Foz’s Key to Starveldt

In 2010, first-time author Foz Meadows saw the publication of her urban fantasy novel, Solace & Grief. It got great reviews and much interest. (See my previous posts: “Books with bite” and “Authors with bite”) Then, in 2011, the sequel was published. But writing a sequel is no easy task. Just ask Foz. Actually, don’t bother — I’ve already asked her. 🙂 Take it away Foz…

Writing a sequel
By Foz Meadows

The thing about sequel volumes is that, even when you’ve planned them, they have ways of unplanning themselves.

Much like Tamagotchi toys, characters thrive when you play with them; and if you do it for long enough, they have a disconcerting tendency to evolve, Pokemon-like, into new and exciting forms. (90s pop culture references, I has them.) It’s a beautiful thing when the people who live in your head start to take on lives of their own, but an absolute bugger where plot outlines are concerned. Because the thing about real people – and, by extension, real characters – is that they have free will. In a situation where being an author is roughly analogous to being the supreme creator of a parallel universe, one very soon realises that, all powers over life and death aside, your creations can still defy you. Characters who were meant to choose one path choose another, while those who were offered no choice at all start bashing at the walls of the world until they’re given one.

This is true of all books, of course, because characters are mercurial and tricksy, but it’s especially difficult when it comes to sequels. For one thing, the characters have got the bit between their teeth by then: the momentum of the previous story carries them forwards, but not always in the right direction. And for another, you can’t go back and rewrite the previous volume to fit with any subsequent changes: you now have a canon to keep in mind, which means there’s a real possibility of throw-away comments coming back to bite you on the posterior.

All of which is what happened when I sat down to write The Key to Starveldt, the sequel to Solace & Grief. I had plans for my characters! They would do my bidding! They would get drunk and have karaoke in a pocket dimension! There would be a magical trial and the accidental acquisition of a sentient wolf! And then, three quarters of the way through the first draft, everything fell to pieces. The wolf vanished; the trial became impossible; the karaoke was set aside. I’d been making my characters go where I wanted without considering whether it was actually something they’d do, and once I realised that, it was back to the drawing board. It took me several abortive attempts to figure things out, but once I did, I could feel the difference immediately. The story moved more smoothly; the character interactions made greater sense. Where before it had increasingly felt as though I was tugging the story through syrup, now I was skating on ice. Not that I didn’t still encounter pitfalls, but the lesson that, creator or not, I couldn’t just force my protagonists into whatever shape I wanted, was an important one.

The Key to Starveldt is a book I’m hugely proud of, not only because of what it taught me about writing, but because of what it taught me about my characters. I might have given them life, but they’re the ones who ultimately choose how to live it – and even if I still have to nudge them from time to time, they’re grown up enough to take the hint.

George’s bit at the end

Want to know more about Foz and her books? Check out her blog.

Catch ya later,  George

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Great Expectations – 2012 and Australian non-fiction

It’s only Tuesday, but it’s been a good week so far for Australian non-fiction and for those of us looking to get our hands on some great new books to read.

First off, the shortlist for the 2012 Indie Awards has been announced and it has highlight four of Australia’s best non-fiction books released in the last year, just in case you missed reading them. The Indie Awards recognise independent booksellers’ favourite Australian authors from the past 12 months in the fiction, non-fiction and children’s categories, with a special award for debut fiction. The category winners will be chosen by panels of readers and independent booksellers, and independent booksellers then vote on the ‘Book of the Year’ with the winners announced on 10 March at the Leading Edge Books conference.

Last year’s Book of the Year winner was Boomerang bestseller The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do. His adaptation for children, The Little Refugee (co-written with Suzanne Do), is nominated in this year’s Children’s category. You can see a full list on our blog, but here are the four non-fiction books picked out as  some of the best reads in the genre in 2011, and all are well worth picking up for your reading pleasure.

  • Worse Things Happen at Sea by William McInnes & Sarah Watt. This memoir is a charming, hilarious and touching tribute to family and everyday life, celebrating the simple things that make up the normal life of a family in the suburbs;  raising children, renovations that never end and the trials and joys of daily life and dog obedience classes.
  • Notebooks by Betty Churcher. Betty, who was recently on ABC’s “Hidden Treasures” presenting obscure and amazing items from National Gallery of Australia, has penned and sketched this gloriously illustrated book guide to her most beloved artworks.  Betty is justly famous for her knack for making art accessible and fascinating and this book, revealing the secrets in masterpieces such as those by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer and Cezanne, will captivate art novices and lovers alike.
  • After Words: Post Prime Ministerial Speeches by Paul Keating. Love him or hate him, there’s no doubting that Keating has a memorable way with words (his insults, for example, have their own website). This book of speeches are all his work and range over a huge range of topics from international relations to the role of the monarchy, to the current direction and future of Australian politics, economics and society, leaving the reader in no doubt that Keating is still a man with plenty to say and a stirring way of saying it.
  • A Private Life by Michael Kirby. Michael Kirby is a very public figure, known for his work as a judge, academic and former Justice of the High Court. This book offers a look at his private life, the challenges he faced both growing up as and coming out as gay and the convictions and relationships that have kept him going throughout his career and personal life. Kirby’s writing is warm and humourous and this memoir explores and entertains without navel-gazing.

If the highlighting of four of the best non-fiction books wasn’t reason enough to look forward to hitting the bookstores, a new annual prize promises to reward excellence in Australian science writing and make it easier to access. NewSouth Publishing has established a prize for the best short non-fiction piece on science written for a general audience; the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing.  Named in honour of Australia’s first Nobel Laureates William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg, and supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund, all winning entries will be included in an anthology (The Best Australian Science Writing 2012) which will be published late in 2012.

Scientific books can get a bad rap for being impenetrable but, as any regular readers will know, there is plenty of wonderfully written, surprising and inspiring scientific writing out there. While this isn’t the first book that NewSouth have into this area (they published The Best Australian Science Writing 2011 in November last year) the establishment of an annual prize shows an ongoing commitment to the accessible in Australian Science writing that can only be a great thing for those of us who love to curl up with a good book that educates as it fascinates.

2012 has barely started, but I’m confident that it’s going to be a year with some seriously enjoyable Australian non-fiction to get into. What are you looking forward to getting your hands on?

Review – What Animals Really Like

Mr Herbert Timberteeth, a pedantic conducting/ song-composing beaver, is launching a new song. The animals are lined up, at the ready, prepped for their part in the song… the audience is hushed, the red curtain double page spread opens… and the song begins. A-one, a-two…

We are lions and we like to prowl.

We are wolves and we like to howl.

We are pigeons and we like to coo.

We are cows and we like to …

Well, it’s not what you think. In fact, as the songs unfold, the animals reveal or should I say ‘poo-poo’ many preconceived notions on what animals REALLY like.

Did you know shrimp like to ski? Oh yes they do. And they have the holiday snaps from Switzerland to show it. Did you know that warthogs like to parachute? And blow enormous bubbles? And change their mind? And that horses really love to deep sea dive?

Herbert Timberteeth barely tolerates these totally whacky admissions, least of all because they totally ruin the rhyme and rhythm of his song. Will the debut of his new work be a failure or a resounding success?

Robinson’s dry humour and quirky illustrations make for a rollicking and fun storybook for kids, with a charming cast of characters and giggle-worthy antics.

What Animals Really Like is published by Abrams.

Elisabeth Sladen’s life

I’m not normally a biography sort of person. Many years ago, when I was an acting student, I read Laurence Olivier’s On Acting (which is a sort-of quasi autobiography focusing on his acting career) and I wasn’t riveted. So reading an autobiography was not really high on my list… until Elisabeth Sladen died.

Ms Sladen was the actress who played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and various spin-offs. I’m a HUGE Doctor Who fan and Sarah Jane was my favourite character and I was rather devastated to hear of her passing (see my post from last year “Famous Dead People”). So when I discovered that she had completed an autobiography shortly before her death, I thought I’d give it a go.

Reading an autobiography is an odd experience. It often feels like the subject is talking specifically to you… but of course you know they’re not. And there is the danger that a person you have admired from afar, may end up disappointing you. Reading Elisabeth Sladen: the autobiography, there was a certain amount of both.

As I started reading, I found the style a little disjointed. It took me a while to settle into it and accept the conversational approach, where thoughts sometimes jumped back and forth. By the end of the book, I was quite enjoying the style, and even getting that “specifically talking to you” feeling.

And yes, as I read Sladen’s reminiscences, I sometimes found myself thinking that her response to certain people and events were a little disappointing, or uncharitable or whatever. I guess, as a fan, I had imagined perfection… but what this book showed me was a human being.

In the end, that’s what I ended up loving about it… the fact that this book shows Elisabeth Sladen, the flawed human being. The person who was sometimes impatient with others; the person who sometimes made the wrong decisions; the person who stumbled through life and career without any sort of plan. It makes for a fascinating read. And in the end, it did not make me any less a fan.

On a personal note, this book provided me with an exceeding sense of relief that I did not end up pursuing an acting career. I went to drama school and I did some acting (and still do occasionally), but I never actually pursued it as my one and only career option. Unlike Ms Sladen and her husband Brian Miller. Acting was the sole career for both of them… and OMG, what a hard life. It’s all well and good if you’re a star, earning bucket loads of money, but most actors are not in that lucky situation. Particularly striking are Sladen’s descriptions of life in repertory theatre, where she was paid a pittance to be working on a gruelling schedule — performing one play in the evenings, while rehearsing another during the days, on a schedule that rotated every couple of weeks. You have to be incredibly dedicated to do that.

Of course, what I loved most about this book was its focus on Doctor Who. Eight of the seventeen chapters are devoted to Sladen’s days with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. It was really interesting reading about her dichotomous relationships with these two men — how she loved Pertwee and ended up being friends with him and his wife, but how he also often infuriated her and how she often found him difficult to work with; and how she loved working with Baker, but was never friends with him outside of Doctor Who. In fact, she describes a wonderfully awkward meeting between herself and Baker (and his then wife), when he, out of the blue, insisted on having to buy her a coat. The Baker she writes about is definitely a larger-than-life, eccentric character.

Sladen’s perspective on the transition between Pertwee and Baker is also intriguing… and quite sad. I’ve not read much about this before, but from her account, Pertwee ended up deeply regretting his decision to leave Doctor Who. I now want to seek out Pertwee’s autobiography (unfortunately out-of-print) to find out his thoughts on the matter.

There’s not a huge amount in this autobiography about Sladen’s personal life. Yes, there’s a bit about her parents and her marriage and her daughter… but not much. The book very much focuses on her as an actress, and her personal life is generally touched on in relation to her acting life. I would have liked there to be a little more about her life outside of acting. I was also disappointed that there wasn’t more about her work on The Sarah Jane Adventures. She filmed four and a half seasons before her death, but it barely gets a chapter.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy this book. It felt very honest. I never once got the impression that Sladen was trying to put on a façade. She just told things, good and bad, how they were. And it’s persuaded me that I should, perhaps, read some more autobiographies.

And for those of you who may be interested, a little while ago I reviewed the DVD release of The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete Third Series.

Catch ya later,  George

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HOPSCOTCH – Golden Scarab by Ian Trevaskis

Golden Scarab is the second action packed adventure in the Hopescotch series by Ian Trevaskis. A game of hopscotch and a simple chant is all it takes to transport Hannah and Jake into an ancient world of treachery and danger.

