New Release: Graham Henry: Final Word by Bob Howitt

The All Blacks’ triumphant coach Graham Henry may have retired,  but he’s got one team talk still to deliver — to rugby followers worldwide.

The success of his team would send a nation into raptures. After 24 years and five abortive World Cup campaigns, finally a coach had restored the All Blacks to the top of the rugby pedestal. He could now step down from coaching, relax and reflect on a remarkable coaching career.

But it wasn’t a career of endless success. While it started and finished in glory, along the way there were  moments of despair. At the lowest point in his career,  he almost gave it all away. An ill-fated Lions tour of  Australia, a sojourn with Wales that came horribly unstuck, a disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign … these were traumatic events that became part of the destiny of the man who now ranks as rugby’s most successful coach.

This book traces his less-than-impressive academic career, surprising considering he rose to become a headmaster; his achievements as a cricketer; the origins of his rugby coaching; and his partnership with Raewyn, who would become an international sporting coach herself.

Graham reveals the drastic measures he took to change the culture within the All Blacks and set them on the path to becoming world champions.

Written in collaboration with Bob Howitt, one of New Zealand’s most respected rugby writers.

‘It’s stimulating and challenging recalling the intricacies of your own mind, relevant to those great battles at the Rugby World Cups of 2007 and 2011, those games proving there is a very fine line between ecstasy and depression. It’s also a great pleasure and privilege to talk about the many outstanding young men who have represented the All Blacks during that time.’
— Sir Graham Henry

Buy book Final Word by Graham Henry here…

A chaste book with the naughty bits avoided or omitted …

Fifty Shades of GreyI’m pretty much standing alone among writers in saying that the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is a good thing. The general stance is that it’s poorly written commercial drivel leading the reading (and non-reading) masses astray. Me? I think the issues and opportunities are—please excuse the pun—a little more grey.

First and foremost, there’s an element of ‘why her and not me?’ in some writers’ chagrin. Nobody likes a whinger. It’s admittedly got to bite a bit when E.L. James’ writing’s so guffaw-inducing bad (my friend and fellow editor Judi makes me giggle regularly by quoting the bit about Ana’s very own ‘Christian-flavoured popsicle’). It’s got to bite a bit more when you’ve been slaving away for years at your own writing with limited success.

But it ignores the fact that there’s a lot going for Fifty Shades, not least that its success has opened others’ doors. I’ve personally been offered a number of chances to review ‘the next’ Fifty Shades book and to interview its author. Ergo, opportunities for me and opportunities for erotic fiction authors who, it should be noted, were until recently low on the (little-discussed) writing hierarchy—they’re like romance writers but considered more snicker-worthy.

Surely those writers should be grateful that James’ trilogy has ratcheted up the chance of erotic fiction writers for obtaining publishing contracts and has driven eyes and sales to the genre? And beyond the genre, for that matter—James’ own husband has scored a book deal for his crime thriller (I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered trying to find and marry an up-and-coming writer who might be able to piggyback me across the bestselling line).

Mr James’ book is apparently in no way connected to Fifty Shades, but who are we kidding? Everyone’s going to be scouring the pages for hints of his and Mrs James’ sex life (and if I were him I wouldn’t care—a book sale’s a book sale and he might even gain some readers who otherwise didn’t know they enjoyed thrillers).

The Da Vinci CodeBecause for all the ‘it’s so badly written’ grumbling, Fifty Shades has done for erotica what Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter have done for their respective genres before—they’ve got people reading and they’ve got people talking about reading.

Whether readers and critics realise it or not (and it’s the ‘or not’ that’s arguably key in the same way that parents try to ensure that kids don’t realise they’re eating green vegies), Fifty Shades has got everyone analysing the work. And then it’s set them off in search of more (hopefully better) reading material to fill the obsessive, book-devouring void.

It’s also provided a much-needed cash injection into a flailing publishing industry, inspired people to buy ebooks so as not to give their dirty reading secret away courtesy of a visible physical book cover, and lobbed previously published and soon-to-be published erotica to the fore. As far as I’m concerned, it’s win–win.

The ‘what about me?’ criticisms also dismiss the fact that Fifty Shades taps into an epic love story. Badly written as it is (as was Twilight before it), there’s something utterly irresistible about it. Self-respecting feminist I may be, even I got caught up in the fairytale-like element of a wealthy, gorgeous, troubled-but-not-without-redemption knight in shining armour sweeping her off her feet (please spare me the hate mail about how the book sets us back centuries—I know it’s imperfect).

Something else has intrigued more than all the ‘it’s rubbish’ furore, both because it’s something I was vaguely thinking about and because it was articulated much better by an author I’m not sure I am a fan of. Jodi Picoult (AKA a reasonably divisive and commercially driven, commercially successful author herself) said that James is unfairly profiting from another author’s tale and characters.

TwilightPicoult kind of has a point, although truthfully, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. Fifty Shades was explicitly created as Twilight fan fiction, ergo it seems to be fine to use the characters. But fan fiction as a whole is collaborative and something from which people don’t often profit—James’ breakout success is blurring and redefining this, potentially towards a less-open, more-greedy dynamic.

It’s tricky to know where Meyer stands on this issue too. Yes, they’re her characters, but one could convincingly argue that they’re not uniquely hers at all—they’re poorly wrought versions derived from archetypes. What is known is that she’s stayed fairly quiet on the whole issue.

On a pragmatic level, given her devout Mormon faith it’s unlikely (read: about as likely as you or me finding a real-life Christian Grey to call our own) that she’d have written a Fifty Shades or equivalent herself. In fact, you could say Fifty Shades emerged precisely because Meyer didn’t and wouldn’t give us the highly anticipated sex.

What I want to know is whether Meyer has read Fifty Shades. Because that’s the amusing part, isn’t it? A chaste book with the naughty bits avoided, omitted, or only committed in line with strict religious beliefs (AKA sex only after marriage) inspires a best-selling book that’s decidedly unchaste and that breaks all the religious rules …

REVIEW: The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

Some will know of the Irishman, Roger Casement, because of the infamous ‘Black Diaries’ in which he reputedly detailed his homosexual relationships, and which were published in the British press at the time of his imprisonment in Pentonville Prison in 1916. Some will also know that he was stripped of his Knighthood and hanged as a traitor for collaborating with the Germans against England during the First World War.

Some will know of him from William Butler Yeats’s poem, which begins: “I say that Roger Casement/ Did what he had to do/ He died upon the gallows,/ But that is nothing new”. Yeats saw him as an Irish patriot but that view was controversial, even in Ireland, and only recently has he been widely recognized as a hero of the Irish struggle for independence.

Few will know of his work in the Congo and in Amazonia, where he documented the atrocities perpetrated on the native population by colonizing powers for the sake of those valuable commodities – rubber and ivory. In both places, the reports he wrote for the British Foreign Office were instrumental in bringing about changes, and in 1911 King George V knighted him for exemplary service to the United Kingdom.

Few men rise so high: and few sink so low as to be tried for treason and end their lives on the gallows.

