Review – I Love My ABC, I Love My 123

Toddlers aplenty know and love Anna Walker’s gorgeous Ollie books, featuring a zebra-like softie and his charming friends, resplendently illustrated in Walker’s inimitable style that remind me of a soft shoe shuffle – gentle, heartwarming and so sweet to watch.

In these new board books for toddlers, released tomorrow, Ollie takes little ones through their ABCs and their 123s, with luscious yet simple illustrations that make you want to tear out the pages and pin them to your child’s wall (yes, this has been done in our house in the past, though I always stock up on a readable copy, too!).

Thick card pages mean longevity, and if your toddler is anything like the discerning modern toddler, who likes a little art with their ABCs, there will be a lot of page flicking going on. Cute.

I Love My ABC and I Love My 123 are published by Scholastic.

The Billy Cart Derby Blog Tour

Earlier this year, Donna M Smith from Jelli-beanz Publishing visited Literary Clutter to tell us about her publishing venture and about the yearly Packed Lunch anthologies (see “Jelli-Beanz”). She’s back again — this time as part of her blog tour for Billy Cart Derby

Character Development in Billy Cart Derby
By Donna M Smith

Hi George. It is wonderful to be here today.

The characters of Billy Cart Derby were relatively simple to create as they are based on my three children. TJ is my eldest son, short for Timothy and he is very comical and animated. Ben is my youngest son, short for Benjamin and he is somewhat the cheeky one. Jazmine is the eldest of the three children and is often the bossy one! When I first wrote the story Jazmine was in grade 1 (she is now in grade 5) and Benjamin was a new born. I named the characters in the story after my children and then as time went by and I re-wrote subsequent drafts, the characters in the story began to develop their own individuality which mirrored my children’s individual personalities.

As my children became older and Billy Cart Derby continued to evolve, I lengthened the story into a chapter book. This allowed me the freedom to create more depth to the character’s personalities. The original story was about 1000 words less than what the published story is today, which is considerable. This is where I was able to add depth to the character’s personality and their roles in the story.

Miss Peterson was my daughter’s teacher in prep and was just wonderful in helping her settle in and was the special teacher who set up the garden club to help Jazmine make new friends. These special moments have their presence in the story.

Billy Cart Derby is based on a Grade 2’s class fundraising event, a billy cart race to try and whip the pants off the Grade 3’s skateboard fundraiser day. The story introduces the characters in the beginning and quickly takes the reader on a rip-roaring race through the school yard. It is fast paced and really exciting.  Grade Preps to 3 classes really enjoy it.

Of course my children are quite chuffed to see themselves in the book!

Thanks for hosting my visit today, I have thoroughly enjoyed visiting Literacy Clutter.

Jelli-Beanz Publishing
‘where imagination comes to life’

George’s bit at the end

Thanks for stopping by, Donna.

To find out more about Donna and her writing, and to find out about the other stops on her tour, check out her blog. To find out more about Jelli-Beanz Publishing, check out their website.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter


Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

Latest Post: DVD Review & Giveaway — Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden





Reviewing Something I Haven’t 100% Read

Us & ThemI feel a little odd writing about a piece I’ve writing I haven’t 100% read, but there’s not a lot I can do about it. The topic is so hard for me to read that, without having someone redact the bits that would push me over the edge, I had to read until I though I was heading for dangerous territory. I picked up reading again some skipping and skimming later.

The text is by the ever-eloquent Anna Krien, whose award-winning book, Into The Woods, I’ve gushed about previously. This time she’s tackling the even more fraught (if that’s possible) topic of animal cruelty. Well, that specifically and our relationship with animals generally.

The Quarterly Essay opens with Krien travelling home with sinister drunks and encountering a gentle, accompanying dog that walks her to the gate. It then traverses a range of animal relationship areas, including the one that’s at the front of everyone’s minds: slaughterhouse cruelty. You know, the ones that were lobbed back onto our television screens courtesy of a brilliant, if harrowing, Animals Australia expose.

Krien travelled to Indonesia to investigate and witness the slaughtering techniques firsthand. This is, suffice to say, the section that I first had to skip and skim pages on. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be read—it absolutely should. It’s that I already know and am disturbed by the information contained within those sections—I’m vegetarian; I’m wholly against animal cruelty; I am beyond squeamish; I have a vivid imagination; I already know this information and it informs my lifestyle choices and daily food decisions; I don’t need to re-know what I know. But others who don’t know, do (if you’re still with me).

Krien’s essay embeds this complex, timely issue into a wider issue of our relationship with animals. She does so with the same lightness of touch and objectivity as she did in Into The Woods. That is, she highlights the issue without judgement and in a non-threatening, left-of-field way that completely turns them on its head. At the same time, she acknowledges her own complex, sometimes complicit, relationship with the issue.

The result is a thought-provoking exploration of the issue that allows her to both examine the issue with the objectivity of a scientist while also acknowledging that no one can truly be objective and that no issue is as clearly cut as black and white. The result is something between haunting and profoundly insightful.

Into The WoodsThe Quarterly Essay isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of journals—design is basic (not to be confused with minimalist) and is likely an afterthought. I wouldn’t have picked it up if you’d paid me except that Krien’s name and choice of subject matter compelled me to do so.

Clunky design aside, I wasn’t disappointed in Krien’s writing, which incorporates so much information so subtly that it evoked simultaneous inspiration and despair. How much time she spent researching this piece I don’t know, but it seems many hours (and the many were put to good use).

Among her examples, Krien incorporated the too-close-to-home issue of use chimps in scientific research. It’s a section that I read for the most part, but one that I read in horror. Having just finished The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, this glimpse at chimps’ lab lives was extra, stomach-churningly raw.

My swiss-cheese reading of Krien’s essay may not make me the most able to recommend it, but I’ve read enough of this essay and of her previous writing to recommend it regardless. In fact, I think the question isn’t so much whether it should be recommended or whether you should read it. It’s more what you’ll do with the issues and the information once you have. As Krien herself stated:

I am not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a face—deep down we all know it. The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with?


Review – Little Red Hood

The iconic little red is given the avant-garde treatment in this stunning book by author/illustrator Marjolaine Leray. Originally published in French under the title un petit chaperon rouge, this striking book packs a visual punch – but its clever, minimalist text is the perfect nest for a series of scratchy illustrations that can be – dare I say it, a tad unnerving.

Like the irreverent new release I Want My Hat Back, this seemingly unassuming little book pulls weight against the bully – and this nasty pants wolf is in for a big surprise after he dares throw his weight around with gutsy little Red.

When Red is snatched by this intimidating ectomorphic creature, with razor sharp teeth and rapier-like claws, Red most drily talks through the old ‘visiting-grandma-my-what-big-teeth-you-have’ rigmarole, with hilarious wolfish reaction. And when it comes to the climax of the story – something about eating someone with very sharp teeth – let’s just say it’s just so lovely to witness a bit of girl power.

Clever, funny, a tad dark, this book would suit kids aged 7+ . . . or a little younger if your kids are not a big fat chicken like me. A must-have for lovers of artistic, clever books, with morals so deeply embedded, a bloodhound couldn’t sniff them out. Perfect.

Little Red Hood is published by Phoenix Yard books.

This American Life: Live

Once or twice a year, esteemed radio show This American Life (TAL) transforms itself into a show that you can not just see with your ears, but one you can see with your eyes: they put on a live show in a theatre. That live show is then broadcast to other theatres—live in the US and Canada and on a slight delay to here in Oz.

It’s kind of fitting, then, that the show’s overall theme was making that which is invisible, visible; the first two segments were especially so. They featured artists who were blind and who told hilarious stories of trying to orientate yourself and find a telephone in an unfamiliar hotel room and of explaining your blindness to your toddler.

The subsequent segments/acts included such tales as how Taylor Dane is the most easily found celebrity ever and a dance that defies description but that had me cacking myself so hard I had to stifle a snort.

OK Go also impressed with an outstanding smartphone app and interactive song that had us giggling and playing, stomping, and clicking along. Then there was an artist who wasn’t actually an artist—she was a nanny whose penchant for taking photos was discovered after her death.

The thing is that her black-and-white images, of which there are hundreds of thousands, are so striking each one alone warrants display in a gallery. TAL described her as an Emily Dickens-like character, whose success came posthumously. Given her penchant for privacy and the fact that she’d never shown the images to anyone it’s unlikely we’d have seen the images were she still alive. Either way, I could have watched a slideshow of her images for hours.

I’ve got to admit that my bladder got the better of me. The radio show is normally around three acts long and that’s what I (and my bladder) expected. Turned out the live show was six acts long and, well, suffice to say I didn’t enjoy the second half as much as I did the first.

It may have had something to do with the fact that two segments fell a little short of my over-hyped expectations. At least, one did. Mike Birbiglia is my favourite contributor—his sleepwalking and boyfriend’s girlfriend stories are ones I’ve re-listened to a thousand times and quote regularly. He created a short film for the show, though, which wasn’t his usual insightful and funny.

It was ok (and I mean ok in the way that you draw out the ‘o’ and then the ‘k’). It started strongly, with the camera focusing on the soundboard and Mike talking about his serious sleep disorder off camera. I wanted to hear more about it—serious, funny, whatever. It’s his breakout story and one of which I never tire. Instead he went off into a fictitious, arguably slightly clichéd short film that relied on repeating a single gag in different settings. It was, eh (and I mean eh in the way that you kind of appreciate the gag but are non-committal about the film overall).

The second not-my-favourite segment was by David Rakoff, although I should qualify that with the fact that I’m not a fan and always find his stories run a little long for my taste. It finished with an interpretive dance that made me cringe even more than the tale. Still, he had a great moment where he recounted how to grate cheese when you only have one arm that works—it was so clever it warranted applause.

Realistically, two segments that don’t 100% work are par for the course with TAL (and above average for creative works in general). It experiments so much and yields so much that’s outstanding that it’s bound to have (and should be allowed) the odd small fail. Double thumbs up to this live show. I can’t wait for the next one.

Publisher pounces on mummy porn

HarperCollins has moved swiftly to sign up a new erotic fiction author, Indigo Bloome, in a bid to cash in on the Fifty Shades phenomenon.

HarperCollins paid the author a six figure sum in a three-book deal, brokered by literary agent Selwa Anthony with Harper’s publishing director Shona Martyn. The first title, due out July 1, is entitled Destined to Play.

