Amazing dates

2012 is shaping up to be a year with plenty of notable dates. If you are following the Gregorian Calendar, today is a leap day. This means two things; firstly, that February really doesn’t know when to leave the party gracefully. (“It’s a year that’s divisible by four! Why don’t I just stay over? No, no, I’m fine with no bed and no overnight gear – I can sleep on your sofa. Hey, have you got any pizza? I’m starving.”) And 2) that, according to tradition, this the day of the year when women are allowed to propose to men. I looked into this one and apparently we Irish could be blamed for this particular bit of tradition.

St Brigid was exasperated by the fact that only men were allowed to propose and generally did so with the complete lack of punctuality the Irish are famed for. She struck a deal with St Patrick to allow women to propose to men – and not just the other way around – on this one day every 4 years. (I had never heard this one – my entire familiarity with our most revered female figure was the story of her miraculously expanding cloak which allowed her to finagle a few choice acres out of a stingy king. Would that the same trick worked on real estate agents in Sydney.)

And turning down such a proposal was considered to be very poor form. In some places, a man was expected to pay a penalty, such as a gown or money, if he refused a marriage proposal from a woman on Leap Day. Which sounds like a good way to wangle a new dress or a few books out of  someone if you are very, very confident they will say no.

Anyway, the “once in a few years” event of 2012 that I am most keyed about is not an attempt to extort more books from my poor beleaguered partner. Come November I’m hoping to schlep up to Cairns and catch the total solar eclipse.   I’ve had a yen to see an eclipse since I read an Enid Blyton book where the plucky kids outwitted their tropical captors by knowing when a solar eclipse would occur, and proceeded to pretend to the stunned locals that they had caused it and wouldn’t reverse the spell unless they were given lashings and lashings of ginger beer. I have wanted to see an eclipse for as long as Timmy the dog has wanted to bite prissy Julian firmly on the arse and tell Anne to stop cleaning his bowl and put some damned food in it. Not even Stephenie Meyer’s using the word as a title will put me off.

If you can’t make the solar eclipse, you can always comfort yourself with the transit of Venus in June (and Australian astonomer Nick Lomb‘s excellent book about it). Or you could make the most of the end of this amazing date and go pick yourself up something nice – today is Boomerang Books’ Discount Day!

Whatever you do this year to mark amazing occasions, you are bound to do better than Guillaume Le Gentil, whose suffering in the name of astronomy and science was so hilariously summed up in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Le Gentil set off from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from India, but various setback left him still at sea on the day of the transit-just about the worst place to be, since steady measurements are impossible on a pitching ship.

Undaunted, Le Gentil continued on to India to await the next transit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his instruments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4th, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but just as Venus began its pass, a cloud slid in front of the sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: 3 hours, 14 minutes, 7 seconds.

Stoically, Le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route, he contracted dysentery and was laid up for almost a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives had had him declared dead in his absence and had enthusiastically plundered his estate.

Vampires vs Zombies vs Me

TwilightSomeone asked me the other day if I was obsessed with vampires. The answer was a puzzled and resounding ‘no’. Prior to the recent glut of young-adult vampire fiction that I have delved into in recent years, I’ve never so much as looked sideways at a vampire book or film.

The main reason for this is that I have an insanely overactive imagination and am also easily, utterly terrified. The combination of the two mean that I’ve forever steered clear of anything vampire-y. Anne Rice books or films like Interview With A Vampire will forever remain peripheral items that I will understand in pop-culture theory but not in practice.

The only reason I’m not scared silly of vampires is because I’ve only been reading young-adult vampire romances. I blame Twilight and its myriad doppelgangers—like many of us do for many things, but that’s perhaps another blog for another time—for teaching me that vampires are sexy, six-packed hotties who will do anything and everything to love and protect you. And once you read one…well, it’s a slippery slope.

My dirty little secret is that while I’m not terrified of vampires, I am unreasonably afraid of zombies. Yeah, as in vampires’ slower moving, less dangerous poor cousins. I realise it’s an irrational fear, but I’m also scaredy-cat proof that fear is rarely rational.

The Forest of Hands and TeethI blame Carrie Ryan’s young-adult zombie romance series, which starts off with The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Note the qualifying words ‘young adult’ and ‘romance’. I totes thought that far from being brainless brain eaters, zombies defied the genre and fell in love. It turns out not.

The romance unfolds between the non-zombie protagonists who are living in a post-apocalyptic outpost surrounded by hoards of perpetually hungry, perpetually stalking zombies. Oh, and they set off down a mysterious, labyrinth-like path that’s in ruin, that contains a bunch of dead ends, that’s narrow and unsealed, and that leaves them just a finger’s whisper away from being infected by the very zombies that shuffle and moan alongside as they chase them.

The strangely addictive trilogy scared the bejeepers out of me so comprehensively that I am and forever will be terrified of zombies. For the record, I know the books aren’t scary. You can spare me outraged emails going, ‘Um, you’re exaggerating’. I wholly admit that I’m a wuss.

Said zombie fear was unforgivably cemented by an ex-boyfriend and his flatmate who found it funny to impersonate zombies at every opportunity—even if it was as banal as while hanging clothes out on the washing line. They found it hilarious. I found it horrific, although I realise it’s pathetic and that you probably find it funny too. Please see my previously stated point above re: I know it’s lame to be so afraid, but fears are rarely rational. And as I said, unforgivably cemented.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that I’ve realised that, for me at least, vampires are indelibly tied to pleasure, which is in turn tied to procrastination. I’d write more about that but I’m actually in the throes of vampire-led work avoidance and had to bargain with myself big time to even tear myself away to write this post. The reward is that I’m heading back to the welcoming arms of young-adult vampire romance. I’ll explain more if/when I resurface…


This is the second part in our series of posts about the publishers – the people who make the books we read. Today we feature HarperCollins, publisher of many well-loved books for children and young adults.

Melanie Saward from HarperCollins talks about the company and the wonderful books they are publishing.

What kind of books do you publish?

HarperCollins publishes lots and lots of different books. We have lots of beautiful picture books, interesting non-fiction, exciting novels, and great stories on our list.

What do you love most about your work?

As a kid I always used to get report cards that said I would be a better student if I ‘put down the book.’ One teacher told me that I needed to concentrate on other things because reading books under my desk wasn’t going to get me a job. I love that I proved him wrong and that reading books is a HUGE part of my job (and that I don’t have to read them under my desk).

Thanks for sharing this wonderful anecdote with us, Melanie. So many readers will relate to this one. I love that you proved your teacher wrong too.

2012 is The National Year of Reading. Why do you think reading is important for both children and adults?

I could go on about why reading is important for hours!

One of the big reasons it’s important, in my opinion, is because reading opens up different worlds, cultures, ways of living and makes the world just that bit smaller. A really good example of that for me recently was reading Anna Perera’s The Glass Collector. This story, about a boy who collects, sorts, and sells the rubbish of Egypt, made me look at things in a different way, and educated me about a group of people I had never heard of before.

What is your current submissions process for authors and illustrators?

We don’t currently accept unsolicited manuscripts. If you’re an aspiring writer or illustrator, I’d recommend contacting your local writers’ centre for advice, or, keeping your eye out for competitions and mentorships that can not only help you develop and refine your skills, but can help catch the eye of agents and publishers.

What were some of your favourite HarperCollins book titles from 2011?

I loved Exile and Muse by Rebecca Lim, which are the second and third books in Rebecca’s wonderful Mercy series about an angel who has been exiled from heaven and who is doomed to return repeatedly to earth inhabiting different people’s bodies and lives; Silvermay by James Moloney, which is the first book in a new fantasy trilogy by one of my favourite authors; Nanberry Black Brother White by Jackie French made me laugh and cry; Divergent by Veronica Roth—a book that was so fast-paced and exciting I didn’t want to put it down; and, the return of Mothball Wombat in Christmas Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.

What titles do you have coming up in 2012 that you’re really excited about?

We have so many great books coming this year. One in particular that we’re all really excited about is The Industry by Rose Foster. This is an exciting YA thriller about Kirra Hayward, an ordinary sixteen-year-old girl who stumbles across an unusual puzzle on the Internet and solves it. She’s Kidnapped by a shadowy organisation known only as The Industry, Kirra soon discovers how valuable her code-breaking skills are. And when she stubbornly refuses to help them, they decide to break her by any means at their disposal.

The Hunger Pains by the Harvard Lampoon is a hilarious send-up of the extremely popular Hunger Games and it’s out now! The hero of the story, Kantkiss Neverclean feels unprepared to fight in The Hunger Games, the second highest rated reality TV show in Peaceland, right after Extreme Home Makeover. But when her survival rests on choosing between the dreamy hunk from home, Carol Handsomestein, or the doughy klutz, Pita Malarkey, Kantkiss finds that the toughest conflicts may not be found on the battlefield but in her own heart, which is unfortunately on a battlefield.

The Cartographer by Peter Twohig is also out now. This is a wonderful book about an eleven-year-old boy who witnesses a murder while spying through the window of a strange house. Now, having been seen by the angry murderer, he is a kid on the run. With only a shady grandfather, a professional standover man and an incongruous local couple as adult mentors, he takes refuge in the dark drains and grimy tunnels beneath the city, transforming himself into a series of superheroes and creating a rather unreliable map to plot out places where he is unlikely to cross paths with the bogeyman.

And some last mentions: Fury is the last book in the Mercy series by Rebecca Lim and it’ll be out in May; Tamlyn, the second book in the Silvermay trilogy will be released in June; and, keep an eye out for a gorgeous picture book by Kate Knapp called Ruby Red Shoes in November (and if you’d like to see some advance cuteness, have a look at Ruby’s blog:

Thanks for sharing all this great information about your new and existing titles, Melanie.  It sounds like Harper Collins has some great things planned for 2012.


Review – Pompeii: A Roman Girl’s Diary AD78-79

Claudia is the daughter of a well-to-do baker, in the great city of Pompeii, southern Italy. She is an everyday teen living in a world so far removed from our own, it was entrancing to follow her on this dusty, rumbling journey. Living in the shadow Mt Vesuvius, Claudia has felt unsettled for some time. The Gods are angry. There have been trembles. Cracks have been appearing in the mud walls of their house and dog Pollux has been acting strangely.

Nonetheless, life goes on behind the walls of Pompeii. Slaves are bought and sold, chariots rumble through the streets, gladiators fight to the death in the ring – all the usual things.

It’s when she spies a red-headed British slave called Aengus that things begin to change for Claudia. Entranced by the boy, she is horrified when, after performing a heroic public feat, he is sold into the Gladiator ring. Poor Aengus will now never be free, and will never be able to find his young sister, who has also been sold into slavery.

Intent on helping Aengus anyway she can, whilst simultaneously avoiding meddling, hoity family friend Aemilia, Claudia instead befriends Aemilia’s cousin Calpurnia, who soon learns of her passion for Aengus. With the shadow of the massive eruption of Mt Vesuvius over their heads, can Claudia follow both her gut feel and her heart – and steer her family, and new friends, away from Pompeii at just the right time?

Sue Reid has done a remarkable job of taking us back in time via the pages of this beautifully-penned diary. Her central character is endearing, very real and compassionate, and sub-characters are also well-fleshed and enjoyable. The fine detail of life at this time in Italian history is evocative and thoroughly entertaining – from the way paving is laid in the streets, to the food eaten and the vicious happenings in the gladiator ring, a trip into the past is guaranteed. Subplots and very real relationships and difficulties are threaded through the book, with all the while – that haunting undercurrent of imminent explosion bubbling just below the surface.

Although I enjoyed the entire book, I was particularly thrilled with the dramatic way Reid describes the explosion itself, and the way she handles her characters. Talk about page-turning. Relationships, survival and questions are left open-ended at the conclusion of the book, so although we may never know how things finished in the end for the book’s characters, a sense of completion is still afforded by the philosophical and heartwarming voice of this young teen, a voice Reid has done so well.

Pompeii: A Roman Girl’s Diary AD78-79 is published by Scholastic.

A Feast of Books

Last week I blogged about my desire find a house with a library (preferably one behind a hidden door), where I could pander to my love of reading and store my ever-expanding collection of books.

I’ll cheerfully admit that my reach definitely exceeds my grasp on this one. House with libraries tend to come with wings and servants and other items that I can’t really afford, no matter how much I want them. I have lavishly-illustrated coffee-table book tastes on a mass-market paperback budget, sadly, so I need to look at other options for indulging booklovers’ desires.

Instead of insisting on a full library, you could always just get really creative with where I put my bookshelves or invest in some bookshelves that double as decoration, as some places have done.

Or you could pick up a spectacular piece of book art, such as Brian Dettmer‘s intricate and amazing creations, made from out-of date encyclopedias, medical journals, illustration books and dictionaries. He uses knives, tweezers and surgical tools to cut, carve and shape these old books into three-dimensional works of art. Nothing inside is relocated or implanted as he manipulates the books to forms sculptures that reveal and revel in the books’ contents and their breath-taking complexity of illustration. His work isn’t cheap but if you did find between $3,800 to $32,000USD down the back of the sofa, you could be the proud owner of one of these pieces.