After a hazardous adventure in book 1, Hopscotch, The Medusa Stone, Hannah and Jake are reluctant to play, but  Kostas the  Game Master of the Gods has promised them an amazing prize if they bring him back three things from Ancient Egypt.

They must take a shabti to the tomb of Thutmose the Third and swap it. As well as the exchanged shabti, they must bring back the Sorcerer’s Sceptre and the Pharaoh’s flail.

At first their task doesn’t seem too onerous, especially when the sceptre falls into Jake’s hands not long after they arrive in Egypt. Problem is that the Golden Scarab, which is their means of getting back to their present day homes has been stolen by tomb raider Osorkon

To make matters worse, it soon becomes apparent that Osorkon is working for the traitor, Siptah who has been charged with the task of taking them to The Valley of the Kings to place the shabti in the tomb of Thutmose the Third.

Siptah has organised an ambush, and Hannah, Jake and their guide and friend, Shakura soon find themselves locked in a tomb without weapons and with little hope of survival. Luckily they come across some scrolls that Shakura can read and guide them to safety.

Young readers will be enthralled with the action and engaged with the great characters and the subtle humour. Golden Scarab also has educational value for young reader studying Ancient Egypt. There’s a comprehensive glossary at the back of the book full of fascinating facts about ancient Egypt.

This historical adventure is also a story about loyalty and friendship. It is published by Walker Books for readers aged 9-12.

Review – Children’s Book of Sport

It’s Australia Day and we’re a nation of sport-lovers. Want to know the score? This is what you need. DK’s remarkable and very visual stylings bring sport alive in this encyclopedic hardcover book.

Starting with Team Sports, the astonishing photos begin with a double-page photo of a mid-play NFL tackle, followed by football (soccer or ‘le foot’), baseball, basketball, volleyball, netball – and, well . . . practically anything ending in ‘ball’ or using a ball.

Racket Sports, Athletics and Gymnastics, Target Sports and Water Sports sections are next, followed by Combat, Winter, Horse, Wheels and Motors, Extreme Sports and of course – the crème de la crème – the Olympic Games.

There’s so much included, sports enthusiasts will suffer an endorphin rush without even contracting a single muscle, let alone breaking a sweat.

Each entry is awash with the striking photography DK is renowned for, as well as information on the way the game is played, the equipment used, techniques, scoring, the ‘essentials’ and the aim of the game. There’s even ‘jargon busters’.

A glossary and index round out this comprehensive yet clearly laid-out book that will attract both younger and older kids.

Children’s Book of Sport is published by Dorling Kindersley.


Today I’m pleased to welcome Clancy Tucker who has dropped in as part of a blog tour to talk about his new book, Gunnedah Hero.

This intriguing book for kids brings together the lives of two characters who lived 100 years apart, and introduces the reader to the life of pioneering Australians.

Today, Clancy will chat to us about how he became a writer and the fun of writing Gunnedah Hero.

How did you become a writer?

Reading great Enid Blyton books as a kid inspired me to write my own stories. Having a vivid imagination helps.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

  • The ease with which it comes. I’ll never live long enough to write what’s in my head.
  • Inventing and spending time with my characters – good, naughty, happy and sad ones.
  • Being so absorbed in a story I can smell the gum leaves.
  • When my 17 critique readers return my questionnaire, having read a manuscript. Their comments are so honest.
  • When a young reader shyly asks you to sign a copy of your book. That’s a real buzz!

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

Dealing with publishers can be challenging. However, rejections slips make you a better writer. Writing teaches you patience, perseverance and discipline.

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

Where do I start? Senior public servant, truck driver, farmer, business person, speech writer, union official etc. I’m well-travelled and have lived in four countries.

What is your greatest writing achievement?

Winning two awards in the National Literary Awards was pleasing.

What are you working on at the moment?

Two books. One is a book of anecdotes from my interesting life – ‘A Free Spirit’. The other is book three in the ‘Gunnedah Hero’ series. It will be called ‘Magic Billie’.

Do you have any tips for new writers?

  • Find something you are passionate about and write passionately about it … and never give up.
  • Always retain your own voice – always.
  • Write for your reader, not for yourself.
  • Be passionate, but don’t waffle.

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

I have 17 young readers who read my manuscripts and complete a simple questionnaire – that’s the deal. The kids are between 8 – 16, Aboriginal, Muslim, Indian, Christian and Jewish and most come from broken homes. They are my biggest asset because they cut to the chase. They love being my readers because: I am the only author they know, the only adult who asks them to rate them out of 10 and the only person who sends them mail and seeks their opinion. You will see their names in the front of ‘Gunnedah Hero’ under ‘Acknowledgements’. Love ya work!


What inspired you to write this book?

I wrote ‘Gunnedah Hero’ because most people have no idea about the ‘long paddock’ (the road edge – in drought, many cattle breeders had to resort to taking their cattle on a long trek along the public roads to find food to keep them alive). Also, I have a great appreciation for our pioneers, and there is a serious lack of Australian history taught in our schools.

What’s it about?

A modern teen reads a manuscript written in 1910 by his great-great-grandfather, Smokey ‘Gun’ Danson, when he drove cattle up the ‘long paddock’ during a drought.

The teen, Gunnedah Swenson Danson, was named after his great-great-grandparents, Molly Swenson and Smokey Danson. Smokey’s story is exciting and adventurous, but there are devious things happening at Wiralee Station as Gunnie is reading the awesome manuscript.

What age groups is it for?

It was written for teenagers but is suitable for anyone from 8 to 80 years-of-age.

Why will kids like it?

This book contains two stories in one – modern (2011) & historical fiction (1910). They will relate to the modern story and be enthralled by the harsh life and adventures depicted in the 1910 story. Both stories have a wonderful connection. Gunnie reads an awesome manuscript written by his great-great-grandfather. Both of them, Gunnie and Smokey, are the same age, fourteen, yet they are 100 years apart.

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

There are two main characters that are equally important: Gunnie in 2011 and Smokey in 1910. I love them both. As you read the story, you will see how people refer to young Gunnie as ‘Gun’, a nickname given to his great-great-grandfather, Smokey ‘Gun’ Danson. Although they live 100 years apart, you can see how similar Gunnie is to Smokey in temperament, courage and spirit.

Is there something that sets this book apart from others?

Yes, many things. It is two stories in one. The characters are so real, you can feel them. Besides the adventurous story, it has a glossary of terms, a family tree and six bush poems. It will make you laugh and cry. Trust me. You will smell the gum leaves.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Creating the characters and deviously developing ‘connections’ within the story to seduce my readers to keep reading. Example: there is an envelope mentioned in the story, but you only find out what it contains in the last three pages.

Developing credible characters that readers will fall in love with – believable people and situations.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

Nothing! It was an absolute pleasure. Ninety-eight per cent came from my head; based on real life experiences. It took three solid months.

GIVE-AWAY: As a part of this blog tour, Morris Publishing Australia and Clancy Tucker are giving three eBooks to readers of the blogs. Go to and use the form on the Contact Page. Fill in your first name, email address, and put Blog Competition and your preferred eBook format in the message. You and your children will love this heart-warming story. (Choose from ePub, PDF, Kindle) The winners will be drawn on January 31st, 2012. All winners will be notified by email and their eBook will be attached.


January 14th – Author Interview

January 15th – Book Review

January 16th: – Article – Writing Historical Fiction

January 17th: – Author Interview

January 18th: – Review

January 19th: – Review

January 20th: – Author interview

January 22nd: – Review

January 23rd:

January 24th: – Review

January 25th: – Author Interview

January 25th: – Author interview

January 26th: Grand finale – – What’s next for Clancy





From A to the Z list – celeb autobiographies

I read a lot of non-fiction but, I have to admit, I’ve love to occasionally dip into low down and salacious celebrity gossip. I don’t usually bother with gossip magazines but go straight for the concentrated form and hit their  autobiographies.

And the best bit is, you never run out of reading material. A complete lack of anything to say has never stopped them. Miley Cyrus started work on her autobiography at the age of 15, Katie Price (aka page 3 model Jordan) has managed to cobble together the material for three separate autobiographies by the age of 32. Titled Being Jordan, Jordan: A Whole New World, and Jordan: Pushed to the Limit, you can only assume that last title describes the process of trying to come up with more content on a life already so well-chronicled.

Eager not to be left out, her ex-beau Peter Andre then managed to squeeze out his offering, All About Us, hopefully imbued with more originality than you would expect of a man who decided to call his child Junior. You might not expect Peter Andre to be the type to pick up a pen (or, lets be honest here, a crayon and a ghostwriter) but the most unlikely people suddenly demonstrate interest in scrawling an autobiography if given a chance – after all, how many other activities both allows you total control of your image and a chance to make money?

A total lack of public interest has never stopped them; Alec Baldwin’s A Promise to Ourselves was  published on 22 October and sold just 12 copies within that month, according to the  UK Telegraph. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll find the bargain bin full of the worst examples of celebrities writing into the void. A complete lack of truth is no roadblock. You might remember the fuss when James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which sold two million copies in the US after it was recommended by Oprah Winfrey, turned out not so much to be a memoir about Frey’s battle with alcohol and drugs but a big pile of porkie pies carefully seasoned with lies to be deliciously edible. (A note from Frey will be included in future editions: “I embellished many details about my past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the great purpose of the book.”)

In fact, a lack of truth can be the chief selling point. Dustin Diamond’s “Behind the Bell” was a wonderfully lurid but slightly unbelievable litany sex (and drug) scandals; Dustin claims to have had sex with more than 2,000 women, most of whom he picked up at Disneyland, and that the entire “SBTB” era was pretty much one giant pick-up joint and everyone was invited except Mr. Belding (no, really).

We’re no in danger of running out of celebrities desperate to get their own version of events out there and some of them have given us the most terribly titled books out there, including Tori Spelling — sTori Telling and R Kelly’s Soula Coaster: The Diary of Me. The jury is still out on whether David Hasselhoff’s Don’t Hassle The Hoff is the worst title of all time or just manages to squeeze over the line into so bad it’s actually good.

If you don’t have time (or value your own brain too much) to read every celebrity memoir out there you can take in the very worst of their excesses at “Celebrity Autobiography”, when a cast of comics present excerpts from celebrity memoirs at the Sydney Opera House at the end of this month. From the sublime to the ridiculous, from the banal to the most insanely boastful, from Sylvester Stallone’s pecs to how the lascivious details of  how Tiger likes to set up his holes in one, it’s all here.

Just how entertaining can celebrity autobiographies be? Well, this show sold out for three years in New York City so it’s clearly doing better than poor Alec Baldwin’s memoirs. (Just in case you hadn’t guessed, this one is not suited to kids, so leave the littlies at home if you plan to go and see it.)

National Year of Reading 2012 – get involved!

When I first heard about the National Year of Reading initiative organised for 2012, I was ecstatic. Literacy is dear to my heart and is a major reason I review and blog on children’s books for both Kids’ Book Capers and Kids Book Review.

When I first friended and partnered Kids Book Review with NYR12 last year, I never dreamed I would be asked to become an NYR ambassador for the ACT. It was one of the proudest moments of my life as an author and I’m looking forward to a year of promotional events, espousing the importance of literacy, not only for children, but adults, too.