If you’re a straight woman over 30, there’s a good chance you’ve already succumbed to peer pressure – or been driven by curiosity – and bought a copy of the internationally bestselling “mummy porn” novel Fifty Shades of Grey (you can buy it and the second and third novels in the Fifty Shades trilogy for $10.82 each here).

EL James has become a publishing sensation over the past year, not because her books are brilliantly written or encompass generation-defining themes, but because as works of erotic fiction, they contain dozens of detailed sex scenes, many featuring bondage and discipline and sadism and masochism.

For those who are squeamish about the riding crops and floggers, the ordinary, bookish heroine (Anastasia) and incredibly sexy, powerful, wealthy yet troubled hero (Christian) help on the aspirational side.

Which girl hasn’t at some point dreamt that a hot billionaire might sweep them off their feet? Especially if said mogul has a good heart and the potential to be saved from decades of internal turmoil by her love and support.

The New York Times reports more than 10 million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey have been sold. Universal Pictures and Focus Features won a bidding warn for the film rights. Publishing houses are desperately seeking erotic fiction authors in the hope of cashing in on its popularity, which is partially attributed to the fact that ereading devices make it easy to read such titles on the sly, even if you are travelling on a bus or train, for example.

HarperCollins’ Martyn told a Sydney Writers Festival event audience last week that her publishing house’s regular meeting to discuss digital projects had been plotting an erotic fiction strategy the very week Anthony approached her with Bloome’s book.

Bloome is a thirtysomething mum with kids in primary school, and therefore publishing under a pen name. HarperCollins is rushing her first book into ebookstores by July 1, with a print edition to follow September 1. This is remarkably fast for a legacy book publisher.

Incidentally, Martyn said the biggest seller of her ebook titles to date had been John Howard’s Lazarus Rising, at 9000 copies, which is about the same number that Fifty Shades of Grey sold in Australia within its first week of reissue through Random House last month.

Fifty Shades was initially published as an ebook and print-on-demand paperback in May last year by The Writers’ Coffee Shop, a indie publisher and book community based in NSW. According to Wikipedia, it was originally developed as a Twilight tribute and published episodically on fan fiction websites, then on James’s own website, The author is a London television executive, wife and mother of two.

I’ve just finished reading the book on the Kobo platform as an exercise in research into social reading and was intrigued to note that the Kobo Pulse “pulse”, which tells you how many others are reading at the same time as you, was at full strength most of the way through. There were only a handful of comments, including one deleted by the author – perhaps she was embarrassed by her initial thoughts on the book – and one comparing it to Twilight.

Even as I write on a Sunday morning, some 16 people are reading the Australian edition of Fifty Shades on Kobo. 1600 have read it on the platform so far. Of those, 41 have clicked “like” and 3 “dislike”. Readers have selected parts of the text and clicked highlight 250 times. You can bet many of those are sex scenes, though I also highlighted a couple of opera titles – Christian is a classical music buff. I liked this line too, “One minute he rebuffs me, the next he sends me fourteen-thousand-dollar books”.

So, is it any good?

Honestly, not really. I have friends who gave up because they read the first few chapters and wondered what the fuss was about (the first sex scene is in Chapter Eight of 26).

It does remind me of the Twilight books, but also of a Sweet Valley High spin-off series I read as a teenager, Caitlin (the Love and Promise trilogies), in which the heroine is an incredibly wealthy and beautiful individual with issues, just like James’s Christian. From memory she has a boyfriend with steel grey eyes just like Christian’s too.

The characters are card-board cutouts, their dialogue wooden and repetitive. I cared so little about them that I would prefer to read a dot point summary of the second and third books than actually read them. Anyone want to send me one?

The only interesting things about the central couple – their careers – are touched on but never examined in depth. Christian’s business sounds intriguing, but we never learn more about it than that it is staffed by good looking blondes, includes research into sustainable farming and is facing a major challenge. Anastasia is a literature graduate who wants to work in publishing, but we’re oblivious to what sorts of books she wants to publish, or why.

The plot revolves around their relationship and sex life, which frankly, is boring. Sure, he’s a little kinky, but most of these are standard sex scenes. I’m wondering why any woman who was feeling frisky would bother reading a book like this rather than taking their husband or boyfriend away for a dirty weekend or, dare I say it, hunting down some free iPad video porn.

There is that old issue that perhaps with the exception of James Deen the men who star in porn vids are usually the opposite to a woman’s fantasy, and the women hardly aspirational … but that’s another story (and business opportunity if the sales of Fifty Shades are any indication!).

One Kobo reader, Linda Thornton, summed it up quite nicely, I thought, with this comment on the final page:

“What can one say, “holy crap” would probably cover such a senseless stream of clichéd drivel. The author’s relentless pursuit to see how many times she can cram yet another sexual exploit into a page in order to exploit the reader into buying two more volumes can only be marveled at. Triple crap.”

But hey, it’s a publishing phenomenon, and these are always intriguing to read to gain insights into what does turn readers on.

How To Walk A Puma

How to Walk a PumaI should preface this blog with the disclaimer that I’ve never really liked reading travel-writing books. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that I prefer to experience travel firsthand rather than vicariously. So it’s testament to a writer’s storytelling skills that I actually went out and bought and read his book.

I’ve heard Peter Allison speak now three times on Conversations with Richard Fidler, an hour-long ABC Radio broadcast that is my equal favourite podcast (it shares the honours with NPR’s This American Life, and if you haven’t yet listened to either, stop reading this and go podcast them now). All three times Allison’s had me laughing so hard I almost burst my bladder.

Seriously, Allison is a masterful storyteller. He’s like a thinking woman’s Steve Irwin. And he has fantastic stories to tell, having spent many years as a tour guide in Africa. The first book I’ve read of is his most recent, How to Walk a Puma: My (mis)adventures in South America, but his breakout book (if you like) is Whatever You Do, Don’t Run.

The latter documents his time in Africa with wildlife and wild times with tourists who often provide rich storytelling fodder. The former shows how Allison, who had returned to Sydney to attempt to live a ‘normal’ life, decided 9–5 wasn’t for him and escaped to South America.

As he put it:

It felt like being slapped awake from a long sleepwalk. It felt like coming home. Only then did I realise that I’d been turning grey from the inside out, and had become the cliché of the dissatisfied worker bee. I’d spent most of the last seven years waiting for five o’clock, hanging out for Friday, going on holiday only to stress out because I couldn’t relax fast enough.

Whatever You Do, Don't RunHaving returned from South America myself recently and absolutely itching to get back, Allison’s book proved irresistible: a funny guy and animal advocate exploring the very places that had gotten under my skin—what’s not to want to read?!

The short answer is that I enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend it. The long answer is that I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped. But that’s more likely collateral damage of my annoying inability to enjoy reading about travel as much as experiencing it (not to mention the fact that managing the latter would be much easier and cost effective).

Much of the book concentrates on Allison’s relationship with a puma not so aptly named Roy. A puma that he is strapped to and has to run through the jungle with for many, many kilometres daily. A puma that he is strapped to, has to run many, many kilometres with daily, and that bites him … but that’s a story best heard from Allison himself. You can read it here and hear it here.

The Good Wife

I’d never considered watching The Good Wife because, well, the title put me off. I figured it was some housewife melodrama for which I wasn’t the target audience. Then life dished up some lemons and in my effort to escape them I scanned my Foxtel guide for anything at all—honestly, I’d have probably pressed the button to watch paint dry.

The thing is that, despite its title, The Good Wife is excellent. So excellent, in fact, that I got comprehensively sucked in and ditched my lemon-dishing life for days to watch Season 1 , 2, and 3’s episodes uninterrupted and consecutively— I think I’ve just had the TV version epiphany that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

The Good Wife is (dangerously for me and my sleep patterns) in its third season. As a side note, I’ve come to realise that, while annoying, free-to-air TV’s drip-feeding episodes over many months is good for restraint-less people like me—‘just one more ep’ seems to have become my motto and my oft-repeated mantra.

The show boasts Ridley Scott as one of the producers, plus an uber-experienced cast known for starring in such hit shows and films as Cybill, Dead Poets Society, and Bend It Like Beckham. You know, people whose names’ involvement lends shows a pass-go-and-collect-$200 stamp of approval. (As a second side note, I never forget a face but am hopeless at placing them. Suffice to say that googling so many stars saw me enter a veritable Wikipedia rabbit hole.)

But as a writer I’m less interested in the cast than what they have to work with. The Good Wife’s hallmark is its quality storylines and the writing through which they’re executed. The complex plot is clever and contains more twists than is humanly possible to predict. But it’s not so complex that it’s tricky to follow and the show, thankfully, spares us too much off the ‘in the last episode’ recaps that other shows do and that drive me utterly bonkers.

I’m also impressed at the off-kilter-but-ingenious positioning of the protagonist. While there are a bunch of powerful and compelling characters in The Good Wife, including states attorneys and law firm partners, the central character is actually (as the title suggests) a wife. Specifically a good, homemaking wife, mother, and law graduate whose husband, the state’s attorney, was found to have philandered … lots of times.

With her husband in jail and fighting court cases, Alicia is forced to find work. She returns to the legal profession, after a 15-year break to raise children, to be a second-year associate in a law firm run by college love interest Will. Their timing has always been off but their unresolved sexual tension is aflame.

Further fueling the complexity and, subsequently, the tension is that Will is now Alicia’s boss, the work is demanding, and Alicia’s in competition with another associate for her job. She is also trying to juggle her responsibilities as a mother not wanting to further disrupt her children’s lives and to negotiate the murky territory of being a cheated-on wife. That and the fact that Alicia’s husband plans to re-run for election and she’s under pressure to be seen to be standing by his side.

I’ve got to say too that the cases Alicia and her co-characters are working on are well wrought and interestingly positioned. Each episode’s issues are interwoven with the case. Having watched so many episodes back to back, I can say with pleased confirmation that no two episode openings are the same. And they’re all incredibly good. That’s the long-bemoaned-by-us benefit of writing in the US—there’s money for script development and script redevelopment and refinement so by the time the cast is acting them out, the narrative, the dramatic tension, and the comedic timing are finely honed.

I have three more episodes of Season 3 to watch before I’m up to date. Then it’s time for sleep.

The second rule of book club…

“Hey, did you finish that book I gave you?”

“…um. No, not yet.”