If you want to go the whole hog*, but don’t want to spend a king’s ransom**, you could always indulge your love of books with a culinary adventure, such as Gastro Park’s Game Of Thrones’ feast. Inspired by the TV adaptation of George R R Martin’s infamously bloody series, this fantasy-fueled banquet will set you back a pricey but affordable $100.

Much like the books, the meal is not for those scared of a bit of gore. The feast opens with bloody strips of raw venison, pinned by arrows and garnished with eyeballs and dirt. That grisly appetizer is followed by charred raven’s feet in broth, then a huge portion of crispy suckling pig (complete with a large knife for back-stabbing), and then the dessert; a glistening dragon’s egg, served on a bed of snow and sand and topped with a generous pouring of pure liquid gold.

It’s a feast fit for a king (or, in the case of the liquid gold, for someone who believes they are one). And considerably more delicious than it sounds; the eyeballs in dirt are liquid mozzarella served on tapenade, for example, and the raven’s feet are piquillo peppers in a black squid-ink batter. The spectacular dessert is a work of delicious fiction; some smashing reveals the “dragon’s egg” to be a spray-painted chocolate shell encasing a liquid passionfruit and vanilla centre. And the liquid gold, deployed to such a devastating effect in the books, is a far more feast-friendly orange curd.

The meal is a marketing ploy for the Game of Thrones‘ TV show Australian DVD release. Chef Grant King is less that a bibliophile himself – he had never heard of the books or the show but quickly discovered it to be to his taste: “Anything about chopping dudes up, I’m into that.”

As for this bibliophile? I’m still looking. I have found one ideal home; a lovely and spacious house where one room has walls completely covered in bookshelves. It was love at first sight.  I’m just hoping that love will get the hint and send the several hundred thousand through extra to me I need to purchase this place. If anyone wants me, I’ll be looking down the back of the sofa.


*The whole hog is, of course, the suckling pig.

**Okay, there’s just no excuse for this much pun.


No Country/Place For Exclamation Marks And Semicolons

The RoadThere are certain punctuation marks that irk us, whether by their overuse or the rampant misuse. For me, exclamation marks and semicolons fall into both categories. They are, after all, impossible to ignore and create all sorts of unintended meanings and unintentional humour/horror in the wrong hands.

I may, if pressed, also admit that my aversion to semicolons is at least in part because I am terrified of using them incorrectly myself. I mean, I know how to use them, but then over think it and worry that I don’t.

I mightn’t be making much of a dent with my ‘die, exclamation marks and semicolons, die’ movement (I realise that sounds a tad aggressive and melodramatic but, well, they have that effect on me. And yes, I’m aware of the irony that the previous sentence is one place where an exclamation mark could be appropriately applied), but someone else is.

That someone happens to be Cormac McCarthy, AKA author of such revered bestsellers oft adapted into movies as The Road, All the Pretty Horses, and No Country for Old Men. AKA the guy who hasn’t written just one knock-out book that went on to be made into a knock-out film that in turn refocused interest on and resulted in further sales of the knock-out book, but many.

No Country For Old MenHe’s secretly (or secretly to us general fans, anyway) turned his hand to editing, improving work and excising pesky exclamation marks and semicolons, reportedly claiming that those two punctuation marks ‘have no place in literature’ (I’m trying to resist make a pun about how there’s no country/place for…exclamation marks and semicolons). High five for McCarthy. And high five for his editees, who appreciate his editorial input.

Physics professor Lawrence M Krauss told The Guardian: ‘I was thrilled that Cormac volunteered to do this. He said he…loved the book so much that he wanted to make it better.’ Hmm, backhanded compliment, much?

I love, though, that Krauss recognises that McCarthy’s edits are highly useful and valid, even if they’re slightly scathing and stripping. I guess, though, McCarthy’s writer-of-world-revered-fiction reputation precedes him and it wouldn’t be a case of ‘You want me to remove what?’ as ‘I’ll hold the delete button down and you tell me when to lift my finger off it’.

Still, such a dubious compliment will undoubtedly be repaid with book sales: ‘Having Cormac’s name on the paperback is one of the biggest honours I could imagine,’ said Krauss. Yep, especially as ‘honour’ could also be known as ‘book-sale dollars derived from being associated with him’.

One can only dream of being advised and edited by the likes of McCarthy. I’m hoping, though, that with his influence my dream of exterminating exclamation marks and semicolons will become a reality.

Down the Rabbit Hole (into the bookcase)

My partner and I are house-hunting for a bigger place and I figure this is the perfect chance to select places that contain space for the ultimate home indulgence. Not a spa bath or sunroom or walk-in wardrobe (although they would be nice) – I’m gunning for a library.

I’ve had a yen for a bookroom since I stayed in a home where the entire bathroom had been converted into a reading room, with books, glorious books, stretching from floor to ceiling on two of the walls. Going to the bathroom in that house tended to take about ten times as long as it needed to.

Seeing that numerous celebrities had indulged their bibliophile tendencies by creating their own libraries also didn’t help me squash my urges. But what really set it off was this picture, shared on Facebook and G+ and probably lots of other social networks that I am not cool enough to know about yet. This is not merely a book room, this is a book-room with a bookcase that opens to lead to another room, apparently also full of books and bookcases. It’s some sort of Batcave for an avidly reading reclusive superhero. A Bookcave.

It. Must. Be. Mine.

Sadly, I have no idea how to get it. I can’t find out the original source of the picture (although I have seen it claimed variously to be in NZ, the USA and built by a company in Ireland, so someone is telling porkie-pies).  Someone clearly designed and built this thing. I thought of finding a woodworking builder and then leaving them to it, but even they don’t always know what to do as this post on Woodweb shows. A little searching did find websites for a company that offer to install secret passages and hidden rooms in your own home, thrilling my inner 9-year-old who is still obsessed with Enid-Blyton. They seem more preoccupied with security than book-hoarding, possibly as if you afford their services you may need somewhere to store your loot.

We don’t have a few hundred thousand spare floating around the place but there are also websites that tell you how to build your own “hidden door” bookshelf. This is an absolutely fool-proof plan apart from the fact that I have two left thumbs when it comes to DIY and find even the simplest of IKEA instructions as challenging as reading Twilight without throwing up.

Reading this didn't help.

Also, it has been pointed out we don’t actually have a new house yet. Details, details.

Sadly, with the budget we do have it looks unlikely that I’ll be getting my Bookcave, or even spare wing to house my large library. But I have at least secured a promise that, whatever size home we end up in, we’ll make space for at least one more bookshelf.

Maybe even two or three if we can. Or four. Four is a nice number. We can find the space. I mean, really, who needs a second bathroom anyway? Guests? Well, if we just fill the spare room full of books they won’t be able to stay with us. Which will neatly solve the second bathroom issue too.


BLOOD RUNNER – The long race to freedom

Blood Runner is a thought provoking new novel by James Riordan about courage, hope and the strength of the human spirit.

Samuel’s parents and sister die in a bloody massacre. His brothers retaliate by joining the anti-Apartheid movement, with guns and terrorism as their weapons. But Sam decided to fight prejudice in his own way – as a runner.  Against all odds – from a poor township childhood to the Bantu homelands, from work in a gold-mine to competition for gold – he focuses his mind, body and heart on the long hard race to freedom…

Blood Runne is the story of a boy growing up in South Africa during Apartheid. Samuel’s idol is Nelson Mandela, and he is running for his president and his country. Samuel is determined to run faster than any white man.

Although Blood Runner is a story of much sadness and tragedy, Samuel’s character is compelling with his honesty, humbleness and hope. It’s about pride and how far one man can go to follow his heart, his talent and the courage of his convictions.

It chronicles an important piece of history, and will engage and inform young readers.

Blood Runner is historical fiction for readers 12+ and is published in Australia by Walker Books.

Moore extraordinary adventures

Last post I told you about Alan Moore’s graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol.I. (see “Moore’s Extraordinary Gentlemen”) This time it’s on to Vol.II and more Victorian adventures.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol.II, sees the return of Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde and the Invisible Man, under the direction of Campion Bond and Mycroft Holmes. This time they are pitted against the Martian war machines from HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. As England struggles against the might of the Martians, the British Secret Service must seek the help of Dr Moreau and his genetic experiments.

This story does well in remaining faithful to Wells, while still providing something new. It also sets Wells’ Martian creations within a larger universe of Martian fictions that include Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, Edwin Lester Arnold’s Gullivar of Mars and CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. And yes… I had to look those up. Not having read these other Martian stories, I found the introductory section a tad confusing and a little self-indulgent. It doesn’t actually add much to the main story. But once this intro is over, and the main adventure begins, things move along at a cracking pace.

The character development in this volume is particularly good. Vol.I introduced the concept of hero and villain embodied in the one person — and Vol.II takes it even further, as the League is torn apart by wavering loyalties. Mr Hyde’s character arc is especially well handled, giving him a lot of depth and nuance.

Again the artwork from Kevin O’Neill is superb. I love his depiction of the Martians and their tripod war machines, and some of the destruction scenes with the heat ray are marvellously brutal and horrendous.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol.II has a definite ending. The story is finished, the character journeys are over. There is not much left of the League… and yet, there is more to come. I’ve put in my order for Vol.III, subtitled The Black Dossier. I’ll tell you about it once I’ve read it.

Unfortunately, as with Vol.I, we are again subjected to Alan Moore’s deathly-dull prose, this time with a fictitious travelogue, “The New Traveller’s Almanac”. Almost every sentence is brim-full of literary references — everything from Dr Doolittle to Karel Čapek’s 1920s Czech play Rossum’s Universal Robots. There’s even a mention of Mr Bass from one of my favourite childhood books, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. But it’s still painful to read. I simply couldn’t manage it… I ended up skimming, stopping only when I discovered a particularly interesting reference.

Catch ya later,  George

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Review – The Grouchies/Sometimes I’m Scared

I’m always wary of books helping kids through their nightmares or foul moods. Tending to be on the preachy side, I honestly think the message just gets lost, and schmaltzy storylines and substandard illustrations usually go with them, hand-in-hand.

Not so here.

The Grouchies is a gorgeously-illustrated picture book, and was one of the reasons I first leaned towards reviewing it. Funky, retro images combine with warm humour and divine colours to form a really eye-pleasing book. And what of the text?

Today, the grouchies have got hold of our wee lad. They chase him down the hallway and tell him to be grumpy with everyone he meets. They hover over him, blocking out the sun and any chance of a fun thought. They grump him up during his sister’s tea party. They grump him in the playground and they even give him the grumps during construction of a puzzle.

You can imagine what happens to the puzzle.

At bedtime, our little one reflects on his rotten, grouchy day – and chats things over with his mum and dad, who tell him that everyone gets overrun by grumpy thoughts and that the key to squashing them is to think positive, happy thoughts, that shield the grouchies from attack. The next morning, he wakes refreshed and positive, surrounded by smiling suns – and no sign of those grouchy clouds.

this book gets to the point, yes, but it’s low on schmaltz. Rhyming text and notes to parents on negative feelings and the psychology behind them round out a pleasant storyline and super fab images.

In Sometimes I’m Scared, we meet a series of kids who admit to their fears – from Halloween costumes to spiders, storms, dogs barking, the dark, and of course . . . the terrifying circus clown. This is not a storybook per se, even though it’s presented in a picture book format. The voice of the book is aimed directly at kids, like a warm, fuzzy voice talking them through the varying possibilities of fear and then showing them how to circumnavigate those fears.

Told very simply and to the point, kids can read the book on their own, or be guided by an adult. The narrator offers varying ways to ‘rethink’ the reasons they are scared, and offers really insightful techniques on changing their mindset. Even breathing techniques are offered.

Sweet illustrations showcasing a wide range of kids in different situations round out a book that would be a priceless addition to the library of children suffering a modicum of anxiety at some time in their childhood (and isn’t that most kids?).

The Grouchies and Sometimes I’m Scared are published by Magination Press, in association with the American Psychological Association.


Ladder to the Moon is written by US President, Barack Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. It is a magical tribute to their mother.

The title comes from a postcard of the 1958 Georgia O’Keefe painting, Ladder to the Moon.

In this beautiful picture book, the text and illustrations work as one. Illustrator, Yuyi Morales talks about her connection to the story and this comes through in her pictures.

Little Suhaila wishes she had known her grandma, who (her mother tells her) would have wrapped her arms round the whole world if she could. And one night Suhaila gets her wish when a golden ladder appears at her window and Grandma Annie, arms outstretched, invites the girl to come along with her on a journey.

In a rich and deeply personal narrative, Maya Soetoro-Ng distils her mother’s love for family, her compassion and her ethic of service into the story of a remarkable meeting between grandmother and grandchild. Yuyi Morales’s vibrant, emotionally resonant artwork illuminates this dreamlike tale, reminding us that loved ones lost are always with us – and that sometimes we need only to look at the moon and remember.

Ladder to the Moon has  universal themes of love and acceptance. Its global message makes it a great book to be discussed within families and the classroom.

A number of religions are represented and there’s a message of tolerance and hope in this story.