Led by Australian public libraries, the National Year of Reading 2012 is about people discovering and rediscovering the magic of books and stories. Libraries around the nation are heavily involved, as are school, special and other libraries, and partners in the book trade. You can see NYR12’s friends – including KBC blogger Dee White – here. Check out the partners here (there’s loads!), and the ambassadors here.

I’ll be posting on many of the events at both KBR and right here on Kids’ Book Capers, and in the meantime, have you thought about becoming involved? It’s so easy to do.

Throughout 2012, there will be a wash of fabulous events and initiatives around the country, for both adults and children, including The Reading Hour, writers in residence, the Creative Reading Prize, the Festival of Indigenous Reading, Writing and Storytelling in Darwin and the It’s Never too Late to Learn to Read initiative (see my highly commended short story for this adult initiative here).

Keep an eye on an event near you by checking out the NYR12 website. There’s also a frequently-updated events calendar on the right hand site of the site . . . I hope to see you at one of these fabulous events! With 46 per cent of Australians struggling to read, NYR12 is a timely initiative. Get involved!


More NYR12

In my last post I introduced the National Year of Reading (NYR12) and interviewed NYR12 National Ambassador Hazel Edwards (see “The National Year of Reading”). Today I’ve got two more Ambassadors for you — ACT Ambassador Tania McCartney and NSW Ambassador Susanne Gervay.

How did you become involved with the National Year of Reading?


Literacy is a personal passion of mine, and was one of the reasons I founded Kids Book Review. When I first heard about the National Year of Reading, I was ecstatic and immediately knew I wanted to help in some way. Soon after NYR12 was announced, Kids Book Review became a partner and I became a friend of the initiative. I began posting updates on both KBR and my own blog, and late last year, the NYR12 organisers contacted me about becoming an ambassador for the ACT. It was truly one of my proudest moments as an author.


As an author Ambassador for Room to Read, bringing literacy and books to the children of the developing world; and Role Model for Books in Homes, taking books to indigenous and disadvantaged children, it was wonderful to accept the role of an ambassador for the National Year of Reading. I love it.

Why is this initiative important to you?


Books are an enormous part of my life, and always have been. They simply make my heart race, and I knew very early on that I wanted to be an author. Being able to read is like oxygen to me. Reading has nurtured me, educated me, expanded me, delighted me, even saved me. It has taken me to greater heights than I ever dreamed possible. Every person should have this oxygen available to them.

Literacy is not vital in this communications-driven world, it is life-changing and magical. Full literacy stands between a potentially average life and a great life – in more ways than can be covered here. I believe that – next to love, food and shelter – literacy is a basic human need, and a right that all children should be well-versed in. Shockingly, 46 per cent of Australians do not have full literacy, and the majority are adults. This needs to change – and NYR12 is helping make that happen.


As a children’s author and a writer, mother and teacher, reading is so important to literacy, critical thinking and understanding the world and our place in it. The National Year of Reading is significant in raising the profile of our public libraries and connecting to organisations and supporters of reading, including Room to Read, the Writers’ Centres, school libraries, NIDA, bookstores, CBCA, CAL, Aboriginal Literacy Fund, publishers and so many more. It’s truly a nationwide celebration of reading.

What will you be doing as a National Year of Reading Ambassador?


I will be attending the 14 February launch at the National Library of Australia, and we’re planning on having a small tie-in to the event with my new book for the NLA – Australian Story: an illustrated timeline. I’m in talks with local NYR12 representatives to host a launch event for children at Civic Library around the same time, and we’re also planning on a promotional event at Government House Open Day in March. In May I’ll be promoting Beijing Tai Tai (Exisle Publishing) in Sydney and will give talks at local libraries about the initiative. I’ll be in promo mode during Book Week in August, and will organise more local events through the year, including school and library visits that encourage children to read. I’m currently running Bedtime Stories for Australian Women Online [] – a NYR12 writing initiative that encourages adults reading to children –and this year’s Kids Book Review Unpublished Manuscript Award will be used to promote NYR12. I’ll also be continuing to spread the word and post updates on NYR12 via the various blogs and sites I write for.


I’ll be there at the launch of the National Year of Reading on 14th February at the State Library in Sydney. There will be launches across Australia. I have events already scheduled including speaking engagements from Woollahra Council Library Sydney to Taree Council on the NSW coast. There will be a tour of libraries later in the year. I will promote the National Year of Reading on my blog and at the events I attend. As the festival Director of the Children’s and Young Adult Literature festival at the NSW Writers Centre, I will be promoting the National Year of reading. The best part is that I’ll be reading books and encourage others to read as well!

My thanks to Susanne and Tanya.

To find out more about Susanne, check out her website. To find out more about Tanya, check out her website.

In the meantime, get reading! 🙂

Catch ya later,  George

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The National Year of Reading

2012 is the National Year of Reading in Australia. It is a collaborative initiative, involving public libraries, government, community groups, media and commercial partners. There are heaps of activities planned for the coming year. And it all gets officially launched on 14 February.

But what’s it all about? Well here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth. The National Year of Reading 2012 (NYR12) website has this to say:

The National Year of Reading 2012 is about children learning to read and keen readers finding new sources of inspiration. It’s about supporting reading initiatives while respecting the oral tradition of storytelling. It’s about helping people discover and rediscover the magic of books. And most of all, it’s about Australians becoming a nation of readers.

Author and actor, William McInnes, is the NYR12 Patron. But there are over 50 other NYR12 Ambassadors who will be out and about, promoting reading throughout the year. These include authors, illustrators, politicians and sportspeople — such as AFL footballer Phil Davis; former PM and current MP, Kevin Rudd; and radio presenters Scotty and Nige.

To kick off the NYR12 here at Literary Clutter, I approached National Ambassador Hazel Edwards with a few questions.

How did you become involved with the National Year of Reading?

I’m a readaholic. In any format — E or page or audio. The Love2Read people invited me to be a National Ambassador since I write in different formats, like performance literacy scripts, picture books, etc and for different audiences including adults, YA (adolescents) and young readers. So families can share the gift of imagination, and read embassassing moments from their history, I run workshops in Writing Non Boring Family Histories or Writing for Your Grandkids. I’ve also been involved in Skype web chats with rural adolescents in connection with the controversial YA novel f2m: the boy within (co-written with Ryan Kennedy) about transitioning gender, so I’m keen on innovative ways of encouraging those not yet readaholics.

Why is this initiative important to you?

Reading makes you more tolerant of others who are different. Reading gives you thinking skills and ways of solving problems. Skills give you confidence. I have two grandsons for whom I write a story each year. The last one was “Henry-Garnet the Serial-Sock-Puller” for the 1 year old. (He’s moved up to pulling his shoes off now.)

I link writing and reading. I’ve also featured a non-reader Art, as the hero in my junior e-mysteries Project Spy Kids. Art is an ace problem-solver. Illustrator Jane Connory has developed some merchandise for ‘cool’ screen reading and a Design Your Own Mystery downloadable activity. So game instructions can be part of reading too.

Family co-writing and reading can be fun. I co-wrote Cycling Solo: Ireland to Istanbul with my son Trevelyan, who was the imagination behind There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake when he was four. Trev did ALL the cycling! This year he is walking the Appalachian Mountains trail in USA for five months and we’ll be co-writing about that.

What will you be doing as a National Year of Reading Ambassador?

Talks. Sharing fun ways of reading. Mentoring reader-writers. Online interviews. Introducing new reading fashions like e-books.

Demonstrating ways you might read with children. For example, the Yamba Imparja TV clip on my website of me reading Look There’s a Hippopotamus in the Playground Eating Cake. was to encourage indigenous pre-school literacy habits.

Reading needs a purpose. So far I have offered two performance e-scripts from my website, free for any literacy groups who wish to perform them. “An L of a Difference” has a zany, small businesswoman who uses clever ways of learning to read.

My thanks to Hazel for taking the time to answer these questions. To find out more about Hazel and her involvement with NYR, check out her website.

Like Hazel, I’m also excited about NYR12. I couldn’t imagine my life without reading, and I’m eager to share my enthusiasm. So I was delighted when my old school, Mentone Grammar, asked me to become their Patron Reading Ambassador for NYR12. I’m looking forward to the year ahead. 🙂

Tune in next time, when two more NYR Ambassadors drop by for some questions.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter


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Vulture’s Gate is a compelling novel for teen readers by Kirsty Murray set in the future. It has a spellbinding plot, and strong themes that reflect on our modern day world and the repercussions of how we currently interact with our environment.

Kirsty Murray depicts a frightening but very real world in which girls are thought to be instinct due to a terrible plague, and the land has been destroyed by war and greed.

But not all girls have been exterminated. Bo, one of the main characters is very much alive. Raised by her Poppy until he was killed, she has survived on her own, helped only by her Robotraptors, especially Mr Pinkwhistle.

But everything changes for Bo when she rescues a young boy, Callum in the burning desert.

She is forced to leave her underground home. In search of Callum’s fathers, they journey across a dangerous continent, escaping outstationers, street gangs and terrorists, but nothing can prepare them for the world that awaits in Vulture’s Gate.

Callum has been kidnapped and is forced to perform in a freak show. The skills he acquires there hold him in good stead and provide him with the flexibility, balance and survival skills he’s going to need to survive in the new world.

Once they join forces, Bo and Callum look for a safe haven, but it’s not easy to find in a world where factions are fighting against each other – runaway boys against religious terrorists.

As well as being an action packed adventure, this book explores the vulnerability of both genders as the two protagonists struggle to survive in their harsh new environment.

Vulture’s Gate reflects on the intricacies of society and examines themes of loyalty, adaptability, friendship and belonging.

The relationship between Bo and Callum is real and courageous and is an authentic portrayal of two characters moving towards adulthood and the new responsibilities and difficulties that brings.

One of the most poignant things for me about this book was that children in this society are not raised in a nurturing environment, but rather one where they have to fight for their survivl.

Vulture’s Gate hooked me from the first page and kept me mesmerised till the end.

I’m hoping there will be a Book 2 to follow.

Vulture’s Gate is published by Allen & Unwin.


A New Way to Discover Books Online – There it is!


Australian online bookstore Boomerang Books has partnered with 3D search technology firm ( to offer an innovative new way to discover books online.

Adelaide-based has patented a 3D search tool that displays large collections of visual data in a way that leverages our ability to passively identify objects of interest.  Scanning large collections of visual data, users are able to detect interesting clusters of images – often in their peripheral vision – and hone in on the images that draw their attention.

In 2011, was the recipient of a $250,000 Proof of Concept Grant from Commercialisation Australia and the company was recently recognised as one of the most innovative Australian technology firms at the Tech23 Industry Awards.  It was also named amongst Australia’s ‘Coolest’ businesses in Anthill Magazine’s Sixth Annual Cool Company Awards.

Boomerang Books has been collaborating with since March 2011 to create a search component for the bookstore’s home page that enables customers to visualise and discover books amongst Australia’s Top 1000 bestselling titles.  Using the tool, customers can click, pan, drag, sort and search books easily and quickly, without having to scroll through a lengthy list of paginated search results.

The search tool seeks to emulate the experience of browsing in a bricks-and-mortar store, one of the key limitations of online search regularly cited by bookstore traditionalists.  The serendipitous functionality offered by the search tool provides Boomerang Books’ customers with a mechanism to discover interesting titles – even though they may not be looking specifically for them.