“That’s okay, I won’t spoil the ending for you. Are you enjoying it?”

“…um. No. Not really. I don’t think I’ll finish it.”

Ouch. It’s a trivial thing but I always feel bad when someone doesn’t like a book I gave them, especially if I thought that they were a dead-cert to click with it. First comes denial – “Are you sure you are reading the right book?” That’s usually followed by the urge to defend the book (“Have you read the bit with the zombie space monkey butlers? Like, really read it? Twice?”), followed by the sheepish realisation that I got my friend’s reading taste completely wrong and probably wasted several hours of their time and they’d like me to stop going on about it now, please.

I’ll admit to a touch of neurosis on this one but I think most people would agree that when you recommend something, you really hope that people will like it and it can be disappointing when they don’t. So choosing the next read for a book club meet is particularly fraught with difficulty. If you gift a book to a friend and they are not a fan, at least you only have to have that awkward conversation once and quickly. If you recommend completely the wrong book for your book club, you’ve not only forced ten people to sit through something they hated but now you have to talk about it. For about two hours. With snacks.

So, the second rule of book club has got to be that you need to pick a good book. But what makes a good book?

Clearly this – along with deciding the rules of a book club generally – is a contentious subject. People have plenty to say. Googling “book club rules” brings up 148,000,000 results (whereas Man Booker Prize brings up just 1,830,000 results). Adding “Oprah” to that search string gets you about 17,100,000 results, so it looks like one in eight people discussing book clubs on the internet is talking about Oprah’s take on it (and for every eight Oprah fans, there is one person discussing the Man Booker Prize).

With that many hits you’d imagine Oprah’s recommendations for book clubs would be pure reading gold.  Her picks from the last decade are:

I have to admit, I’m skeptical. There are two there – Pillars of the Earth and East of Eden – that I very much enjoyed (although Pillars is really just a soap opera in medieval cathedral form). There’s another few I would like to read. But there’s at least 3 that if someone gave me as book club read would have me setting the zombie space monkey butlers on them. I won’t name names for all the ones I find less than inspiring, other than saying the person who gave me Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now is still picking virtual poop from their hair. But what do you think? Are these the sort of books you want to read? What would be your ideal book club pick? Is this list a good one or would you rather read about the zombie space monkey butlers?

Five Very Bookish Questions with author Ursula Dubosarsky

Which genre of children’s books do you like most and why?

It’s hard to say as an adult, but as a child I loved time travel stories the best. The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge was one I really loved, and The Ghosts by Antonia Barber. The first children’s book I wrote was a time travel adventure for this reason – Zizzy Zing.

Which book did you love to read as a young child?

As a young child I really loved Gone is Gone by Wanda Gag. It’s a retelling of a Bohemian folk story with beautiful black and white illustrations. I seem to have preferred black and white or minimally coloured illustrations for some reason!

Which three attributes make for a great children’s book?

I like rich, natural child-centred language. I like books that look at life and the world through a child’s eye, rather than at childhood through an adult’s eye. I want a book to make the child reading it feel loved.

What is your number one tip for encouraging children to read?

I think these days it’s probably important to have times where there is nothing to do but read, ie: the only entertainment around is books. If there’s an electronic device around, it’s pretty hard to get children (um, or adults) to pick up a book, but if there’s nothing else I think they can be surprised and delighted by the pleasures of reading.

Name three books you wish you’d written.

What do you say, dear? by Sesyle Joslin, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

The Mousewife by Rumer Godden

The Muddleheaded Wombat by Ruth Park



About Ursula

Ursula was born in Sydney and always wanted to be a writer. Now she has written over 30 books and won several national literary awards. Her latest books are the picture book The Carousel illustrated by Walter di Qual, the young adult novel The Golden Day and just out, the non-fiction The Word Spy’s Activity Book.


The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

The Chimps of Fauna SanctuaryTo find The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, I did what I swore I’d never do: put out a vague question about if anyone knew of a book by a guy who’d spent time at a retirement home of sorts for chimps rescued from animal testing labs. Surprisingly, the first and correct response came back with seconds, along with a ringing endorsement: Andrew Westoll’s book is must-read extraordinary.

That’s part of the reason why it’s taken me so long to write this blog—I absolutely devoured the book, and haven’t stopped thinking about or recommending it, unprompted and perhaps frighteningly impassioned, to others ever since. Which of course means I’ve been the writing equivalent of constipated because I so desperately wanted to do it justice. This book is, quite simply, life-changingly incredible.

Westoll is a former primatologist turned writer, which positions him as the perfect person to capture the tale of Gloria Grow and her sanctuary for damaged chimps. I’m having to resist retelling the entire tale here—there are many thousands of words I could write, and yet none would eloquently capture the tale Westoll has woven. He has a light touch, which makes this heavy topic readable, digestible; its horrors are inexcusable, but I didn’t find myself entirely despairing.

Westoll opens the book with a Frans De Waal quote: ‘What kind of animals are we?’ That’s exactly what kept running through my mind throughout—that and What have we done to these intelligent, compassionate, extraordinary beings? Westoll then opens the book’s first chapter with Vaclav Havel’s statement: ‘I am not interested in why man commits evil. I want to know why he does good.’ That perhaps best sums up the sentiments of the book—yes, it explores the awful, but it also explores the hope.

Grow is perhaps the Jane Goodall of suburbia. She has taken the romantic ideal of running away to save chimps and made it a locally doable reality. Admittedly, it’s also an inadvertent kind of there’s-no-excuse-not-to-help call to action.

The sanctuary Grow has created is a cleverly built, complex, multi-purpose space, with sections designated for certain chimps, or simply areas that open up or can be closed off in order to facilitate necessary cleaning, separation for safety or annual fumigation.

Westoll included a diagram of the facility at the beginning of the book (kind of like the non-fiction version of the way spec fic books include maps of the vast and vastly confusing lands that will be battled over by various creatures on the following pages). It helped me no end to have some sense of something so foreign to me.

What shocked me most about the book—and what perhaps best demonstrates my utter lack of understanding and naivety—is that despite having been rescued and retired, the chimps remain severely psychologically damaged. They aren’t rehabilitated and happy, eking out their remaining days in mellow peace. It’s not surprising, really, but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me.

In truth, there was so much that shocked and horrified me. Say, for example, how the chimps had been ‘knocked down’ in their lives—a term that refers to shooting them with dart guns with sedatives and anaesthetics in order to then conduct invasive experiments on them.

They’d often awake with concussions from their heads having hit the floor so hard on the way down. They injured themselves and nearly died thrashing about violently during disoriented wake-ups afterwards. And they weren’t given pain medication to alleviate the agonising after-effects of the surgeries and testing—pain meds would interfere with the science.

They often had nothing their cages except for a tyre. Imagining them trying to hide behind and cling to that while avoiding being knocked down strangely almost destroyed me more than anything at all.

Likewise the fact that some of the chimps are HIV positive, which adds a whole manner of complexity and (to me, anyway), sadness. Before HIV and its related panic arrived on the scene, some of these chimps had been deemed beyond their use-by date and destined for euthanasia. In some ways HIV and its subsequent drug testing saved these chimps. Ironic, huh?

Even more ironic is that for all their suffering and all the expense to the drug companies and the public, the various drug testing hasn’t really yielded any viable, usable results. Putting my bleeding heart and moral outrage aside, there’s not really anything life-changing or life-saving to justify the past decades of testing and cruelty.

But I’m getting too heavy.

The book contains some moments that were, if not outright funny, that warranted a wry smile. Say, for example, how two chimps tag-teamed to thwart efforts to get them to do what the handlers wanted. One would step outside to receive the treats on offer to coax them outside so they could shut off an area. Then they’d duck inside and the other would take their place. Ergo, neither the handlers could never get the two of them outside at once in order to close the door.

Sorry, but I’m going to get heavy again because I can’t not blog about the moment that most moved me most of all.

I was nearing the end of the book. I’d just that day recommended it to yet another friend, imploring them to read it and promising earnestly that it’s not nearly as sad and heart-wrenching as I’d expected it to be. Then, when I was on a peak-hour train so packed there were more heads in armpits than sardines in a can, I struck upon a chapter towards the end that absolutely floored me. I damn near lost the plot then and there.

I’m not going tell you what happened in the chapter both because I don’t want to ruin the (for want of a better word) surprise and because I couldn’t possibly do it justice—the chapter’s not just profoundly sad, it’s actually heart-warming and strangely hopeful. That’s the way it felt to me in my highly emotional state, anyway.

Suffice to say, I tried further burying my head in the book to cover my saltwater-weeping eyes—reading on, I figured, would see me quickly get past the sad part. It didn’t work. I tried not reading and studiously staring out the window instead. That didn’t work either, with my thoughts running rampant about what was possibly to still to come in said chapter.

Throughout all of this I had to hold me breath because I knew any inhalation was going to be one of those juddering, sob-wracked giveaways. Suffice to say my station couldn’t come soon enough.

The book includes many brilliant quotes, not least:

‘Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is: “Because the animals are like us.” Ask the experiments why it is morally OK to experiment on animals, and the answer is: “Because the animals are not like us.” Animal experimentation rests on logical contradiction.’ (Charles R. Magel)

‘By the time I turned fifty, I knew I wanted to be judged not by what I wrote in scientific journals about chimpanzees, but by what I did for them.’ (Roger Fouts, Next of Kin)

‘What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.’ (Albert Pine)

Those are what I’m considering the book’s ‘takeaways’.

There is, thankfully, a four-step list at the end of the book aptly entitled How You Can Help The Chimps—a positive outlet for the frustration and I-need-to-do-something passion it invokes. There’s also a list of further reading, which I’ll be tackling shortly. Westoll’s book has haunted me, in the best, most compelling way possible—for all its heaviness but not too-much heaviness, I can’t recommend reading his book highly enough.

Review – Sophie Scott Goes South

‘Woohoo! I’m going to Antarctica!’

Can you imagine? Hang the snow-white ice, I’m turning jungle green that this nine-year-old is in for the experience of a lifetime – something many adults would knock polar bears over for. Oh wait – make that penguins – because there are no polar bears in Antarctica, you see. Only penguins. Whales, too. And seals. And lots and lots of ice.

Young Sophie has scored big time. Her dad just happens to be the captain of the Aurora Australis – a great hulking red icebreaker of a ship that travels south to deliver supplies to Mawson Station. It takes nearly two weeks to get there, so Sophie will be away over a month. She’s so excited. And I’m excited for her!