It’s about a love that links families through the generations, even when they have never met.

Ladder to the Moon is published in Australia by Walker Books.

Moore’s Extraordinary Gentlemen

A number of years ago I saw a film called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I remember loving the concept, but lamenting the missed potential. It was an extraordinarily crappy movie that could have been so much better if only someone had bothered to write a decent script. I remember complaining about it to friends, who went on to assure me that the crappy film was actually based on a rather good graphic novel written by Alan Moore. I’ve been meaning to read that graphic novel ever since… but I’ve only just gotten around to it, nine years after the film’s release. 🙂

Now having read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol.I, I’m happy to report that’s it is not much like the film… it’s actually really good!

A plethora of literary figures populate this piece of Victorian-set, almost steampunk-esque, spec-fic adventure. Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde and the Invisible Man are all recruited by the British secret service to carry out a special assignment. Reporting to Campion Bond (who may or may not be an ancestor of the famous 007), they are given the task of retrieving Professor Cavor’s antigravity substance from Fu Manchu who has stolen it, planning to use it for his own nefarious purposes. But it seems that not everything is as it appears, especially regarding Mr Bond and his mysterious superior, M.

It’s a rollicking good adventure with some great character development and sly humour. And it is chock-full of literary references. As well as the already mentioned characters, we also get to see Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, Professor Moriarty, C. Auguste Dupin, Ishmael, Quong Lee, Colonel Sebastian Moran and even the Artful Dodger. No… I’m not going to tell you the books these character originate in. Look ‘em up! 😉

Many times, I found myself feeling that I was missing things — passing comments that seemed to allude to other things; mentions of people who might be characters from other works; place names; vague hints. I’m certain that Mr Moore is considerably more well-read that I. But this never detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

Being a graphic novel, it is just as dependent on the artwork as it is on the writing. And the artwork of Kevin O’Neill does not disappoint. Dark and mysterious, sometimes grotesque, sometimes funny, always compelling, it is a perfect accompaniment to Moore’s words.

And the whole thing finishes with the promise of more adventure and more literary references to come in Vol.II.

Originally published in five parts, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol.1, is now available in a collected volume — which is what I read. This volume also includes “Allan and the Sundered Veil”, a short story prequel by Moore. In all honesty… give it a miss! It is remarkably tedious and laboured. Like the graphic novel, it is full of literary references and famous characters, most notably the time traveller from HG Wells’ The Time Machine, but none of the vigour and engagement. In my mind, this story is proof positive that Moore should stick to writing graphic novels.

Tune in next time for Vol.II.

Catch ya later,  George

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APA Book Design Awards

The LifeMy posts of late have been long and text heavy, so this blog’s instead going to be short and text light. So short and light, in fact, I’m going to send you to another website.

The shortlist has just been announced for the 60th Australian Publishers Association Book Design Awards, which means it’s time to check out a bunch of clever cover art and decide which ones we like best.

Life KillsAnd, as I’ve just noticed, find out more about books we haven’t heard of. Take for example, Life Kills, a book about a would-be terrorist that I’d never previously seen (have I been living under a rock?). I mean, with cover art like that (see left) and a cover blurb like this, what isn’t there to notice?

Life Kills follows the dark journey and twisted mind ravines of a mysterious unnamed terrorist as he goes about his business. On his flight, stewards Bubbles and Sparkles, pilots Brad and Chad, and a bunch of burnt out z-list hackster celebrities face their own particular brands of demons.

The terrorist anti-hero faces terrible choices along the way, torn between burning passion and mindless passivity; and throughout, the Inflight Infotainment system lurks, ever present but becoming a more powerful and sinister force as the story unfolds.

Hiroshima NagasakiIn short snapshots, Life Kills ridicules the many contradictions in the way people live their lives, with an authentic humour that belies the anger boiling beneath the surface. For hipsters, boomers, and anything in between.

AlaskaI’m a big fan of the cover art of Alaska (how would you define that style?) and The Life too (there’s something so watchable about melting popsicles, don’t you think?). Nor can I go past the iconic, flag-incorporating design of Hiroshima Nagasaksi, which I’ve heard is a fantastic, haunting read.

Then there’s the intriguing design of the intrigingly titled Hung Like An Argentine Duck. I’m not going to include the cover art or blurb as this is a family friendly blog, but I will say that the book covers an fascinating topic, even if it’s not perhaps overly suitable for consumption on public transport.

There are a couple of designs in there that I think are meh and making up the numbers (I’m not going to name names). Then again, they just might not be to my taste. Which cover designs do you prefer? Which ones do you think will win the comp? Are they the same?

Review – A Bear and a Tree

It’s so nice to hold a new Stephen Michael King book in your hands. It always has that squeal-with-glee feel to it. The illustrations are so iconic, the language is always utterly heartfelt, and the characters that lovely combination of meltingly sweet, and strong.

Ren is outdoors, sitting under her favourite tree. She is a tad bereft because the tree has lost its leaves. Bear, who is collecting the leaves for his winter bed, finds Ren crying, offers her his brolly, then sits with her for as long as is needed.

Soon it begins to snow and Bear knows he shortly needs to hunker down for hibernation. But for now, he will spend a day with Ren. It will be their first ever winter’s day together – exploring, making patterns in the snow, creating bendy creations with tree branches and melting icicles into stunning creations.

Together, they play, dance, twirl and just . . . be. That is, until it’s time for Bear to go.

This is a story about friendship yes, but its seasonality brings with it a sense of both finality – and the promise of rebirth and new life. Ink and watercolour pages are awash with both the thick silence of snow, falling leaves and letting go – but similarly, they are awash with the tinkle of icicles and laughter, and the lovely dynamics between good friends.

Tender, sweet, simple and stunningly illustrated, this is yet another special book from an emotive and masterful talent.

A Bear and a Tree is published by Penguin.

Ira Glass: Reinventing Radio

I had grand plans to write a brilliant blog based on snippets of intellectual gold I’d gleaned from Ira Glass’ mouth. Instead I bring you illegible handwriting scrawled on my it’s-summer-in-Queensland sweaty hand (see Exhibit A, pictured above).

I blame the lack of profundity on the fact that my seat was, through no deliberate booking effort of my own, just three rows from the front and on the aisle. I had my notepad out and pen poised, but felt incredibly self-conscious about it. Never more so than when Glass noticed it and me and we had a brief moment of eye contact (and yes, everything about him kind of made me melt).

I’m sure he didn’t mind me taking notes and was probably actually quite pleased about it. His show is, after all, called Reinventing Radio and in it he does reveal the secrets to his and This American Life’s (TAL) success in order that many more good radio shows and segments can be produced—he wants us to take the information away and do something with it.

But I am too shy, too in awe of Glass, and was too worried he’d later single me out in a kind of this-audience-member’s-taking-notes spotlight to keep it out. So, notepad went away and uneven, slightly sweaty surface of the hand took its place.

The problem is that I can’t decipher the dodgy notes I took in my dodgy handwriting in the dark. Sigh. The only word I can truly make out there is semiotics, as in the study of signs and symbols and how they’re used or interpreted. You know, subtle cues such as how Darth Vader was in all black and his identity was concealed by a robot head while Luke and Leia are dressed in angelic white.

It was what Glass majored in at uni and that no one ever thought he would use. The irony is that he uses it all the time in his role as host/producer/writer/interviewer/creative genius behind knockout radio show TAL (it kind of reminds me of Steve Jobs studying the seemingly waste-of-a-subject calligraphy then going on to create iconic Apple fonts).

If you haven’t listened to TAL and are not sure what I’m talking about, now’s the time to step away from this blog and to download the podcast or, better yet, the TAL app. Then start working your way through the podcasts. The show will completely change your life and you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it. I realise that sounds gushy and hyperbolic and a bit like I’m about to throw in some free steak knives with that. Please, just trust me. Especially as I can’t articulate just why TAL and Glass are so incredibly brilliant.

Indeed, I’m exceedingly frustrated that I can neither work out what I wrote nor recall what Glass said (if you can read my handwriting, let me know—whatever I wrote down, I was at the time convinced it was must-not-forget profound). In truth, I feel like that after most of the TAL shows. The concepts are so brilliant and so brilliantly executed I can’t possibly explain or recreate them. Instead I say, go listen to the show. And then re-listen to it. TAL is unlike any other radio show you’ve ever heard. Its emphasis is on storytelling. It is, effectively, like writers writing for radio.

That was pretty much the sentiment shared when we ran into friends outside and spent hours discussing which TAL episodes were our favourites. The previous week’s episode had just been an hour-long Apple factory expose. We puzzled over the simple-yet-effective storytelling techniques—the show was a slowly told, minimally emphasised monologue, which had the potential to be boring but had the opposite effect: we hung on every word. Then we discussed some of the classics, not least Mike Birbiglia’s sleepwalking and boyfriend’s girlfriend’s tales.

Sigh. I’m not exactly espousing intellectual gold here. So, without notes to convey I’ll simply say that the synopsis of this blog is that Glass was incredible and the night incredibly inspiring. I came away with ideas and inspiration too plenty for a Thursday night (the temptation to call in sick to a client’s on the proviso that I had creative projects I absolutely had to work on was almost too great). If you went to the show and recall those elusive gems I no longer can, please feel free to post them below. If Glass is heading to your town anytime soon, I recommend you see him and his show.


My obsession with typography has reached fever pitch—I’m trying to work out how best to redesign my in-desperate-need-of-it freelance business’ logo. I’m not having a lot of luck (any excellent ideas are welcome), but I am really loving looking at fonts. Like I really needed any excuse.

The search for the perfect has led me via three converging channels to be looking at Helvetica. There’s:

Helvetica the font

Designed by a Swiss designer in 1957 after it was decided that the world needed a modern typeface, Helvetica was originally called the much-less-appealing Neue Haas Grotesk (can totes tell why that name never stuck). The typeface design was part of a deliberate and idealistic post-WWII refresh. Helvetica was, ironically, employed liberally by companies that later supported the Vietnam War, though, so its bright and shiny ethos might have been somewhat sullied. No matter, because this clean, crisp, classic font is still going strong some 50 years later. So strong, in fact, it’s utterly timeless and completely ubiquitous. It stars in anything from subway maps to street signs to iconic logos.

Helveticus the brand that uses the font

The link it tenuous, I know, but there’s something so crisp and clean and clever about the Helveticus logo and the brand’s site itself. I should probably admit I’m an unashamed Mac fan girl from way back, hence my love of such a clean, simple, brilliant, I-wish-I’d-thought-of-that-wee-cross funky design. What the site reminded me of was how Helvetica the font, although not flashy, is effective and powerful in even the simplest contexts.

Goodbye Helvetica art expo

As someone who considers Helvetica a go-to font, an art expo wishing it goodbye piqued my interest, albeit for the wrong reasons. Thankfully it’s not goodbye at all, with the expo more a celebration of a year spent using only Helvetica. Dominique Falla explains is best herself:

In December 2010, I made a foolish and public declaration that I would devote myself for a whole year to one typeface and one typeface only—Helvetica […] This declaration was met with cries of disbelief from my friends and co-workers, all fellow graphic designers. ‘How could I be creative if I had to use that awful typeface?’ ‘How could I possibly express myself with something so…so…common?’ ‘A whole year? It’s impossible.’

I found their responses fascinating, and entirely predictable. I would be responding in much the same way were I in their shoes, but the reasons I made this declaration were twofold: firstly, I had just seen Gary Hustwit‘s excellent documentary Helvetica and was convinced by designer Michael C. Place’s self-initiated challenge to ‘make something beautiful out of something ordinary’, (which he was apparently doing very well). Secondly, I had become tired of the typographic elitism that was settling in amongst my peers over which font you should use, what was cool and what was not, and I thought it would be such a relief not to have to engage in such discussions for a while.

The result was an outstanding example of how design constraints (that is, being forced to use but one font) forced greater innovation and creativity. It also led me to my final Helvetica encounter…

Helvetica the documentary

I’d like to say that I loved Gary Hustwit’s documentary about the font by the same name. I didn’t, but that was mostly because I’m too tired to appreciate its genius. I’m in dire need of a rest and watching a quietly considered documentary that includes a lot of talking heads at 1am on a Sunday wasn’t, perhaps, fair to it at all. I can say, though, that I gleaned some nuggets of gold from the documentary and am certain a re-watch when I have the headspace will yield many more.

The two that really stood out for me, though (and I’m paraphrasing here) include that:

  • Helvetica the font’s been around for 50 years, but it’s just as fresh now as it was then. There aren’t many fonts you can say that about
  • if you’re not a skilled designer (read: if you’re anything like me), use Helvetica in one size and then maybe bold. The font is so good it does 90% of the work.

Both points are important for me as I embark on a crazy logo redesign. Will I end up with something in Helvetica? Just quite possibly maybe.

Small Beer Press

The Lovely BonesI’ve long been interested in setting up my own small press, mostly because I’ve seen the way the industry is heading and at least partly because the free tools now exist to largely go it alone. I’ve been even more mostly interested (if you get my meaning) because I’ve admired how the uber-talented Dave Eggers has maintained control of his creative output and his profits, which is what I see as being key.

