watched before now… I hadn’t even heard of the books. So, here for your viewing pleasure are numbers nine, ten and eleven.

With 71,688 views we have quite an effective little trailer for Matched by Ally Condie. It shows that a simple idea, well executed, can result in a very memorable trailer.

And then we have an incredibly uninspiring trailer for The Liar’s Diary by Patry Francis. I can’t help but wonder how it has managed to get 12,742 views.

The final video I’m going to show you today is for James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. This isn’t a publisher created trailer. It was made by a cinematography student for the Kirkus 2009 Book Video Awards. And it’s quite stunning.

Now, after having done all this, my lovely wife pointed out to me that the search results may have been influenced by cookies placed on my computer by YouTube — thus showing the top five results as trailers I had previously watched. So… I cleared out my cookies and tried again. Guess what? The results were different. One and two were still the same, and Dawn of the Dreadfuls had dropped one place — but the others were different, although still mostly trailers I had previously watched. Interesting! Although I wonder why the search with cookies didn’t include the book trailers that I had most often watched in the top five — perhaps because they are all low-viewed trailers with under 1,000 hits?

Anyway… after I’d finished with YouTube, I went over to Google and put in the same search terms. In number one position was the Wikipedia entry for book trailers. In number two position was the YouTube video for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. In number three position was the YouTube video for Leviathan. At number four was the “Book Trailers” website. And at number five was the book trailer entry at Squidoo.

So there you have it… book trailers with thousands of views are the ones that rank highest in searches. And with high search rankings they will, no doubt, continue to garner more views. It’s quite a different situation with trailers for books by unknown authors with small publishers. To find out more about these sort of trailers, take a look at my article over at Ripping Ozzie Reads … “Book Trailers — Are they worth the effort?”

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll Google myself and post the results.



All I want for Xmas is iPlayer (+ related books!)

What’s your favourite television show of all time?

Mine would be a toss up between Pride & Prejudice and Spooks – both of which are available if you subscribe to the BBC’s iPlayer app, which is now in the AppStore for the iPad (with other platforms to come, I gather) in Australia.

Of course, uBookish always reads the book before watching a film or television adaptation (well, I try to, at least), and recommends you do too (I’ve linked through to some of the book versions I’ve read further on).

When Pride & Prejudice first aired in the early ’90s, a group of us would get together in an inner Sydney share flat each week to watch it.

Later, I had a very sensible lawyer boyfriend who would stay home on Saturday nights to watch The Bill. BORING, I thought at the time. A few years later I was an addict, one who cried when the final episode aired.

During my three-year stint in Hong Kong a decade or so ago, I regularly joined a group of expats for champagne and DVD marathons: Cold Feet and Sex & The City (which was censored on HKTV) were favourites.

These days I’m into Monroe, The Slap, The Hamster Wheel, Miranda, Offspring, Downton Abbey, Covert Affairs and Crownies.

Other previous favourites have included Alias, To Play the King, Doc Martin, Cranford, Absolutely Fabulous, Mistresses, Cutting It, Silent Witness, This Life and Lark Rise to Candleford.

As a child, I loved watching Fawlty Towers, Yes Minister, To The Manor Born and The Good Life with my parents.

Oh, and I’m something of an addict of just about any period drama, especially those based on favourite books. Jane Eyre, Emma, Brideshead Revisited and Little Dorrit spring to mind.

But I don’t watch actual free-to-air or pay television anymore.

I never seem to be at home or awake or available when favourite programs actually air.

I was never very good at setting VCRs so I’m glad that’s over. I wasn’t keen on the idea of illegal downloads for obvious reasons either.

So I’m very happy about free catch-up TV and individual episode downloads on iTunes.

I watch Channel Ten programs I’ve missed via their iPhone app. Seven doesn’t have an app, but we have its catch-up service, and SBS’s, on our Sony Bravia internet TV. I haven’t needed to catch up on anything on Nine (what does that tell you?), but I gather they do have browser-based catch-up service.

My all time favourite app, though, is ABC iView. I get my regular fix of MediaWatch and Q&A, as well as a couple of hours of quality drama and comedy, via iView on my iPad every week. The Slap while I eat my lunch at work, The Hamster Wheel or Miranda in bed late at night (stifling giggles to avoid waking anyone else up).

My son is regularly glued to Fireman Sam, Peppa Pig, Grandpa in My Pocket, Mister Maker and Bananas in Pyjamas on iView’s ABC4Kids section too.

My husband switches between nature documentaries and current affairs.

He’d still like to subscribe to Foxtel for the AFL next season, but I’d rather receive a year’s subscription to iPlayer. It costs $89.99 for a year, or $9.49 for a month.

We’re only the second region in the world (after Europe), to gain access to this tablet treasure trove of archived video-on-demand (it’s not catch-up here because so many of the BBC’s current programs are already airing on different networks in Australia – rights are a tricky business).

If I were lucky enough to become a subscriber this Christmas, I’d probably then have to divide my summer holiday time between reading (or rereading) works by Flora Thompson, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Shelley and Henry James and watching the television versions. It’d be a tough few weeks, but I reckon I’d cope.

Just a Girl

Jane Caro’s amazing Just a Girl captures the fear and confusion, Queen Elizabeth 1 must have felt growing up as a teen in an environment where nobody could be trusted and beheadings were commonplace.

Just a Girl is historical fiction that tells a true story with elegance and sensitivity. It’s a novel for young adults detailing Elizabeth’s life up to the time she became queen.

Even though there is so much death and sadness surrounding the young Elizabeth, Just a Girl is an optimistic read. Elizabeth doesn’t give up hope that things will get better and she learns to handle the complexities and treachery of the world around her. She faces the circumstances of her birth and her life with courage and understanding.

From the moment her father, Henry V111 executes her mother, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth is forced into competition with her sibling Mary and later, Edward for their father’s love. She is also in competition with them for the throne of England.

Even if you’re not a lover of history, you’ll be captivated by Elizabeth’s story. Without her intelligence and wisdom beyond her years, Elizabeth would not have survived the plots to get rid of her and the insecurities and treachery of her own siblings.

In the gilded corridors of the royal palace, enemies she couldn’t see – as well as those bound to her by blood – plotted to destroy her.