Mario Vargas Llosa begins his novel in Casement’s cell in Pentonville Prison, where he awaits news of his appeal against the death sentence. But the bulk of the novel is made up of his memories. First of his years in Africa, then in Brazil and Peru, and finally in Ireland.

Casement was born in Kingstown, Co. Dublin, and grew up in an Anglican family, although his mother, who died when he was nine, had been a Catholic and had secretly had him baptized as a Catholic on a holiday trip to Wales. At the age of fifteen, he joined the Elder Dempster shipping line in Liverpool as an apprentice and, in the four years that he worked for them, he made three trips to West Africa and liked it so much that he gave up his job and moved there. In 1884, he joined an expedition into the Congo led by the famous Welsh explorer, Henry Morton Stanley. This was his first experience of the mixed intentions of Europeans in the Congo: “on one hand sowing desolation and death…and on the other opening routes to commerce and evangelization”, but for the next two years he travelled extensively as an agent for the Sanford Exploring Expedition, which was developing trade throughout the Upper Congo for King Leopold II of Belgium.

During these years, Casement became increasingly disillusioned with the idealistic vision of being able “to emancipate backward and ignorant people through Christianity and Western enlightenment”. By the time he met Konrad Korzeniowski, who was newly arrived in the Congo, he was able to share with him the horrors he had seen perpetrated by Belgian government agents and by the military Force Publique employed by them to enforce order. He prepared him for the terrible experiences which Conrad would eventually write into his novel, Heart of Darkness.

In 1888, Casement resigned from his job in disgust and went to work at a Baptist Mission as a book-keeper for three months before returning to England. Already, he was arguing vehemently against the exploitation, violence and moral corruption he had seen perpetrated in the Belgian Congo Free State in the name of commerce.

In Britain, reports of atrocities in the Belgian Congo were causing public outrage. Casement had a great deal of experience in Africa and a facility for languages which allowed him to talk with some of the native peoples in the Congo. His views about the situation there were also becoming more widely known. So, in 1892, he was appointed by the British Foreign Office as Travelling Commissioner to the Niger Court Protectorate and, shortly after that, as British Consul in the Congo port town of Boma. His express task was to investigate and report on human rights abuse in the Congo Free State. He undertook this task with “apostolic zeal” and presented his report in 1904. Pressure was brought to bear on the Belgians by the British government and changes were made. Casement became an important public figure in the cause against corruption and he was made ‘Companion of St Michael and St. George’ for his services in the Congo.

Through his African experiences, however, Casement had “discovered the great lie of colonialism” and had begun to think about his own country – Ireland. He became an Irish patriot and leaned all he could about Ireland’s history, culture, mythology and language. And in 1905, he began to collaborate with the newly formed Sinn Fein. Later, after his Amazonian experiences, he return to live in Ireland and made a visit to the United States to meet John Devoy, the leader of the powerful nationalist Clan na Gael, and find support for his own Irish Volunteers.

Casement’s experiences in the Congo were repeated when he was appointed Consul General at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and began to document the conditions of labourers working on the remote Putumayo rubber plantations for the Peruvian Amazon Company. His report on these was published in Britain and was instrumental in bringing about the downfall of the PAC. And in 1911, he was awarded a Knighthood which, despite his Irish patriotism, he accepted.

Ill health, and a desire to return to Ireland made Casement resign from the British Foreign Office in 1913. From then on, he became increasingly involved in the Irish Republican movement, bringing his fanaticism for justice to the cause. At the outbreak of World War I he was convinced that a rising timed to coincide with a German attack on England was the best way for the Republicans to succeed. His negotiations in Germany, his return from there to Ireland in a German submarine to supervise the distribution of arms supplied by the Germans, his subsequent betrayal by a British spy, and his capture and imprisonment, bring Llosa’s story full circle.

Roger Casement was undoubtedly a man governed by his principles to the extent that even close British friends ultimately broke off contact with him, and many Irish friends believed he had gone too far in liaising with the Germans. The ‘Black Diaries’, purportedly written by him during his years in Africa and Amazonia, and suggesting that he had indulged in sexual perversion, paedophilia and sexual exploitation, aroused disgust in many who would have supported a petition for clemency. These diaries, and his undoubted support for the Germans and theirs for him, led to him being stripped of his Knighthood and, ultimately, being hanged as a traitor.

Mario Vargas Llosa indicates Casement’s homosexuality and love of photographing beautiful young boys, but he goes into little detail and suggests that much of  the content of the diaries was the indulgence of fantasies by a lonely man. Llosa’s graphic accounts of the atrocities in the Congo and Amazonia are hard to read; and the extremism and fanaticism of Casement himself make him a difficult man to like. However, Llosa creates a convincing picture of Casement as a man of many parts – good and bad – and he brings back into focus the many important changes that Casement’s work did achieve. Llosa rounds off his novel with a summary of Casement’s gradual acceptance in Ireland as “one of the great anti-colonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time and a sacrificial combatant for the emancipation of Ireland”. Something about which W.B.Yeats had no doubts when he wrote his poem.

Buy The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

 

Review – I Love You Book

I totally empathise with the characters in this book by well-loved author Libby Hathorn. Yes, I too love the paper smell and consistently fight the desire to take a bite from a book I truly adore. Yes books are delicious. And yes, they are lovable.

The rustle of the pages. The sound as the book shuts tight. The dreams they conjure, the magical places they take us, the short, hippety-hoppety words and the laughter and the commas, dots and question marks. Libby expresses it all in this book – so perfectly, the reader will nod in appreciation the whole way through.

Told in rhyming text, the book’s illustrations are bright, dynamic, Seussy, delight. Heath McKenzie’s divine talent shines through and he takes a flying leap into the imaginative possibility Libby has penned – and comes up with page after page of beautiful imagery both kids and adults will adore.

I love you, book.

I Love You Book is published by IP Kidz.

RIP Margaret Mahy

The very hour that I was born

I rode upon a unicorn,

When boys put tadpoles in their jars

I overflowed my tin with stars
.
Because I sing to see the sun

The little children point and run.

Because I set the caged birds free

The people close their doors to me.

Goodbye, goodbye, you world of men-

I shall not visit you again.

Margaret Mahy
The Word Witch: The Magical Verse of Margaret Mahy
(HarperCollins)

Booksellers NZ have put together a wonderful tribute which you can view at http://booksellers.co.nz

Fifty Shades a replacement for the Bible?

Wayne Bartholomew, manager of Damson Dene Hotel, Crosthwaite, has upped the eternal damnation ante considerably by replacing the Gideon Bibles in his rooms with copies of Fifty Shades of Grey as reported in the Westmorland Gazette.

“I thought it would be a special treat for our guests to find it in their bedside cabinet and that includes the men too,” Bartholomew said. “They are as desperate to get their hands on a copy as the women…. The Gideon Bible is full of references to sex and violence, although it’s written using more formal language, so James’s book is easier to read.”