Managing Director Clayton Wehner says that Boomerang Books is keen to adopt new technologies and improve on the standard multi-page, list-based search results that customers have come to expect with online stores.

“We anticipate that this technology will increase engagement from our customers, reduce the time they spend looking books, and increase basket sizes as customers discover books that they would not otherwise discover.”

“Whilst the home page tool is currently restricted to the top 1000 titles, we hope in time to roll out the technology across our product catalogue of 6 million plus titles”.

The search tool is now live on the Boomerang Books website home page at

Review – The Mellops

I first fell in love with the Mellops last Christmas, with their festive adventure Christmas Eve at the Mellops. Although I knew and adored Tomi Ungerer’s work well, I had never heard of this adorable little piglet family.

It was with much happiness, then, that I recently threw myself into two more adventures – The Mellops Go Diving for Treasure and The Mellops Strike Oil. I particularly love the subject matter for Ungerer uses for his characters . . . the chances of a family of pigs deep sea diving and striking oil are probably pretty slim in real life – so why not send them to such heights through the pages of a book. These kind of imaginative settings truly enchant children (and Ungerer-obsessed adults, too).

Featuring the pricelessly retro, monochromatic work the series is known for, Diving for Treasure is set under a sea of aqua pages, and sees the Mellop brothers searching for a sunken ship from 1765. Alas, the ship is occupied by a rather shirty octopus, but thanks to a beautiful merpig, bedazzled with pearls and holding a harp, the octopus is charmed away.

Tragedy strikes, however, when the pigs notice their own boat over an undersea hill, laying at the bottom of the ocean! How on earth would they ever get home? Of course, being the enterprising and very clever piglets they are, the brothers soon come up with a plan that leads them to a desert island – and an unexpected haul.

In The Mellops Strike Oil, our porcine brothers bike ride with their dad through cantaloupe-coloured pages to a lovely picnic spot, where Mr Mellops samples water from a local brook and discovers it tastes like oil. Excited about the possibility of finding this elusive elixir, the family sets about creating their very own derrick – or wooden pumping tower – that may just help them reach oil . . . or near disaster.

I love how, during their drilling escapades, Ungerer takes his characters on little ‘asides’. The boys set up a tent. Isidor chases butterflies. Mrs Mellops comes along to cook on the campfire for her boys. I also love how, despite the trials of pumping oil and the fact that things hardly go as expected, the Mellops are a family of ‘try-ers’. They give things a go. They show initiative and creativity and drive.

These sweet books are a hoot for modern kids because they rely on a tried and tested traditional format that may not pack powerful punches and surprises but works so beautifully with its subtly and charm. Gorgeous.

The Mellops Go Diving for Treasure and The Mellops Strike Oil are published by Phaidon.

Future Postbox

There have been a few letter-writing projects touted in recent times, especially the ‘write a letter to your 16-year-old self’, so I’m wary of pointing anyone towards another incarnation of this idea. Except that, well, this one’s really well done. Oh, and it’s not age-specific.

Future Postbox—yep, even the name conjures up equal measures of images of Dr Who-themed mail delivery and maybe a hint of ‘is this a euphemism for something?’ intrigue—offers us the chance to say something to our future selves. Or future someone elses.

And did I mention that the website is hot? H. O. T. I’m not sure how you’d best describe the design (and please feel free to comment below if you do), but seems to me a little bit Futurama, a little bit Obama presidential campaign, and a little bit Melbourne cool (and we all aspire to Melbourne cool). I’ll barrack for anything that encourages people to put words on (metaphorical or otherwise) paper. I’m also a sucker for good communication design, and Future Postbox has it in spades.

In fact, I dare you—no, I compel you—to not want to get tappy tappy-ing away because first, the design is brilliant; second, the steps to using the site are clear. Neither of those should be underestimated and I could instead write many more blogs about websites that haven’t managed to get either right.

Even cooler, with Future Postbox you not only have the option of composing and sending yourself some profound insight or witticism, but you have the option to send said insight or witticism to someone else. That could be utilised for some rather cool or rather creepy (depending on how you interpret it) beyond-the-grave correspondence. Or, as a friend of mine quipped when I mentioned the site to her, some beyond-the-relationship-grave correspondence. How freaky, she asked, would it be to get an email from your ex a year after the fall out?

Hmmm, not quite my style. But it did get me thinking that if I were to use Future Postbox, I’d probably write something to myself about how I should stress less and that things work out—in fact, they work out better than I could ever have hoped. I suspect that’s a common (but no less important) theme running through many people’s letters (and I plan, through reading them, to find out).

What would you write to yourself or someone else?



the world is a different place. The Melt has sunk most of the coastal cities and Newperth is divided into the haves, the ‘Centrals’; the have-nots, the Bankers; and the fringe dwellers, the ‘Ferals’.

Rosie Black is a courageous but vulnerable 16 year-old who lives in a futuristic world where it’s hard to know who to trust and bad choices can prove fatal.

After losing her mother and her best friend, Rosie’s world has been turned upside down and her priorities have changed.

Rosie is hell bent on helping develop a cure for the disease that killed her mother and almost claimed her father’s life. The disease has been manufactured by the Helios regime. They are intent on taking over the world, but Rosie Black is equally determined to bring them down.

Equinox, by Lara Morgan is the second book in The Rosie Black Chronicles. It’s just as action-packed as the first book, Genesis. If you loved Genesis, you’ll love Equinox and like me, you’ll be hanging out for the third Rosie Black Chronicle.

Equinox has great characters, non-stop action and a fascinating world where space travel and all sorts of things are possible.

Lara Morgan creates such a vivid place for her characters to inhabit that I found myself totally believing in it.

Rosie is placed in life threatening situations but she still faces normal teen dilemmas like being torn between her first love, the Feral, Pip and  Dalton, the ‘Central’ who appears to have everything.

Her attraction for the charming Dalton is tempered with mistrust. Why would someone from a privileged background like Dalton be interested in helping her and ‘the cause’.

Riley, who’s in charge of operations isn’t telling Rosie the full story and when he puts an implant in her brain it turns out to be more than routine and when it malfunctions, it puts her life in jeopardy.

Rosie is reluctantly forced to see the help of Cassie, Riley’s gorgeous but unfriendly sister.

And just when Rosie, Pip and Dalton seem to have everything under control, Rosie is double crossed by Agent Sulawayo and might be forced to make a deal to save them all.

Equinox is tightly written and although the fast-pace draws the reader forward, we still feel connected to the characters as if we know them.

Equinox is written by Lara Morgan and published by Walker Books.






Innovative Vox worth a look

I so wanted to love the Kobo Vox, but it hasn’t quite won me over.

As a colour ereading device, it’s got a lot going for it. The market is, I reckon, ripe for a 7″ colour ereader like the Kindle Fire, which is not available here in Australia, or the occasionally rumoured iPad Nano, which would be my dream device. The ReadCloud-powered indie booksellers’ Cumulus is an option, especially for those who want to support our literary culture, but it’s cheaper for a reason (see my earlier post).

The Vox is brought to us by multinational ebook retailer Kobo, which partners in this country with Collins and what remains of REDgroup (the Borders and Angus & Robertson digital businesses) as well as retailing direct via its own website and apps.

Kobo is an ereading innovator. For most of its titles it uses the industry standard ePub format, meaning they can be read on any ereading device. In turn, if you buy a Kobo e-ink ereader, like the Kobo Touch, you can read ePub books purchased from other stores, including

It’s greatest strength, though, is found in its apps for Apple and Android gadgets (the Vox is customised version of the latter). Kobo customers reading via these apps can distract themselves with all sorts of nifty social media and award add-ons. Kobo Pulse allows you to see at a glance how many other Kobo users are reading a particular book and page at the same time as you. Swiping the pulsating semi-circle indicator takes you away from the narrative and immerses you in all sorts of data on the book and its readers – how many are reading it now, how many have read it, what they thought of it, and which of your Facebook friends have read it. You can select text extracts to share via Twitter or Facebook too.

For further distracting ereading interactivity, close a book and check out Kobo’s Reading Life. This section of the Kobo app is a personalised hub of information about you and your books. See a book cover mosaic of all your library titles. See which awards you’ve won (and isn’t it about time we grown-ups were given some recognition for starting a new book, for reading all night long, for using the in-built dictionary, and for finishing a title). Check out stats on your reading habits: what time of day do you do most of your reading? How many pages do you read an hour? How many hours per book?

It’s all very cute and intriguing, but did I mention distracting? And if I posted on Facebook every time I won an award my friends would rapidly get sick of hearing about it, I’m sure. Also, most of the reader comments I’ve seen while using the Kobo app have been a waste of space. I reckon this is a technology whose time has not quite come.

Still, the Kobo Vox makes the most of social reading. When you switch it on, it takes you straight into the Kobo app (the first time via a groovy welcome to Kobo animation/jingle). If you’re a big Kobo fan, and happy to stick with Kobo from now to eternity, that might be a good thing. There’s an intro video clip, and a quick set-up wizard, both of which appear as soon as the device is switched on. It takes a couple of minutes to be up and reading (you can sign in via an existing Kobo password or via Facebook).

The Vox comes in a range of colours, and while it’s a little bulky compared to its e-ink siblings (two heavy for one-handed reading), looks pretty racy. Its colour screen is bright and clear – images sparkle. Other pluses include its built-in WiFi for instant book downloading and size and weight (much smaller and lighter than the iPad). Kobo provides some full colour children’s, travel and cookery titles to make the most of this. These are fairly standard and PDF-like in appearance. We also bought another, a Peppa Pig story, for my toddler son. He was surprised that he couldn’t click on the words or pictures to hear sounds or inspire movement. Apple still owns the children’s book space with clever interactive apps like Nosy Crow’s Cinderella, Hairy Maclary and Paddington Bear.

But if you want to be able to easily buy and read ebooks from other retailers, like, Google eBooks or one of the ReadCloud-powered independents, that’ll be trickier. To read an ebook I’d borrowed from my local library, I had to download the Overdrive app (not available in the device’s limited appstore, but via the Overdrive website), connect the device to my desktop computer and fiddle around for ages to transfer it across. I was unable to open some of the other ePubs in my library, and couldn’t find any simple explanation in the instruction manual or online. No doubt there would be a way, but after spending three or four hours trying, I gave up and went back to my Sony Reader and iPad.

That said, books ( powers Gleebooks and Readings ebookstores among others), look terrific on the Vox. Being browser-based, they’re easy to import onto the device.

The lack of the standard Android appstore is a disappointment. The selection of apps in the onboard appstore is poor, and finding the apps via the web browser and downloading that way clunky. If you’re primarily after a tablet for email, internet and social media, I’d go for a standard Android tablet or an iPad.

The Vox currently retails for $269.99 and comes with 8GB of storage. It offers no camera. In contrast, the bottom of the range iPad 2 is $579, but comes with 16GB of storage and a built-in camera. The iPad is the only device that allows you to read ebooks from just about anywhere: Apple’s own iBookstore, and your local library via the Overdrive app, Amazon via the Kindle app, Kobo, Google and ReadCloud via their apps, and finally, from, using the web browser. If you want it all, I’d save up the extra $300, and hold out till March, when we’re likely to see the iPad 3.

If you want a no-frills option with some flexibility (ie not the locked-into-buying-from-Amazon Kindle), the e-ink touchscreen devices like the Sony Reader ($178 – my review is still coming, but in short, I’m loving it) and Kobo Touch ($129-$150) are great. They support all ePub formats, are easy on the eye and handbag, and are suitable for poolside reading in bright sunlight.