Alison Lester has penned yet another classic picture book in Sophie Scott Goes South. Drawing from her own experiences aboard the Aurora Australis in 2005, Alison’s brand new book is not only a visual feast, it’s an information bounty, told in a diary-style format by young Sophie. Indeed, during Alison’s own 6-week voyage, she sent daily emails to schools and families around the world about her trip, and in response, children sent Alison stories and drawings which were eventually compiled into an exhibition which has toured both Australia and overseas.

An extension of this exhibition, this beautiful book contains images from the exhibition, all wrapped up in a warm journalistic story, told by a fictional girl I wish was me. From the informative photos of the icebreaker, icebergs and Antarctic scenes, to the gorgeous author-illustrations and beautiful children’s drawings, this is one enviable journey, told in a way only Alison knows how.

Threading a delightful story with stamps, diagrams, photos and notelets, this high text picture book will thoroughly engage kids – both entertaining and educating them in one fell swoop. This book is not only a delight to look at and learn from, it is one of those stories that make your pulse quicken and bring out the inherent adventurer within. I’m off to pack my parka . . .

Sophie Scott Goes South is published by Penguin.

Seen Headslapping

It took me reading less than a sentence to give myself a metaphorical headslap today. As in the kind of headslap you give yourself when you find someone’s done something you’ve kind of, almost, could have, should have thought of yourself: Julie Wilson has followed in the tradition of turning a good idea into a blog that in turn gets picked up to be a book with Seen Reading.

It evolved from her fascination with what people were reading on the train. Specifically that people reading in public ‘read and reveal’ stories: ‘Those of us around those readers often, and easily, lose ourselves in the imagined world of those readers: Who are they? Where are they coming from? Going to? Does their choice of book say anything about them?’

That premise is something I’ve blogged about before, including how e-readers are making it more difficult for voyuers like me to know what my fellow passengers are reading; that and how the mystery’s absolutely killing me. It is also the kind of thing I’ve regularly discussed but haven’t been quite clever enough to turn into a blog and then a book.

Cue headslap.

But I digress. While I wasn’t clever enough to seize and make good on the idea, Wilson has. And she’s done an excellent job of it. The blog is updated regularly. The book which has emerged from it contains microfiction based on the person she’s seen reading. The microfiction itself is faced by a short bio of the reader.

Wilson’s bio made me chuckle: ‘This space will change often because Julie can’t make up her minds.’ The summary, which is likely to change given her all-too-familiar-to-me inability not to keep tinkering with her bio is that she’s an experienced industry professional, working in marketing for a publishing house’s website, hosts another, blogs as ‘The Book Madam’, and has written for a bunch of esteemed magazines we’d all recognise. Ergo, she has the skills and the knowledge to make Seen Reading a success.

Say, for example, how she’s utilising social media to get people involved and contributing. Her How To Be A Literary Voyeur page outlines how to do this, coincidentally listing the book I’ve just read and intend to blog about on this site in coming days:

‘Vancouver. SFU. Woman, mid 20s, wearing blue hoodie. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll. (@chimpsoffauna) #seenreading (131 characters)’

It follows, as she explains, a simple formula:

‘The formula is simple: [where] + [what the book is] + [who the book is by, along with @writer or @publisher mention if you know them] + [#seenreading hashtag].’

If you’re keen, you can follow Wilson at @SeenReading or contributing using the #seenreading hashtag.

I will be. Once I’ve slapped my forehead some more.

Modelling for Trudi Canavan

Guess what? I’m Tayend in Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy. No, really… I am! I’m not making this up. I really am him. Well… sort of. Let me explain.

You see, as well as being a world famous, best-selling author, Trudi also happens to be an artist — and a rather good one at that. And when she needed volunteers to pose for her, I, of course, stuck up my hand.

It all began last year when Trudi embarked upon a secret project. Stage 1 was to make some magicians robes (see: “The Sekrit Projekt: Stage One”). Then in December last year, she revealed Stages 2 and 3. (see “The Sekrit Projekt: Stage Two” and “The Sekrit Projekt: Stage Three”) She photographed people wearing those robes to use as reference material for a series of illustrations. She is now making these illustrations available on her website as monthly calendar images to use as computer wallpaper. So, if you’re a fan of Trudi’s books, I’d highly recommend heading over to her website and collecting these calendar pages.

I feel rather special because she took some of the reference photos at my place (in the library of course), and used me and a mutual friend (Medge) as models. Medge got to be Lord Dannyl and I was Tayend. At least we were for this illo, which is the calendar image for May

Pretty cool, heh?

We actually posed for a heap of reference shots as various different characters. I believe that I may also have ended at as Dorrien in one of the other illustrations. 🙂 Wanna see some more pics? Of course you do…

It was a rather fun afternoon of dressing up and playing let’s pretend while hamming it up for Trudi’s camera. Of course, it also means that I can now lay claim to the character of Tayend. For he is me and I is him! 😉

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter


Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

Latest Post: Blu-ray Review — Sherlock: Complete Series One and Two





Five Very Bookish Questions with author/illustrator Gus Gordon

Which genre of children’s books do you like most and why?

Picture books are my favourite genre because there is so much going on. There are so many layers of story – in the visuals and the narrative and I enjoy the challenge of making it work in order to marry the two as seamlessly as possible. I like that there can be something for everybody – old or young. I also love picture books for their ability to tell a good story with rich, affective illustrations, sometimes with no words at all. Shaun Tan’s book The Arrival is a good example of the power of clever storytelling through strong visuals.

I am particularly attracted to well written picture books that are just plain funny – the nonsensical the better. Mr. Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs is off-the-wall in terms of silliness and the illustrations amplify the wonderful oddness of the whole thing. It’s deceptively clever and Leigh is a master of this type of book. Intelligent, funny picture books never get the credit they deserve.

Which books did you love to read as a young child?

1. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
2. Harry The Dirty Dog by Gene Zion
3. Everything by Roald Dahl
4. Busy, Busy World by Richard Scarry
5. The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien

Which three attributes make for a great children’s book?

1. For me the story has to start well; with a bang or a promise that the book is going to be a great book. The opening line (especially in a picture book) or paragraph has got to say to the reader ‘you’re going to love this book!’ Otherwise, what’s the point.

Oliver Jeffers’ opening line from his picture book Lost and Found is a good example. It begins ‘Once there was a boy and one day he found a penguin at his door.’ It asks so many questions – we have to find out what happens. Another is Tomi Ungerers’ book Adelaide. It begins: ‘Adelaide’s parents were surprised when they saw that their daughter Adelaide had wings.’ Brilliant – I’m in!

2. Well-rounded, strong character/s. The character needs to be believable, memorable and interesting if the reader is going to give them their time and invest in the story. Olivia by Ian Falconer is a great character that kids can relate to. They love her inquisitiveness and her naughty side. Plus she is interesting to look at which always helps.

3. Respect for the reader. I have trouble with books that hand feed everything to the reader, not allowing them to piece the story together themselves – spelling every detail out. It’s insulting. The reader feels much more involved in the story when they are able to form their own visuals and own summations of what they are reading. There is a greater sense of gratification for the reader when they have worked for their meal. They empathise better with the books’ characters and their journeys. They then feel more committed to turning the page.

What is your number one tip for encouraging children to read?

Aside from reading to them, I would say ‘be seen reading.’ Children grow up mimicking their parents and if both parents read there is a greater chance that their children will want to read too. Makes sense to me anyway.

5. Name three books you wish you’d written.

1. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

2. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

3. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

About Gus

Gus Gordon is an author and illustrator based in Sydney Australia. He has written and illustrated over 70 books for children. His picture book, Wendy, about a motorcycle riding stunt chicken, was selected as a Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Notable Book in the 2010 Book of the Year Awards. His new picture book, recently sold to the US and due out in Australia in September, is called Herman and Rosie.

A life in words – Jennifer Miller on writing The Year of the Gadfly

Jennifer Miller’s novel, The Year of the Gadfly, is a hard to pin down. With a teenage protagonist who chats with the chain-smoking ghost of Edward R. Murrow, prep-school rules and secret societies, love stories and mysteries, and asides into extreme micro-biology and the personal and public ethics of journalism, it’s an unusual read.

And that was just how she intended when writing  it. “In my mind, the Year of the Gadfly goes across genres. It’s good for adults, mature teens, people who like coming of age stories, mysteries, campus novels. I hate how everything in publishing these days is relegated to particular genre or shelf – especially in the adult/YA world.”

In The Year of the Gadfly teenage reporter Iris Dupont and failed microbiologist-turned-biology-teacher Jonah Kaplan both embark on their own private investigation into a secret society operating in their prestigious private school. What they uncover challenges their school, their town and their own minds. Like most novels, not all of the events in the novel are purely fictional as several situations draw on events in Jennifer’s own life. “I was selective about which personal details I included. For example, while Justin Kaplan is closely based on my high school boyfriend Ben (he was killed in a car accident the summer before our senior year), I made Justin’s parents into unique characters. I wanted Gadfly to be a tribute and honor to Ben, but I also wanted to protect his parents’ feelings.”

Journalism and a decidication to uncovering the truth play a big part in the novel, with deceased American journalist Edward R. Murrow providing (disembodied) perspective. Jennifer found that mixing a real historical figure in with her characters wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine. “I did quite a lot of research to bring Murrow to life. I didn’t have any trouble inventing his dialogue, though I’m sure that would have been much more complicated, had he been a central character. I did want to stay true to his world view and personal history. For this reason, Iris learns some unsavory details about Murrow’s life–like his marital infidelities.”

This is Jennifer’s first published novel but she’s no stranger to seeing her words in print – she has a background as journalist and non-fiction writer. “Reporting allows me to meet people and visit places I never would have the chance to otherwise. It also lets me understand how different types of people think and feel and speak. All of these things help me create stronger, more well-rounded characters in my fiction.”

While journalism is a big part of her life, she has always wanted to write fiction. “I love the creativity involved in creating specific images and feeling simply by putting words on the page. I love language–particularly the sound of words. I also love creating a unique world out of thin air. I think writing fiction is a little bit like acting. As the author, you have to inhabit different characters and try to see the world through their eyes–and speak like them, which isn’t easy. But it’s so rewarding when you do it well. You’re tricking readers (and yourself) in believing that fictions exist. How much fun is that!”