Rev. Michael Woodcock, the local vicar, commented: “It is a great shame that Bibles have been removed from rooms and very inappropriate to have been replaced by an explicit erotic novel. The Bible remains a source of comfort and inspiration that many people do find helpful.”

Buy Fifty Shades of Grey here…

REVIEW: Skios by Michael Frayne

“Now he was Dr Norman Wilfred, Oliver had discovered, once the security guard had unlocked his room and broken the padlock off his suitcase for him, he had an unexpected taste for pure silk underpants and pure silk pyjamas”

But Oliver was not Dr Norman Wilfred, however much he had convinced himself and guests at the Fred Toppler Foundation House Party that he was. He was Oliver Fox, charming sociopath, master of deception, lies and seduction. And he was in the middle of the most unexpected, entertaining and complicated scam he had ever undertaken.

Michael Frayne, whose Noises Off is a theatrical masterpiece of farce, is an expert at weaving bizarre, intricate and unbelievable elements into a story in such a way that you can’t predict what will happen or how the ensuing muddle can ever be sorted out. No-one expects farce to be totally believable but it has to draw you into the chaotic world of the characters and it has to be funny. Skios succeeds on both counts and it does so delightfully. Plots may be predictable – muddled suitcases, muddled love-lives, muddled identities. Characters may be caricatures – Greek taxi-drivers, Russian oligarchs, rich Americans and middle-aged professors who are expert in obscure disciplines like ‘Scientometrics’. The situations may be unrealistic, too. But Michael Frayne handles it all so well that you suspend disbelief and get carried along by the sheer momentum, fun and mayhem which ensue.

It all starts simply enough. Dazzled by a smile, Nikki, discreet, nice, competent, efficient Nikki, PA to Mrs Fred Toppler and organizer of Foundation’s annual Great European House Party on the Greek Island of Skios, mistakenly collects the wrong man from the airport. The wrong man but the right suitcase.

Meanwhile, the right man, complete with his much travelled keynote lecture notes and the wrong suitcase, ends up at a rented villa with a strange, highly disturbed woman. The woman is Oliver’s latest amorous conquest, Georgie, who, arriving after Dr Wilfred at the villa Oliver has been lent,  unsuspectingly climbs into the mosquito-netted bed in which the professor is sleeping.

Georgie locks herself in the bathroom convinced that she is being attacked by a rapist. Dr Wilfred, unable to calm the woman and believing he is where the Toppler Foundation intended him to be, sets off to find breakfast. He gets horribly lost and as messages, mobile phones, women (a second paramour of Oliver’s turns up at the villa), taxi-drivers, suitcases and identities are lost, found, misinterpreted and misunderstood, he gets progressively more confused, bedraggled and befuddled.

Oliver, in his new identity as Dr Wilfred, and paper-clipped into his new, rather large, silk underpants, meets and totally charms the Toppler house guests, and in the course of the day is offered various patronships, partnerships, presidencies and jobs worth many million dollars a year. He is in his element. This is the life he always knew he deserved. He works his magic on Mrs.Toppler and Nikki and, reveling in the challenge, is preparing to make up his after-dinner keynote lecture as he goes along.

Frayne, whilst mixing this potent brew of mayhem, pokes fun at  human nature, at our gullibility, and at the delusions and self-dramatization in which most of us occasionally indulge.

The Fred Toppler Foundation exists to promote “civilized values” and to be “a centre of wisdom and civilization”, which, as the widowed and wealthy Mrs. Toppler sadly notes, is a passion mostly shared by people who are past retiring age. The guests, as Nikki tells Oliver, are mostly from the States. “All horribly rich, of course, or they wouldn’t be here. But awfully nice people”, and they have been coming to Skios every year since the House Party started. They spend their time in seminars “studying Minoan cooking and Early Christian meditation techniques”, and in classes on exotic subjects like “Late Mediaeval flower-arrangement”. All this is interspersed with swims, siestas and “civilized conversation, over breakfast and mid-morning coffee, over pre-lunch drinks, lunch, post-lunch coffee, over afternoon tea and snacks”, dinner and post-dinner drinks.

So anxious are these guests to accept and approve of Oliver in his role as a distinguished professor of an esoteric subject about which most of them know nothing, that when Oliver tells them the truth about his deception they take is as a philosophical discussion about identity and trust:

“Someone has only got the say, “Hey guys, I’m an expert”‘, said Mr.Chuck Friendly, “and next thing he’s operating on the President’s brain, he’s running the space programme.”

“How do you know I’m Harold Fossetts?”, said Harold Fossetts.
“How do you know you’re Harold Fossetts?”, said Morton Rinkleman.
“Hey, how do I know I’m Harold Fossetts?”, said Harold Fossetts.

Of course, all the muddles have to be resolved in the end but Michael Frayne does not do this in the usual way. First, he offers a quick summary of how this might be done. “A showdown. The grand denouement”. The whole thing is part of a great causal chain where each cause “trails an effect at its heels like an obedient dog”, and “the whole sequence of events could have been predicted in time to be included in Newton’s Principia or the Book of Revelation”. But instead of this, he resolves the situation in a quite different way.

We might prefer the causal-chain ending to Frayne’s chosen one but, in the end, his ending is just another unexpected twist in a tale where unexpected events are at the heart of the fun.

Skios, could be the idea book to take with you as holiday reading on a Greek island.

Buy Skios by Michael Frayne here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Man Booker Prize longlist for 2012 announced

From: http://www.themanbookerprize.com

The longlist for the Man Booker Prize for 2012 has been announced. The 12 books were chosen by a panel of judges chaired by Sir Peter Stothard, Editor of the Times Literary Supplement. The longlisted books were selected from a total of 145 titles, 11 of which were called in by the judges

The longlist is:

Nicola Barker, The Yips (Fourth Estate)
Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident (Sceptre)
André Brink, Philida (Harvill Secker)
Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)
Michael Frayn, Skios (Faber & Faber)
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday)
Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories)
Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)
Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)
Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)
Sam Thompson, Communion Town (Fourth Estate)

John Button Prize shortlist for 2012 announced

From: http://johnbuttonprize.org.au

Works on Australia’s relations with Asia and on the stalling of important reform over recent years in Australia have dominated the shortlist of the 2011 John Button Prize.

The four contenders for this year’s Prize are:

  • Gary Banks AO, Chair, Productivity Commission for his speech ‘Successful Reform: Past Lessons, Future Challenges’
  • George Megalogenis, journalist and commentator with The Australian for his Quarterly Essay ‘Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the End of the Reform Era’
  • Dr Michael Wesley, Executive Officer, Lowy Institute for International Policy for his book ‘There Goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia’, and
  • Prof. Hugh White, Visiting Fellow, Lowy Institute for International Policy for his Quarterly Essay ‘Power Shift: Australia’s Future Between Washington and Beijing’.

The judges of the Prize, created in memory of the late Industry Minister and Victorian Senator, John Button, said the four shortlisted works all challenged the growing complacency in Australia’s political culture and the struggle to produce substantial reform in the long-term interests of the nation.