I loved the title of this book – its layers of meaning. Elizabeth has already lived a lifetime, even though she is ‘just a girl’. She also has to endure prejudice and opposition to her goal never to marry, simply because she is ‘just a girl’.

Author, Jane Caro has deftly crafted Elizabeth’s character. Elizabeth’s voice is authentic to the time in which she lived, and so believable that it draws the reader in, making you feel as if you really knew this young royal.

It was also fascinating to see other well known characters come to life on the pages of this book, and to be introduced in such detail to the era in which they lived.

Just a Girl is rich in language and setting, and full of historical detail that is both surprising and intriguing. Although the story is based on actual events that the reader may know the outcome of, there is still page turning tension to keep you hooked till the last page.

This book could be enjoyed by both teen and adult readers. Just a Girl is published by UQP



Reading your way to a better life

I’ve been surprised to find that I prefer to read self-improvement, business and text books in printed rather than ebook form.

I like to be able to flick through, browsing here and scanning there, as opposed to the very linear way in which I read fiction or narrative non-fiction such as memoir or biography, which is ideally suited to digital reading on the go or late at night in a dark room.

I know this because my library of business and text ebooks is gathering e-dust, while the printed equivalents find themselves dipped into regularly when I’m at my desk or plotting my future on the sofa, and shared with colleagues and friends.

The printed fiction and memoir library is feeling neglected, while its digital equivalent requires regular updating with new purchases as past buys are voraciously consumed.

What do you think? Do you find yourself reading some types of books digitally and others in print?

Speaking of books that help us to live better, I used to think self-help books were for losers. Truly, I did.

That was back when I was young and thin, with shiny hair, bright eyes, a tidy flat in a smart suburb, a healthy bank balance and zero commitments.

It’s much easier to be a career success when you can work endlessly long hours without worrying about who’ll do the childcare pick-up or whether your husband will be hurt that you won’t get a chance to eat the dinner he’s cooked specially.

It’s much easier to be thin and glamorous when you can go to the gym every night without worrying about who’ll put your child to bed, and can afford to buy several new outfits a year because your income is entirely your own.

It’s super-simple to have a neat and tidy house when you live alone in a one-bedroom place and can afford a cleaner.

It’s much easier, too, to have your finances in order when you have total control over what comes in and what goes out.

So, one day in my 30s I realised I might need some help.

I had a job that simply did not fit in with parenthood. Shift work, early mornings, late nights, unexpected breaking stories right when the baby needed feeding/settling/entertaining/dropping off/picking up … something had to give.

Start my own business, I thought. Work from home, be my own boss, that’ll work. But first, read books by mothers (and others) who have tried it, to find out whether it will, and whether I’ll enjoy it, and what I should do, and how. Hello, self-improvement/businesss section of the bookstore. Farewell, judgemental attitude to same.

It wasn’t flicking through books like Hayley Lewis’s Dream Believe Create: A woman’s guide to small business that made me realise that the time wasn’t quite right to go it alone, though. It was my bank balance. Frankly, I’ve needed guidance here for a while, but managed to get by through good luck and reasonable career and investment success. The time has come, though, for me to take some serious steps to get my paperwork and budget in order. To do that, I need some more bookish help.

To that end, I’ve just reread an old second hand book I picked up in 1989. Predictably, it’s somewhat out of date now: The Australian Women’s Money Book: A practical guide to financial planning by Deborah Brewster. It cost me $2.95 the year I finished school. Two somewhat dated but amusing chapters include, “The white knight (or Mr Right to the rescue)” and “Shopping your way to love”.

I may have to invest in a more up to date volume on personal finance. Maybe Work Less, Play More by Ron Bennetts and Andrew Foster will help. Do you have a favourite you’d recommend? Please let me know by leaving a comment below.

Meanwhile, on my pile of to-read or browse through this month are Paper Flow: Make paperwork easy by MaryAnne Bennie and Brigitte Hinneberg, Home Sorted! By Nina Rosace, 52 Ways to Get More Time in Your Life by Glenda May, Spousonomics: Or how to maximise the returns on the biggest investment of your life, How To Retire In 12 Months: Turning passion into profit by Serena Star-Leonard and The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich by Timothy Ferriss.

So impressed am I with Paper Flow’s promises, I’ve actually read the first couple of chapters and decided to take the authors’ 28-day challenge. But that’s another story. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Interview – Josh and Phil of The Undys series

Kids’ Book Capers is thrilled to welcome two very special guests – Phil and Josh Undy, superstar lead players from Michael Wagner’s junior fiction series The Undys.

Welcome Phil and Josh, it’s so lovely to e-meet you!

Josh: Thanks, it’s nice to e-meet you too, Tania. Isn’t it Dad? Dad? DAD!?
Phil: Oh, sorry, Joshy-boy, I got distracted. There’s a dead fly on the window sill. It’s upside down. And still buzzing a bit. What was the question?
Josh: It’s nice to e-meet us, isn’t it?
Phil: Yes, it e-is. It’s great to e-meet e-us.
Josh: Butthead.

It’s been said that you are a pair of true pranksters and game-players. Tell us about your antics and which ones you love best.

Josh: Well, we just play games whenever we’re bored. And it doesn’t really matter where we are – we’re pretty good at making up a game on the spot. We play Gut Barging and Toe-Wrestling and Run ‘Til You Stop and all sorts of other made-up games.
Phil: Yeah … I agree with what Josh said. Well said, Joshy-boy.
Josh: Thanks, Pops.

You are also highly competitive. Who tends to ‘win’ between the two of you?

Josh: Me
Phil: Me
Josh: Yeah, right.
Phil: As if.
Josh: Want to thumb-wrestle right now?
Phil: Better not, I think Tania’s got another e-question for us.
Josh: Okay then.

I do have another question. Who would you say is the smartest?

Josh: Me
Phil: Me
Josh: Yeah, right.
Phil: As if.
Josh: Want to thumb-wrestle right now?
Phil: Better not, I think Tania’s got another e-question for us.
Josh: Okay then.

[Stares speechlessly for a moment.] Ummm … what about the best looking?

Josh: Me
Phil: Him
Josh: Yeah, right.
Phil: Tricked you!
Josh: Butthead!

[More staring.] Err … the funniest?

Josh: We’re not actually funny.
Phil: No, we’re more just stupid.
Josh: There’s a slight difference.