In addition to her background as a journalist, Jennifer had her studies to draw on when she was writing the book; she completed Master in Fine Arts at Columbia while she was working on the drafts of Gadfly. She found it hugely useful, but not indispenasable, as she worked her way through the process of getting the book to a publishable story. “The MFA introduced me to amazing fellow writers, who are now some of my closest friends and supporters. I’d say those relationships are much more important than anything I got out of the program on a craft level. Not that the classes weren’t helpful, but I found it really difficult to workshop a novel (as opposed to short stories, which is the trend).”
Jennifer’s advice to other writers? Don’t give up. “Novel writing is a marathon, not a race. Gadfly took me seven years and countless drafts to write. There were a number of times when I almost gave up, because I was frustrated or felt daunted or was convinced the book would never sell. If you truly stick with your project, I think you much more likely to achieve success (or at least publication)!”

The Year of the Gadfly will be released on the 23rd of May.

Digital Street Papers: Inspiring Change

Print newspapers’ decline has been well documented, as has their mad scramble to replicate and monetise the model online. That’s not to say that many people beyond the industry have been losing sleep over the digitisation-meets-modernisation-meets-monetisation issue.

In fact, (and I’m paraphrasing here) a Twitter retort to Rupert Murdoch’s tweet that bemoaned why he received nought but antagonism via Twitter—‘Why does everyone hate me?’—summed it up nicely. The clever tweeter explained: ‘I tend to find that one reaps what one sows’.

What’s lesser thought of, though, and what should be worried about is how print papers’ decline affects street papers. For those of you not familiar with them, street papers such as The Big Issue (TBI) represent a ‘hand up, not a hand out’ for homeless and marginalised people. They buy the street papers and half of the sale price goes to them (here in Australia TBI is $5.00, so $2.50 of every sale helps a homeless or marginalised person earn a living).

Print paper extinction (which is likely where industry is heading) puts these vendors in a precarious position. How do they enable street paper vendors to sell an online version of their paper? How does the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) (AKA the world org of street papers, of which TBI is a member) make available and monetise street papers in order to continue giving people who are already struggling a chance to work and improve their lives?

The good news is that street paper sales aren’t plummeting in the same way ‘traditional’ newspapers’ are (in fact, TBI Australia has reported solid and even increased circulation in recent years). The reality is, though, that the smartphone-equipped world’s moving largely online. For this reason, street papers need to a proactive part of this. But how and what to do?

The answer, it seems, is what INSP are calling a digital street paper (#digistreetpapers if you’re on Twitter and so inclined to tweet about it). It’s a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, best explained by the video on this here good website.

In essence, customers purchase the digital paper from a vendor and access it via scanning or typing in a QR code. What follows is a customised thank-you message from the vendor, which I absolutely love and which offers a personal connection and a humanising touch to the sale—something equally as important as the sales transaction itself. The digital paper commences on the next screen, ergo you can read the paper however and wherever you are, e.g. on your smartphone on the train.

Now, I should issue a disclaimer that although I don’t work for either INSP or TBI, I have a lot to do with them: I’ve volunteered for the former and I’ve written for the latter and I’m a huge fan of their programs (INSP’s motto is ‘INSPiring change’).

I should also say that this website is asking for funds to help them get the concept off the ground. I’m not trying to push you to donate (although you are, of course, welcome to if the idea appeals), but I am asking you to have a good look through the site in its entirety and to spread the word.

Digital street papers are a quality concept and one the INSP team have spent years refining. I’m, frankly, impressed that they’ve come up with a simple, effective, still-personal answer to the problem not even the bigger end of the publishing town have been able to: how to make and monetise the move to the modern, digital age.

Review – The Emperor’s New Clothes Horse

Fortunate is the author who happens to have a book illustrated by the über talented Sue deGennaro. What I love about Sue’s work is that she takes risks and uses so many varying styles and mediums – it’s like opening a beautifully-wrapped present every time you spy her name on a cover.

These striking illustrations were an absolute joy to meander through. Featuring a 1920s-Pinocchio-come-Swiss-Alps-come-Italianesque style (yes, I am taking creative license on my presumed illustration-inspiration!), the delicate shapes, lines and colours deGennaro uses are absolutely scrumptious.

But what of the story?

Happily, Tony Wilson has penned a fabulous story that no doubt provided such illustration inspiration. In his story, we meet a horse racing emperor who is so good at racing horses, he’s won every single race except the Cristobel Cup. Sending his royal trainers on a grand hunt to find a horse capable of the Cup, the Emperor is charmed by some ‘international’ trainers who wear fancy hats and smile a lot.


The trainers (who appear to have been heftily trained in psychological warfare) warn the Emperor – ‘This is a very magical horse.’ Indeed. It would have to be, being that it’s made of wood, and is designed to hang damp clothes on.

The moment when young Frankie the stablehand goes to mention his mum has one of those in her laundry is laugh-out-loud funny. Watching the clothes horse train for the big race is laugh-out-loud funny. But the last line of the book – post-race – is beyond that. It’s spurt-your-coffee funny.

I love this book. I love the tone, the humour, the voice, the images. I’m also absolutely loving the page layout. Obviously reluctant to place a single comma into the striking landscapes of deGennaro’s work, text columns down the page edges provide the perfect spot for wordage, while smiling eyes can scan the imagery, completely unfettered. Brilliant.

A must-have for any picture book lover. And get one for the kids, too.

The Emperor’s New Clothes Horse is published by Scholastic.

The Love Quadrangle

AscendHaving not known that the ultimate book in Amanda Hocking’s self-published, now-publisher-published best-selling trilogy wasn’t yet available, I awaited its release with postman-stalking obsession.

I wasn’t sure who was more relieved when it finally arrived—me or the postman I’d been shaking down for days—so I’m a little disappointed to say that although Ascend was good, it wasn’t as great as I’d salivatingly anticipated it would be.

The book opens with the queen near death and Wendy, the queen to be, effectively running the show. Hanging over everyone’s heads is the knowledge that as soon as the queen carks it, Wendy will be coronated.

Apart from providing her with a fancy crown, her coronation will mean that the peace treaty, which promises that the Vittra won’t attack the Trylle kingdom until Wendy is queen, will be rendered null and void. Oh, and in the opening chapters Wendy and Tove get married.

Still with me?

There’s not a lot I want to write about the book, which spends almost its entirety puzzling over how prevent the Trylle being slaughtered after the dissolution of the treaty. Sure, they needed to build up to the climax, but I had the same reaction I did to tediously long third book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy: Are we there yet? Hurry up, already.

Perhaps the plot point that proved my stumbling point—and here I’m issuing an absolutely massive, couldn’t-be-any-bigger spoiler alert—is that I didn’t think Hocking quite get the love triangle right. Ergo, Wendy ends up with the wrong guy.

The Vampire DiariesThe thing that makes love triangles so appealing is their constant push–pull. In any given moment on any given day, the object of the love (in this case Wendy) is supposed to lean towards one and then the other guy. You can see that hugely in modern-day, pop-culture equivalents Twilight (Bella, Edward, and Jacob) and The Vampire Diaries (Elena, Stefan, and Damon).

The love triangle should go like this: The female lead falls in love with the first-named guy, but there’s always the Plan-B-could-almost-be-Plan-A guy waiting in the wings. The moment Plan A’s out of the picture—most likely on mis-directed, self-flagellating banishments to keep her out of danger—she starts to see Plan B in a new light and he morphs into Plan A. Then the original Plan A returns. Tension ensues over which lover she’ll choose. The original Plan A invariably wins, but it’s always a tenuous, temporary victory. Then the whole thing is reset and replays.

I’m all for reinventing the love triangle, and kudos to Hocking for trying. Her whole love quadrangle thing was an interesting twist, courtesy of having Wendy marry not just a guy she didn’t love but a guy who would never love her because he was gay.

The problem is that I don’t think it ever 100% rang true and, having set it up as the thing that absolutely had to happen in order to save the kingdom, Hocking suddenly discarded it. How could she have Wendy divorce Tove when the only reason she married him was to avert a power struggle and to marry their genetics in order to save the Trylle race? Why couldn’t they stay married and sneak around with the ones they truly loved?

Which brings me to the Finn and Loki issue. It’s not that I didn’t like Loki, because I did and I do. But Hocking spent the first two books setting Finn up as Plan A. Then she ditched him without warning, good reason, or dramatic tension when it got to book three. It’s ok that Wendy developed feelings for Loki, but she completely un-developed feelings for Finn, which isn’t.

Hocking lost me when she broke the love triangle. The book’s dramatic tension slackened and I, frankly, got my grump on. It’s unfair to make me, as the reader, care about a character for two books and then try to make me un-care and accept an interloping lover in book three.

It would be like Stephenie Meyer replacing Edward without warning and no more than a shrug. It would then be like her closing the door on him reclaiming his original crown of Plan A. We like Jacob, but we love and have come to better know Edward—no matter what happens, Bella without Edward in some capacity (even as a dodgy CGI ghost chasing her on a motorbike) doesn’t quite work.

Likewise, without reading too much into it (which I clearly did), I think Wendy ending up with Loki sent the wrong message. That is, despite saying for two books that class rules need to be broken and a royal can fall in love with and marry a commoner, Hocking inadvertently ended up saying that bluebloods and commoners don’t get a happily ever after together.

I say bring back the tried-and-true, love-conquers-all love triangle.

Mid-month round-up – the health and long life edition

As winter draws in and the evenings get colder I find cooking more alluring. Slaving over a hot stove – so very unappealing in Sydney’s sticky-hot summers – becomes much more enticing as a way both to keep warm and to get a good meal in. And, having just discovered the farmer’s markets up the road, I’ve decided to try my hand at making the best of the autumn harvest produce. Unfortunately I’m not really sure what naturally peaks down under in the Autumn (Easter eggs?) so I’ve picked up a copy of Belinda Jeffery’s Country Cookbook to inform me and inspire me on how to whip up that seasonal fruit and veg.