The winner will be announced on August 27, at the Melbourne Writers Festival’s John Button Oration, to be given this year by former High Court judge, Michael Kirby.

Winner of the 2012 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing announced

The winner of the 2012 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing is A.J. Betts, for her tender and funny young adult novel Zac and Mia.

Zac and Mia is the story of two teens who meet and form a relationship on a cancer ward, but who find life outside the hospital much more complicated.

An English teacher and university lecturer from Perth, A.J. Betts has won $10,000 and a publishing contract with Text Publishing.  Betts is also the author of two young adult novels, Shutter Speed (2008) and Wavelength (2010). Wavelengh was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Prize in 2011.

On hearing the news, Betts commented, ‘I’m thrilled. Writing a novel is a long, all-consuming task, often plagued with self-doubt. To come out the other side and receive such validating news is more than a writer could hope for. I’m honoured and humbled by the judges’ decision, and very excited about the future of Zac and Mia.’

Michael Heyward, Publisher at Text, remarked, ‘The Text Prize is now five years old. We’ve published some wonderful books in that time: The Billionaire’s Curse by Richard Newsome, This Is Shyness by Leanne Hall, The Bridge by Jane Higgins and Fire in the Sea by Myke Bartlett. Now we have a wonderful fifth novel to publish:Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts, a deeply moving book about the relationship that grows between two kids with cancer. We can’t wait to usher this marvellous book into the world.’

Zac and Mia by A. J. Betts will be published in August 2013.

The Text Prize is awarded annually to the best manuscript written by an Australian or New Zealander for young adults or children.

Entries for the 2013 prize open in March 2013.

Watch out for the 2011 Text Prize winner, Fire in the Sea by Myke Bartlett, in August 2012.

REVIEW: Second Chances by Charity Norman

“Finn fell.
I don’t  think, if I used a million words, I could call up the horror. It isn’t a matter of words.”

Finn is Martha’s five-year-old son and she sees him fall from the balcony of their home. But there is more to this terrible event than Martha is willing to tell us or anyone else when she begins her story.

Martha and her husband Kit have emigrated from England to New Zealand and have settled into their new home in what seems to be an idyllic, rural part of Hawkes Bay. Back in England, Kit’s advertising agency had foundered because of the economic downturn, and he had become depressed and increasingly reliant on alcohol. Martha’s salary as an Occupational Therapist was not enough to cover the family’s expenses, and the marriage was suffering under all the strain. Change was inevitable. Trawling the Internet one day, Martha discovered that she could easily find work in New Zealand in an area where the family could have a dream house, mortgage free and in their price range. So, Martha accepts a job and Kit agrees to shun alcohol and concentrate on painting, a passion and a talent  which he has never had time to develop. It all seems like the perfect way to start again.

Charity Norman knows from her own experience the emotional turmoil of migration. She writes movingly of the excitement and of the sadness of uprooting yourself from home, family, friends, work, and all that is familiar, to move to a new country at the other end of the world.  And she describes Martha’s feelings well, as the family begin to explore their new country and learn its ways. She writes bautifully, too, of the New Zealand countryside and its unique culture.

For a time everything seems to go exceptionally well. Finn and his twin brother, Charlie, who are delightful characters, take to New Zealand life immediately. Kit does, too, and he begins to have some success as an artist. Martha settles into her new job and learns how to deal with her new colleagues. Only teenage Sacha, who didn’t want to move in the first place, has difficulty adapting to her new life, new school and new friends. Sacha is not Kit’s daughter and Martha has always claimed that after a one-night-stand her real father disappeared and was never heard of again. Kit and Sacha are good friends but Sacha was just beginning to want to find out more about her birth father when they left England. Eventually, however, Sacha seems to settle in and begin to enjoy New Zealand life.

Finn’s fall from the balcony, however, throws Martha into crisis. She has secrets, more than one, which could destroy her family and, as she sits by Finn’s bed in intensive care, not knowing if he will survive or, if he does, how damaged he might be, she slowly reveals events of past and present.

This is a compelling book and Charity Norman creates some very real characters and draws you into their lives so that you become emotionally involved with them. The plight of Finn is a thread which runs through Martha’s story and her memories of earlier events and creates constant tension. But there are other, equally serious, issues which threaten the family and which must be resolved. All this is balanced by the strong loving bonds which hold this family together, the beauty and freedom of the environment, and the support of neighbours and sense of community which ultimately convince Martha that this is where they belong.

Norman handles the suspense, the anxieties and the joys fluently and, whilst keeping you absorbed by the family, she deals intelligently with serious social and family issues. Not least, she explores the power of dreams to entice, delight, confuse and disappoint but, ultimately, to have the power to change the lives of those who are brave enough and resilient enough to follow them.

Buy the book Second Chances by Charity Norman here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review – The Terrible Suitcase

Can a suitcase can be terrible? What could be so terrible about it? Could it be the way it looks, the way it drags on the ground, its awfully bad manners? Or is it what’s contained inside?

I must admit I was little nervous about this and was intrigued to find out, but I should have known the secret would simply lie in outward appearances. Clunky old suitcases aren’t cool for just-about-to-start-school kids – no way. Everyone else has super cool backpacks. With torches and drink bottle compartments and super cute stickers.

But not our little heroine, who is inexplicably condemned to ugly suitcase hell. Golly, I truly felt horrified for this child, lumbered with this daggy old clunker for no apparent reason at all.

As her first day at school unfolds, as grumbly as can be, the suitcase soon becomes a magical focal point for our narrator and her classmates. It’s a toolkit, it’s a super computer, it’s an integral part of a spaceship game – and a vessel for those all important spacefood sticks. In this way, its super presence brings a group of uneasy first-day kids together, offering comfort as well as friendship.

This is a lovely story on not what a suitcase is but what it could potentially be, however, the ending is confusing, with no tie in to preceding text or imagery and no effective wrap-up.

Freya Blackwood’s iconically sketchy illustrations are beautifully and most typically whimsical and gorgeous, and help lend form to an otherwise charming story.

The Terrible Suitcase is published by Scholastic.

 

The Golden Lily

The Golden LilyThere are few better things to come home to on a Friday night than a just-released book whose arrival you’ve been highly anticipating. Especially when what stretches before you is a rare weekend relatively free of work or social commitments. Suffice to say I did a H&R Block-style celebratory fist pump when I found Richelle Mead’s The Golden Lily, the next instalment of the Bloodlines breakout series, in my neighbours’ postbox.

I don’t make a habit of rustling through my neighbours’ mail, but I had already pestered Boomerang Books to find out when the book had been shipped and precisely how far away it was from me. When my postbox was empty by my neighbours’ was suspiciously full with a package identical to Boomerang Books’ usual ones, well, I had to check the name (the lid was raised, I promise). And just as well I did: clearly my postie can’t decipher the difference between apartments ‘2’ and ‘3’.