[Smiles awkwardly.] What sums up your father/son relationship?

Josh: One second. Hey, Dad, look! That’s fly’s buzzing again.
Phil: Really? Oh, so it is! Wow … it’s so weird-looking…
Josh: While Dad’s distracted I’ll secretly tell you that he’s the best dad in the world. By a million miles.
Phil: … wow it must be getting close to its last buzz by now.
Josh: Next question?

[Smiling warmly.] Can you tell us more about Mum?

Josh: Um, that’s a bit of a sad thing to talk about.
Phil: It’s okay, we can just say it quickly and then keep going. Tania, Josh’s mum, died from cancer when he was four. She was the most beautiful and kind person in the world. And I promised her that when she was gone I would be the best mum a dad can be. And I’ve tried to live up to that promise, every day. Because she really deserves that.
Josh: And now we have Amy.
Phil: That’s right. We’re very lucky.
Josh: The luckiest!

I was so sorry to hear about Mum. I know you will always hold her close to your hearts [pause for some hugging]. Phil – how do you feel about Josh calling you Butthead?

Phil: I don’t really mind – even though I know I should. I think he only does it because we’re friends as well as father and son. It’s like we’re mates, really, isn’t it Joshy-boy?
Josh: Sure is, noodle-nut.

Your game rule is this – “whatever happens, happens”. What does that mean exactly?

Josh: That just means that you never stop the game to complain or whinge or carry on like a pork chop. You just keep playing no matter what happens. It sounds like an easy rule, but it’s not. It’s really hard.
Phil: It sure is. Sometimes I really want to stop and mope, but that rule says I can’t. It’s tough.

You’ve already starred in six rollicking Undys adventures – which has been your favourite and why?

Josh: I think my favourite game is in the green book, Itching for Action, where we play Total Embarrassment with Aunty Faber. But I love all the books just the same.
Phil: Total Embarrassment still gives me nightmares. Eeek.

What was it like to have a book series written about you?

Josh: It was great, but I did actually write it myself. Michael Wagner says he wrote most of it, but it was really me. He’s just competitive about who wrote the most. Some people are weird like that.
Phil: Yeah, he’s very competitive. Strange.

Okay then … so, what’s Michael Wagner really like?

Josh: Competitive.
Phil: Yeah, competitive.

What about illustrator Gus Gordon?

Josh: Nice.
Phil: Yeah, nice.

Describe yourselves in five words.

Josh: Strong
Phil: Silly
Josh: Amazing
Phil: Stupid
Josh: Cool … really nice … the best!
Phil: I think we went over five words.
Josh: Woops. One last one – power-packed!

Can you give a sneak peek at your next adventure?

Josh: Michael Wagner says he’s writing about some action-packed teddy bear at the moment. So he’s not able to help me write more stories. As if a teddy could be as good as us!?

What a shame! I hope we can read more of your adventures soon. Where can people follow you online?

Josh: Just go to Michael Wagner’s website and blog. Where are they again, Dad?
Phil: On the Internet, I think.
Josh: Dad! What are the URL’s?
Phil: The what-r-whats?
Josh: Noodle-nut! I’ll look on the laptop that’s right next to the no-longer-buzzing fly.  Okay, here are Michael’s website and blog: www.michaelwagner.com.au and  wagstheauthor.blogspot.com
Phil: Thanks Tania. It was e-lovely to e-meet you.
Josh: Thanks Tansie. :^)

Tania: *blush*

The Undys Series is published by Puffin and is ideal for kids aged between 7 and 12.

Scarecrow and the book trailer

The new Matthew Reilly novel Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves gets released today! Have you seen the book trailer, yet? It’s a pulse-pounding, exciting little vid, created by Paul Murphy from BookTease. Paul has created lots of book trailers, including one for Five Greatest Warriors (watch the trailer), also by Matthew Reilly, and the rather chilling and intense trailer for Mo Hayder’s Gone (watch the trailer).

Today, Paul is paying a visit to Literary Clutter to tell us a little about the new trailer and how he went about creating it. But first, let’s watch the trailer…

And now, take it away Paul…

Finding the hook
By Paul Murphy

With every book trailer I make, the first thing I try to figure out is the hook. What is it about this novel that will grab people? It could be a plot point, a character, an image on the cover – anything. In my experience, the best hooks always come from a gut reaction. It’s the one thing about a book that makes me think, “I want to know more about that…”

With Scarecrow And The Army of Thieves, it was the title that grabbed me. The idea of an army of thieves really captured my imagination. This is the fifth Scarecrow novel, so everyone already knows who the hero is. What I wanted to do with the trailer was set up this new threat – show them growing in numbers and becoming more powerful, while also dropping a few subtle clues about the actual plot. What better way to hail the return of a hero than by introducing his next enemy?

Once I had my hook, I knew that the music needed to be the battle theme of the Army of Thieves. I’m really particular when it comes to selecting music for a project – I think it’s one of the most important decisions because it can communicate story and genre on a level that words and pictures can’t. I chose a military march that was dark and relentless, but also anarchic and off-kilter.

For the visual style, I wanted something that almost had the look and feel of a computer game. I’m not much of a gamer myself, but my brother is, and he helped me research the visual style of a lot of games in the thriller/action genre to find the style I was after. I was blown away by some of the game trailers out there – some of them are works of art on their own, and became a real source of inspiration for this trailer.

I’m really proud of how the Army of Thieves trailer turned out, but I also think it’s a good example of the unique role book trailers can play in book marketing. Matt’s books are aimed at an audience who are traditionally reluctant readers, so it doesn’t make sense to market to them in the usual places, e.g. bookstores. And with the closing of some major bookstores in Australia, it’s no surprise that more and more publishers are looking to the web and social media as a new way to communicate with readers.

George’s bit at the end

To find out more about Paul and the other trailers he’s made, check out the BookTease website.

And if you’d like to know a little more about Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves here’s a vid of Matthew Reilly talking about it.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.



Steve Jobs was Just My Type

Simon Garfield’s 2010 Profile Books title Just My Type: A book about fonts (which, incidentally, I downloaded from the iTunes store as an app for my iPad) opens with an introduction quoting Steve Jobs.

Which is appropriate, really, because Jobs is the father of digital type.