Before you think I have gone all Nigella on you, I have to admit that I have being taking inspiration from the sumptuous pictures (if Belinda decides to stop cooking, she’ll easily be able to make a living as a photographer) and the suggested monthly highlighted produce more than whipping up a 3 course dinner to spec nightly. Much like fashion trends, cookery tends to work better for me as a concept than in actual practice, especially baking – I did once, accidentally, managed to make a pretty convincing replica of the Discworld’s dwarven battle muffins. But while some of the recipes will certainly suit those with sweet teeth, it’s also inspired me to whip up more than a few stews, soups and casseroles from scratch, which has to be a little healthier than my normal method if warming myself through the winter with hot ports and chocolate.

The Country Cookbook: Seasonal Jottings and Recipes

Keeping with the theme of eating plenty of good food and living well, Good Health in the 21st Century by Carole Hungerford has also been prodding me to overhaul a diet that had become a bit over-reliant on grabbing pre-prepared and fast food. Carole is a family doctor and in this book she applies her years of learning and practise to give readers her perspective on how we can stay healthier for longer. We’re always interested in their opinions as soon as we become ill but doctors don’t get to interact much with what is the ideal outcome of their profession – healthy people.

It pretty much boils down to one simple point – eat better food, and more variety of it. The book meld recent studies and research on diet and nutrition with a no-nonsense approach to getting your hands on it easily through eating well and heartily.  An organic apple a day is unlikely, by itself, to keep the doctor away but Dr Hungerford suggests that diet rich in the minerals, vitamins, and essential fatty acids that normally occur in a wide-ranging diet will do a lot of work needed to keep us out of the doctor’s waiting room and in good health.  She addresses subjects including asthma, arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mental health and neurological disorders, and – while I am not suggesting that every single thing in it is correct as I am, of course, not a doctor – it’s an engaging read that provides a good prod to those of us with good intentions regarding food often ruined by having the local takeaway on speed-dial.

Good Health in the 21st Century

Speaking of good health and a long life, I’ve also been enjoying Joanna Lumley’s photo-scrapbook and memoir, Absolutely. Much like Country Cookbook, Absolutely is a visual feast of photographs as well as words. Joanna describers herself as a hoarder of all things personal and memorabilia and thanks to this habit she has pictures of her family and herself in her every incarnation, from growing up in Kashmir and Kent, to her time as a model in the Swinging Sixties and her many memorable roles. She’s been a Bond girl, fought crime as Purdey in the New Avengers and, along with Jennifer Saunders, re-defined the phrase sweetie-darling as the unforgettable Patsy Stone, and looked absolutely fabulous throughout.

While it’s tempting to just flick through the pictures, it would be a shame to miss the linking text; Joanna’s writing is – much like her – stylish, welcoming, whimsical and possessed of a self-deprecatory sense of humour and perspective normally absent in celebrity memoirs. I’d quite like to be Joanna Lumley when I grow up, although I occasionally worry with my current diet and hobbies, I am more likely to end up resembling Patsy Stone. Well, whatever of the healthy eating and sylph-like figures at least we have the hoarding in common – I bet she can’t throw out books either.

Pryor’s Gold

Last year I finally got around to reading and reviewing the first book in Michael Pryor’s The Laws of Magic — a rather splendid YA blend of steampunk and magic called Blaze of Glory. Earlier this year I read the second book, Heart of Gold, and now it’s time to tell you about it.

Heart of Gold continues the adventures of Aubrey Fitzwilliam, teenaged son of Albion’s Prime Minister. He is resourceful, magically talented, a touch on the arrogant side and with a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time. Together with his best friend George, he sets off on a holiday to the Gallian capital of Lutetia. Although the journey has been partly inspired by the prospect of visiting Caroline Hepworth (the object of his affections), who is studying in Lutetia, it soon turns into a series of errands for other people. But with the looming threat of war, political intrigues and espionage are not far away. It seems that a quiet holiday is the last thing that Aubrey and George are going to get.

In my review of Blaze of Glory I waxed lyrical about Pryor’s use of language, his wonderfully detailed and original setting and his intriguing characters. Heart of Gold takes these things and runs with them. It is exciting and thoughtful and a joy to read. I particularly like the fact that Aubrey has a serious lapse of judgment in his dealings with Caroline. His behaviour is extremely selfish and unlikeable. And yet he is still, overall, a likeable character. It is a nice touch in the humanisation of Aubrey.

What particularly struck me when reading this book, is the epic quality of the greater story. You see, like the Harry Potter books, these novels are each individual stories that come together to create a greater whole. Reading Heart of Gold I could see the seeds of future plots. The villain was revealed in the first book, as were his goals… and you can see his influence all through the events of this book, even though he is not physically there.

I’m only two books in to this six-book series, but I can feel the excitement mounting. I can’t wait to find out what happens next. But I can also sense the upcoming loss. After two books I have become emotionally invested in the characters… and I know that their journeys will conclude in just four books time.

Reading a great series of books can be such a bittersweet experience.

And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter


Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

Latest Post: WINNERS — Doctor Who: The Daemons





Review – Meet Snuggle Pot and Cuddlepie

So lovely to see classic characters from a classic Aussie author, consistently revised and updated and brought into the current kid consciousness. And how can anyone resist these adorable May Gibbs icons – let alone kids?

This large format, hard cover book opens with a wallpaper of character endpapers, then introduces the reader to Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, high in a gum tree, resplendent in their gumnut hats and loin cloth leaves.

Through the book, readers will be treated to an abridged version of the tale, introducing us to Mrs Kookaburra, Mr Lizard, Ragged Blossom and a trapped possum, who needs help from his new friends.

Minimal text makes this an introduction children aged 2 and up can thoroughly enjoy – and Gibbs’ gorgeous images have been zoomed in on and enlarged – with each image washing over double page spreads. I love how the book ends with a beginning – ‘And so began the adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie … ‘

Meet Snuggle Pot and Cuddlepie is published by Scholastic Australia.

Cramming for book club

It’s Friday night and you know what that means – it’s book club night!

Well, book and wine club. As I discovered last time, the first rule of book club is that you are totally allowed to talk about book club, provided you bring some wine. So while I might not be donning a micro-mini and stilettos and painting the town red this Friday night, I can assure you there will be enough drinking, carousing and lively debate committed while wiggling a wine glass for emphasis to ensure we start the weekend in proper order.

I have actually done my homework too. I have to admit, I nearly faked reading this month’s pick, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. It’s not that I didn’t like the sound of it; I do like Atwood‘s writing and had read this book a few years ago. But when I went to find my copy in the labyrinthine depths of my amazingly over-stuffed book shelves I discovered, much to my annoyance, that it must have been lost in one of my moves. Well, that or my books have turned cannibal.

I figured I’d probably get away without reading it – I mean, in order to have it go missing from my shelves, I must have read it after I moved to Australia. So that means it has to have happened in the last six years and even my memory isn’t that useless. I figured I could just read a synopsis to refresh my memory a bit. No worries.

That illusion lasted until about page 30 or so of the 600+ page book. So, there’s sisters, Iris and Laura. Oh, one dead sister. Right, I think I remember that. And some newspaper articles about them. Hmm. Oh, a button factory, this seems kinda familiar. And a story in a story. And aliens. Wait, medieval aliens from Planet Zycron. Wait, medieval human aliens who use child slavery to make rugs and sacrifice mute girls to gods they don’t even believe in…

…I have no idea what the hell this book is about. Darn. I’m going to need to re-read the whole thing.

So, with just a day to go, I have been cramming. In a move a bit reminiscent of my college days (“the exam is on Wednesday? I’ll study Wednesday”) I have been snatching every moment I have spare to re-read. It’s a bit alarming that a book – a book that I remember enjoying – can slide so neatly and completed out of my head. It’s a little disheartening that my brain so readily gives up the entire plot of book that won the 2000 Booker Prize but hangs on with grim determination to the lyrics of The Chicken Song by Spitting Image. (Don’t click that, or as the song warns you, you’ll be humming it for weeks.)

Attempting to cram my brain with culture has been reasonably successful – I know the plot! Ish! – but a large part of me mourns the fact that I couldn’t get stuck into my copy of World War Z, which has been burning a hole in my ereader for 2 weeks now. I hope the rest of book club appreciate my last-minute efforts more than my lecturers did. At least with the book club I’m actually allowed to bribe them with wine if they don’t.

Top 10 Fiction Opening Lines

Pride and PrejudiceTop 10 lists are controversial, guaranteed to please some people and attract the ire of others, while ultimately proving utterly irresistible. I don’t know why we need to come up with top-10 lists. Try as I might to refuse to click on links to them, my twitching mouse finger and my need to know overcome me every. single. time.

The Guardian’s 10 Best First Lines in Fiction proved particularly irresistible, and my thoughts ran rampant before I’d even called up my fine motor skills to hover the mouse above the hyperlink and depress the button.

I immediately thought Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ If that’s not in there, I thought, I’m going to start a riot.

A one-person riot was thankfully avoided, with Austen’s esteemed, oft-co-opted opener making the cut. Or, as The Guardian more silkily put it: ‘The one everyone knows (and quotes). Parodied, spoofed, and misremembered, Austen’s celebrated zinger remains the archetypal First Line for an archetypal tale.’

The Guardian arguably cheated, giving a secondary option for every one that made the list. That technically takes the opening-lines tally to 20, but I’m not complaining.

The Secret HistoryThey include Mark Twain there, but I much rather the secondary option in his case, which is JD Salinger’s opening for The Catcher in the Rye: ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like … and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’

Call me slow, but I still don’t hugely get this confusingly long first sentence by James Joyce: ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’ It may explain also why I’ve never been able to tackle any of his great tomes.

Charlotte Bronte’s ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’ is much more my preferred style: concise, direct, curiosity-piquing and, subsequently, impossible to ignore.

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar makes an appearance with: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ I have to admit I hadn’t thought of it for the list, but think it’s inclusion is definitely warranted—marrying the lightness of summer with the darkness of death in an off-hand, understated manner is genius on the page.

The Bell JarNor had I thought of Donna Tartt’s: ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.’ But I did a metaphorical high-five when I saw it—The Secret History is, for fear of sounding trite and hyperbolic, one of those books that changes your life.

I must confess that I’ve read nought of PG Wodehouse’s books and know next to nothing about them (mostly because I’ve always, clearly wrongly, assumed that with a name like ‘PG Wodehouse’, his books were likely to be serious and stuffy). But I plan to change that based on this masterpiece: ‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.’