Being a new release, it was at the time I pre-ordered it, much to my chagrin only available as a hardcover, but I swiftly removed the dust cover and settled in to read. It took me fewer than 24 hours to read The Golden Lily, and that includes me sleeping for a solid eight—Mead writes the kind of books that see you read at a greedy sprint.

Now, a few days on and sad that I’m yet again Vampire Academy book-less, I’ve mixed emotions about The Golden Lily. I loved it because it was a continuation of the series and I’d have given (and would continue to give) anything to meet any of the characters again. But I hated it in that I think it fell short of what it could and should have been.

Mead dedicates The Golden Lily to ‘her beautiful son, who was born the day I finished this’. On one level that’s sweet. On another—and hold the hate mail—methinks she rushed the book in order to beat the nine-month deadline and skipped the rewrites. That or she’s so mega successful and famous she, like JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer before her, got to avoid or override the editing process.

Don’t get me wrong: The Golden Lily is good. Sydney’s a fabulous character and I’m pleased we get to tangentially find out my about her. Adrian too is a fantastically complex vampire initially cast as the drunken bad boy but who is, as time and storylines allow him to grow, actually smarter, more sensitive, and much more lovable than his early Vampire Academy encounters suggest.

But it’s good in the way that’s familiar and in no way surprising and challenging—as in none of the things we’ve come to expect. Worse, it’s predictable, formulaic, and pretty much a carbon copy of the first book. No really, without ruining it for you, I swear it’s pretty much the same story with a couple of names changed—I saw the plot twist that’s so blindingly obvious that it can’t be counted as a plot twist coming before possibly even Mead did.

The book follows on chronologically from the first book, i.e. Sydney, Jill, Adrian, and Eddie are still undercover at boarding school in Palm Springs as they aim to keep Jill safe from the Moroi who’d have her killed in order to oust Lissa as queen. To recap: there’s a quirk in the law that says a royal has to have a living relative in order to hold the throne—Lissa’s too well guarded to knock off, so Jill’s become the target. You know, the fate of the vampire universe depends on her staying alive and safe and all that.

BloodlinesWhich is why I was doubly annoyed that the most gaping plot hole of the first book still hadn’t been fixed. Shame on you, Richelle Mead, and shame on your editor too for continuing to have the character wander about unguarded for vast swathes of time in the book—it undermines the enormity of the issue of why she’s been squirreled away there in the first place.

It also undermines the always-alert, life-on-the-line premise on which Mead has developed the guardians. The entire reason why Rose and Dimitri could purportedly never 100% be together is because their lives were not their own and they ate, breathed, and rarely slept in their guardian roles.

Yet the ever-dedicated Eddie, who’s already endured his best mate dying and various other awfulities at the hands of the Strigoi, and the OCD Sydney, whose future as an Alchemist is on the line, are ok with her getting about unchaperoned?

Especially after (you may not want to read this next bit of the sentence if you haven’t read Book 1) she’s already had an evil former Strigoi date her under false pretences and an Alchemist prove he’s up to no good. If that isn’t enough to make them tighten up their security—and give Mead a face-saving way to patch up this gaping, easily fixed plot error, no less—I don’t know what is.

I guess my main gripe is that smart characters are suddenly not smart. Mead is breaking the rules she’s set up and undermining what’s integral to her characters. The things that slip past them are things that would never ever have previously slipped past in the past—Sydney, Adrian, Eddie, and Dimitri are super intelligent and would be aware of issues before they were even ones.

It’s unbelievable (and arguably lazy plotting and writing) that they’d be missing key signs or that they’d leave Jill in the hands of an entirely un-trained Dhamphir of questionable background. Dimitri alone would never allow for such lax and amateur security. Jill should have the best of the best 24/7.

Which brings me to the other issue: the continued absence of Rose and Dimitri. I know Mead said she was done with those much-loved characters, but the books are lacking without them. It’s like having Twilight without Edward and Bella—although I know there are some of you out there who’d argue that’s precisely what would improve it. Seriously, though, readers have fallen in love with the complex and compelling Rose and Dimitri and starving them of them weakens the tale.

Giving us glimpses of them is even worse. Dimitri comes to town—in fact, Mead foreshadowed that at the end of the last book so I’ve been salivating over the fact that Dimitri would reappear for close to 12 months now. Sadly, though, he might as well have not been there.

His mission is to research what prevents and un-strigoi-ed vampire from becoming re-strigoi-ed. That is, something that’s pretty important and that should see him appear more in the story. But the research goes largely nowhere and Dimitri’s contributions to the plot are cursory. Worse, the only time Rose appears is when she apparently phones Dimitri and we hear Dimitri tell her that of course it’s not a bad time to call.

But I’m being harsh. Mostly because I so love Mead’s series and characters and know she’s capable of better. And for all my grumping, I did enjoy the book and its return to wry humour. These include:

[Julia] shook her head. ‘This is the kind of shirt that says, ‘You’re never getting in here.’ Kristen then offered that ‘I think it’s more like a shirt that says, ‘I’m going to have to end this date early so I can go prepare my PowerPoint presentation.’

and

They all traipsed down the stairs with me when the time came for Brayden to pick me up. (Actually, it was a little earlier than the appointed time, but I hated being late.) The girls had all come up with reasons for needing to meet him, from Jill’s ‘It’s a family thing’ to Kristin’s ‘I can spot and asshole in five seconds.’ I wasn’t confident in that last one, seeing as she’d once speculated that Keith [AKA the arch nemeses of the previous Bloodlines book] might be a good catch.

and

Sydney comments on Dimitri wearing his ‘duster’ [AKA a trench coat] in the Palm Springs heat. ‘Isn’t Dimitri hot?’ she asks. ‘Adrian’s response hadn’t been entirely expected: “Well, yell, according to most women, at least.”’

and

‘No offence,’ Adrian tells her, ‘but this lily is kind of more badass than yours. If the Alchemists want to buy the rights to this and start using it, I’m willing to negotiate.’ ‘Noted,’ Sydney tells him.

Soon after he says:

‘You’re in an awfully good mood. Was there a sale at Khakis-R-Us?’

For all my harrumphing we all know I’m in for the Vampire Academy/Bloodlines long haul—the books are too good and the characters and plots too addictive for me to give up. But I will say that I hope Mead has her Google Alerts set up and that she takes note and returns (in at least some capacity) Rose and Dimitri. That and that she fixes the drive-a-truck-through-it security plot hole before Book 3.

The Dinner

The DinnerThe commendation by Christos Tsiolkas on the cover was perhaps the early warning that I wasn’t going to be a huge fan of Herman Koch’s The Dinner, an internationally bestselling book about a sticky moral and ethical dilemma.

My loathing and despising of Tsiolkas’ The Slap is well documented and hasn’t in any way since then waned (I refuse, for example, to link to the book because I wouldn’t want anyone to accidentally add it to their cart). In fact, just typing that sentence I realise I’m angrier than ever.

But that’s an unfair way to open a blog and an unfair way with which to sideline a book. What I’m perhaps trying to say is that although I put my hand up to review The Dinner, after reading it I realise I probably shouldn’t have—it’s not really my kind of book.