If you’re enticed by the combination of Kobo’s social reading technology and a colour tablet, but don’t want to fork out for an iPad, then consider the Vox. You never know, while you ponder your options, they might even drop the price some more (it originally launched here at $299, and retails for $199 in the US).

Review – Grandpa Green

When you spend an inordinate amount of time and energy seeking something out, it somehow becomes more precious, more desirable. Whatever you can’t have, you want more.

For some reason, tracking down a copy of Grandpa Green by one of my favourite authors, Lane Smith, has eluded me for around six months. I’m not sure why. It’s just one of those things. Other people managed – but my efforts kept coming up . . . nada.

Until this past weekend. Stopping off at the little town of Bowral on the way home from the Central Coast, we dropped into a bookstore, and lo and behold – there it was, this leafy green book peeking from the jackets of other books – and yes, I let out a little squeal. Then I clutched that book for dear life all the way to the car, where I slowly opened and absorbed each and every beautiful page . . . pages I had expected to be even more than beautiful.

I wasn’t disappointed.

If there could be a book that would encompass all I love about children’s books, Grandpa Green would be it. The images are stunning – retro in style and quite monochromatic, which I personally adore. The combination of spindly line drawings and leafy topiary creations, plus a never-ending flow on of images from page to page – is just breathtaking.

Then, of course, there’s the story, which is strikingly written, concise and image-driven, as is Smith’s way. The pull between present and past is strongly featured and represented in both image and text – and the emotional punches of a life well-lived are as fragrant and verdant as the images that portray this emotion. Narrating Grandpa’s life is his little grandson, which lends even more beauty and tender connection.

I don’t want to say too much more about this book, because it really is a must-own/read – and you don’t want the content spoiled, but suffice to say this is one of the finest books I’ve read in a very long time. Subtle, tender, beautiful, funny and visually boggling. Keep ’em coming, Mr Smith.

Grandpa Green is published by Roaring Brook Press

Mid-month round-up – the strange edition

Strange World – John Long’s Hung Like an Argentine Duck

The truth is stranger than fiction and Dr John Long has (literally) dug up some of the weirdest evidence and facts from the evolution of sex for this book; he’s the discoverer of the Gogo Fish, a 380-million-year-old fossilised armoured shark-like fish replete with a perfectly preserved embryo which provides the first evidence we have of sexual behaviour in the prehistoric past. In this book, which he describes as a journey back to the origins of sexual intimacy, he explores the questions of why organisms started using sex to reproduce and how the act – and the equipment – has adapted and evolved over time and across species.

With a cast of homosexual penguins, lesbian ostriches, necrophiliac snakes and fellating fruitbats, this book is hilarious, horrifying and fascinating – often all on the same page. Jared Diamond, (author of another favourite of mine; Guns, Germs, and Steel) described it as “a compromise between a book that you should carry hidden inside an opaque bag, and a sober respectable scientific treatise, a deliciously written account of the evolution of sex, in all of its bizarre manifestations.”

(And, for those of you are wondering where the book’s title comes from, the duck in question is an Argentine lake duck and boasts an organ nearly half a metre in length – fully the same length as its body.

Strange times – Stephen King’s 11.22.63

What if you could go back in time, but only to the same point again and again? Would you choose to just visit, or could you live there? Would you lie low and live simply or use your knowledge of the future for fortune and fame? Or would you want to change the course of history itself?

In 11.22.63 Stephen King weaves nonfiction with fiction when he sends his protagonist, Jake Epping, down a “rabbithole” in time from the twenty-first century to 1958 and to a moment when the whole world changed – JFK’s assassination in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963.  Stephen King is known for his horror but his true strength isn’t in his ability to shock and scare but his ability to crawl inside his characters’ heads and present them, warts and all, to the reader.

11.22.63 isn’t the story of JFK’s death but rather Jake Epping’s chance at a different life and his struggle with reconciling what he knows with what he wants. It’s a gripping read and one long in the making; Stephen King tried to write this book at the beginning of his career but was defeated by the sheer amount of research it required. Having devoured it over Christmas (leading to more than a few entreaties to “put down that book and answer me”), I can tell you that it is well worth the wait.

Strange places – Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London

“My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (as the Filth to everybody else). One night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluable, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. Now I’m a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden . . . and there’s something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair. The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it’s falling to me to bring order out of chaos – or die trying.”

This book was recommended by a friend who (knowing my weaknesses well) described it as a cross between Terry Pratchett and a detective novel. That’s a pretty big billing and one that the book easily lived up to. Aaronovitch blends the real world worries of a young mixed-race working  policeman with a touch of magic to create a fast-paced and funny story that manages to be irreverent and touching.  It’s not just my friends recommending him; he was shortlisted for the Galaxy New Writer of the Year award in 2011 and his books have been favourably compared to the Dresden Files and Jasper Fforde. I have the follow-up, Moon Over Soho, downloaded to my e-reader already and I’m looking forward to making the time to read it.


Grandpa talks about his war adventures all the time. And Harry loves listening. His father was a soldier too, in a different war. But Harry never knew his dad, and his mother won’t talk about him. In finding out why, Harry discovers a deeper truth, one that will change his life forever.

Some wards don’t just happen on a battlefield…

Harry’s War by John Heffernan is a book about truth, discovery and consequences.

Harry is confused. His grandfather is a war hero and his father was in a war that nobody talks about. Harry’s not stupid. He knows there’s a secret about Dad that everyone else knows – that the whole family is keeping from him. Harry has a feeling it has something to do with the way Dad died.

But what’s the secret and how is Harry going to find out? And when he does, is he going to be able to cope with the truth?

Harry is a typical adventurous kid, always getting his best friend Will into scrapes and becoming increasingly unpopular with Will’s family. Lately life seems to be throwing up so many challenges, but Harry is a courageous kid who faces things head on and proves himself to both Will and his family.

Harry’s War by John Heffernan is a book about friendship, loyalty and heroes. And finding explanations that make sense, that a young boy can live with. It’s also learning how to deal with people who disappoint you.

Harry’s War is a powerful novel published by Scholastic for readers aged 10+, examining truths about family and war.

The relationships between the characters are authentic and Harry is a brash but vulnerable boy who draws the reader into the story.

Although there are many difficult things for Harry to deal with, the reader is left with a feeling of hope that Harry will overcome all the obstacles that are being put in his path. That Harry will find his own way in the world in spite of the past.

Harry’s War is a tension filled story that confronts important issues head on and presents them in a way that young readers will readily relate to.

Harry’s War is published by Scholastic.





Review – First Time books by Child’s Play

Child’s Play have been producing brightly-coloured, highly-educational books for tots for a long time now. Their enormous range often features ‘sets’ of books that enlighten, educate and delight young kids, from classic fairytales through ‘how-to’ books and more traditional picture books.

The ‘First Time’ series of books for kids aged 2 – 5 is a tough-page soft cover collection that helps tots through their very first experiences, from the dentist and doctor to sleepovers and big days out. Children are depicted happily exploring a new situation – both its joys and foibles – and informative text effectively utilises short sentences, exclamations and lots of questions, making it extremely kid-friendly and relatable.

At the dentist . . . how long will we have to wait?  Will it hurt? What’s the best way of cleaning my teeth? On a sleepover . . . will I be homesick?  Will I like the food?  Will I be able to sleep?

Parents will love the informative, child-friendly text that gently encourages children to take furtive steps into Big Kid land, and kids will thoroughly enjoy the bright illustrations by Jess Stockham, that really pack a colour punch. Child-friendly size and book shape encourage child interactivity, and large, dancing typeface will help kids explore words on their own.

First Time Sleepover and First Time Dentist are just two of the books available; the collection also includes Baby Sitter, Vet, Big Day Out, Hospital, Nursery and Doctor.

The Taliban Shuffle

The Taliban ShuffleThe Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker’s memoir about her time as a foreign correspondent, is dedicated to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, ‘who are still waiting for the punchline’.

It’s an interesting dedication and one I, having read the book in its entirety, both do and don’t understand. That elusive, edge-of-mind understanding perhaps sums up what we know about the war-torn regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Abstractly, we have a sense of what’s going on. In practice, we have none at all.

The title, The Taliban Shuffle, is what initially got me in. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book with that as its visual, apt hook? The complexities of both the author and the countries she covered are what kept me.

I’ve long puzzled over its myriad issues of this dysfunctional region and the contribution we in the west have made to them through bumbling bureaucracy, cultural insensitivities, and general divide-and-conquer and rape-and-pillage habits that date way back. I want to know: Can it ever be functional?

The Taliban Shuffle isn’t a breathless tale of being embedded with the frontline troops in these war-torn places. In fact, there’s very little frontline action at all. Instead Barker spent extended periods of time living in these cities, unprotected by flak jackets and closer to the truth of what’s happening in these countries than we or, arguably, and of the troops sent there will ever know.

She went to ‘babysit’ the foreign correspondent role in Afghanistan, then the war that no one cared about because all eyes were on and adrenalin was pumping through Iraq. She emerged from the region some six years later having reported on suicide bombings, elections, and tsunamis, and had friends and co-workers die or be kidnapped. She doesn’t favourably portray what happened in between.

Barker includes some so-dark-they’re funny moments, including the acronyms for IEDs (improvised explosive devices), BBIEDs (body-borne improvised explosive devices), and DBIEDs (donkey-borne improvised explosive devices, ‘otherwise known as a really stupid idea’ because, really, who can trust a donkey to walk where or do what you tell them? Some would-be bombers learnt some hard lessons early on and not all of them lived to tell the tale.). Then there were the operations names, such as  ‘Operation Turtle’ and ‘Operation Mountain Thrust’ (with the latter run together to be pronounced as ‘Operation Mount and Thrust’).

Those moments, though, are wedged between bleaker ones, which include the deliberately invasive security searches Barker was regularly subjected to, the groping she copped in Pakistan, and how not even punching the offender dissuaded them from their inappropriate actions. Other moments included inadvertently standing and putting her hands in the remains of a person or people blown up by a bomb, seeing corruption first hand, worrying about friends who were kidnapped.

Warzones attract war-junkie cowboys, who may neither be the best people to send nor the best ones to report back, and I did wonder about Barker’s intentions and state of mind. By her own admission, she took the posting in part to abscond from her mundane Montana upbringing, relationship, and fast-track conveyer belt to marriage and babies.

The Taliban Shuffle is warts-and-all honest and Barker’s acutely aware, in retrospect at least, that she crashed around oblivious to cultural practice, but I did find myself thinking ‘Oh no, you didn’t; oh no, you did’ at various stages throughout. The book also left me feeling that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan will ever be war- and corruption-free and functional. Maybe that’s what Barker’s eluding to in the dedication: that war can be blackly comic, and that Afghanistan and Pakistan have a bunch of material and are simply waiting to hear the ever-elusive punchline.

The joy of books… and ebooks.

After a long and very enjoyable holiday break spent devouring both ebooks and paper books, I’m coming into 2012 refreshed and well-read. I’m finding demolishing books even easier than normal, as now I can take a stack of them with me wherever I go on my tiny red (well, pink) Sony Ereader.