The quote is taken from Jobs’s 2005 Stanford speech, which you can watch on YouTube in full. I recommend it. It was the first thing I did after learning of Jobs’s death last week. In it he speaks candidly about confronting death after his initial cancer diagnosis, of his adoption, of dropping out of college, his sacking from his beloved Apple, falling in love with his wife (and while we ponder the great innovator’s legacy, spare a thought for her and his three children), and his passion for fonts.

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country,” Jobs told the Stanford graduates. “Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. ”

What an achievement. If that was all Jobs had achieved, aside from being a father and a husband, in his lifetime, it’d be enough to give him guru status.

The impact those fonts had on the publishing industry was profound. Desktop publishing led to professional looking uni newspapers (we used a program called Ready Set Go for the Mac at Woroni, the ANU paper, in 1990) and zines, streamlined production processes for books, magazines and newspapers (many of which have been produced using Quark Xpress, Illustrator and more recently InDesign, among other programs for the Mac). Later, the rise of the internet and html allowed us to publish websites and blogs featuring all manner of fonts. Today, publishers produce ebooks in ePub format, and ereading software and devices allow the consumer to choose their own font style and size.

My first computer was an Apple IIc. We’d had a groovy electronic typewriter before that that allowed you to edit a sentence or two back. For a passionate 12-year-old reader and writer, the introduction to word processing that personal computing brought with it was life changing. I was equally beguiled by the file and program structure of Apple’s first portable computer (we used to take it down to the beach with us – well, the beach house, at least), and spent the first few weeks reading all the manuals from cover to cover. I remember struggling to tear the hole-filled borders off the dot matrix printer paper without ripping final pages of essays and creative writing assignments for school. I remember floppy disks. And I remember playing Lode Runner and Lemonade Stand with my younger brother and sister on rainy days on the NSW South Coast.

Some family friends bought a Macintosh a few months later and invited me over to have a look at it (as you do). Their 13-year-old son showed me how it worked. I confess I had a crush on him (as well as the Mac) for years afterwards. Unlike my Apple love, that flirtation finally resolved itself on the other side of the world sometime early this century.

My first PowerBook.
At uni, I used one of the early PowerBooks (pictured in my somewhat alarmingly floral first group house bedroom). I remember feeling as though I were a pianist, creating beautiful music, as I tapped out Linguistics essays and on it. It was on one of these grey gadgets that I first experienced email and the web, in greyscale, but mind-blowing nonetheless. The PowerBook’s trackball was replaced in later models (one of which found its way onto my desk) with a trackpad.

The mid-90s belonged to Microsoft and particularly Windows. It might’ve been that in my first job as a tech journalist, I was busy reviewing laptops (and mobile phones – back when Nokia was king) from all the major computer brands (Olivetti had a gorgeous terracotta notebook, I remember, and the IBM ThinkPad was my favourite), and so had no need to be faithful to one brand.

To be completely honest, I didn’t really like the brash design of the iBook (I wish that name had been saved up for the iPad) and first iMacs.

It wasn’t until the MacBook arrived that I rejoined the fold. Sleek, white and slimline, it brought me back to Mac. Were I have stayed since, adding essential gadgets to the mix as Jobs and his magicians created them.

The iPod was clever, but from the minute I heard that Apple was working on a mobile phone, I knew that true handheld computing was finally on the way.

It was on my iPhone that I became a social media junkie, first read an ebook, finally learnt to budget via the Spend app, kept my to do lists in order via Things, replaced my audio recorder for interviews (with the SpeakEasy app), embraced cloud computing (with My Writing Spot and Dropbox), really began to use email on the go, gave up using our old stereo system (TuneIn Radio rocks), ditched my Filofax for Contacts and Calendar, gave up the Gregory’s for Maps and moved from restaurant guidebooks to Urbanspoon. With the 4 I’ve given up using a separate camera as well.

Don’t get me started on the iPad. If any one inanimate and inedible object has changed my life more, I can’t think of what it is offhand. Books, magazines, newspapers, television, film, writing, PDF annotation, Skype, photo viewing and video editing … and that’s just for starters.

What a legacy for individuals who have used his creations. What an inspiration for creative types everywhere. Thanks Steve, we’ll miss you.

This post was written on my iPad and MacBook and posted on my iMac.


Phoenix is the debut YA novel of Victorian author, Alison Ashley.  Book one in a paranormal series, the fifth shadow, it’s a truly remarkable story that weaves back and forth between the present and war torn England.

Twins, Katie and Ally have left Australia to look after their aging grandfather in England. They’re not at all thrilled about the idea of leaving behind the life they have always known.

For Katie and Ally, it’s not just about their future, but it’s also about a journey back in time and righting past wrongs.

Katie and Ally both have strong psychic powers – the difference between them is that whilst Katie embraces hers, Ally is in denial. This is a source of conflict between the twins and nearly costs one of them her life.

Apart from the shadow from the past that lurks in the family, I was also intrigued by the father’s rejection of all things paranormal. I wondered why he was like that when psychic connections so obviously run in the family.  What happened to him to make him banish psychic books and discussions from their lives? I expect these questions will be answered in future books in the series and I’m looking forward to finding out more.

Phoenix has plenty of action and suspense – a chilling message, a family secret and a tragic crime. All the threads are cleverly pulled together in an engrossing plot that hooked me right to the end and left me wanting to read book two in the series, Revival.

Phoenix is told from both Katie and Ally’s point of view but the author has managed to give them both very distinct voices – both authentically teen.

The contemporary lives and loves of today’s teens are well depicted but the two main characters also have deeper dilemmas to address – facing up to who they really are and the fact that if they change the past, it will also affect the future in devastating ways.

The sensory description enables the reader to become immersed in Katie and Ally’s world and to step back and forwards in time along with the story.

The candlesticks and the bucket in the corner trembled with the sounds of distant rumbling and explosions and the air was tainted with damp earth and a waxy odour.

Phoenix is a YA paranormal that could be enjoyed by lovers of both contemporary and paranormal YA. It’s an engrossing story with engaging characters, set in a believable world with not a vampire in sight.

Phoenix is published by Warrambucca Books. More about this book is available from www.thefifthshadow.com


St Jude’s

St Jude'sThere are plenty of us who dream of making a difference in the world, and starting a school in Africa fits that noble-but-never-going-to-happen cliché. So we us sit up and take note when we hear of someone who’s actually gone out and done it.