But let me explain.

The synopsis is so: Paul Lohman has a difficult relationship with his more affable, more successful brother Serge. Paul and Serge and their wives are due to go to dinner at a too-fancy-by-far restaurant to have a difficult conversation. Their teenage sons have done something very bad and they must decide what they’re going to do to save them. Throw in some pondering about the nature of good and evil and whether it’s born or learnt behaviour and you have the plot.

Written entirely from Paul’s perspective, we get the minutiae of the dinner and his frustrations in excruciating detail. The restaurant is too pretentious, the food and wine to expensive, the waiter too annoying with his penchant for pointing details out with his pinky … the list goes on. Paul’s struggling and we, by being forced to experience his frustrations by proxy, are struggling too.

Which is fine, except that the relentless focus on the dinner details is a clear plot device to conceal the real story (and the only story we want to hear): what their sons have done and what they as their parents are going to do about it. And that’s what annoyed me. I understand the plot mechanisms and the need to unveil key plot points slowly, but each aside about the entrée left me gritting my teeth and, eventually, skimming pages to get to the good bits.

It’s not to say that Koch hasn’t crafted some brilliance—in fact, some of his observations were so clever they were marvel-worthy. These included how he wrote about how Hitler felt the need to conquer Stalingrad based not on geographical considerations and strongholds but on the need to take the city named after his nemesis: ‘It’s on the basis of irrational considerations like that that wars are won,’ I said. ‘Or lost.’

As with Tsiolkas’ The Slap, I didn’t need to like the characters, but I did need to find something to keep me interested in them. None were interesting enough to make me care what happened to them—good or bad.

We Need To Talk About Kevin I was particularly annoyed by Paul’s ‘habit’ or leaving out key details, e.g. the illness he suffered and the one his wife did that kept her in hospital and warranted surgeries. That doesn’t make the tale mysterious, but screams ‘cop out’ to me.

Lionel Shriver used the technique of one-way letters hinting at events and issues courtesy of letters from Eva, the mother, to her husband. Saying ‘we need to talk about Kevin’ (their son), she wrestled with the aftermath of her son having done something very bad and wondering whether it was her fault, whether it’s possible to be born evil. The final chapter of the book includes the big, climactic reveal plus a twist that I personally didn’t see coming.

It was a book that rang much truer to me than The Dinner. Without trying to give the ending away (but I’m issuing a spoiler alert nonetheless), I was disappointed that The Dinner‘s finish was all a bit convenient and that, well, as with The Slap, which promised much controversy and then didn’t deliver it, nothing really happened.

I don’t need to world to be righted and for good to triumph, but I do expect a proper plot to unfold. I felt the climax was rather anti-climactic given Koch had subjected me to hundreds of pages of get-on-with-it delaying and detail—the book ended just when it should have gotten good.

It also meant that I couldn’t forgive or forget some of the details that had long annoyed me, not least that people wouldn’t go to a posh, quiet restaurant where waiters are eternally hovering and overly attentive to discuss how they might—legally or otherwise—protect their sons from the consequences of having wrought some serious evil.

Given how central the dinner at the restaurant was to the book and how much it padded out and hid the real tale, the lack of payoff meant that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief. And while the crime was heinous, after such a long build-up my response was more ‘finally’ than ‘I can’t believe that’s what they did’.

Then again, as I said at the start of this blog, had I realised what the book was about and how it played out (that is, with less mystery than tedium), I probably wouldn’t have put my hand up to review it. If you liked The Slap, this might be up your alley (and I’m very happy to hear from you if my impression of The Dinner is utterly wrong). But if you want to face parental ethical and moral dilemmas in the face of children who do badness, I’d recommend We Need To Talk About Kevin over The Dinner every time.

Are you ready to cack yourself?

I generally have a rough plan of what I’ll be blogging about and when, but every so often I stumble across something that’s so good it bumps itself up to the top of the must-feature list.

That happened to me this morning when The American Bookstore posted—are you ready to cack yourself?—the 10 Most Bizarre Pieces of Literary Merch. I should preface the rest of this blog with the warning that not all of this is family friendly. In fact, most of it isn’t. It’s that wrongness, though, that’s what makes all of this so disturbing and (what does this say about me?) funny.

The incisive text that smacks down the merch undoubtedly makes this page (although I will admit I guffawed slightly at the image that banners the page: Edward Cullen-themed screenprinted undies). I mean, you tell me you’re not amused by this:

If you’re looking for officially licensed Twilight merch, there’s no shortage of jewelry, life-size cardboard vampire cutouts, and action figures. But let me tell you what’s wrong with all that: None of it goes anywhere near your crotch.

Or impressed by this:

Remember Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir about escaping her materialistic NYC lifestyle to go on a spiritual journey around the world? […] What really complements a book like that? A shitload of pricey merchandise and a marketing plan designed to convince unfulfilled middle-aged women that they can buy their way out of unhappiness.

I’d actually consider buying the shower curtain printed with Dave Eggers text—I love Eggers, I love his writing and would happily read and re-read it while I was in the shower. I’m also currently in need of a shower curtain after buying an apartment with a modern, open, wet-room shower that looks brilliant in magazine spreads but that’s a nightmare in actual use.

The page’s writer likes—and even owns—it too:

I’m not even going to sit here and try to be cool with you. Here’s the truth: I own this item. […] Go ahead and judge me. I’ll wait … Okay, so while you were being all judge-y, my shower curtain told me, ‘I shield you. And I like you.’ So I’m fine with your disparaging glances.

The vibrating Harry Potter broomstick falls into the categories of How Did This Make It Past The Brainstorming Phase?, Did Someone Mix Up The Sex Toy Packaging?, and Let’s See If We Can Get This Practical Joke Idea Past The All-Controlling Marketing Team.

The Game of Thrones (GoT) sword seat replica is as likely to be snapped up by GoT-loving collectors not in an ironic sense—they’ll think spending $30,000 + $1800 postage is an investment well made. And who couldn’t find the Dorothy Parker martini glass, with its ‘I like to have a martini. Two at the very most. Three, I’m under the table. Four, I’m under my host.’ rhyme downright clever?

It’s funny too (and I mean funny as in strange rather than the previous usages of funny as in teehee) that there’s a line between ‘wrong and gold’ and ‘wrong and wronger’. Bella’s womb, pre- or post-chomping (I can’t actually tell which it’s supposed to be—feel free to enlighten me), is a prime example of that. It’s perhaps only surpassed by the Sylvia Plath oven mits and oven-themed ouija board. As the page’s author writes: ‘Hold a séance using this, and I hope Plath haunts the shit out of your apartment forever.’

Me? I’m keen to see how this page is updated once all the Fifty Shades of Grey merchandise bursts onto the scene … figuratively and, judging by the realm of bad taste collated on this page, literally.

Five Very Bookish Questions with author Phillip Gwynne

1. Which genre of children’s books do you like most and why? Can you name a book or two in this genre that you particularly love?