I’ve had the e-reader for over a month now and I still love it, although I will admit the gloss has come off and I’m now comparing the pro’s and con’s of the two reading formats. While I’m enjoying reading from a screen I don’t see myself giving up on printed books completely.

It’s not all virtual hearts and eflowers. For example, buying ebooks while overseas is often difficult due to DRM issues and taking the ereader out with me on a pool, beach or boat trip is an impossibility due to the combination of water, sand and my own ham-handedness.

That said, the joy of carrying 12 – 12! – books with me in a tiny light package no bigger than a novella is undiminished, as is my partner’s happiness at not being harassed every time I run out of reading material on long plane flights. Thanks to the ease of picking up where I left off without needing to carry a big book, I’m defaulting to catching up on reading instead of picking at my phone while out and about and there is no doubt I am getting a lot more read.

It’s a trade off either way, and I can see uses for both. I don’t see a situation coming soon where I will definitively choose one or the other as I can see too many advantages for both formats. I love my ereader, it’s true, but I’m not giving up on paperbacks just yet. Curling up on shaded deckchair with the latest Marian Keyes, unworried about  sand, splashes or spilling my cocktail, is a holiday luxury that I’m completely unwilling to give up.

While the paper versus e-books debate is long from over, here is a bookish adventure in stop motion film that will make even the most ardent ebook lover admire the paperback format once again. Earlier in the year, a husband and wife team decided to re-organise their bookshelf and – in their own words – it got a bit out of hand, leading to a wonderfully playful video. After making that short film, they decided to take it to the next level and came up with this amazing piece.

Filmed after hours in a Toronto bookstore, this video is the product of over 25 volunteers who spent many nights moving, stacking, and animating the books. Whatever your thoughts on ebooks versus dead tree books, there’s no denying that this is a truly beautiful tribute to books and to the book stores that sell them.

Here’s hoping this year brings plenty of books worthy of this level of devotion to you, whether you are reading on a screen or off the page. Happy new year to you all, and I look forward to sharing my finds and about yours in 2012.

Blog, blog, bog

Bog instead of Blog! If I could have a dollar for every time I’ve made that typo. One missing letter and you have a potential catastrophe (albeit a rather amusing one). Mostly it happens on Twitter. I’ll quickly post a link to a bog instead of a blog. I did it this morning.

I wrote a guest post about character names for the blog of fellow author Goldie Alexander (see “What’s in a name?”). The post went online this morning and I Tweeted about it.

WHAT’S IN A NAME? Guest post on Goldie Alexander’s bog about character names…

Thankfully I spotted my error and deleted the Tweet within seconds, replacing the offending typo.

Anyway… this got me thinking about blogs. These days, it seems like every author and his dog has one. And all these authors are also doing guest posts on other people’s blogs. I certainly seem to spend more time writing blog posts than fiction.

I write two regular blogs — this one and a DVD/Blu-ray reviews blog called Viewing Clutter. I also write an irregular blog on my homepage. In addition to this I write guest posts on other people’s blogs, mostly as a way of promoting my blogs and my books.

I write my blogs as a way of cementing my ‘author brand’. Although I must admit that I hate that term — ‘author brand’. It makes me sound like a packet of breakfast cereal or some such thing on a supermarket self. But in today’s publishing industry, it’s a reality. Authors need to get out there and create a brand and be recognisable, so that each time they bring out a new book, people will know about it… and hopefully buy it.

Branding aside (god, now I have an image of corralled authors being herded like cattle), I actually enjoy writing my blogs. I like inflicting my opinions on an unsuspecting blogosphere. And there’s no editor telling me what I can or can’t say… which is not necessarily a good thing, but it is liberating.

As for the guest posts… they are usually specifically focussed on promoting a particular book or series of books. So, as well as my post on Goldie’s site, other recent guest posts that I’ve written, have all been about my Gamers books and, in particular, the latest one, Gamers’ Challenge. Want a couple of examples? Of course you do…

I’ve written about setting novels within virtual worlds for Ian Irvine’s blog.

I’ve written about book trailers for Ripping Ozzie Reads.

I’ve written about letting my imagination run wild for ReadPlus.

Etc, etc…

And, of course, I’ve hosted guest posts from other authors here on Literary Clutter. Recent visiting authors have included Ian Irvine, Sean McMullen, Simon Hayes and JE Fison.

Is all this blogging actually helping authors? You know, I have absolutely no idea. I know that people are reading my blogs (In fact, I’ve got stats apps that are telling me exactly how many people.). But I don’t know if my blogging has helped me to sell any more books. Do people who read my blogs also read my books? I’ve no way of knowing.

So, why do I keep doing it?

Well, for the time being I’m enjoying it. And so long as I’m enjoying it, I’ll keep doing it. If it ever gets to be a chore; if it ever stops being fun — that’s when I’ll stop. In the meantime, you’ll just have to put up with me. 😉

Catch ya later,  George

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HAL JUNIOR – The Secret Signal

Hal checked nobody was watching, then scooped up the earphones and placed them on his head.

“Tiger One…docking successful. The board is green. I repeat, the board is green.”

He could hardly believe it. He was listening to the pilot of a real spceship!

Hal Junior, The Secret Signal is the first book in new science fiction series for junior readers by Simon Haynes. It’s full of great characters, wacky humour and adventure.

With a and a best friend called Stephen ‘Stinky’ Binn and his own patented inventions, the reader knows right from the start that Hal Junior is not your average kid and his life is far from ordinary.

Hal Junior’s wild ride starts with a confrontation with a recycling chute and he is saved only by the electronics expertise of Stinky who reverses gravity in the chute.

Hal is a great character. He’s smart, funny and just a little bit naughty. Hal is a bit of a trouble magnet. He means well, but his wild schemes and crazy plans never turn out as expected.

His relationship with brainiac Stinky also provides great humour and they have complementary qualities that allow them to get out of some serious scrapes.

One of the things I liked about this book is the clever way Hal and Stinky use basic science principles. Readers will enjoy the futuristic space station setting which provides the perfect backdrop for adventure.

Written and illustrated by Simon Haynes, Hal Junior, The Secret Signal is dotted with quirky black and white pictures.

I can see this book appealing to kids who like fun, adventure and science fiction. There are a lot of sound effects written into the text that give the book a cinematic quality, adding something extra for reluctant readers.

Hal Junior, The Secret Signal is for readers aged 8-12.


Migrants and carousels

I read LOTS of picture books! My youngest is not quite three and she loves picture books. She’ll spend ages flipping through pages and pointing things out to me. But most of all, she loves it when we sit down together, and I read them to her. So we do it every day.

You know, there are lots of really ordinary picture books out there. Some aren’t very well written. Some aren’t very well illustrated. Sometimes both text and visuals are just fine… but the overall book is missing a spark. So, when a really good picture book crosses my path, I stand up and take notice. And I’ve encountered two such books this week.

The first of these is a brand new book, scheduled for publication in February. Ships in the Field is written by Susanne Gervay and illustrated by Anna Pignataro.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the title. Ships in the field? What could that possibly mean? It’s actually a mis-pronunciation of “sheep in the field”, very common among European migrants in Australia. And once I realised this, it immediately brought up a host of memories. You see, my parents are migrants. They did, and still do, pronounce certain English words in an odd way, often adding an extraneous ‘s’ to pluralise a word that is already plural. And so we have “ships” instead of “sheep”.

Ships in the Field is a story about migrants escaping war; a story about making a new life in a new country; and the story of a little girl who wants a puppy. It is both simple and complex at the same time. A simple story about a girl, for a small child to follow and enjoy. And behind that, the story of her parents. In this book there are no country names, there are no dates, there is no specific setting, giving the story a universality and timeless quality.

“Papa grew up in a village in the old country, before it was broken. Ma grew up in a city in the old country, before it was broken.”

The illustrations are beautiful! They are filled with the same humour, warmth and subtlety as the text. There is so much to discover on every page.

Both Gervay and Pignataro are children of migrants. Perhaps that is why they’ve produced such a heartfelt and ‘real’ story.

The second book is from a couple of years ago, although I’ve only just read it. Flame Stands Waiting is written by Corinne Fenton and illustrated by Sebastian Ciaffaglione. Set in what looks like Melbourne’s Luna Park, this is the story of Flame, one of the horses on the carousel.

Flame is the horse that doesn’t move up and down. Flame is the horse that stands completely still. Flame is the horse that the kids are least interested in. Flame is the horse that always stands waiting…

Until one day, a girl named Clara chooses to ride on Flame and teaches Flame that although he can’t move up and down, in his heart, he can do anything and go anywhere.

“And now, whenever the carousel turns and the other horses dance, Flame dances too… in his heart.”

This is such a lovely book — a heart-warming story with gorgeous illustrations. Although it was published in 2010 it is still widely available and highly recommended.

If only there were more picture books as good as these two.

Catch ya later,  George

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Review – Every Minute in Australia by Yvette Poshoglian

There’s many a fact book on the Australian market – and there’s a reason for this. Kids love them. I mean, who doesn’t? Isn’t fact stranger and sometimes more mind-boggling than fiction?

We may be a young country with a small populace but there’s a heck of a lot going on here at any given minute in time. Author Poshoglian has done an awful lot of research to share her findings with kids keen for some super cool facts.

Divided into sections, starting with Aussie Food, we quickly learn that every minute 1,903 cups of cordial are being drunk, 33 tins of Milo and 41 jars of Vegemite are being sold in this country – and lo and behold – 761 Tim Tams are being nibbled.

In the Aussie Animals section, we learn koalas can eat up to half a gram of gum leaves per minute (ravenous little furballs), kangaroos can hop up to 1.16km per minute and 444 species are threatened with extinction.

In Aussie Sport, facts and figures come thick and fast with boggling speed and skill stats per minute, and in Aussie Technology, 111 vehicles cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 600-720 frames comprise a stop-motion claymation movie and Halley’s comet whizzed by in 1986 at a speedy 3km a minute.

Also covering Aussie Bodies, Pop Culture Down Under and Only In Australia, the author fleshes out each entry with some fascinating information and history, and several activities at the end of the book make for a very interactive book that should have the kids occupied very nicely indeed, these summer holidays.

Every Minute in Australia is published by Scholastic.


Gaiman’s Graveyard Book

In December last year I went to see Neil Gaiman speaking at the Athenaeum Theatre in a double-bill with Tom Stoppard (see “Stoppard and Gaiman, with a dash of Palmer”). In the week leading up to the event, I realised that I had not read any Gaiman since Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? at the end of 2010 (see “Comic Book Adventures”). A whole year without any Gaiman? This had to be rectified!

As I looked through my to-be-read pile, I found several Gaiman books, including, to my horror, The Graveyard Book. I had meant to read that book ages ago. At least I now had a good excuse to immediately move it to the top of the pile.

I started reading it the day before the Gaiman/Stoppard event, continued it on the train trip to and from the event, and finished it the day after. It’s a typical Gaiman book — utterly brilliant.

“… one day, there would be a child born who would walk the borderland between the living and the dead.”

A baby boy narrowly escapes when a mysterious man named Jack murders his family. He is adopted by the residents of a graveyard — a ghostly couple becoming his new parents and a vampire named Silas agreeing to be his guardian. Since none of the ghosts are able to leave the graveyard or interact with the physical world, it is Silas’s job to bring food for the boy. His new parents name the boy Nobody, or Bod for short, and he is granted “the Freedom of the Graveyard”, allowing him to see as the ghosts do and to go anywhere within the graveyard regardless of lock and key.