When the Queensland Writers Centre announced it was going to host award-winning indie publishers Small Beer Press as part of their industry talks, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to find out more about the practicalities of setting up and running a small press, as well about its long-term viability. I mean, really, does anyone ever make a living from running their own press? Or are they just in denial about/staving off the inevitable monstering of all publishing and sales outlets by behemoths like Amazon?

I’m not sure I have the answer to the above, despite the fact that Gavin and Kelly’s talk was interesting and that it I took copious, scrawled-in-haste notes. What follows, in no particular order, are some quotes and thoughts that emerged from the session:

  • Kelly won a round-the-world trip by answering the question ‘Why do you want to go around the world?’ with ‘Because you can’t go through it’. Damn. Wish I’d thought of something that clever.
  • Gavin started the zine and, subsequently, the publishing house because he realised he was never going to reinvent the world.
  • The couple went to pubs in New York and quizzed friends who worked in the publishing industry. It was smart because they both got to drink beer and find out which pitfalls to avoid purely because their friends were willing to fess up to their own, hard-learned publishing errors.
  • Amazon is not our friend (but we already knew that, right?). Gavin referred to it as ‘intrinsically evil’ because they want to be and control absolutely everything everywhere. Kelly referred to it as ‘evil, but very, very smart, which is the worst combination’. I’m inclined to agree, with Amazon taking cuts left right and centre—including a cut per book sale for marketing/advertising, even if they’ve effectively done none.
  • Working in the industry is ‘a bit like working with a manic depressive’.
  • You wake up and go: ‘Oh look, Amazon has eaten somebody else’. Sigh. I can even recall where I was when I heard Amazon had absorbed The Book Depository.
  • Technology has made a lot of things possible. The question is whether the large publishing houses will be able to adapt and take advantage of these fast enough (yes, indeedy it is).
  • The ‘small beer’ in the name was a reference to ‘small beer now, large beer later’. Were they to start again, they’d probably name the press something to do with super heroes.
  • Random House have a sneaky clause in their contracts that says if they sell your books at a discount, they get to halve your royalties from those sales.
  • Mentors are key.
  • Aim for ‘covers with narrative’ when designing cover art.
  • The emergence of lots of similarly looking covers might be a subtle effort to group like titles together, e.g. the iconic (yes, I just used that to describe the following) Twilight and Lovely Bones covers were incredibly successful and spawned a whole raft of similar designs.
  • Nobody reads a manuscript in the office. They read it on public transport or at home.
  • Gavin and Kelly are experimenting with the submission guidelines, asking writers to send in just three pages. You know, they say, whether the writer knows what they’re doing within the first page. You know if you want to maybe publish them within the first three.
  • Disappointingly, they’re not in any way across social media. That’s perhaps the part I most wanted to know—how they’re utilising free online tools such as these to promote their press and publications.
  • I get the sense that they’re living a bohemian lifestyle on a ramshackle farm in Massachussets. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it signalled to me that they’re not quite making enough money to make it viable financially. Which is not the answer I wanted. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t have to be a goldmine, but it does need to pay its own way.
  • If one person likes and publishes your story, that’s enough—it’s all you’ve ever really been looking for.

TwilightClear as mud? Yeah. Gavin and Kelly were pragmatic and witty and insightful (I laughed often and loved their way of looking at and framing the world), but the talk wasn’t quite as inspiring as I’d hoped.

I’m still keen to start my own small press, but I also want to find out more about viable business models that enable you to balance creative fulfilment with earning enough to pay your mortgage. I’d like to hear how Eggers has made it work…


2012 is the National Year of Reading.

So at Kids’ Book Capers we’ve decided to profile the people who make the books we love to read – the publishers.

Our first profile is Ford Street Publishing and today we welcome Paul Collins.

What kind of books do you publish?

Picture books through to young adult and crossover.

What do you love most about your work?

One has to be reasonably passionate about books, of course. I love working for myself. The more you put into your work, the more you get out. This means working seven days a week. When you work from home you never leave work! When I was a room service waiter back in the 70s a supervisor said to me, “You don’t like authority, do you?” And I guess she was right. I’ve worked for myself ever since.

What is the hardest thing about promoting books?

Promoting books is easy. It’s getting people to pay attention to what you’re promoting that’s the hard part. It’s a long and laborious job harvesting email addresses, building up databases, and hoping the people you’re adding to them actually want to be told about what you’re doing. There’s always the unsubscribe icon, of course, and sometimes I’m a little disappointed to see certain people unsubscribe from my newsletters. Of course, we all get unsolicited material via emails. I usually simply delete. No hard feelings that way, and it only takes a second. Paying for ads is also easy, but I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you bulk promote a product with ads, then you’re simply wasting money. Because books are a low ticket item, many forms of advertising are out of the question — TV, radio, billboards, etc.

2012 is The National Year of Reading. Why do you think reading is important for both children and adults?

There’s a hulking manuscript of an answer here, but suffice to say reading opens one’s mind to other people’s thoughts. It educates and expands the imagination. If nothing else, dare I say people who read are more successful in life than those who don’t.

Where do you see the children’s book market in five years’ time?

Kids will still be reading, but more online or via devices than printed books. A hardcore readership of print books will exist for a long time. But economically, the print books won’t be mass produced, more they’ll only be available via print on demand. This is itself might prove a hassle in the long run, so even those sales will dwindle. Once that happens, it won’t be feasible to have POD technology, so kiosks will fade away to be replaced with new technology.

My main problem with ebooks is that there’s no way to actually “show” them to people. Go to amazon and unless you know what you’re after, you’ll never find a good book, unless you have hours to trawl. I don’t see online booksellers ever competing with brick and mortar shops, although they will dominate. Much like VHS beat Beta. Beta was the better product by all accounts, but VHS had better marketing. Mac are better than PCs, but PCs won over, sales wise.

What is your current submissions process for authors and illustrators?

We’re closed to submissions. I’m still trying to get through the unsolicited material submitted last year.

What were some of your favourite PUBLISHING HOUSE book titles from 2011?

Tania McCartney’s Riley and the Grumpy Wombat was fun to work on. I’m also pleased with the way The Key to Starvelt by Foz Meadows turned out. We worked on Susanne Gervay and Anna Pignataro’s Ships in the Field. Although this book was published in February, I think of it as a 2011 title since all the work on it was done during 2011.

What titles do you have coming up in 2012 that you’re really excited about?

I’m excited by everything Ford Street publishes. I’ve contracted the next Toocool and Marcy books from Phil Kettle and Susan Halliday; a picture book from Michael Salmon; a YA book from a new author called Michelle Heeter; my own Dyson’s Drop which is a sequel to Mole Hunt.

I think Ford Street’s best selling title this year will be Trust Me Too, an anthology comprising 58 contributors including Shaun Tan, Leigh Hobbs, James Roy and Michael Gerard Bauer.


Self-Publishing for Muppets

SwitchedThe article had me at ‘self-publishing’ for ‘Muppets’. It refers not to self-publishers being muppets as in the derogatory term, but rather a cash-strapped wannabe writer who self-published some books on Amazon in the hope of scraping together the cash to go see the Muppets. The rest, as they write, is JK Rowling-worthy history.

Amanda Hocking’s is the kind of story that simultaneously draws derision from those in the industry and raises the hopes of those who aren’t but want to be. I have to say that I think the truth is somewhere in between.

Reading this Guardian article I realised Hocking might have been unpublished, but she wasn’t unpracticed or unpolished (if those terms make any sense). She had written a bunch of novels over a nine-year period and, in the process, honed her skills.

She’d approached a stack of publishing houses and been rejected by them all. More importantly, she filed the rejection letters, quashed any discouragement, and kept writing and investigating ways to get her work out there.

With traditional publishers not opening their doors, Hocking went the non-traditional route. She posted her book online with the short-term goal of selling some copies to families and friends over a six-month period in order to raise the $300 she needed for the Muppets trip.

She achieved a bit more than that, selling 150,000 copies of her books and making around $20,000 in that time. She’s now surpassed 1.5 million book sales and $2.5 million in profits (and I consider them profits because she published with largely free online tools and is not having to share the spoils with any agents or publishers. Well, apart from the chunk Amazon carves off).

Those are the stats people are generally interested in. I’m actually more interested in the work she put in to get there. I see it as less rags-to-riches than hard-work-pays-off (with a little luck thrown in, admittedly, because in this industry there’s always a touch of right-place-right-time luck required).

OutliersFrom what the article shows, Hocking’s always been a huge reader and writer so has put in the hard yards to reach those magic 10,000 hours of practice. As in the magic number of hours that unlock the key to perfection we hear about from the likes of authors like Malcolm Gladwell. Speaking of Gladwell, he’s been quiet of late—surely he’s due another book soon?

Anyway, back to Hocking. My point is that despite the fairytale angel we’d like to hope for, she’s not an example of a publishing miracle the equivalent of winning the lottery on your first try. It’s something she’s also clearly keenly aware of: ‘People built me up as a two-dimensional icon for something I was not. Self-publishing is great, but I don’t want to be an icon for it, or anything else. I would rather people talk about the books than how I publish them,’ she told the Guardian. That is, she wants to be judged for the quality of the work, not how she got rich quick through what most deem amateur, low-brow means.

Hocking obviously has some writing and marketing talent. Bad books are quickly found out. Were she a poor writer, she might have sold a few. But she wouldn’t be into the millions of sales if the books weren’t gripping and well told (please refrain from sending me the emails saying ‘Um, but Twilight’s into the millions and it’s terribly written. True, but quibble about its writing quality however you will, it’s definitely gripping.)

Utilising new and social media channels to effectively promote her work—that is, blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, and the like—have clearly been key (even if they’re something the article, perhaps subconsciously in line with the old-world newspaper publication it’s part of, skims over). In fact, that’s what I’ve taken away from this story: Hocking’s success is less about striking it lucky and more about hard work and creating her own opportunities. Of course, the Muppets as catalyst is a fantastic hook too…

The Silent Sound of Deadlines Flying Past

Douglas Adams famously said that he loves deadlines and, in particular, the sound they make as theyTrue Blood fly by. I’m not normally one who hears that whooshing sound, studious and OCD deadline-meeter that I am.

But fatigue has gotten the better of me lately—it’s been an extremely big 18 months work-wise—and I’ve been swamped by the never-ending tsunami of deadlines. So, impelled by the complete inability to take any kind of holiday, but clearly driven to go to my happy place, I’ve these past few weeks done the only two mature, rational things possible: retreated to bed to read the entire series of Vampire Academy and then watched (in short succession its entirety) True Blood Season 4.

Ah, vampires: aiding procrastination since, well, for a very long time.

The weird thing about missing some deadlines is that they do something worse than make a sound—they actually, for the most part, don’t make any sound at all. In fact, once you miss one or two deadlines you actually start to marvel at how no one notices or chases you, how incredible it is that the world doesn’t end, and how an afternoon nap seems like the best idea you’ve ever had.

I’d like to say you feel less guilty too, but I haven’t yet tapped that rebel-without-a-cause nonchalance the deadline-missing rule-breakers exude. Instead I’ve been an anxious procrastinator, applying the attention detail I normally apply to completing work to re-reading the series I love but have no need to re-read and watching (and comparing notes on) Season 4 of the adaptation of the Sookie Stackhouse series I’ve read too.

Vampire AcademyProcrastination karma, though, has come in to play. I realised I’d loaned the first three Vampire Academy books to my sister, who lives in Melbourne, only when I went to fish them from my bookcase. I had to re-read the series starting from book four. And, contrary to my hyped-up expectations that this was the season Sookie and Eric went to town on each other (if you’ve read the books, you’ll recall when Eric loses his memory courtesy of the witches—‘nuff said), Season 4 of True Blood completely lost the plot and was a bit of a bore.

I realise each of those could be a blessing in disguise. Had I started Vampire Academy from book one, I would seriously be in some deadline and sleep-deprivation trouble. Were True Blood Season 4 outstanding, I would probably be inspired to go back and start re-reading those books too.

Instead, I fast forwarded through some of the lame bits (seriously, the Lafayette and Tara and Andy Bellefleur characters were small in the books and, in the case of one, even killed off—the TV series has tried to resurrect and enhance them and it really, really doesn’t work). I also reminded myself that avoiding the deadlines is, in the long run, only going to make them worse. Sigh. It’s back to catching up on/meeting deadlines for me…

Review – Sydney Harbour Bridge

The construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (or Lang’s Coathanger) in the late 1920s/early 1930s was not only a feat in engineering but an economic miracle, as Australia was in the grips of the Great Depression and New South Wales was firmly in the grip of governmental mismanagement. Headed by controversial premier Jack Lang, costs for the bridge spiraled out of control during a time when money was scarce and jobs were for begging.

Despite the exciting and heartening site of the bridge under construction, hundreds of families were tossed from their homes and rehoused in tented communities with little recompense, in order to make way for this monstrous harbour-straddling creation. Sixteen people died during the bridge’s construction, and workers had no safety equipment to protect themselves let alone appropriate clothing. Even the donkeymen who dangled from cables and risked their lives daily were relying on their own physical strength – and little more.