I’ve got to say that some of these top-10 openers are indeed a bit old and (in my humble opinion) a bit wanky. But I also recognise that I’m not perhaps The Guardian’s primary reading demographic and that not every list has to please me every time. I wouldn’t mind seeing The Guardian’s list of 10 best modern literary opening lines, though. If I had to hazard a guess at an entry, I’d say that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood would surely be in there …

Five Very Bookish Questions with author Tania Cox

Which genre of children’s books do you like most and why?

I just love children’s picture books. I love the way the words and pictures are read together to tell the story. Every word must count and not be there merely for decoration. Love it! One of my favourite picture books is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak which I discovered when I was about six. I love every word in this book and its timelessness. Another of my favourites is Wombat Divine by Mem Fox which I discovered when I was in my twenties. Wombat is one of the most lovable characters I’ve ever met in a book.

Which books did you love to read as a young child?

Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the Dr Seuss books, especially Yertle the Turtle. I would borrow these books quite a lot from the school library and my mother would complain, “Not again!” Now of course, I have my own copies of these books.

Which three attributes make for a great children’s book?

I believe in emotion, suspense and humour, for example – Where the Wild Things Are.

What is your number one tip for encouraging children to read?

Read books with topics that interest you.

Name three books you wish you’d written.

Where the Wild Things Are, Wombat Divine and Goodnight Moon.

About Tania

My sixth grade teacher gave the class an assignment of creating a picture book. I loved  the entire process. The seed of being a writer was planted there but I only started writing seriously in my mid twenties. I spent about four years doing external writing courses. After I’d finished, I was extremely fortunate to be mentored by the wonderful Ann James. My new books released this year are With Nan, Millie’s Special Something, What Makes My Mum Happy and What Makes My Dad Happy.


Revisiting Harry

You may remember me blogging about the Harry Potter books and telling you how I read them all out loud to my wife (see “Life after Harry, part 1”). Ever since then, I have looked forward to the day I could share these books with my daughters. And now that time has come… at least for Daughter #1.

Nykita is now nine years old. Despite repeated offers to read her the books over the last couple of years, she has been rather disinterested. Things changed when her class started to read the first book during fruit breaks at school. Suddenly she was interested. But they were going too slowly, with a half chapter a day, at most — often reading as little as a page or two, and sometimes nothing at all because things got too busy. Suddenly, the prospect of me reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to her didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

And so I read her the book. She was so interested and so excited by it that we ended up flying through it in just over a week. “I didn’t think it would be my kind of book,” she told me one evening. “But I was wrong. It’s great!”

They are still only about a quarter of the way through in her class. But she’s enjoying it all over again.

Having finished that first book, we followed it up with the film. Verdict: “It was okay.” It seems that she preferred the book. In fact, she enjoyed it so much that she is now re-reading it herself.

Reading it again after all these years has been an interesting experience for me. I had forgotten just how much I enjoyed it — the characters, the concepts, the world and the plot, which is very much a set-up for the epic events to follow. But the flaws also stood out. The rather unbalanced deduction of house points for instance, with more points being taken off for a nocturnal wander than for an attempt to confront a troll (the latter putting lives in danger). And then there is that rather ridiculous detention where students are sent out into the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid on a dangerous mission — a rather irresponsible thing to do to the students, especially since it was established earlier that the forest was strictly off limits to students. And then to make matters worse, in the middle of the dangerous environment, Hagrid makes them split up. It is completely out of character for Hagrid to put the students into such enormous danger.

But this was JK’s first novel, and given how good the rest of it is, I’m will to cut her a little slack on these points. 🙂

It was also interesting to watch the film version immediately upon finishing the book. This proximity highlights the film’s weaknesses — the nuances it leaves out and how poorly it depicts the passage of time. But then the film also adds many interesting visual elements — the delivery of Harry’s initial letters at the Dursley’s by owls; the way Voldemort passes through Harry in the climactic moments. These things, dare I say, actually improve on the original source material. And this film is also so perfectly cast — not just the main characters, but the minor ones like Argus Filch.

Nykita and I have now begun Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I’ll report back when we’ve finished.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter


Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

Latest Post: DVD Review + Giveaway — Doctor Who: The Face of Evil





The Internet Is For Porn

The Art of ImmersionThe internet is for porn—there’s even a song about it. Sung, no less, than by child-like puppets disconcertingly addressing extremely adult themes.

There is, of course, Bookshelf Porn, which I’ve blogged about previously and obsess over daily. But I’ve now stumbled on a site that will enable me to get a double dose: Book Cover Archive.

The site is, as it states, and archive of book cover designs and designers dedicated to the appreciation and categorisation of excellence in book cover design. That’s a bunch of words that really means it’s a site dedicated to book cover porn. And porn it is, with the homepage a breathtaking layout of book cover panels guaranteed to set any booklover’s heart racing.

I’ve had the Book Cover Archive open on my laptop for days and my appreciation for book cover design genius as a whole has reached new levels.

Ugly ManHow greatly simple and powerfully effective, for example, is the Ugly Man cucumber cover?! Who isn’t mesmerised by The Art of Immersion, the cover art that, like those cryptic 3-D puzzles you used to stare at as a kid, reveal more the longer you look at it?!

And whose mind on seeing The War on Words doesn’t whirr off in a million thoughts about the clever intersection of newspaper print, puns, and typography?! I also really love the haunting, show-don’t-tell simplicity of The Ethics of Interrogation.

The beauty of this site’s design is immediately apparent—the crisp, simple header gets out of the away of the site’s real stars: the book covers. But its thoughtful, subtle design is something you appreciate more as you spend time on there.

Each book cover image links to a page containing all the information (and links) you could ever hope for: the author, the publisher, publication date, designer, genre. Each of those enables you to drill down and sort by the one you prefer.

There’s also a small, non-intrusive link to purchasing the book via Amazon if you so desire (which I so don’t), and about which the site’s owners are completely transparent: ‘Amazon sends us a small commission for purchases made by way of The Book Cover Archive. We hope you don’t mind and appreciate your support.’

Who’d possibly begrudge them early a few cents (and it will be only a few cents—we are talking Amazon) after a kindly note like that? Well, me actually. I appreciate their sentiment and it’s nothing personal, but I’ll still be buying the books from this Australian-owned, carbon-neutral bookstore.

The War on WordsThere are other fantastic finds in what’s effectively the site map at the bottom. In addition to the standard social media and newsletter sign-up options, you find out who’s behind the blog and the book covers featured and can leap off onto their sites—fantasising, of course, about one day commissioning them to do work for you.

There are also links to fantastic books and websites about cover design, of which one can never have or ogle too many (in fact, be warned: this entire site is a veritable rabbit hole of book and website and design porn).

My two favourite aspects of the site, though, are the fact that they include a list of planned ‘future enhancements’ for the site and details of the font indentification.

The former outlines how the site is a work in progress, but a considered and (to borrow the word I used to describe their Amazon links) transparent one. As someone who works on websites and (painfully) understands how much goes into even the simplest of designs, I appreciate knowing where the website developers have been, where they’re heading, and especially how far they’ve come.

The Ethics of InterrogationThe latter-mentioned font identification is something that helps all of us solve that eternal question—not ‘What is the meaning of life?’ but ‘What font have they used on that book?’ I’ve committed many hours of my life that I’ll never get back on the hunt for the ever-elusive answer to that.

Which indeed reminds me that the internet is for porn. If you haven’t discovered the mindblowing-ness that is Typographica (which, now that I look closely, has an extremely similar design), I suggest you grab a coffee and buckle yourself and your internet connection in—that’s another, extremely worthy, highly addictive rabbit hole all of its own …

Review – The Coat

Once there was a coat, stuffed with straw and languishing in a field all alone. The coat is a proud coat – and it’s also angry. Angry to be nothing more than a quasi-scarecrow in a field. “What a waste of me!” it cries to the sun and the sky.

Soon, a man walks by. He becomes intrigued by the coat and when he puts it on, it’s far too big for him. Nonetheless, the coat says “splendid” and so does the man.

The coat also tells the man he wants to go to town, where the two feast on a beautiful café meal of Rare Glissandro and Bass Magnifico. Alas, they have no money to pay for the meal, but the coast insists they earn their supper by entertaining the patrons.

Donning a pair of white gloves and taking an accordion in hand, the previously totally untalented man becomes a masestro musician, his fingers flying across the keys of the accordion in a white blur.

The man and the coat play together – a feast of music that entrances the audience, and as they play, the man grows into his coat, his voice becomes richer and the colours on the book’s pages become more active, more vibrant and colourful.

This is a fable-like book, with a strange and magical feel to it. The book has no real ending, but perhaps therein lies the mystique, as the man and the coat disappear to who-knows-where, ready to weave another major musical spell.

Illustrations by the award-winning Ron Brooks are a fusion of reed pen, brush, ink and shellac on watercolour paper, making for a lustrous set of images. I particularly love the endpapers and gorgeously monochromatic earlier vignettes of both city and country.

The Coat is a picture book ideal for older readers, aged 7+. It’s published by Allen & Unwin.

Allen & Unwin gets Short-y

While I have been cocooned away in chilly Canberra studying, Allen & Unwin has been busily launching two new digital lists, mirroring recent developments at fellow digital pioneer Pan Macmillan where Momentum’s titles are already making waves on bestseller lists.

First up, early this month, Allen & Unwin shorts arrived. The Australian publisher has just published five short fiction ebooks: Charlotte Wood’s Nanoparticles (which I had already read in last year’s Get Reading anthology), Tom Keneally’s Blackberries, Alex Miller’s Manuka, Peter Temple’s Ithaca in my Mind and Christos Tsiolkas’s Sticks, Stones.

“Some of Australia’s best-loved novelists also write great short stories,” the publisher writes on its website.

“They can be hard to find, but now digital publishing offers new opportunities for short form writing.”

So true. How wonderful for authors that they can finally make money from short forms, and how equally brilliant for us that we can buy them individually rather than having to buy a whole collection.

The A&U publicity material says “For less than the price of a cup of coffee, you can download a story on the train to read on the way to work.”

This I can vouch for too. I read two Kindle Singles this week, and knocked them over in less than an hour each. A&U has prices its shorts at $1.99 each (although is offering them for $1.81 here).

Did I mention I’ve been locked away with my MacBook and a bunch of journal articles for the past couple of weeks? It’s end of semester crunch-time at university, and the research proposal for my Social reading, long form journalism and the connected ebook project was due in last week, with a presentation on it coming up this Wednesday. I mention this because it’s all about short form non-fiction ebooks. You can take a look at my slides on Prezi (a very clever zoomable presentation software program I find much more fun than PowerPoint) here.