Gemma Sisia is a country girl from Guyra in New South Wales (I’ve personally never heard of the place, nor driven through it on our long, family road trips—methinks it’s somewhere in the vicinity of Armidale, but then my geography is muy hazy).

Anyway, Sisia headed to Africa for a two-year trip to work in a school, fell in love with a Tanzanian man, and eventually married him after a long courtship and largely without her family’s approval. She then set up a groundbreaking school named St Jude’s in honour of the patron of hopeless causes.

Australian Story fans might have seen Sisia and St Jude’s featured some time ago. Though I’m a big Australian Story fan (and regular sobber—goddamn, that show can be a tearjerker), I can’t say I saw that episode.

Instead I heard about the school from some friends whose company, YLead, fundraises for it and takes students to visit the school annually (my brother also travelled with them last year to shoot a documentary and came back raving about the school).

The difference with St Jude’s—apart from the fact that it was founded and is run by an Australian woman—is that the entry is competitive, and the school only takes children who have both the aptitude and the attitude. And even then only takes one from each family. Though heartbreaking in practice, the thinking is that they want to share the opportunities and education around.

The school’s gone from strength to strength, but it’s actually Sisia’s mix of warmth, pragmatism, determination, and vision that has made it possible in the face of many, many obstacles. In fact, the overriding thought I had while reading her autobiography, entitled St Jude’s, was that I couldn’t do what she’d done. There were too many incidents that would have seen me defeated.

That’s not to say that I’m without pluck, but I think Africa is challenging at the best of times and particularly challenging to those (OCD) of us who like order. Sisia is the lone girl in a family of eight children and grew up on a farm on rural New South Wales.

Salt of the earth and able to hold her own with the boys, she can clearly take things in her stride. Like the Masai tradition of spitting on a child’s face when it’s the first time they’ve met them. Hmmm, pretty sure that would do me in. That and incompetent and corrupt builders, who lack the expertise or the motivation to do a good job.

But Sisia has triumphed—even if it’s meant her climbing on roofs to fix structures, knocking down and rebuilding brick walls, and digging trenches herself. She seems to have done it with her sense of humour intact too, with the book proving self-deprecating and surprisingly light and wry at every page turn.

If there are two things that surprised me, it’s how much religion and memoir feature within the book’s pages. I’d expected more about the school, but while it’s there, it’s less prominent than the title implies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Sisia is fascinating and fun. The book literally starts with her birth and traces her growing up and family’s tale, which in many ways helps explain just how she’s managed to make the school such a success.

Still, the religion is something that I wasn’t overly sold on, even though I was raised Catholic and understood what Sisia was on about. Credit where credit’s due, though: she takes the mickey out of herself, acknowledging that not everyone believes in the powers of prayer the same way she does and backing off when she realises she’s laying it on a bit thick.

But I wanted something a little more and a bit different. Having heard lots about the school from friends and my brother, I was incredibly interested in the school and felt that the information the book contains about it is fairly cursory.

That has something to do with the fact, of course, that the book was written and published almost five years ago in 2007, when St Jude’s was effectively still in its infancy. The book Sisia might write now would likely feature the school more prominently. My hope is that she either writes a sequel or releases a revised, updated version of St Jude’s.

That said, there were two moments (one an oldie, and one a newie) that made the book worth reading for me, and that can be applied to life more widely. The first was what helped Sisia out of an I’m-not-sure-I’m-making-a-difference slump, and the second how and why she makes the school work in Africa:

Two men were once walking along a beach together […] It was just after a storm and the beach was strewn with flotsam and jetsam. Stranded all the way along the beach were thousands and thousands of starfish, still alive but slowly drying out in the sun’s heat. One of the men walked over to them but the other stopped every few paces, picked up a starfish, and threw it back into the sea.

‘What are you doing that for?’ asked the first man. ‘You know it’s not going to make a difference. There are too many starfish and only one of you.’

‘No,’ agreed his friend, bending down and picking up a starfish. As he placed it in the shallows and picked up another, he said: ‘But it makes a difference to this one. And this one. And this one.’


One of the great things about living in Africa is you can say, ‘To hell with the rules!’ If I want to put up a building, I pace out the dimensions myself. To decide where the windows should go, I wander around with a piece of chalk and mark them out. I’m completely free, not bound by someone else’s idea of what you can or can’t do. When you’re not worried about what other people are saying, you begin to think only in terms of how you can make your dreams a reality…


2-in-1 books! Remember them? They were a gimmicky way of presenting two stories in the one book, with two front covers. You pick up the book and start reading. You finished the story, close the book and flip it over — and voilà — a new front cover and a new story. Brilliant! I loved books like this as a kid.

My first experience with a 2-in1 book was way back in primary school, somewhere in the dark, distant 1970s. The two stories were The Humans of Ziax II and The Drought on Ziax II, both by John Morressy. Short, simple science fiction stories, accompanied by black and white illustrations, they were perfect for a reluctant reader trying to reform his ways. The cover illustrations weren’t very good and it’s interesting to note that the two covers used two different fonts. (My wife is a graphic designer, so I’ve learned to care deeply about the misuse of fonts.) But as a kid, I didn’t care. I enjoyed the stories, and I loved the idea of a 2-in-1 book with two front covers that you flipped over. In fact, I remember flipping the book, over and over again, looking at each of the covers repeatedly, simply because I loved the idea of it. (Yeah, I didn’t get out much.)

Other 2-in-1 books crossed my path over the years, but most of them have faded into obscurity. Let’s face it — it’s a gimmicky idea and sometimes publishers were so intent on the gimmick that they weren’t all that concerned with the stories.

But then in the 1990s I came across a series of 2-in-1 books called Shivers. Edited by Paul Collins and published by HarperCollins, they were a set of kids’ horror books. Each book had two unrelated stories by two different authors. The linking features were the genre and the striking covers by Marc McBride… and each cover featured a red splash with the words “Two twisted tales to turn you upside down!” They were a lot better than the average 2-in-1 book, as they featured stories by the likes of Christine Harris, Meredith Costain, Patricia Bernard, Dianne Bates and Margaret Clark.

I had not seen a new 2-in1 since Shivers, until…

I was recently browsing through all the Doctor Who books listed on Boomerang Books (just something I do every now and then because I’m a nerdy fanboy), when I came across (insert drum roll) a new range of 2-in-1 Doctor Who books. Of course I HAD to order one.