This remarkable account of the construction of the world’s widest single span arch was one of the most enriching historical experiences I’ve enjoyed in years. Told through the eyes of two tweens – Billy, son of a donkeyman living in The Rocks, right beneath the Bridge, and Alice, daughter of an engineer living in the ritzier northern suburbs – this book took me sailing back to 1930s Sydney – to a time of massive highs and lows for the local people, as they battled abject poverty, a fragile economy, and the thrilling, soaring creation of one of the world’s finest bridges – right over their impoverished heads.

Farrer has left no stone unturned in Sydney Harbour Bridge. Packed with statistics and facts about the construction process that are quite mind-boggling, especially for the time, Farrer has also managed to emotively describe the minute detail of daily life during the Great Depression, from the way hair is curled to way a parent reprimands a child – and the deft with which she combines fact with emotional tenderness is quite extraordinary.

Very quickly you are drawn into Billy’s difficult life – and very quickly you learn that, compared to other children like Billy’s friend Bluey, who was evicted and now lives a less than happy life in the tented commune at Happy Valley – things aren’t so bad. Sure, his mum needs to get creative with the meals and glue the shoes back together, but at least Billy’s dad has a job, even if it means dangling from a cable in the sky. There are a lot worse off.

It’s intriguing to witness this time in Australian history through the eyes of two children living very different socio-economic lives. Alice’s life is far better off, living in a fine house with a father earning a solid wage, yet she is as impassioned as the next child to help out and ‘do her bit’ for those in need, albeit through tennis tournaments and unwanted clothing drives. Hearing these two children opine on the politics of the time and what is ‘right and wrong’ as the bridge construction process unfolds, is also fascinating and enlightening. I particularly love it when Billy and Alice meet up at the end of the story – and hint at the possibility of greater equality amongst all Australians.

But the most remarkable thing was how Farrer managed to turn something potentially quite dull (steel stats and cranes) into a story of emotional beauty, drama and hope. This is a intensely researched and beautifully written book, with heartwarming and well-rounded characters. Farrer uses clear and very real voices for her children, complete with delicious and timely slang.

She isn’t afraid to tell it like it is – opening wide the horror of life at that time – yet also openly celebrating the thrill experienced by the people of Australia at this stunning engineering feat. A moment in time, beautifully-captured and revealed for all to enjoy. I’m loving learning the intimate details of our country’s extraordinary history through such superbly researched books, and yes, this book is planted firmly in historical fact – but it’s also, quite simply, great storytelling.

Sydney Harbour Bridge is published by Scholastic.


Mid-month reading list – the Sex edition

Regular readers will remember that I spent most of last month engrossed, entertained and occasionally utterly grossed out by John Long’s Hung Like an Argentine Duck, which literally digs up some of the weirdest evidence and facts from the evolution of sexual reproduction, including necrophiliac snakes and the possible inventor of sex from our very own WA – the armoured shark-like Gogo fish. (Apparently 380 million years ago you didn’t need to flash a lot of flesh to be sexy.)

It was a fascinating read, and I’m blaming it for a month of non-stop reading about nookie and the many and myriad ways in which the drive to procreate affects the world we live in.

Sex, Bombs and Burgers by Peter Nowak

Nope, it’s not the latest Michael Bay movie (that would be Sex, Bombs and EXPLOSIONS EXPLOSIONS EXPLOSIONS). This is a far more thoughtful, but still fabulously entertaining, read in which Nowak argues that most of the major technological advances of the last sixty years have stemmed straight from the trio of billion-dollar industries that cater to our basest impulses. War. Fast Food. Pornography.

They get a deservedly bad rep but Novak argue that without the intellectual – and financial – investment that humanity is willing to spend on satisfying its rage, lust and greed, we’d all be living in cave.  From cars to aerosols, cameras to cold medicine, most of the technology that make life easy today can be traced back to either the porn, military or fast food industry. The investment in the military that gave us missile systems also gave us Silly Putty, developed as a war-time replacement for rubber. The food innovations that happened during the war paved the way for the rest of the 20th century and for the fast food industry to capitalise on our urge to sate our appetites. And when we’re not hungry for food anymore, well, that’s where the pornographic industry – with its innovative genius for using new technology to make a buck while more traditional media is still wondering if this internet thing will catch on – comes in.

Novak, who admits that he was inspired to research and write the book by the Paris Hilton sex-tape (specifically the fact that it was shot using the newly-developed night vision mode, meaning that military technology had gone, ahem, hardcore in quick time) is a writer with a knack for making the technical easy to understand and the quirky hilarious. A really excellent read, and certainly a better story than anything Michael Bay has stuck his name on recently.

The Red Queen by Matt Ridley

If Novak wants to blame war and fast food as well, Ridley is laying the blame purely at the feet of sex – or specifically, sexual reproduction and evolution. He argues that reproduction is the sole goal for which human beings are designed, with everything in our nature and physical form being carefully chosen to get us over the finish line of reproductive success. It uses the Red Queen from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – who has to run at full speed to stay where she is – as a metaphor for the evolution of a whole range of sexual behaviors. Using scientific studies it explores the whole gamut of sexual behaviour; from polygamy to attempted monogamy, from harems to homosexuality, to how individuals choose their mates and what traits they find attractive, and comes up with a fairly persuasive argument for sex being the motivating force behind, well, pretty much everything.

It’s not a new book – published in 1994 and shortlisted for Rhone Poulenc General Prize for Science Books that same year,  I really should have read this one already. For those of you who have, you might find his in more recent offering – Rational Optimist, how prosperity evolves – something to take your mind off sex, if only for a few moments.

90 Day Geisha by Chelsea Haywood

90 Day Geisha details 20-year-old Canadian model Chelsea’s 90 day crash course in art of “hostessing” in Japan. It’s not, as Chelsea quickly learns, about sexual favours; a hostess is someone to talk to, to provide small talks and drinks, to light cigarettes and flatter clients and occasionally accompany them on karaoke duets, and over-worked businessmen will pay very handsomely for the privilege of a hostesses’ attention for the evening.

Made infamous by the murder of Lucie Blackman in 2000, hostessing is little understood and Chelsea’s book is both an explanation of it and her exploration of it. It’s not a simple thing to understand or to do, as she soon discovers as her clients charm her with wit and personality, sweet words and lavish and expensive gifts. Even though sex is meant to be off the cards, in the hard-partying, no consequences, all-night culture of Tokyo’s Roppongi district, Chelsea finds that both her determination and her marriage will be tested under the late-night neon lights.


The Iron Maiden/Lady

I saw Iron Lady (I’ve had to continually check myself to make sure I don’t accidentally type Iron Maiden) on opening night so I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to blog about it. Actually, I kind of do. I thought the biopic of Margaret Thatcher so brilliant I didn’t know how to describe it without slipping into those breathless, gushy clichés that Meryl Streep is magnificent as the whisky-swilling, pearl-wearing, tea-pouring former first lady of Britain (and when I say ‘first lady’ I mean first by democratically elected power and not by marriage).

You know, the ones where you follow every other reviewer’s lead and discuss the hair, the make-up, and the mannerisms that were nailed perfectly. The ones where you talk about how she’s ‘an actor’s actor’ and how she ‘inhabits’ a character so fully you can’t possibly imagine anyone ever reprising that role, ever. Not even the original, flesh-and-blood person themselves.

After all, Streep (and the hair and make-up artists who worked on her) subtly but exceptionally nailed the hair, the make-up, the teeth, the mouth, and the expressions right down to the nuances. Even the way the prosthetic slippage late in the film (eerily) mirrored the way a face shifts and sags with age.

The other reason I haven’t blogged about this film is that I don’t actually feel authoritative enough to comment on it—these events unfolded largely in and around the year I was born. I’m not trying to say that I’m ‘too young’, but I am saying that I viewed this film, its events, and its context with a detached, sort of insider–outsider perspective plus an I-should-know-more-about-this shame. Unlike most of the baby-boomer audience members around me, I had no prior opinions of Thatcher or her reign.

My main understanding of her—and that the ‘iron’ in the title alludes to—was her steely, unflinching, vice-like grip on the nation. So I thought it an interesting and deliberately softening choice of a framing device to show not the woman people they thought they knew, but the woman we definitely didn’t; or rather, given her enigmatic nature, the woman we know even less than the woman we don’t know.

The film opens with an aged but still-proud Thatcher buying a pint of milk and wincing at the cost of it. Things have changed. She’s ignored at the counter by an iPod-brandishing youth whose music’s so loud it escapes his headphones and works as the scene’s tinny, poor-manners-highlighting soundtrack. It’s an unusual but effective wedge into the story and cements it in a modern setting while showing us the film will most definitely be looking back. It also shows Thatcher as elderly, frail, slightly confused, and largely out of her comfort zone. In essence, that small, mundane moment simply but powerfully sets the scene for the rest of the film.

Her slightly muddled flashbacks to past events, both personal and political, show not a woman completely guilt-free or comfortable with all of her decisions, but one who was torn then and who remains so. Her long-dead husband’s periodic appearances make her question her sanity and recollections, and she and we try to determine which parts of the tale are true. That too is clever, as the technique shows hole-picking cynics there’s no one truth and that perspective and accuracy are often a matter of memory and perspective.

I was surprised by both the relative absence of stock footage in the film (you’d have thunk there’d be a bunch) and the large number of cameos of high-calibre actors. Iron Lady was apparently a small-budget film (small by Hollywood blockbuster standards, at least), but anyone who was anyone walked on screen, especially male actors, who played her cabinet ministers and foes.

I also felt fairly sorry for Thatcher. She was imperfect and an occasional bully, no doubt, but I also think she was a career woman in a time when high-powered careers for women weren’t the norm. She was both Britain’s longest-serving prime minister and its first female one, and I was struck by how momentous this was when I realised we in Australia only achieved that 18 months ago, some 30 years later.

Thatcher was also (I’d argue through societal pressures) sidetracked into being a mother. It was a role she never quite fit and the fallout with her daughter was painful to watch. Iron Lady might be a fictionalised account of Thatcher’s life, but it is based on real events, and I find it hard to believe that the real-life woman was devoid of any maternal instinct. I think she was instead an early victim to the belief that women can have it all.

But I digress. This blog is a lot of words long considering I didn’t know what to write to say that Iron Lady is a well-wrought film in which Streep delivers a stellar performance. Here’s hoping that in writing this I steered marginally clear of all the usual clichés.


Sam Tully eyed the brumbies at the muster in the park and among them as they galloped he saw one that stood apart…

a stallion, black as midnight, on his brow a jagged blaze.

A gallant horse, a midnight horse,

a horse called Lightning Jack

Lightning Jack is a the gorgeous new picture book for lovers of horses and Australian icons. It’s the result of collaboration between two of Australia’s favourite and highly-acclaimed picture book creators, Glenda Millard and Patricia Mullins.

When Sam Tully sees the free spirited horse Lightning Jack, he dares to ride him. Together they muster a herd of steers into their stable, escape a grazier’s deal and fly into the air with Pegasus wings. Then when they are ambushed by the notorious outlaw Ned Kelly, Lightning Jack leaps out of trouble and back to the wilderness. But then Sam can’t resist a race and rides Lightning Jack against the ghost of Phar Lat at Breakneck speed…Sam’s horse is a gallant horse, a midnight horse, a horse in every dream.

The text is written in the rhyming style of Australian literature greats like Banjo Paterson. It moves the story along at a cracking pace and keeps the tension rising.

The words are brought to life by the stunning pictures of Patricia Mullin who uses vibrant colours and fluid illustrations to authentically depict the movement in the story.

Each double page spread is a memorable visual experience.

Lightning Jack is published by Scholastic Press for readers aged 4+.

Review – Living Calm in a Busy World by Pauline McKinnon

Title: Living Calm in a Busy World: Stillness Meditation in the Meares Tradition
Author: Pauline McKinnon
Publisher: David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne, 237 pages
Reviewed by: Louise Gilmore

In the early 1980s a young wife and mother, who had been almost non-functional from the debilitating effects of severe anxiety for eight years, leading to agoraphobia, stumbled into the rooms of Melbourne psychiatrist and mystic, Dr Ainslie Meares.

Pauline McKinnon had exhausted all avenues of help then available and did not really have much faith that this doctor could come up with anything better.

To her surprise, Dr Meares began teaching her to meditate. The system he taught was his own, developed after years of exploring a wide range of therapies for anxiety, and finally triggered by his contact with a holy man in Nepal.

It was so simple that it took McKinnon and a group of fellow client/students at least 16 weeks of regular meetings to make sure that they were not trying too hard or complicating it with unnecessary assumptions about what meditation should be.

Meares learnt as he taught and eventually refined his technique to a system now called Stillness Meditation Therapy. In his later years he taught mostly by example, sitting silently with his clients and from time to time touching them reassuringly on shoulder or arm. Meares was opposed to explanation because he believed that it made people’s minds too alert – the opposite of what he was trying to achieve.

McKinnon gradually found herself entering a state of effortless calm and peace and her symptoms began to abate. In time and with his support, she not only recovered, she began to share the technique with others. She became his greatest ‘disciple’ and advocate.