As Bod grows up he has adventures within and outside of the graveyard. But during all that time, the mysterious Jack is searching for him, waiting for his chance to finish the job, waiting for the opportunity to kill Bod.

This books has all the Gaiman trademarks…

An unusual concept as a starting point — the idea of a human child being raised by ghosts and other supernatural creatures.

Fascinating characters. Bod is a believable and likeable child, and we get to see him growing up and learning and developing into a responsible young man. Each and every ghost has his or her own quirks and personality traits, consistent with the eras of death. The murderous Jack is strangely compelling despite being evil. And then you have Silas and his friend, Miss Lupescu. These two are my favourites. The vampire who is never actually referred to as a vampire and the werewolf, who prefers to be called one of the “Hounds of God”.

Mythology. If there is one thing that is so very Gaiman, it’s the fact that his work has such mythic (and epic) qualities. From Sandman to American Gods, from his last Batman story to his Doctor Who episode, his tales and soaked in myth. And here in The Graveyard Book, he presents us with such wonderful mythology — the Hounds of God; the order within the graveyards with their hierarchy, their Ghoul-gates and their secrets; the way the dead and the living dance the Macabray when the winter flowers bloom in the graveyard; and the chilling, ages-old secret society, the Jacks of All Trades, to which the murderous Jack belongs. All of this creates such a wonderfully rich backdrop to the story. I know of no other author who handles this stuff with such skill.

I guess The Graveyard Book is a children’s book, in the same way as Coraline. The protagonist is a child, and the storyline is one that is sure to keep children entertained. But like the best of children’s books, it also has much to offer readers of all ages. There are layers in this novel — layers upon layers — waiting to be discovered. It’s the sort of book that would be good to re-read at different stages of life. I wish this book had been around for me to read as a child. To those who have read it as children, I urge you to keep your copies and re-read them as teenagers, and again as adults. I’m certain you’ll find new things each time.

I have the edition that’s been illustrated by Dave McKean. Evocative and sometimes eerily disturbing, these black and white drawings are a perfect accompaniment to Gaiman’s text. No surprise here, as McKean is a long-time collaborator of Gaiman’s. There is another edition with illustrations by Chris Riddell. I’ve only seen the cover illustration from this edition, which is quite different to McKean’s style. I must get a copy so I can compare.

I’ve just had another glance at my to-be-read pile. I’m very pleased that there are still some Gaiman books in there that I’ve not yet read. I am so looking forward to discovering them.

Catch ya later,  George

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Scholastic has just released a number of books for the young fact lover and for those young readers who like a book that makes them laugh.

WEE ON A JELLYFISH STING and other fibs that simply aren’t true

It’s amazing how many half-baked notions, crazy rumours from the internet and recycled must old myths get mistaken for the truth. Many well-meaning people may not realise that what they are telling you is, in fact, complete twaddle. Maybe it sounded convincing to them, or maybe they think it’s a useful fact. But sadly, no.

WEE ON A JELLYFISH STING and other fibs that simply aren’t true busts some popular myths about all kind of things including the memory of a goldfish and  that touching a toad can give you warts.

As well as the funny bits, there’s all sorts of useful information like how to get out of quicksand and the fact that an aardvaark can half a million termites in one meal. Topics include history, health, animals, places, the human body and crazy stuff.

WEE ON A JELLYFISH STING and other fibs that simply aren’t true is cleverly written by Tracey Turner and hilariously illustrated by Clive Goddard.


In the minute it takes for you to read this, AMAZING things will be happening all over the country.

Every Minute in Australia is full of amazing facts about Aussie food, Aussie animals, Aussie sport, Aussie culture and much, much more.

Every Minute in Australia has been meticulously researched by author, Yvette Poshoglian and is full of surprising facts like ’13 litres of tomato sauce’ are consumed per minute. I’m not saying all the information is something you need to know, but it’s fascinating nonetheless and great for young readers who love collecting facts.

It’s a bit different from your normal ‘fact fest’ because of the theme of ‘every minute in Australia’. There are even some ‘only in Australia’ activities so that the reader can really get involved. Every Minute in Australia is an easy to read format with cartoon style illustrations breaking up the text.

From car racing to training your pet, there’s something for everyone in Every Minute in Australia. It’s one of those books that make for fun dinner table conversation. Every Minute in Australia is published by Scholastic.





The Lost Art Of Sleep

The Lost Art Of SleepSpeaking of good books I haven’t quite been able to bring myself to finish…Michael McGirr’s The Lost Art of Sleep is another casualty in the polygamy disaster. It’s not that it’s not a good read—it is. It’s just that I’ve needed something with a bit stronger pull of late—something that shoves the rest of the world away and forces you to concentrate on nothing but the words on the page.

McGirr’s book, which muses on the history of sleep through time and marries it to his own experiences of sleeplessness brought on by the arrival of three young children, is fascinating and well wrought. Perhaps, though, my own unhappiness at not being able to sleep (which is also what compelled me to pick the book up) also prevented me from being able to fully finish it (I cheated, skipped about a third, and lobbed back in a few chapters from the end).

Anyone who’s had the (mis)pleasure of speaking with me in recent times will know I’ve developed something of an obsession with sleep. Specifically, obtaining sleep, which is eluding me not because I suffer from insomnia but because I suffer from shrieking, serial-killer neighbours.

They’re not literally serial killers, of course, but for reasons that are too long to go into here and that involve, of all things, a former neighbour who was a butcher, who kept toothy, rabidly angry dogs, and who would crack out and crank up the whipper snipper when his housemates locked him out at 3am, the term ‘the serial killers next door’ has effectively become shorthand for ‘neighbours you’d really, really, really rather not have’.

Sigh. The first line of McGirr’s book sums up my experience entirely: ‘Fatigue fatigue is when you’re tired of being tired.’ I’m not a grump or a bore, honest. I’m simply zombie-walking proof that sleep deprivation temporarily makes you both.

McGirr’s simple yet previously unstated ‘aha’ (to quote Oprah) observations are perhaps what most impressed me about his book. They include that ‘a horse at sleep is a statue of itself’, that giraffes sleep with their eyes open and that ‘the only rule of thumb for the uninitiated is that if a giraffe looks like it is asleep, then it almost certainly isn’t’, as well as the astute note that the ugly coffee mugs are the ones that never break.

Likewise, I practically said ‘amen’ his observation that people will play almost anything for a decent night’s sleep. Why yes, they will. I’ve recently, sadly, entered the vast and complicated world of sleeping tablets not—I feel it’s important to note—because I have trouble sleeping, but because with neighbours like mine it’s impossible to either get to sleep or to stay there.

McGirr necessarily charts the awful accidents that have befallen some people who’ve taken sleeping tablets in recent times and who’ve had sleepwalking reactions. He also notes the bemusing side effect for those of us who haven’t had such horrific experiences on them—the speed with which those suckers take effect.

He writes about a woman who wasn’t in bed at the time she took the tablet and woke up the next day with her head on her alarm clock. I can personally attest that one shouldn’t take a tablet then attempt to pack a bag for a three-day work trip. Fortunately for me, Melbourne has stores that sell crucial things like underpants.

McGirr takes too the obligatory look at famous insomniacs throughout history, but also kyboshes that oft-peddled martyrdom of only sleeping [insert ridiculously small figure here] hours a night. He also includes a bunch of facts that I mentally attempted to store away for trivia nights and first-date small talk. Say, for example, that ‘mortgage’, a word of French origin, literally and fittingly means ‘death grip’.

Thanks to McGirr, I now know that James Barry, AKA he of Peter Pan authorship fame, likely invented the character as he himself became stuck in a kind of perpetual boyhood—his grieving mother mistook him for his deceased brother and he took on that persona rather than disappoint her.

I now also know that caffeine is actually a naturally occurring kind of insecticide and we humans are the only creatures who seem to find it palatable; so much so, that there’s caffeine in the water courtesy of what we excrete that gets flushed into the oceans.

McGirr’s wry observations and the out-of-the-mouths-of-babes moments, of which there are many and many of which made me smile, are the subtle gold of this book and why it’s well worth a read. For example, his son’s response to their encouragement that he make his bed: ‘“If God made the world,” he asked, “why can’t he make my bed?”’

Sure, I struggled to finish this book and cast it slightly aside for some others, but I’d still recommend it. Something tells me my inability to wholly concentrate on it had less to do with its content and more to do with my current (seemingly perpetual) state of sleep deprivation.

Review – Me . . . Jane

Young Jane had a stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee. She adored him and took him everywhere with her, especially to the great outdoors, where she loved immersing herself in nature. In fact, Jane also immersed herself in books about nature, and learned all she could about animals and plants.

Jane had a favourite tree which she would climb and read books with Jubilee. She loved reading about Tarzan of the Apes and a girl named Jane, who lived in the jungles of Africa. Jane also dreamed of a life in Africa – living among the animals, and helping them.

At night, young Jane would tuck herself into bed with Jubilee, fall asleep and one day, not too long after she was little, she woke to see her dreams had come true . . . and this is when we are treated to a beautiful photographic image of Dr Jane Goodall, reaching out to touch the hand of a baby chimpanzee, just like Jubilee.

I was completely moved by this book.

The simplicity and beauty of the story of Dr Goodall’s young life is so gorgeously rendered, featuring stunning watercolour illustrations and collages of block printing, photographs and diagrams . . . that come together to make this book a design masterpiece.

The biographical entry at the end, with a photo of a baby Jane with Jubilee, is priceless, as is the note from Jane herself, talking about her Roots & Shoots foundation and her adoration for children.

A beautiful, important book.

Me . . . Jane is published by Little, Brown.


Title: Look, a Book!

Author: Libby Gleeson

Illustrator: Freya Blackwood

Publisher: Little Hare, $24.99 RRP

Publication Date: 1 October 2011

Format: Hard cover

ISBN: 9781921541803

For ages: 2 – 8

Type: Picture BookM


Lily gets her wings and Lily has a secret are the first two books in the Lily, The Littlest Angel series written by Elizabeth Pulford with illustrations by Aki Fukuoka


In book one, Lily gets her wings, Lily dreams of earning her wings so she can attend Amelia’s Angel Academy, but someone has hidden her practice wings. If Lily can’t find them in time to take the test, her dream will be shattered.

Being an angel isn’t easy for Lily. She has a sweet nature and means well, but somehow she always finds herself in trouble. And whenever she’s in trouble, her rival for the last spot at the Academy, Tisa, never seems too far away. And when Lily accidentally damages a third year angel’s wings she knows she’s in serious trouble.

Eventually, Lily finds her own wings, but they don’t seem to do what she wants them to. And how will she pass the seemingly impossible test of making Professor Glumbo laugh. There’s only one spot left at the academy and it seems that Tisa will be the one to get it.

But Mother Angel has a surprise announcement for both of them.


In book 2, Lily has a secret, Lily rescues an injured kitten, but one of the rules at the Academy is “No animals allowed (except Frumplepuss)”. As a new recruit to the Academy, Lily can’t afford to break the rules, but she can’t let anything bad happen to the kitten either.

But when Lily gets distracted by the kitten and breaks the beautiful golden harp, things can’t get much worse.

Lily is an appealing character who will endear herself to readers. Even though she’s an angel, she’s far from perfect.