There were three to choose from. I chose System Wipe / The Good, the Bad and the Alien. Why? Because the tag line for System Wipe reads: “The virtual world of Parallife is in very real danger…” A Doctor Who story set in a virtual world? I had to read it. You see, I’ve written two books set within a virtual world (Gamers’ Quest and Gamers’ Challenge) and I had often thought to myself that the concept would work well within the parameters of a Doctor Who story.

System Wipe is written by Oli Smith, who also happens to write computer games. It’s a really entertaining read with a few thought-provoking ideas thrown in. The Doctor gets trapped in the virtual world of Parallife, where game characters have become self-aware after the mysterious disappearance of all the human players. Meanwhile, Amy and Rory have to deal with robots intent on demolishing and then rebuilding the surface of the Earth, in a real world devoid of human life. My only complaint with this story is that I don’t think it’s long enough. With a little more length, there is so much more that could have been explored. It is, nonetheless, a zippy little read, well worth the investment of an afternoon.

The companion story, The Good, the Bad and the Alien by Colin Brake, sees the Doctor and his companions arrive in the American Wild West. Here they have to deal with bank robbers, aliens and a missing super weapon. It’s fast-paced and reasonably entertaining, but also a little pedestrian. I would perhaps have enjoyed it more, had I read it before System Wipe.

So there you have it — the 2-in-1 book is apparently alive and well. And it seems quite suited to the Doctor Who universe. I think I’ll probably pick up the other books in this series.

So… has anyone out there read any 2-in-1 books? Leave a comment and tell us about them.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.


Review – Come Down, Cat!

The cat is on the roof.

Nicholas is worried. ‘Come down, Cat!’ he calls. But the cat just says ‘Marl’.

How can Nicholas get the cat to come down? He fetches a ladder but the cat is off across the rooftops, way out of reach. It looks like the cat will have to stay on the roof. For the night.

Dark soon descends and Nicholas worries his furry little friend will be spooked by nighttime monsters and ghosts and creepy crawlies, but the cat seems unaffected and serene. What a fearless little cat, thinks Nicholas.

Until …

Pitter pat. Drip drop. What is it that a cat truly fears? Not the ghosts and monsters and crawling creepies prowling around the darkened garden … could it be something far more sinister, something completely fur-wracking – could it be … rain?

Gorgeous illustrations by Lucia Masciullo have a folksy, whimsical quality that lend this story a somewhat fable-like feel, and effect a delicious energy and mood.

A simple, charming story about fear, fearlessness and the relativity of perception, Come Down, Cat! is a warming tale of loving friendship that will make children think as well as smile.

Come Down, Cat! is published by Viking (Penguin) and teacher’s notes are available at the Puffin Books Education Centre.



Navigating the next book maze (sci-fi and fantasy edition)

Regular readers will know about my slightly unnerving love of a good spreadsheet about books but even more thrilling than seeing all that data is seeing that vast amounts of information presented really well. And when that data is a fantastic compilation of recommendations on what to read based on complex choices that you can actually make, well… I’m not going to stop frothing in glee anytime soon.

You had me at "Don't Panic".

It all started when NPR decided to make a list 100 science fiction and fantasy books of all time, as compiled by its listeners and readers. NPR (National Public Radio) is a US news organisation that also collates independent radio stations. Its plentiful selection of thoroughly diverting best-seller and reading lists are a collaboration by listeners and the American Booksellers Association, who compile their lists from 500 independent bookstores in the USA.

They asked their audience to nominate titles for a top-100 list of the best science fiction and fantasy ever written. The response was good — almost 5,000 people posted to the site with thousands more offering suggestions on Facebook. NPR put together an expert panel to narrow the list to a manageable field of a few hundred titles and then threw this list open to the polls again. What they ended up with was a Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy reads.

All very well, but science fiction fans at SFsignal thought they could go one better. Taking the massive list and analysing it, they designed a flowchart guide that enables you to browse through the recommended books by making choices – are you in the mood for fantasy or sci-fi (or both!), would you like to read books from the past or the future, are you in the mood for politics or philosophy etc, and you navigate your way to your next great read.

It’s pretty immense (have a look at the full-size version here). According to the designer it is the largest flowchart they have ever seen attempted.

“There are (obviously) 100 end points and over 325 decision points. For people with lower resolution monitors, netbooks, or tablets, this 3800 x 2300 image is going to a scroll-fest. But it’s totally worth it.”

After spending about 20 happy minutes scrolling and exploring, I agree, both with the comments on sheer size and it being worth it. They’ve since released an easy-to-navigate interactive version which has both eaten up the tiny amount of spare time not taken by the Rugby World Cup and ensured that Boomerang Books are going to enjoying most of my pay-cheque for the foreseeable future. Read, navigate and enjoy – just don’t blame me if your book collection is exponentially bigger by the end of the day.

Not The Book You’re Looking For…

Penguin 75I’ve got to admit I didn’t expect to be laughing at myself while reading Penguin 75, but then again, but I guess that’s what you get for doing something by halves (I almost wrote ‘half-assed’, but then told myself this was a family-friendly blog).

I’d vaguely heard there was a book about the history of Penguin’s covers and, as I’m fascinated by the company’s origins and iconic penguin and orange covers, figured it was a must-have. Of course, I didn’t know the title so crowdsourced its title via Facebook.

Fellow writer, part-time bookseller, and full-time friend and Christopher Currie (I’ve blogged about his first novel, The Ottoman Hotel) suggested I might be thinking of Penguin 75; one he knew to be a bestseller. I immediately ordered it from Boomerang Books and rubbed my hands together in anticipation of its arrival.

Those of us in the industry obsess about what goes into a good cover, and what works and doesn’t from both the author’s and booksellers’ points of view. We each have our pet hates.

For me, they’re generally dust covers and specifically dust covers in light colour. If they don’t arrive in store torn, battered, and generally looking shabby, within about five seconds flat of being on the shelf and handled by potential buyers, they will be.

That said, I have no idea what my idea of a perfect cover is and would go into a complete tailspin were I to have to articulate what I would do for my own book should it ever be published. Hence my keen-ness to learn from the best…

It turns out that it wasn’t quite the book I thought I was ordering, although I’m not sure the book I thought I was ordering actually exists. Instead of tracing the company’s history and the arrival at those distinctive orange Popular Penguin covers, Penguin 75 looks at other covers the company has put together and contains a commentary from the authors whose books those covers graced and the designers who came up with them.