Today she runs the Stillness Meditation Therapy Centre in Melbourne and works as a family therapist, incorporating this form of meditation with her own clients.

This book positively pulses with her fervent belief in the theraputic benefits of stillness meditation. She wrote it with the intention of making a timely contribution to the challenge of anxiety, acknowledged as one of the most pressing health problems in our society today.

She has resolved what I imagine was her major problem: how to write a whole book about a meditation system that is simple, natural and ultimately about doing nothing, by leading us gently through Ainslie Meares’ life and work, marking the 25th anniversary of his death and noting key research into the health benefits of meditation.

It’s not until a third into the book that we reach the description of the stillness meditation process itself. McKinnon is meticulous in explaining it, because, unlike some other teachers and systems, she believes that people can learn it themselves if there is no teacher available and she wants to give her readers all the tools to do so.

It is direct and specific, so that people who are new to meditation can take it step by step. For more experienced meditators, it requires what might be the more difficult task of unlearning their technique-based practices.

There is a chapter on the role of the teacher, which is one of the most heart-based I’ve ever read. Under headings such as ‘the teacher provides confidence’ or ‘the teacher takes care of the meditator’, McKinnon explains how and why good teachers hold their students in a space of shared profound rest while at the same time offering professional care and encouragement.

The rest of the book covers FAQs, difficulties and obstacles and describes what life could be like if lived with the peace and calm generated by stillness meditation. There’s a chapter on teaching it to children, followed by case histories and the reminiscences of people who were taught by Dr Meares himself.

This is a generous, sincere book, well worth reading and following for people who suffer from anxiety and its array of side effects and symptoms themselves, or who know people whose lives and relationships are affected.


The Valentine’s Day post

I’m not a reader of romance novels. But threads of romance often weave their way through all sorts of stories — from action/adventure to science fiction; from YA to grown-up stuff. So, in honour of today being Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d reminisce about some literary romances that I found to be particularly memorable.

Aleksandar is the Prince of Hohenberg and he’s on the run from his own countrymen. Deryn Sharp is a commoner, and she’s a girl disguised as a boy. Deryn very quickly starts to fall for Aleksandar, but Aleksandar doesn’t even know that Deryn is a girl. This “will they/won’t they” relationship is strung out over the course of three YA steampunk novels by Scott WesterfeldLeviathan, Behemoth and Goliath. Needless to say that things work out for them in the end. Yay!

Sticking with the steampunk theme, we have Colbert Porpentine, grandson of a giant juggernaut’s supreme commander, and Riff, one of the Filthies, a sub-class of people who live in the juggernaut’s lower decks. Separated by class, education and even revolution, their love for each other still brings them together in Richard Harland’s Worldshaker and Liberator.

Casting my mind back to my late teens, I remember reading about a teenage boy from the wrong side of the tracks, John Fell, and the mysterious, manipulative older woman, Delia. It’s not a match that’s destined to succeed, in ME Kerr’s Fell, but there is a lovely scene in which John makes French Toast for Delia that is emblazoned on my memory. For that scene alone, I consider it a memorable romance.

Rickey and G-man are two boys growing up in New Orleans. The odds are often stacked against them, but they make things work, and they stay together and they follow their dream of opening a restaurant together. I’ve followed the adventures of these two likeable guys over the course of five novels (The Power of X, Liquor, Prime, Soul Kitchen and D*U*C*K) and numerous short stories by Poppy Z Brite. I’m sad that their adventures are over, but very pleased that they had each other.

At the other end of the scale is an utterly doomed romance that doesn’t even really start — rich bitch Eliza Boans and nice guy Neil Fernandes in Shirley Marr’s Fury. If only Eliza had opened her eyes to see what was right in front of her all along.

Finally we have Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Now, Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw are memorable to me for a very different reason to all the others. Reading this book at Uni, I took an intense dislike to these two characters. In fact, you could say that I HATED THEM BOTH with a passion. And I have no qualms about saying — they deserved everything they got.

And so on that note, dear readers, I will bid you all a fond farewell and a happy Valentine’s Day. 😉 If you’ve got a favourite literary romance you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment.

Catch ya later,  George

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Review – GRANTA 118: Exit Strategies by John Freeman

TITLE:  GRANTA 118: Exit Strategies
EDITOR: John Freeman
PUBLISHER: Granta (12 Addison Ave.London, W11 4QR, U.K.) (30 January 2012)
ISBN: 9781905881550        256pages

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]

I always thought that Douglas Adams’s dolphins had the perfect exit line: ” So long, and thanks for all the fish” . But was that part of an exit strategy? My dictionary defines ‘strategy’ in terms of the art of war, planning, and self-protection, but Granta‘s interpretation of it is much broader. It covers, as the advertising blub tells us, “how we get ourselves out and the repercussions that follow”, which includes war but also the contemplation and remembering of many different sorts of endings, such as the end of a writing career, of a love affair, dying, memory loss, extradition and environmental disaster.

As always, the pieces chosen for this issue are unconventional, entertaining, thought-provoking and well-written. The writers, photographer and poets come from many different backgrounds, cultures and countries. Some are well known, like John Barth, who wonders whether a recent hiatus in his writing after fifty-three years of being published is ‘The End?’. Clearly not! Others are newer voices, like Jacob Newberry, whose ‘Summer’ explores the uncertainties of gay friendship.

Some pieces are factual or based on fact. Susan Minot’s,’Thirty Girls’, tells the story of Sister Giulia, a Catholic nun caught up in the kidnapping of her schoolgirl charges by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Other pieces are pure fiction. David Long’s, ‘Bonfire’, reads like a young man’s erotic fantasy remembered years later when the domesticity of marriage and children dominate his life. Claire Messud deals with her own feelings when a writing commission takes her away from her dying father to Beirut, where, with only a sketch-map hastily drawn by him from memory, she tries to find the places where he spent his happy childhood. And Vanessa Manko imagines an interview and the resulting deportation from the U.S.A of a Russian man during the roundups of supposed communists and anarchists in the early 1920s.

Stacy Kranitz’s poignant photographs of a family living on the disappearing Isle de Jean Charles in the Gulf of Mexico, show the effects of the world’s rapidly rising sea-levels. And four very different poems explore endings, searches, losses and the puzzle of life. The poetry is not easy, but like all good poetry it condenses powerful emotions and thoughts into brief, vivid experiences for the reader.

And there is much more. The complete list of contents can be seen on the Granta website at, where you will also find additional exit-strategies posted on the Granta blog and a range of sample pieces from the Granta archive.

National Year of Reading Launch at the National Library of Australia

Today I had the privilege of attending the national launch of the National Year of Reading 2012, held at the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

The National Library was abuzz with superstars from the literary world – but the NLA wasn’t the only literary hot spot. All around the country, at libraries and halls and schools and centres, a mass celebration took place – and all for an amazing cause.

Our right royal bonanza was held in NLA’s theatre. First we heard from Anne-Marie Schwirtlic, Director-General of the NLA, then glorious book-loving host Jennifer Byrne, First Tuesday Book Club patron, introduced us to the likes of the hilarious William McInnes (author, actor and NYR12 Patron), ministers Simon Crean and Peter Garrett (OMG, Midnight Oil concert flashbacks) and – drum roll, please – PM Julia Gillard herself.

After Julia’s inspiring speech, we heard from William McInnes and next it was the fabulous Boori Monty Pryor – children’s author, NYR12 ambassador and Children’s Laureate – who brought in a classroom of school kids. Monty knocked their socks off with a resounding tale about didgeridoo spit – and had everyone in serious stitches.

The event was also peppered with some wonderful short films and snippets, including a piece from co-Children’s Laureate Alison Lester. We also heard about the NYR12’s aims, upcoming events and initiatives, and the glorious news that Disney have paired with NYR12’s Reading Hour (25 August).

We also heard from Education Minister Peter Garrett, who asked the kids to make the NYR12’s official signing – LOVE 2 READ – with their hands.

Afterwards, there was time to meet up with new and old friends, nibble some delicious sandwiches and have a cup of tea. It was fabulous to meet so many amazing people, to finally meet the amazing Monty and to have a cuddle with William McInnes. But most of all, it was a thrill to see the passion and support that is driving this phenomenal national initiative.

This is a very exciting year ahead – make sure you check out the NYR12 website for more on how you can get involved!

Boori Monty Prior, Chris Cheng and me
ACT NYR12 ambassadors, including Jack Heath and Senator Kate Lundy (either side of me at centre) and local NYR12 organisers Rachel Davis and Vanessa Little (centre front)



Guerilla Girl Writers

I’m not normally a proponent of sass or swearing (although I may, ashamedly, bear a striking resemblance to a truckie when it comes to the latter), but the Guerilla Girl Writers website is, well, just too no-holds-barred refreshing to bypass.

I know not who writes it, although the fact that they do so anonymously both simultaneously slightly annoys and hugely intrigues me. Regardless, I think for the most part the site stays safely on the side of sass rather than cynicism (were it the latter, it wouldn’t appeal to me). That and that contained within their text, there’s a bunch of truths we know but dare not speak.

That includes debunking the moral panic that ‘kids these days’ don’t read or write as well as highlighting the cyclical, slightly confused we-have-to-get-an-app-although-we’re-not-sure-why conversations currently playing out.

The Social Media 101 for Writers blog post particularly struck a cord with me, because although I’m seeing some writers doing social media well, plenty are not. Tech-savvy Queensland Writers Centre CEO Kate Eltham recently tweeted something we’ve all be thinking in recent times (and I’m paraphrasing here): Twitter’s been around a while now. It’s about conversation and providing something useful. If you’re just tweeting about your new book, you’re missing the mark.

I’d kind of like to retweet lessons numbered 1–5: don’t be boring; don’t take yourself too seriously; calm down; don’t be annoying; one exclamation mark is all that is necessary. In fact, I’d like to retweet lesson #5 twice.

That and frame and wall mount the kinds of things that Guerilla Girl Writers remind us shouldn’t be part of a book review, such as (and I in-part quote):

  • OMG, I want to marry [insert male protagonist name]
  • I don’t usually read [insert genre], so this isn’t really my thing, but…
  • I hate this book, because [insert annoying character name] was too annoying
  • Incomprehensible literary terminology (No. It doesn’t sound brainy. It sounds f&%king stupid.)
  • I always try to be nice, no matter what I actually think of the book.

For those us pummelled by the pervasive attitude of ‘who needs editors or a grasp of spelling, grammar, and punctuation?’ Guerilla Girl Writers have posted (and I quote):

Forget that boring old-world paradigm of producing a decent manuscript, redrafting, editing, more editing, submitting, even more editing, and maybe acquisition.


On a more serious note, they question the wisdom of promoting the exceptions-rather-than-rules stories of self-made authors who bypassed the traditional publishing model and who now make a motza. You know, the ones that get everyone else’s hopes up. The ones that are so rare it’s like winning the lottery and striking gold all at once.

Perhaps that’s why I like this site. It’s a bit sassier than I’d ever purport, but it’s also unflinchingly, reality checkingly, humorously honest. Sometimes we all need a bit of that.

Mugshot or marriage material?

Recognise this rather guilty-looking face?

Srs Rochester is srs.

If you’re a fan of Gothic romances or if you’ve studied the Brontë sisters’ novels, you probably should. Let’s see if some text can jog your memory a little.

“I knew my traveller with his broad and jetty eyebrows; his square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair.  I recognised his decisive nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils, denoting, I thought, choler; his grim mouth, chin, and jaw—yes, all three were very grim, and no mistake.  His shape, now divested of cloak, I perceived harmonised in squareness with his physiognomy… My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth.”

That shifty miscreant is none other than Charlotte Bronte’s stern-but-deliciously-squishy Mr Rochester. And the reason that he looks so guilty is that he – along with several other fictional characters – have been recreated from the author’s descriptions via a method normally reserved for society’s less law-abiding people – law enforcement composite sketch software.

According to it’s creator, writer and auther Brian Joseph Davis, the project “is a combination of literary criticism — which I know well — and forensics — of which I’m an utter amateur.” He uses the forensic software program Faces ID to visualise some of literatures’ most famous characters.  This program gives users about 10,000 individual facial features to choose from and Davis used the authors’ own descriptions of their characters as guidelines for his selections. The results – strange, enlightening and occasionally creepy as they are – often throw an intriguing new light on an old story or character when he posts them on his project’s Tumblr site, The Composites.

Characters done so far include Aomame from Murakami’s 1Q84, Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Davis is happy to take requests but warns you need to know if there’s enough of a physical description before you send them in. No amount of clamouring from readers will enable him to achieve the impossible and craft a likeness from thin air when the author hasn’t provided the needed descriptive text, he points out.

“Unfortunately, there will be no Holden Caulfield. At a glance, the entirety of his self description amounts to “I have a crew cut.”

I have been debating sending in some of my own literary crushes. He may already covered Mr Rochester but there is always Wesley from the Princess Bride, Jaime Lannister from George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones series and (lest you think I am all about the men of days gone by) my one and only Twue-est Wuv – the Batman.