Little girls will be drawn to the appealing design of these books and the lively pictures. They’ll be swept along by Lily’s latest mishap, wondering what will happen next and whether Lily will get out of yet another scrape.

Lily, The Littles Angel’s adventures are gentle stories with authentic characters and events. They make a pretty and charming addition to a little girl’s book collection.

Lily The Littlest Angel series is published by Scholastic.

Lily, The Littlest Angel is a charming new chapter book series for readers aged 6-9.

I will…

The clock has ticked and the calendar page has been turned — we’ve made it to 2012! Did you make a New Year’s Resolution? Have you broken it yet?

New Year’s Resolutions are a funny thing. People make them in all sincerity, steadfastly intending to abide by their decisions, and then the new year begins with a cacophony of shattered expectations.

I will give up smoking! I will lose weight! I will be a nicer person! I will climb Mt Everest! I will take up para-gliding! I will write a novel! I will… I will… whatever!

Part of the issue, I think, is that so many of these resolutions are determined while in an inebriated state. Things appear a lot easier than they really are, when viewed through the haze of alcohol… and a great haze seems to descend upon much of the world at the birth of each new year.

New Year’s Resolutions, I think, are best left to the morning after, as the harsh reality of life reminds you of its presence with a metaphoric brick in the face. A thumping headache and the after-party clean-up will do wonders to temper excessive expectations, ensuring that resolutions made at this time, are actually achievable. That’s my theory, anyway.

As it happens, while I certainly did have a couple of glasses of bubbly, I saw in the New Year with a reasonable clarity of vision. And the following morning, I sat down and came up with a few achievable resolutions.

I will read more!

As I get older, more and more things compete for my attention on a daily basis. I have two kids who take up huge amounts of my time (which I LOVE and would not exchange for all the books in the world). I have lots of writing on my plate, with new deadlines springing up left right and centre. Last year I started a DVD reviews blog, and so started watching more than I had been. Then there’s the cooking and cleaning and shopping and… blah, blah, blah…

The result of all this is that I read less last year than the previous year. And I read less that previous year than the year before it. Etc! It’s a downward spiral… and I don’t like it.

I LOVE READING! And I want to spend more time reading. And, dammit, I WILL!

I will write more!

I’m a writer. It’s my job. It’s my career. It’s my passion! Last year I wrote quite a lot… more than the previous year, I think. Well, this year, I’d like to write even more. My head is so full of stories and ideas and I want to get them out before they drive me insane (although some people will probably claim that it’s too late). With daughter #2 starting Kinder this year, I believe that this just might actually be an achievable goal. We’ll wait and see, shall we?

I will take the time to smell the roses!

I’ve already mentioned that I live a busy life. And sometimes things get so busy that everything just rushes by in a great big blur of motion, until I suddenly realise that weeks have gone by and I’ve hardly even noticed.

Just a couple of years ago, I used to make a point of taking a break while having my morning coffee. My wife and I would both stop working and go sit out in the backyard for 10 minutes or so, have a little chat, sip our coffees, perhaps have a biscuit, admire the surrounding plant life and maybe even smell the lavender (we don’t actually have roses in our garden). Last year, I don’t think we managed that more than a handful of times. My coffee was usually drunk as I sat at the computer, or guzzled as I rushed about cleaning the kitchen, or gulped between various other tasks. Sometimes it would even sit on the kitchen bench going cold because I had forgotten about it after the first hurried slurp.

I need to make the effort to slow down once in a while.

And this relates to resolution number one. Because taking the time to slow down and enjoy life, includes reading more.

So there your have it, folks — my New Year’s Resolutions. So far so good. Okay, so it’s only three days, but I’ve read and rested and written and sat out in the garden as the kids have jumped endlessly on their new trampoline. And now, in the spirit of resolution #3, I’m about to go and assemble two iced coffees, drag my wife away from her computer, and go sit out in the backyard.

Catch ya later,  George

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Monogamy v Polygamy

Word FreakMonogamy and polygamy aren’t, admittedly, terms that are often applied to how many books we have on the go at any one time, but it’s the best way I can explain my reading relationship. Although I’d like to say I always have a bunch of books on the go, in truth I’m a pretty vanilla reader and can really only comfortably cosy up to one book at a time. Bizarrely, it’s taken me a long, long while to realise this. Or maybe I’ve just been in denial because juggling books sounds so much more intelligent and exciting.

I’ve tried reading polygamy plenty over the years, and still do have the occasional crack, but it never ends well. I could even say I’m monogamous because I’m the faithful type, but it’s actually more because I’m unable to wholly focus on or retain information about more than one thing at once. Polygamy for me equals lots of squinting, scanning, page shuffling, sighing, and re-reading, and, ultimately, a reduced reading pleasure.

Adding to my reading complexity is the fact that I don’t use bookmarks—I can’t stand them; think they’re a rubbish invention, and can’t believe we haven’t come up with anything less naff and less likely to fall out of a book. No, really. I get that dog-earing isn’t ideal, but I’ll take it over a kitten-themed, tasselled, lame quote-bearing bookmark that drops onto the floor the moment the book pages slacken any day. Long story short, without a foolproof method of marking my place, I often struggle to remember where I’m up to in a book—multiple books on the go compounds the issue.

The Lost Art of SleepThe truth is that the times I’ve been polygamous are the ones when I’m just not that into a book. You might call it polygamy or you might call it cheating. Either way, I’m hedging my bets or finding fun elsewhere in order to return to the book I know I should read but can’t quite bring myself to.

That happened with Word Freak, the book that featured in my previous blog and that I desperately wanted to love. It’s also happening with The Lost Art Of Sleep, a book I haven’t yet blogged about but that I’m skimming and reading every second chapter of when I do, eventually and out of some inexplicable moral obligation, get round to it.

On the flipside, it never happened with Vampire Academy, The Hunger Games, or any manner of non-fiction books such as The Good Soldiers or Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures I’ve rabbited on about over time. Is it just me or is it the same for you? Is book polygamy really just another, non-confrontational way of saying to a book: ‘I’m just not that into you?’

Review – Box Boy

Even the cover makes you want to open this book and dive inside, just like a real life box. If it does this to an adult, imagine what it does to box-obsessed children (and isn’t that all of them?).

Box Boy likes to collect things. He collects all sorts of things. Especially boxes. He likes boxes because he can do all sorts of things with them. He can make a rocket ship and fly to the moon, he can create a throne, complete with wrapping paper roll sceptre. He loves boxes so much, that when his parents bought him a new bed, he slept in its box instead!

One day, after making a rather impressive and enormous Eiffel Tower – yes, out of boxes – a gallery director strolls by. He loves Box Boy’s creations so much, he insists on gathering them together for an art exhibition. Box Boy is soon all over the media. When asked his inspiration behind the artwork – his response? “I just really like boxes.”

The artwork in this book is pure pleasure, as is the comical way Webster brings heart and soul to his characters. Seriously loving the layout and design of this book, too – and the surprise ending is a giggle-worthy delight.

Oh – kids will love it, too.

The Box Boy is published by Windy Hollow Books.

Word Freak

Word FreakI realise it’s a little odd to recommend a book that I’ve wholly, never-to-be-repealed abandoned after more than eight months of fits-and-starts attempts to read it. But in the case of Word Freak (and to borrow the trusty break-up cliché) I think it’s not the book, but rather me.

Word Freak is Wall Street Journal journalist Stefan Fatsis’ attempt to gain entry and insight into the complex, competitive world of professional Scrabble playing (interestingly, he did something similar with NFL with Few Seconds of Panic). Over the course of its 366 pages, Fatsis studies up on and is mentored in the key principles of Scrabble strategies, and then both applies these strategies in tournaments and achieves a near-expert ranking.

The book was recommended by a friend and fellow editor, Kirsty, who consoled me when I complained how Scrabble always has and always will destroy me. My suckfullness and inability to either improve at or wholly escape Scrabble has become a particular bone of contention because every man, woman, and their dog seems to challenge me to, and then take great pleasure in beating me at, the game. As though I’m some Scrabble giant they’ve toppled. Meh, I personally don’t consider it much of a victory worth celebrating—Blind Freddy could randomly lay down tiles and still beat me.

Word Freak, it seemed, held both the answers and the therapy for someone as Scrabble-constipated and winning-thwarted as me. I figured I’d finally understand why I was so bad and master the necessary skills. I managed the former but, well, never managed the latter. My reading attempts fell over at page 95. I then stole a skimming look at the final chapter, so in total read just over 100 pages.

Let me say this up front: Word Freak is good. Scrabble fans will enjoy it. I’m just not a Scrabble fan and, despite trying totes hard to get into the book, I was defeated by it for the very same reasons why I’m defeated by the boardgame itself: it’s about probability and stats and combinations and logical, mathematical puzzling out of which tiles are out, which are still to come, and what your move will potentially either set your opponent up to do or prevent them from doing.

Few Seconds of PanicWritten with a sports commentary-like verve, Word Freak colourfully explains the potentially dry Scrabble stats. Unfortunately they’re still a bit too complex and there are a few too many for my simple brain to ingest, much less comprehend. But let me put it this way: Scrabble’s less about knowing lots of words and their meanings and more about knowing combinations of letters. The top Scrabble players memorise lists of combinations, something I find simultaneously impressive and depressing. Impressive, because they know extraordinary words. Depressing because they never (or rarely) learn the words’ meaning.

Scrabble is, Word Freak tells me, ‘…among the best-selling and most enduring games in the two-hundred-year history of the American toy industry. Hasbro Inc., which owns the rights to Scrabble in North America, sells over a million sets a year. Around a hundred million sets have been sold worldwide since the game was first mass-produced in 1948.’ That’s a lot of players and sets out there. No wonder I regularly get challenged to a game.

It continues: ‘…say the word ‘Scrabble’ and everyone knows what you’re talking about: the game in which you make words. But it’s much more than that […] Scrabble is one of those one-size-fits-all totems that pops up in movies, books, and the news.’ In short, it’s something we’ve all had a crack at one time or another. See previous comment about no wonder I often get asked to play.

The characters who compete at the elite Scrabble level are precisely that: characters. There’s the drug-taking obsessive who needs to win comps in order to pay his rent and who even buys an oxygen tank at one stage to pump the maximum amount of thought-clearing gas into his body. There’s the zen master who does all manner of meditation-style preparation for tournaments and who mentors Fatsis. There are the OCD types in between. Regardless of their approaches, what they all have in common is their obsession with the game and the rote learning they do of lists of three, four, five, and so on-letter words.

If it sounds too hard to you (like it did to me), rest assured it did to Fatsis too, who confesses to his mentor: ‘“I feel overwhelmed by the words,” I say. “All the lists and sublists and potential lists. There’s just too much, so I don’t do much at all.”’

But the passage that most surprised and consoled me was this: ‘To play competitive Scrabble, one has to get over the conceit of refusing to acknowledge certain words as real and accept that the game requires learning words that may not have any outside utility. In the living room, Scrabble is about who has a better working vocabulary. If it did, I—an Ivy League-educated professional journalist, for crying out loud—would rule. But I can only dream of competing with the champions. No, Scrabble isn’t about words. It’s about mastering the rules of the game, and the words are the rules.’

With that in mind, I’ll recommend Word Freak to you, but I won’t (or wouldn’t) recommend it to me. My brain’s not built for either playing or even reading about Scrabble. It’s game over for me and any Scrabble book or boardgame.