Back at Allen & Unwin, the publicity department had just finished their teaser campaign for the shorts, when it was time to move on to promoting the next phase of their digital strategy: reviving works by classic Australian authors like my cousin Miles Franklin (OK, first cousin twice removed, but still!).

Both My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung are on the list.

A&U’s House of Books also includes classic titles by Thea Astley, Alan Marshall, Eleanor Dark, Dymphna Cusack, Katharine Susannah Pritchard, Xavier Herbert, Kylie Tennant, Marcus Clarke and Henry Handel Richardson.

The PR tagline for the list is “Good books never die in the digital age”. I’m hoping that more childhood favourites, many of which are out of print, will come back to life in this ebook era.

More recent works by Blanche d’Alpuget, Nick Earls, Andrew Riemer, Judith Armstrong and Rodney Hall are also being revived.

The first 30 titles will become available in June 2012. Additional titles will be added to the list each month thereafter. Print lovers will be able to buy physical copies via print on demand technology. The books will be listed at between $12.99 and $19.99.

Apologies for the appalling headline pun. Couldn’t resist.

Too Many Books

With a house move imminent it has become apparent that I own far too many books.

Normally I can hide the overflow with a little creativity. Packing the shelves so there is two rows of books, not one, and more on top if there’s space ? Normal practice here at Casa De Libros. Persuading myself that a stack of books on the coffee table is not a mess but vital room ornamentation? Of course. Stashing books in wardrobes,  spare bags and occasionally, when desperate, the bathroom cabinet? Well, let’s just say you’ll never find yourself caught short of a read in our house, even if you are caught short in other ways.

Even my ereader offers no respite. The darn thing is stuffed to its electronic gills with books I haven’t read yet. And the massive piles of books doesn’t deter me from getting out there and buying more. Sometimes I’ll come home and want to curl up with a book, and I’ll find I’ve nothing there I want to read. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, it is possible to have 57 bookshelves and nothing on. And the obvious solution to that? More books?

It wouldn’t be too bad if I would just get rid of them after I read them, but I part with my books with about as much enthusiasm as Clive Parker pays Carbon Tax, even if they weren’t actually any good.  I just don’t know when to junk in a bad read, let the book go and get it the hell out of my house. I have a big pile of “to finish someday” books that has been teetering on the bookcase so long the base ones are becoming fossil fuels, and I still balk at getting rid of them.

No matter how battered, how biased, how badly written and fundamentally unlovable a book, I find myself loathe to just throw it out. I feel little better about giving them away; I could donate it to hospital, but feel guilty at the idea of inflicting some of these travesties on people who are already suffering. If they’re lying there in bed unable to get the strength up to throw the offending tomes at the wall, does donating books count as a decent act or are you actively torturing people?

Of course, not all these books are actually bad books, some are just books that I didn’t like. The long, long list of books I didn’t enjoy reading includes The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Rings and over half of any 100 best books of all time lists, so I’m not setting myself up as an authority on what good writing is. I own plenty of books that – while not my particular cup of tea – I can certainly see other people enjoying. Wolf Hall, the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the 2010 Boring Sadhbh to Bits Award,  is still lurking on my shelves but I can think of a few people who’d probably adore it. Same for several biographies and countless fantasy books.

But how to give it to them? There’s always that awkward moment you think someone else is a good fit for a book you hated and you try to gift it to them and they, of course, ask why. “Did you enjoy it?” “No, I hated it. Weak characters, painfully verbose prose and a plot so unlikely it could have been written by Michael Bay in crayon. …um. But I think you will like it?”

Well, at least with the house move I have a cast-iron excuse to deflect this conversation. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book, it’s that we don’t have enough space in the new place. If that fails, I’m not sure what the answer is. Possibly more bookcases. Or perhaps I should finally give in, and move into a library.

Five Very Bookish Questions with author Adam Wallace

Which genre of children’s books do you like most and why?

This is so hard! I love different things about different genres. And reading and writing probably give me different favourites too. Oh man, what to say? I have to lean towards picture books I think, but still, oh, I can’t decide! Can I say I like children’s books as an entire genre? Two I LOVE are Huge Harold and The BFG.

Which books did you love to read as a young child?

Well, I sort of got into reading horror books quite young, but that’s probably not the answer you were after! My favourite books as a young child (before I became a bit twisted as a slightly older child) were Roald Dahl and Bill Peet books. I love how they have the underdog coming through and finding their place. And they’re funny, and brilliant, and awesome!

Which three attributes make for a great children’s book?

For me, it has to have humour. It doesn’t have to be laugh out loud funny, or slapstick type writing, but I need something that gets me grinning. The Thirteen Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths got me straight away and had me laughing out loud. The Princess Bride, book or movie, is so funny. Inconceivable!

Number 2 attribute (he he, number 2) would be to work on different levels.

Where you can read the book and take the fun and the laughs, or you can go deeper and find the message, or deeper still and find something the author may not even have known about! It can’t just be: “YOU MUST NOTICE AND LEARN OR THIS BOOK WILL BE WASTED ON YOU!” We should be able to take out of it what we will.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go! is one where although the message is blatantly obvious, the brilliance of the writing, the funny words, the amazing rhyme make you love the story and then go, “Oh. Right. Got it.”

Another great example of this are the Bill Peet books. The main character is usually an outcast, someone different, who needs to find their place in the world. But everything about these books is story and rhythm, and then there are themes to be discussed.

Atttribute number 3 would be rhythm. This can mean rhyme, but it doesn’t have to. It can be the flow of the words, or the flow of the entire story. Stargirl has amazing rhythm. It’s in prose, but it’s like the words sing to you. In rhyming rhythm, I think The Lorax is just about number one. It is brilliant.

What is your number one tip for encouraging children to read?

Make it fun. Don’t make it seem like something they have to do, and most definitely do not make them read things they don’t want to read. Kids are put off so easily, and understandably, when they are forced to read books that they just don’t like. Let them see that reading is something to enjoy, a whole new world to explore, and that the creation of that world is in their hands and mind.

Name three books you wish you’d written.

Harry Potter, for the obvious reason – I love the name Hermione and now it’s been taken – dammit!

The Princess Bride, because there are passages in that book where I have actually gasped out loud at how amazingly well written they are.

Stargirl, because it is a life-changing book housed in a touching, funny, heartwarming, brilliant story.

Adam Wallace was an engineer. Then he realised that writing books for kids was WAY more fun, so he did that instead. Some of his books are funny and inspiring (The Incredible Journey of Pete McGee), and some are just plain gross (Better Out Than In). With 20 books published, and more on the way, Adam is fast becoming a well-known name in the world of children’s books.

A small glimpse of Singapore’s literary scene

A couple of posts ago I told you about Books Actually (see: “Bookish Adventures in Singapore, part 3: Books Actually”) a bookstore I visited in Singapore, which is also a small press publisher under the imprint name of Math Paper Press. While there I bought a couple of their publications — a chapbook called My Suit and an issue of their literary journal Ceriph.

What these two publications have in common with everything else published by Math Paper Press is that they are beautifully produced. The texture of the paper, the feel of the publication, the look of the cover, the design of the interior… even the way they are presented, with a little plastic or paper sheath. They are a joy to behold.

My Suit, by Jason Wee, is the first chapbook in a series called Babette’s Feast, which publishes poetry and essays. I chose it, not knowing anything about the contents, simply because it was the first. So I came to it with no expectations or preconceptions. My Suit is a fascinating essay about life, seen through clothing. It meanders in interesting ways down unexpected paths, skipping to different points in the author’s history. It has a gentle humour and keen insight.

Writing about wearing hand-me-downs as a teenager, the author observes…

I on the other hand had the more direct (and more sceptical) intuition that teenagers are less likely to recognize the sophistication of retro and see only a boy in anachronistic clothing sent to the present future from the ridiculous past.

But there is more to this essay than just clothing. There are observations on many things, from the way Starbucks can complicate your choice of coffee, to explorations of cultural slang. He explains how, as a Chinese boy, he came to be lumbered with the epithet ‘banana’…

… someone who internalized enough Western habits and manners to be yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

Of course, it’s all brought back to clothes in the end, with an amusing story about pyjamas…

I thought that if I play it with the right sensibility, I would pass off a set of pyjamas in a dark, lightly patterned fabric for a deconstructed, unlined summer suit.

Issue three of Ceriph was a very different reading experience. Often a little too experimental for my tastes, in contained much difficult to interpret poetry and surreal micro-fiction. But there were also a couple of pieces that I really enjoyed. While Ceriph is not my cup of tea, I think it’s great that an avenue such as this exists for Singaporean authors. This issue came with two fold-out additions — one photographic, the other illustrative.

I’m pleased I picked up these two publications. They will remain in my library as souvenirs of my time in Singapore. More importantly, they have provided me with a little glimpse into that country’s literary scene.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter


Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

Latest Post: DVD Review — Sherlock Holmes in New York





Review – Pom Pom: Where Are You?

Loving any book set in Paris, but even better when an adorable little puppy dog named Pom Pom is involved.

Pom Pom lives in a tall building in the heart of Paris. Every day, Henriette and her parents, walk him down the Rue Sainte-Geneviève to the post office. Keen to see ‘more of the world’, Pom Pom one day escapes, trotting off into the great Unknown.

This is a simple story, following the journey of a wee dog as he blunders his way into limousines, onto boats, skateboards and bicycles, into baby strollers, through an art gallery and into the home of a well-meaning family who think Pom Pom is helplessly lost and lonely.

Of course, it’s not until Pom Pom realises how much he misses his own family, that he knows he must try to find his way home. Can he make it back to Henriette?

Natalie Jane Prior’s story takes the reader on a glorious romp through Paris (who ever needs an excuse?). Her delightful little character will enchant children, as he scurries around the pages of this beautiful book.

Cheryl Orsini’s absolutely divine illustrations are some of my favourite in a picture book this year. From the endpapers, through the book proper and the covers, too, her utterly whimsical illustrations are so eye-engaging, it’s a delight to turn each page and witness a new surprise.

If you’re someone who appreciates really beautiful picture books, then Pom Pom is for you.

Pom Pom: where are you? is published by Penguin/Viking.