Yes, Batman. He’s tortured and complex AND he has a bat-belt and remote-controlled car. What more do you want? Who else would you rather see described? And would you take a chance with this version of Mr Rochester, or are you holding out for one of the other faces that have played him over the years? (Michael Fassbender, anyone?)




RIP John Christopher

Christopher Samuel Youd died on 3 February, aged 89, of complications from bladder cancer. To science fiction fans around the world, he was better known by the pen name John Christopher. It was as Christopher that he wrote his most enduring works, including The Tripods trilogy and The Death of Grass.

Youd was born in Lancashire, England, in 1922, and had his first book, The Winter Swan, published in 1949 under the name Samuel Youd. But it was not until his 1956 science fiction novel, The Death of Grass, that he was able to make writing his full-time career. He used the pen name, John Christopher, for this novel and other works of science fiction, including the YA trilogy that he is best remembered for — The Tripods.

Although it is his science fiction novels, particularly those for teenagers, that earned him the greatest success, he continued to write a variety of novels. He was rather prolific, often writing four novels a year. Maybe that’s why he used so many pen names. As well as Samuel Youd and John Christopher, he also wrote under the names of Stanley Winchester, Hilary Ford, William Godfrey, William Vine, Peter Graaf, Peter Nichols, and Anthony Rye. His final novel, written under the name of John Christopher, was Bad Dream, published in 2003.

I’m sad that John Christopher is gone. His books had a great impact and influence on me as a teenager. Along with Eleanor Cameron and Robert A Heinlein, he is responsible for my interest in reading science fiction.

I discovered Christopher’s books as a young teenager in the early 1980s. It all started with The Tripods trilogy (The White Mountains; The City of Gold and Lead; and The Pool of Fire). I cannot explain to you how much I LOVED these books as kid. I read them many times over, I obsessively watched and recorded the tv series that was based on them, and I even collected different editions of the books. I re-read them as an adult in 2010 and was very happy to find that I still enjoyed them (and I blogged about it — “Tripods Rule!”).

After I finished reading The Pool of Fire for the first time as a teen, I raced out to find other books by Christopher. And so I ended up reading Wild Jack, The Lotus Caves and The Guardians, all of which I liked a great deal, before discovering a new trilogy that I would end up loving almost as much as The Tripods.

English teenager, Simon, and his annoying American cousin, Brad, find themselves swallowed up by a mysterious ball of fire and transported into an alternative timeline where the Roman Empire had never fallen. In the first book, Fireball, they come into conflict with the Roman authorities and with the Christian Church. In the second book, New Found Land, they sail to America, where the Aztec civilization is still going strong. And then they’re off to China in the final book, Dragon Dance.

I’ve not read the Fireball trilogy since I was a teenager. But Christopher’s death has inspired me to put these three books onto my must re-read pile. And, since I’ve never read any of his adult novels, I think I might seek out one or two of those.

Goodbye John, Samuel, Stanley, Hilary, William, Peter and Anthony — many names, many books and so much inspiration over the years. Rest In Peace.

Catch ya later,  George

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Review – Alice-Miranda in New York

Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones may live in a hoity toity world of mega wealth and out-of-our-league boarding schools, but this down-to-earth seven-year-old (seven and three-quarters, actually) has the wisdom and clarity of a Buddhist monk. This sweet little girl is daughter to Hugh and Cecelia, owners of the stunning Highton department store – a luxurious establishment about to undergo a refurbishment and relaunch in that most desirable of cities – the Big Apple.

Alice-Miranda and her parents are spending a month in New York, overseeing the re-opening of the store, and Alice-Miranda is delighted to be attending Mrs Kimmel’s School for Girls, headed by her mother’s dear friend, Miss Jilly Hobbs. There, she quickly makes friends with two very ‘ordinary’ girls – Ava and Quincy – and also the monumentally wealthy Lucinda, daughter to Morrie Finkelstein, owner of a rival luxury department store. Continue reading Review – Alice-Miranda in New York

A viable model for journalism + the Longform app

I can’t pretend to be unbiased when it comes to longform journalism ebooks (see previous post on Fairfax Media’s move into ebook publishing).

I’m a journalist who always writes more than she needs to (and feels frustrated at the waste when precious sentences, and even entire interviews forming part of a feature, are cut to fit arbitrary spaces).

I’m an avid reader who loves to consume long features in magazines and newspapers (or better yet, online via my iPhone or iPad).

I’m a publisher with a passion for books, tablets and ereaders who intends to publish longform journalism ebooks (written by others as well as myself) and short fiction – good reads in short bites.

I’m also a part-time student working on a Masters research project entitled “Social reading, longform journalism and the connected ebook”. Over the next four years, I’ll be investigating the processes behind and consumer reaction to publications just like Fairfax Media’s Framed. I’ll be experimenting myself with similar processes, but incorporating subscription updates to journalistic ebooks; links, multimedia and reader feedback within the works themselves; the trail that such works create in social media channels; and the question of which of these connected pieces of content can be considered part of the works themselves.

So, I reckon Stephen Hutcheon is onto something, and I’m putting lots of time and effort – and even some cash – into finding out for sure.

Given the opportunity, journalists will want to delve more deeply into certain stories, and publish longer works that reflect those efforts, rather than the needs of the daily and weekly news cycles.

I feel sure that readers, when confronted with a story of national importance that grabs their attention, as McDonald’s does, or piques their personal interest due to its very localised or specialised subject matter, will enthusiastically spend the odd dollar or two here and there to buy a longform ebook.

That being the case, the ebook also offers (at last) that holy grail for newspapers – a way to make their customers pay for digital content. Just as we’re used to paying for apps, we’re happy to pay for ebooks. Its a business model that works, which is more than can be said for those of most newspaper websites.

Internationally, there are plenty of examples of longform journalism taking off. The Longform app for iPad (from is another recent launch, and worth a look if you’re into in-depth news and analysis. It offers a curated selection of the world’s best feature writing, from sources like the New York Review of Books, Slate and Mother Jones.

I dipped in this week and discovered some quirky pieces I’ll read over the weekend – one on depictions of the librarian in erotic fiction (evidently boys do make passes at girls in glasses), another comparing JRR Tolkien with Christopher Paolini (did you know the former was a terrible uni lecturer?) and a couple looking at the power of Google and Facebook.

The app allows you to read either in the original online format, or in the Longform format either on or offline, with a choice of fonts, adjustible font size and column width. You can read what’s already on offer in the app, adding and removing feeder publications as you go, and saving stories to read later via your onboard Readability account. You can also send articles you find elsewhere in your travels to Longform via Readability, Instapaper and Read It Later, and share any story via email or social media.

Read up. With the rise of the long form, the future of journalism has finally arrived.

SMH joins longform journalism ebook push

Fairfax Media has published Australia’s first newspaper-driven longform journalism ebook.

Framed, by Sydney Morning Herald Asia-Pacific editor Hamish McDonald, is available to Kindle and Kindle app users via the Amazon website, and is priced at $1.99.

It’s a hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism, examining a shocking incident in Australia’s history deemed the equivalent to Britain’s Guildford Four and Birmingham Six cases (in which ten individuals were wrongly convicted over IRA terrorism bombings – remember Daniel Day-Lewis in In the Name of the Father)?

According to McDonald, Australia’s criminal justice system bears similar guilt, for locking up the so-called Croatian Six more than 30 years ago. The young Croatian-Australians were convicted of plotting to plant bombs around Sydney, and each served time in prison. McDonald has found evidence to suggest the men were set up by the intelligence service of the then Communist Yugoslav state.

He tells of the involvement of unwitting police officers (Roger Rogerson was among those who carried out the arrests) who may have acted inappropriately, of a judicial system turning a blind eye to flaws in evidence, and to Canberra officials covering up knowledge of the Yugoslav role.

He speaks to some of the men, and to members of their families. It’s a riveting read – I finished it in 45 minutes.

The 10,000-word title will be promoted via a 2000-word extract published in the print edition of today’s Sydney Morning Herald, on and in the SMH iPad app.

Sydney Morning Herald tablet editor Stephen Hutcheon has managed the project. He told uBookish in an exclusive interview yesterday that the publication came about because the newspaper was unable to publish such a lengthy work in its own pages, either in print, online or via the app.

“It wouldn’t have looked as good as a big block of text online or in an app,” he said, adding that longer pieces like these need extra formatting and breaking up into smaller chunks to work in those formats.

Hutcheon, who has been following developments in ebooks and longform journalism for some time, proposed the long work be published as a Kindle ebook, and having received clearance from the newspaper’s editor and editor-in-chief, went ahead and did just that this week.

“This is a very low key thing,” he said.

“Everyone is just happy to give it a go.

“We’re just seeing whether we can do it, and what the reaction is – whether there is room for longform journalism.”

Initially, Hutcheon submitted the work to Amazon’s Kindle Singles program, but it was rejected – probably because Amazon’s publishing program is, like most of its activities, heavily US-centric. The email he received suggested Fairfax publish the work directly for Kindle themselves.

Hutcheon, who as a former SMH website editor is experienced with html coding, did the file conversion himself once the book was edited in house. He then spent a fitful night hoping the advertised 12-hour turnaround before the ebook would be live in the Kindle store would be accurate. It was, and you can download the book here.

Hutcheon chose the Kindle format because it allowed him to reach a wide audience via the Kindle apps for smartphones and tablets as well as the Kindle device itself. However, he did not rule out making the work available through other channels.

“We haven’t signed away exclusive rights to Kindle,” he said.

McDonald is the author of four previously published books, including Mahabharata in Polyester (2010, University of NSW Press) and Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra (co-authored, 2000, Allen & Unwin).

A former Fairfax journalist, Charlotte Harper worked as a web producer on from 1997 to 2001.

QUEENIE – One Elephant’s Story

There was a time when for tuppence you could ride on the back of an elephant at a zoo. Queenie was one such elephant.

In Queenie, One Elephant’s Story, award-winning team of author Corinne Fenton and illustrator, Peter Gouldthorpe tell the remarkable true story of this special elephant.

Until her death in 1945 Queenie carried up to 500 passengers a day. She trod the Trail of Elephants around the Melbourne Zoo, and many visitors came to see, touch and ride this famous elephant.

Queenie, One Elephant’s Story tells the story of the elephant’s birth in a jungle in India more than one hundered years ago and how she became an icon at the Melbourne Zoo.

Clearly a huge amount of research has gone into this book and the sensitive telling of Queenie’s story reflects how much she touched author, Corinne Fenton’s heart.

In her dedication at the start of the book, Corinne says,

Why did the life of one majestic elephant keep drawing me back to investigate the story further?

Perhaps the answer is simple, in that Queenie gave of her heart, performing a tireless task for almost 40 years. She was loved and remembered by generations of children and adults and was an icon in the days when a visit to the zoo was often the most important event in a child’s social calendar.

Queenie, One Elephant’s Story has just been released in paperback and this authentic Australian story was an Honour Book, Eve Pownall Award for Information Books, CBCA Awards in 2007.

What’s extraordinary about this book is that it’s not just a historical account. It’s a moving story about a real animal who clearly found her way into the hearts of both Corinne Fenton and the illustrator of Queenie, One Elephant’s Story, Peter Gouldthorpe.

Between them, Corinne and Peter have poignantly brought Queenie’s story and her place in history to life.

The beautifully illustrated picture book is for readers aged 5+ but it can be enjoyed by adults and older readers too. It is published by Black Dog Books, an imprint of Walker Books

The Third Aughhh

The Third WaveIt’s not my usual form to bag a book about volunteering, but The Third Wave irked me on levels I didn’t even know I had. This book was so goddamn bad I want my money back. And then some.

I ordered The Third Wave the moment I heard about it because, well, we all know that non-fiction tales of people tackling social and environmental issues is pretty much my main reading genre. The first inkling I had that something wasn’t quite right about this book came when I pulled it from the post bag it arrived in: the cover art looked, well, completely wrong.

It features a blonde woman (presumably the book’s author, Alison Thompson) front and centre (not among) people in a tent city. Apart from the fact that she’s too prominent, too clean, too angelic-like lit, that her leg/body positioning is odd, and that she has an eyebrow raised in a manner that’s both challenging and cocky, the image looks as though it’s been Photoshopped onto the background. Hmm, not quite what you’d expect from a modest volunteer’s tale, I thought. Then: Was she even at that tent city?

I’d have saved myself a lot of time and frustration if I’d simply judged the book by its cover. It hinted at—what I consider to be, at least—the complete lack of humility and abundance of arrogance contained within its pages. Maybe I got out on the wrong side of the bed. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. Maybe I just really, really got rubbed the wrong way by the tone of this book. I know this review is harsh—probably the harshest I’ve ever written—but hot damn, I hope never to meet Thompson in person because I just want to shake her.

Thompson is an Australian who’s long lived in New York. If I can make generalisations, she seems to have become more American than Americans and her I-did-all-these-incredible-things bluster is far too in your face. She admittedly had help from a ghostwriter and an editor, but this book’s tone is wrong, wrong, wrong. I hold all three of them plus the graphic designer wholly responsible.