It took me a while to work out what was going on and I chuckled at myself and my confusion when I finally worked it out. And although I don’t (ironically) like its cover, I was amused at and impressed by the cleverness of the book and the wit with which it’s executed.

Paul Buckley is the Executive Vice President Creative Director at Penguin, which is a fancy way of saying Art Director, AKA the guy who is in charge of the designers who design the covers. The book is him documenting the behind-the-scenes tales of just how some covers came into being. And by goodness it’s a cack.

Take, for example, his introduction:

Publishers and editors are used to hearing art directors and designers moan endlessly about their best work being passed over by the philistines that surround them on all sides. They’re also used to hearing from the authors about how there is no way the designer read the material and this lousy cover will surely bury the author’s career.

Then these poor editors and publisher have to gently navigate us through, hopefully to a good conclusion for all. Beautiful designs flourish. And massive book sales soon follow. Probably. Not really. Okay, sometimes. But never as often as we’d all like.

Eat, Pray, LoveHe goes on to explain the book’s premise:

This being the case, design blogs are constantly asking, ‘Why does this cover look this way?’ Often the designer appears online and diplomatically attempts to answer. But in all my years, I’ve only seen an author chime in once. So with this book, I thought it would be fun to get both sides on one page talking about one cover.

And what I’ve learned is that when faced with putting their thoughts on the printed page, authors are far more polite than designers. But I’ve seen the emails. I’ve heard the responses. An author who dislikes his or her cover is often very not polite, and sometimes understandably so.

They spend years crafting something that is immensely important to them, then we come along and in a matter of weeks, an editor sends an email that is usually along the lines of ‘We are so excited to be showing you this cover! We hope you love it as much as we do!!! XOXO’ (really, I see the XOXO thing A LOT)…and then major author panic ensues.

There are some brilliant admissions and one-liners in this book, including some that are cleverly previewed on the inside of the cover and that then point to the particular page in the book on which they occur. Some of my favourites include:

  • He read the book brief and immediately came up with a bear shagging a doll. Bingo. Cover approved.
  • This one is going to be very very very difficult to nail.’ Translation: I’ll need to see a hundred cover comps, and I’m not picking on till UPS is banging on the door.
  • What if I said it was awful? Would [my editor] still take me out to lunch?
  • Sketches were submitted and came back with mixed results. The horse would have to be castrated, but the nipple stays.

The Ottoman MotelI actually laughed out loud (at myself) when I read about how the designer, who didn’t realise just how big the book was going to be (although in truth, no one did, really) put together the Eat, Pray, Love cover. See, the ‘eat’ is crafted from real, three-dimensional pasta, the ‘pray’ from prayer beads, and the ‘love’ from flowers. It was painstakingly completed and photographed twice because the first images didn’t turn out quite so well. Me? I never realised what they were! Er, like, duh!

The tale of how a 16-year-old intern broke the rules and came up with the perfect cover acts as a reminder that the best ideas can come from the unlikeliest (and less experienced) of places. Its inception will go down in Penguin history.

I also loved how one author created his own cover by photographing prostitutes and then obtaining a handwritten release form, which is pictured in the book). His rather, er, detailed invoice (also pictured), is brilliant too.

But I don’t wish to ruin the surprise so won’t say anything further. Instead I’ll say it wasn’t the book I expected and that I didn’t have the reaction to it that I’d anticipated, but that I’d highly recommend. Kind of like it’s not the book you’re looking for, but it’s one that you should find.

Gamers’ Names

A few weeks ago the wonderful people at Boomerang Books organised a competition to celebrate the launch of my new book, Gamers’ Challenge (see Book Giveaway!). The competition is over. Winners have been chosen. Prizes have been sent out. And now it’s time for me to comment on it all.

In order to enter the competition, people had to suggest new names for my hero and heroine, Tark and Zyra. There were over 100 entries and not a single double-up of suggested names. There are obviously lots of creative people out there.

Suggested names ranged from the genre-esque, Sword Keeper and Stellar Nova, to the classical, Caesar and Cleopatra; from the humorous, Null and Void, to the absurd, Chip and Saucy; from the chocolately, Kit and Kat, to the minty, Spearmint Guy and Peppermint Gal; from the political, Rudd and Gillard, to the clownish, Zig and Zag. Many people also suggested the names of their children and/or partners.

But in the end there could be only three winners. Difficult though it was to pare it down, I managed to finally choose the following three suggestions…

In third place we have Vanda Bacich who wrote:

“I would go with impressive Greek names like Cheatus Codus and Passinga Levelius!”

It made me think of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. 🙂 Very funny! I can even imagine a villain for Cheatus Codus and Passinga Levelius… Biggus Pixelus!

In second place we have A Leong who wrote:

“Aphra and Ben (Aphra Behn was one of the first English professional female writers and she is buried in Westminster Abbey)”

Although I’ve never read anything by Aphra Behn, I know of her writing. A 17th Century author and dramatist, she wrote several novels, including Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, and many plays, including The Town Fop. I was mightily impressed that someone out there knew who she was.

And finally…

(insert drum roll)

In first place we have Stuart Hines who wrote:

“Barry and Tanya—Mine is more of an Aussie bogan take on the genre.”

I laughed and laughed when I read this answer. I had no choice but to award it first place. Although if I were to use Stuart’s suggestion, I’d probably take it a step further and use nick-name versions… Bazza and Tan. I’m having visions of flannelette shirts and moccasins. 🙂

A big thank you to everyone who entered.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I just may write Bogans’ Challenge. 😉



A mysterious apothecary, a magic book, a missing scientist, an impossible plan

Just some of the hooks to be found in The Apothecary, Maile Meloy’s first venture into writing for young readers.

Maile is the award-winning author of short story collections Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It and Half in Love and novels, Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, and her skills as a writer are clearly evident from the first page.

Straight away she draws the reader into the 1950s setting and introduces the strong-minded 14 year-old Janie and her closeknit, slightly quirky family.

Janie has just moved to London from LA and is feeling uncomfortable in her strange new school until she is given a homesickness remedy by the local apothecary.