Recently I’ve written quite a few picture book texts and have become very interested in this form. The interplay between text and image, the impactof rhythm, the importance of succinctness – there might not be many words but there’s a lot going on!

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

Any I could get my hands on! I grew up in a house that didn’t have many books so was always desperate to find something to read.

But looking back one of the books that had a profound affect on me was The Catcher in the Rye. In fact I think I saw the fictional Holden Caulfield as almost a friend. I think that shows you just how powerful literature can be.

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

I actually don’t read much of it at all. Instead of reading books to my kids (3 yo and 5 yo girls) at night, I make them up stories instead. Some of these stories have actually gone on – or are in the process of going on – to become picture books.

No matter what the genre, I like books that are funny and that pack a punch, by that I mean books that have something insightful to say about the world. As far as picture books go, I’ve always loved the work of Bob Graham – A Bus Called Heaven, How to Heal a Broken Wing, Spirit of Hope.

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

I’ve always thought that if kids see adults reading all the time then they are more likely to read themselves.

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

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Greetings from Sandy Beach by Bob Graham
Magic Beach by Alison Lester

About Phillip

Phillip Gwynne has written books for kids, young readers, teenagers and adults as well as the screenplay for the feature film Australian Rules, which was based on his highly awarded first novel Deadly Unna? Currently based in Bali, Phillip is writing The Debt, a six-part high-octane thriller series for young adult readers which will be released by Allen and Unwin in 2013.  He has also found the time – and the inspiration! – to write eight picture books, the first of which – The Queen With The Wobbly Bottom – has this year been published by Little Hare.

www.laterallearning.com/authors/gwynne.html

 

I was issued explicit instructions …

Charlaine HarrisI was issued explicit instructions by my friend Carly that if Charlaine Harris released any more Sookie Stackhouse books, she didn’t want to know. Not because Carly hadn’t enjoyed them, but precisely because she had.

I’d loaned her the first book as part of my regular book-loaning efforts. She thought it was a standalone title until she got to the end. Then I loaned her the next two.

She’d thought it was a trilogy and that she’s regain some semblance of a normal sleeping pattern and social life once she finished those. Then I loaned her the next, well, I don’t even know how many.

When she returned the towering pile of Sookie books, she was (I think—this is me entirely projecting here) exhausted, exhilarated, sad to see them go, unsure what might replace the reading hole, but slightly relieved that she’d made it to the end. At least, to the end as far as how many books had been published were concerned.

Suffice to say, it may have been mightily irresponsible of me to alert her to the fact that Harris is on the continent right now talking about her books and specifically talking about how her 13th and final Sookie Stackhouse book will be released in 2013.

I consider it a public service—‘Look, as of next year you’ll have officially reached the end!’ Carly’s radio silence tells me she took it more as a ‘Dammit, not only do I know there’s more, but I have to wait some 12 months to get my reading paws on the more.’

Me? I’ve been filling the void and passing the time (not to mention trying to resurrect or re-inspire some of my lost dragons enthusiasm) by getting up to date with Season 5 of True Blood, the HBO seasons based upon Harris’ books.

I’m having a love-hate relationship with the season, given its divergence from the books. I realised it’s only based on them and is, through small-screen translation and at the hands of masterful storyteller Alan Ball (AKA he of the American Beauty plastic bag genius), entitled to some creative licence. It’s just that I feel that the areas that he’s embellished or entirely made up are the ones that are the weakest—they feel ‘tacked on’ and I really wish he’d let them go.

Case in point: Lafayette and Tara. The former was a bit-part character who ended up dead in a car early on in the books, never to be seen or heard from again. The latter is a sweeter, peripheral character not directly involved in the storylines.

At Ball’s hands, the former is not only not dead, he’s being haunted and totally, wearyingly freaked out by weird evil spirity things. The latter is—spoiler alert—dead but is angry, bitter, and commanding fairly central but so-what-inducing storylines. Neither is really working for me (but if you think they’re fine, feel free to let me know).

Niggles aside, Season 5 is more of the same wit meets cynicism in the form of simple carbohydrate porn encased in a glossy HBO series—it’s excellent, it’s addictive, it gives you a quick high followed by a crash that leaves you feeling slightly lost and more than a bit dirty. Oh, and it’s peppered with one-liners that have me smiling wryly in an envy along the lines of ‘I wish I’d thought of that’:

Sookie: This isn’t going to work if you don’t try.
Pam: I am wearing a Walmart sweatsuit for y’all. If that isn’t a demonstration of team spirit, I don’t know what is.

Club worker: Why are you all dirty?
Pam: I was in the ground. What’s your excuse?

Sam: Easy now. She just lost her son.
[Character whose name I can’t remember]: She just ate her son.

[Member of the vampire alliance currently torturing Eric and Bill]: It’s wonderful to be a vampire, is it not?
Eric: Generally yes. Right now, not so much.

Sookie: Bye. I’m just going to stay here and quietly slip into a coma.

Speaking of crashes and comas, I’m off to bed. Happy reading/viewing/sleeping.

Review – Moonlight and Ashes

Selena’s mother died some time ago. She lives with her father, a nobleman of deep emotional weakness, in a grand old house with her wicked stepmother and two self-absorbed stepsisters. She is virtually enslaved to her stepmother, spending her days cleaning, sewing, running errands and copping the humiliation of a life bound with emotional and physical slavery.

Sound familiar?

Moonlight and Ashes is indeed inspired by Cinderella, but the belly of this story not only touches on fairytales, it writhes in evil magic, steeps in human deception, glimmers with enchantment, and in matters of love – transcends life itself. Set in several towns and villages of the Faustine Empire (which author Sophie Masson says is based, in part, on the late 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire), it follows the journey of Selena and a magical cast of characters – in search of freedom from oppression.

When Selena learns she is the last of the Moon Sister blood line – a line virtually wiped out by the all-powerful order of the Mancers, she knows she may now finally find the power to escape the misery of her life. Upon the announcement that the King of Ashberg will soon be holding a grand ball in honour of Crown Prince Leopold, Selena sets about finding her way to the ball where she meets not only the Prince but his bestie Maximilian von Gildenstein – a young man she is oddly drawn to.

The Prince, however, unnerves Selena, and there sets in motion an astonishing series of events that lead Selena to a Mancer prison, a magical escape, a kidnapping, a werewolf, a giant boatman, a magical hazel tree, a long journey, a timely meeting and a plot stuffed with sophisticated turns and twists and alleyways that gather up the reader and carry them forward to an uncertain end.

I adored the opening to this book. Masson paints a visual world so evocatively with her words, and indeed, as the book unfolds, this world becomes richer and more woven, as the plot careens towards an ending that will both surprise and delight. Faced with deceit, confusion, haunting memories – even murder – can Selena set herself and her friends free? And will she snag the prince and live happily ever after?