The cover blurb casts Thompson as being a girl-next-door filmmaker who, after seeing the news of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, felt compelled to do something. Armed with just a few hundred dollars, she headed to Sri Lanka to see how she could help. Sounds wholesome and interesting, except that the book opens with Thompson racing into Ground Zero on rollerblades (cue eye rolls) just moments after the planes hit.


The opening chapters catalogue her being, like, a total September 11 hero. Me? I catalogue her as being a cowboy. As someone who does a lot of volunteer work and who also was just over 12 months ago was flooded, I’ve encountered a lot of volunteers who do fantastic work. I’ve also encountered some adrenalin-junkie cowboys like Thompson who, it seems to me, thrive on the drama.

The thing is, Thompson’s not especially skilled in any area, but purports to be an expert in many. And it seems that she flits from disaster to disaster. If I had to sum it up, I’d say: There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’, but there’s a lot of ‘I’ in Thompson’s book.

Aughhh. She subtly, and not so subtly, she makes everything about her:

‘We came to an exposed area where I saw something strange lying in front of me. At first I didn’t recognise it. It was a human body with two feet sticking up in the air. Everyone took two steps backward as I walked over to it.’ Note the three ‘I’s’ when they should probably be ‘we’s’ and how she’s brave but no one else is.

She paints her Italian (now ex-) boyfriend as not being good at the volunteering malarky, then later skates over the fact that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. You know, a small thing that might actually be big and that might explain some of his behaviour. She, on the other hand, is practically Florence Nightingale.

Oh, and she’s clearly attractive: ‘The clown changed his tone and began reciting a highly provocative love poem. It was clear that his painfully awkward performance was directed at me. He moved his lips around like a horse chewing hay and stared with wanton lust into my eyes.’

The one thing that made me laugh was that she wore—and repeatedly tells us she wore—Chanel No. 5 to mask the scent of the rotting corpses. Teehee. Something makes me think that Chanel might not be so appreciative of such brand association for their high-end, aspirational product.

It’s not that I don’t want Thompson to outline the good work she’s done—I do think she’s made a positive difference and that the story warrants telling. But I want it conveyed in a show-don’t-tell manner that allows me, as the reader, to decide that she’s done good work. The look-at-me tone immediately corralled me into a cynical, critical position of distrust: Really? I kept mentally scoffing. You achieved all that on your own?

That’s not a reaction I’ve ever had with any of the other books I’ve read and loved in this genre. Anyone who’s spent any time with me or read any of my blogs will know that I practically fall over myself to recommend such non-fiction, horror-but-hope masterpieces as Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures and The Good Soldiers.

Sigh. Sorry, but something about this book royally rubbed me the wrong way.

I’m not going to talk about how Thompson made a documentary by the same title as the book—that would seem like I’m giving it a plug. I’m also not going to talk about the fact that she’s now BFFs with Sean Penn. Which kind of leads me to the other random part of this book.

In the final third, serial-volunteer Thompson goes to Haiti. Which is, presumably, to what the front cover image refers but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—the section’s small and doesn’t demonstrate the book’s focus; it certainly doesn’t warrant being on the cover. Then again, maybe it does. The cover art wholly reflects the Thompson’s tone and tale: she is front and centre and in the limelight, everyone else is incidental and behind her, and there’s a sense of [insert disaster of choice here].


Review – Seen Art?

I am falling head over heels with the work of John Scieszka. Lane Smith’s work is already close to my heart – but combining these two talents into one book (which has thankfully happened on more than one occasion) is true book bliss.

In Seen Art?, Scieszka takes images from the Museum of Modern Art and splashes them throughout a gorgeous landscape book so we can do some seriously drooling (and, of course, so kids can witness the splendour). Trailing us through this collection is a whimsical little character who is looking for . . . well, he’s looking for his friend Art. The only problem is, no one seems to understand what he’s talking about.

‘Have you seen Art?’ he asks a lady walking up Fifth Avenue. But before he can add ‘I was meant to meet him here on the corner of Fifth and Fifty-third’, the lady asks ‘MoMA?’

‘Uh . . . no, he’s just a friend.’ says our art-seeking fellow.

And so begins a series of well-meaning adults, showing our fellow through the kaleidoscope of stunning (and very famous) artworks on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art.

Illustrations by Lane Smith bring this achingly beautiful book to life, and striking typography and design take it to a level above and beyond your average picture book. Children will love the warm humour of the text, the cleverness of the storyline and the fascinating peeks at a beautifully-curated selection of artwork. Adults will just love it all.

Notes on the artwork are provided at the end of the book, as is a gorgeously satisfying story ending. Call me greedy, but it’s a bonus that children will also be entranced by this book. One of my favourites in a very long time and a must for serious collectors.

Seen Art? is published by The Museum of Modern Art/Viking

Lover Husband Father Monster part 2

In my last post I interviewed Elsie and Graeme Johnstone, the husband-and-wife author team behind the novel Lover Husband Father Monster. And they’re back again today to answer a few more questions…

Lover Husband Father Monster is a story about family breakdown, written from two perspectives — that of the husband (Stuart) and that of the wife (Jennifer). What was your process for co-writing? Did one of you drive the project more than the other?


Elsie created the template for the book. She started out by writing the first six chapters or so, and then I read those and began to write my piece within that framework. The boundaries were not too restrictive, I had a fair bit of freedom, but still had to keep within the overall plot line. But we did not write entirely independently of each other. Every now and then, we would review each other’s work and discuss how it was going and suggest changes/improvements or query certain elements. For example, Elsie might say to me, “I’m not sure Stuart would say that in that particular situation.”

Once, after we had written another half dozen chapters or so, I called up Elsie’s document to see where she was heading. Now, in our original drawing up of the characters, the wife, Jennifer, is from a sprawling Catholic family, and Stuart is an only child of a Protestant Army man and his wife. So, I had been assembling the classic “Orange & Green” scenario, and was almost at the point of somehow introducing Gerry Adams and the Rev Ian Paisley into the storyline. So I am reading Elsie’s latest chapters and suddenly I stop, turn around and say to her, “Buddhist? When the bloody hell did Jennifer turn Buddhist?”

And Elsie replied: “I don’t know, she just did!” Which of course is the sign of a good writer, when the characters suddenly start jumping around the page and doing things and heading in directions that were never considered in the original plot. This meant that I had to go back and re-write my latest offerings, but at the end of the day, it was an inspirational and intuitive move by Elsie. It changed the whole tenor of the book, gave us the opportunity to introduce new and colourful characters, and it made a much better work all round. Far better than my notion of the tired old Catholic versus Protestant thing that has been done to death. Still, I was brought up in that exact scenario, so I got to put down on paper a lot of turbulent mutterings, got them off my chest, felt much better about them, and them buried them in a drawer somewhere.


I drove the plot when writing Jennifer’s tale, but it was a constant stream of discussion, questioning and revision. We wrote in blocks, about half a dozen chapters at a time before we stopped, took stock and moved on. We wrote twelve drafts before we were satisfied.


Graeme and Elsie in Killarney

You’ve self-published this book, but you’ve managed to get proper distribution and reviews in major publications. How did you go about doing this?


With difficulty and doggedness. We used every resource available to us, writing to every newspaper in the country offering to send a review copy. We had two bookshops on our side — Just Books in Lakes Entrance and Dymocks in Southland. We had written other books and done signings for them so they were happy to have us back.

For Lover Husband Father Monster we set aside twelve months and organized a writer’s tour for ourselves, going to every state. We wrote to other bookshops in the capital cities offering to do signings, most of which were very successful. One in Milton, Brisbane, was a painful three hours (we sold only five books), but at others we sold upward of twenty books. While we were in these cities we offered to do radio interviews and the country radio stations were fantastic. They were pleased to have a couple of eloquent writers talking about a social issue and welcomed us. We left books at country newspapers to be reviewed. They often took a photo of us with the book. If we were in a country town and the library was open we would donate a book. We spoke at Rotary, View, and Probus Clubs. We met a lot of people along the way and had a good year. Now Lover Husband Father Monster has to fly by the seat of its pants. 2012 and we are onto different things.


You have to be persistent.

Now that it’s all done and dusted, how has writing about family breakdown affected you as people?


I must admit, when we jointly determined how the book would end, and I wrote the first version of the chilling climax, I pushed the chair back and thought, “Wow, did I just write that?” Even simply doing that had an impact on our lives. And promoting the book and getting readers’ views has elicited scores of responses from people who have personal tales of marriage breakdowns. One of the more unsettling angles is grandparents telling us how their son or daughter’s marriage is broken down, and how one of the parents is mentally unstable, and how they fear for the lives of the grandchildren. We hear a lot of haunting real life stories like that and it can affect you.


We enjoyed working on a common project. At times it was challenging separating real life from what we were doing but we were in Ireland so took the opportunity to travel into Europe, so our writing and involvement in the book was broken up by playtime and so it didn’t get to us. Last week we celebrated 40 years since we married in a country church so we shall probably finish the journey together. It’s been fun.

Has it changed your relationship?


Yes. I don’t open the car door for Elsie anymore …

What’s next for Elsie and Graeme Johnstone?


A lot of people ask us when the sequel is coming out. We never, ever in a million years considered there would be anywhere further to go with Lover Husband Father Monster, not after an ending like that. But those comments have made us sit up and think about it. At the moment, I have veered away from books into writing musicals. The first of these is being premiered in December. It’s called Normie and it examines the experiences of Normie Rowe, the former King of Pop, who was controversially conscripted and sent to Vietnam, only to come home and find that his stellar career had crashed. Normie will be in it, although not as himself. We have written a special part for him and composer Peter Sullivan and I have written five brand new songs for him. It’s a big project and we have a young director, Simon Eales, pulling it together. We have already had an ensemble cast do a rehearsed reading before an audience and the early signs are very encouraging.


Me? I’m writing a novel called Ma’s Garden, the story three women, set against the backdrop of the first twelve months of operation of a country newspaper in Trafalgar, Gippsland, in 1902. It is about a small town at the edge of settlement. Also I have begun writing short stories. Last month I was awarded second prize in the Stringybark Short Story Historical Writing Competition for a piece entitled “Footsteps in the Dark”, set in Melbourne during WW2 and the brownout.

George’s bit at the end

My thanks to Graeme and Elsie for being so generous with their time and answering my questions. To find out more about them and their writing, check out their website.

Catch ya later,  George

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It’s Better In Black And White

Alice in WonderlandI’ve never understood but have always been impressed at how everything seems to look so simple but good in black and white. How for all the technological advances in the world that have brought us vibrant, CMYK-perfect colour, old-school black-and-white photos are still more striking and more flattering.

That’s also the case with these iconic Picador 40th-anniversary-edition redesigns of bestsellers, including All The Pretty Horses, Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Sea, and, everybody’s favourite, American Psycho.

Ah, bliss. Ah, envy. So simple yet so stellar. The combination of typography (something with which I’m obsessed) and bold, repeated illustrations in just the two tones is pure, unadulterated, I-must-have-it-even-though-I-already-own-most-of-these-books magic. In fact, it kind of makes me want to buy the ones I don’t even like.

The last time I oohed and ahhed so fully over book covers was when Penguin issued the exquisite textured special editions. The pink flamingo-ed Alice in Wonderland sold out nationwide and I still haven’t secured myself a copy. Harrumpf. It’s especially galling as despite watching the movie, I’ve never actually read Alice in Wonderland and figured this was my most-inspiring, most-likely-to-follow-through chance.

I’m even more impressed by Picador’s designs, if that’s possible, because it didn’t call upon textures and hardcover aesthetics to enhance the designs. Their covers are more Penguin-Modern-Classic simple than to-hell-with-the-budget bold.

I imagine too that this successful redesign was harder to achieve than the results suggest—after all, chick lit Bridget Jones’s Diary and slasher fiction American Psycho aren’t quite in the same reading genre.

So I guess we all know how my next Boomerang Blogs voucher will be spent. The question is: Which cover is my favourite?


Maya and the Crystal Skull is a story of intrigue, family loyalty and challenging your beliefs.

12 months ago, Maya’s mum died in a car accident. Now it looks as though she might lose her dad too.

He’s been in Mexico looking for the crystal skull and now he’s disappeared. Uncle Peter is supposed to go looking for him, but unfortunately he has a fear of flying.

So now it’s up to Maya to go to Mexico to save her father.  But with her awful guardian Sophia in tow, things are going to be a lot harder.

Apart from discovering her whereabouts, Maya finds that she has a special talent; she can see and communicate with her spirit guide, Ethan, a boy her own age. Maya soon discovers that she’s going to need Ethan’s help to survive this adventure.

What does the legend of the crystal skulls have to do with her father’s disappearance?…How can Maya’s destiny have anything to do with the future of humankind?

The Mexican jungle, ancient Mayan ruins, dangerous bounty hunters and evil kidnappers…

Yes, Maya’s life has changed.

The fate of the world now depends on her.

Maya and the Crystal Skull is the latest action-packed adventure from bestselling children’s author, Robyn Opie Parnell.

It’s a novel for readers who aged 10+ who love history, great characters and plenty of plot twists.

For more information, check out Robyn’s website at