But the apothecary, is no ordinary man and neither is his son, Benjamin who Janie quickly forms an attraction to. Their relationships is sensitively portrayed showing the times they live in and the tentativeness and insecurities of first love.

And after Benjamin’s father is kidnapped, and they are entrusted with the care of an ancient, magical book, the Pharmacopoeia, there’s little time for romance anyway. Especially not when there are Russian spies, traitor police officers and lives in danger.

The Apothecary is fast-paced but it also allows the reader time to engage with the characters and become immersed in their world. Janie is a strong and believable heroine and of course there are obstacles in the way of her feelings for Benjamin, including the gorgeous and disdainful Sarah Pennington who doesn’t miss an opportunity to belittle Janie.

In The Apothecary, Maile Meloy keeps raising the stakes for her main characters until it seems that victory is impossible.

But it’s hard to keep these characters down, and their ingenuity and determination bring them out of the pages and make them real for the reader. This book is full of magic and sparkle, spies, evil and global intrigue.

Ian Schoenherr’s amazing illustrations capture the world, the mystery and the mood of The Apothecary and bring the reader closer to the characters and the action.

The Apothecary is an exciting, well-researched adventure that readers will find hard to put down, no matter what genre they favour. It’s a book that can be enjoyed by readers aged 12 to adult.

As the Weekend Australian said of Maile Meloy. She is ‘A master of her craft.’

The Apothecary is published in Australia by The Text Publishing Company. Teachers’ Notes are available at http://textpublishing.com.au/static/files/assets/fffb5315/Apothecary_TeachersResource.pdf


Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

TITLE: The Cat’s Table
AUTHOR:  Michael Ondaatje
PUBLISHER: Random House  (2 August 2011)

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

Buy The Cat’s Table here…

I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, into the future“(p.4-5).

This boy, whose name is Michael, like Ondaatje’s, shares some of his creator’s history. But how much of his story is invented and how much of this novel is autobiographical is impossible to tell, partly because Ondaatje has created such a believable story-teller. In spite of the fact that Ondaatje says clearly in an Author’s Note that his novel merely uses the “colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography” and is definitely fiction, its brief chapters have the feel of memory and it is a teasing fiction.

Michael, as an eleven-year-old boy, is put aboard the Ocean Liner Oronsay by relatives. He has with him only a small suitcase, and he is to travel from Sri Lanka (Ceylon, as it was then) to England to join his mother, just as Ondaatje once did. The only people he knows on board this ship are Mrs Flavia Prins, to whom he is introduced shortly before he leaves Sri Lanka and who, unlike him, is travelling First Class; and a distant cousin, Emily, a seventeen-year-old who is also travelling alone but who has “her own plans for the voyage”.

Michael and two other boys of similar age are seated for meals at ‘The Cat’s Table’, so-called by Miss Lasqueti because it is “the least privileged place”, as far from the Captain’s Table as possible. Miss Lasqueti and five other adults share the table with the boys and gradually, through Michael’s eyes, we come to know more about all of them. Years later, looking back at his younger self, Michael sees a child who is “as green as he could be about the world”, but Michael has a child’s curiosity about everything and a young boy’s boundless energy. This voyage is to be an education for him in many ways, but Ondaatje’s book is not just a rite-of-passage story, it is a wonderful recreation of a boy’s perceptions and of what it is like to be an eleven-year-old with almost unlimited freedom from normal adult supervision.

Young Michael and his friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, organize their time so that they have free run of the ship in the very early morning and late at night. They swim in the First Class swimming pool, slide on the still-wet, freshly-scrubbed decks, spy on people from their secret lair in one of the suspended lifeboats, steal sandwiches when no-one is around, and get up to the usual sorts of mischief which eleven-year-olds are capable of getting up to. But they are also inquisitive and observant, and over the course of the voyage they learn a great deal from and about their fellow passengers.

Miss Lasqueti, it turns out, is not the staid spinster they first thought her to be. Intriguingly, she keeps a cage of pigeons and she wears a special vest with pockets in it for carrying the birds around. She also has “something to do with Whitehall”; and Michael is sure, on one occasion, that he sees her use a gun. Mr Davies, another Cat’s Table diner, takes the boys to see his medicinal garden deep in the bowels of the ship. And Mr Nevil, a retired ship dismantler,  introduces the boys to his friends in the engine and furnace rooms. There is also the well-travelled, failed pianist, Max Mazappa, who takes the boys under his wing, regales them with “confusing and often obscene lyrics” and tries to instill in Michael a love of jazz. The fifth adult we meet only towards the end of the book

Other passengers have more exotic stories. Baron C, briefly trains Michael to act as his accomplice in petty theft. Mr Fonseka, whose nostalgic hemp-rope burning lures Michael to his cabin by its familiar smell, is a reclusive English teacher, travelling, like Michael, to a new and unknown life in England. And Sir Hector de Silva, a wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist, is bound for Harley Street as a last resort after being bitten by a rabid dog. As I write this, I remember more and more characters, each of whom Ondaatje makes memorable with Dickensian skill. Our narrator, Michael, has a story-teller’s ability to bring them to life and a self-confessed ability “like any experienced dog” to read the gestures of those around him and to “see the power in relationships drift back and forth”, even if he does not fully understand what is happening.

There is adventure when Michael and Cassius are willingly tied to the open deck by Ramadhin during a tremendous storm. There is a mystery surrounding a chained prisoner who is seen by the boys when he is brought on deck by his guards for exercise during the night. There is intrigue, too, in the friendship of cousin Emily with the deaf girl Asuntha, and with Sunil, The Hyderabad Mind, who is a member of the Jalanka Entertainment Troup which performs for the passengers.

Dramatic things happen. There is sadness and doubt. And there is a poignant account of Michael’s meeting with his mother when he eventually disembarks in England. He is full of uncertainty, not even sure he will recognize his mother after their long separation. For her, too, as Michael reflects years later, “it must have been a hopeful or terrible moment, full of possibilities”

It is hard to tell whether it is the fictional Michael or Ondaatje himself who “once told someone” that “this journey was to be an innocent story within the small parameters of my youth”. Perhaps it was both. The Cat’s Table is, in any case, a beautifully told, humorous and adventurous exploration of the mysterious way in which people, events and memory can shape our lives and our own stories.

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