Moonlight and Ashes is published by Random House

 

 

 

Returning to the Gamers universe

This month saw the release of Ford Street Publishing’s massive new anthology Trust Me Too, edited by Paul Collins. Among the 50 plus stories, poems and illustrations in this collection is my little contribution, “Gamers’ Inferno”. I’m rather excited by its publication, so I’m gonna tell you a little about it.

You may know that I have been writing a series of teen science fiction novels, set within a complex computer game with multiple environments. It follows the adventures of two created computer game characters named Tark and Zyra. There have been two books so far, Gamers’ Quest and Gamers’ Challenge, and I’m currently working on the third instalment. I’ve developed a lot of background about the computer game world in these books, much of which has never made it onto the page. It’s a world which I very much enjoy writing in. So when Paul Collins asked me to contribute a story to Trust Me Too, I immediately suggested that I write a new Gamers story.

There were two things that I had to take into account when coming up with the story. Firstly, I needed to write a story that could be understood and enjoyed by people who had never read the books, but which also added something to the Gamers world for those that had read the books. Secondly, because I knew I would be writing a third book following the adventures of Tark and Zyra, I needed to write a story that did not interfere with the arc I had planned for them.

Solution: come up with some new characters.

And so, “Gamers’ Inferno” introduces a new set of characters and, although taking place within the same game world, it is specifically set within a game environment not encountered in any of the books. This way, I would not be constrained by anything that had already taken place in the books.

In the novels, Tark and Zyra (and other characters) strive to get to a place called Designers Paradise. The concept of the new story stems from a thought that struck me one day — if there’s a Designers Paradise, perhaps there is also an opposite, a Designers Inferno?

I then decided to set the story in a vaguely medieval Italian city and to continue the religious analogies I had set up in the books. Because it is just a created environment, I didn’t have to be constrained by historical facts and could just work on creating a ‘feel’.

With a vaguely Italian setting, I decided that at least some of the characters should have Italian sounding names. Now, I very much believe that character names are important and should not be chosen at random (see my guest post for author Goldie Alexander’s blog — “What’s in a Name?”). So, I sought out a list of Italian names that explained their origins and meanings, and used it to select appropriate names.

My main character was an orphan boy who had the potential to save the city from the Inferno. Someone who could ‘heal’ the city, but also someone who had more power and potential than he was aware of. I wanted a simple name that could be shortened, like a child’s nickname, and one with multiple variations (as this would be an important plot point). So I settled on the name of Raphael, which means ‘healing god’ and can be shortened to Raph.

I had another character who would be very important to the story — a religious figure in exile. And she would guide Raphael with an important revelation (or announcement). I wanted her name to be long and formal. So I ended up calling her the Dama Sebastiana Annunciata — Dama meaning ‘lady’; Sebastiana meaning ‘revered’; and Annunciata meaning ‘announcement’.

Then there were the villains. Designers Inferno was to be administered by the three Lords of the Inquisition. These characters were outsiders. They had come to this city and taken over. So they did not necessarily need Italian names. So for each of them I chose a name related to fire and inferno — Lord Blaze, Lord Brimstone and Lord Dante.

It is through these names then, that the plot took form. But I’m not going to tell you anything more about that. If you’re curious, you’ll have to get the book.  😉

BTW, Trust Me Too will be officially launched by Isobelle Carmody at Princes Hill Secondary College (Arnold Street, Carlton North) on 27 July at 6pm. A stack of children’s authors and illustrators will be there, including Kirsty Murray, Meredith Costain, Marc McBride, Leigh Hobbs, Sean McMullen, Corinne Fenton, Adam Wallace, David Miller, Janeen Brian, Gabrielle Wang, Sue Bursztynski and moi. If you’d like to come along, RSVP by 23 July to Terrie at Ford Street Publishing: fordstr@internode.on.net.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter

 

Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

Latest Post: DVD Review + Giveaway — Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks

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Tips for bookish bloggers

I spoke recently at the Australian Booksellers Association Conference in Sydney on blogging and social reading and have been meaning to share my presentation more widely ever since.

Below is an outline of my tips for booksellers on writing blog posts. You can check out my social reading presentation (think Readmill, GoodReads etc) on Prezi here.

BLOGGING TIPS

How do you decide what to post about? I’d recommend you keep a list somewhere – perhaps in notes in your phone or in a notebook or diary – of ideas as they pop into your head.

You might be inspired by a conversation, a news report on television, another blog post or an article you read in a magazine like Bookseller+Publisher. Ideally in this case you’d look for a new angle on what you’ve read.

So for example, a couple of weeks back Pan Macmillan digital first imprint Momentum announced it would be the first major Australian publisher to ditch DRM.

I wanted to write about this – and to applaud it – but given it had already been announced had to find a way to take the story a step further.

I did some more reading on DRM and thought about it for a couple of days then wrote a note to Joel Naoum at Momentum to ask whether retailers had agreed to support the move, or whether it was only Momentum titles sold on the publisher’s own website that would be DRM-free.

Naoum wrote back acknowledging there were some issues with retailers, so I then contacted several key retailers and suppliers via Twitter and email to find out whether they would in future or were already set up to sell DRM free. All responded that they either already were or would soon be doing so, which I felt was sufficiently newsworthy to work into a blog post.

Some types of blog posts are:

  • Posts inspired by other blog/social media posts or media reports
  • Reviews (of books, online and bricks and mortar bookshops, other blogs and book-related platforms, a TV program/film/plays with book tie-ins, apps or YouTube videos)
  • Interviews with authors or experts in the industry
  • Descriptions of what you’ve been doing/thinking about books and the industry lately
  • A calendar of events related to your store and books and writing generally
  • An opinion piece on an issue in the industry
  • A discussion about such an issue
  • A news story – in the rare case that Bookseller+Publisher don’t beat you to it!
  • A campaign to achieve something
  • Information/how-to
  • Guest post from an expert/fellow blogger/staff member/visiting author/publisher/personality who loves your store
  • Your response to a guest post
  • A public letter to someone in a position of power
  • A list – of useful stuff eg people to follow on Twitter

Whatever you choose to write about, make sure it’s on topic and thus relevant to your niche audience. So for example, for me to post a vegetarian restaurant review on ebookish wouldn’t work at all.

Structure

No matter what type of blog post you’re writing, remember to write it so that the reader will be drawn in from the first paragraph. If that means cutting and pasting the most interesting or well written paragraph from further down in your post, or opening with a quote, great.

Try to keep your posts short – under 500 words is ideal. If you must write something that is much longer than that, consider writing a summary at the top so that readers get the general idea even if they don’t read on.

Style

Be yourself. Write the way you’d speak during an intelligent, but informal conversation. If you’re not sure whether a post is working, try reading it aloud to yourself or to a family member or friend. The clunky sentences will leap out at you that way.

Finally

Write about what you know and be passionate about it. Your enthusiasm will win readers over.

News wrap: Overdrive, Book Depository, Kobo and The Canberra Times

Just in case you read my last post and thought I’d lost touch with developments in the ebook world while reading Game of Thrones, here are my thoughts on some recent happenings.

1. Opening of OverDrive’s Australian office

Earlier this month US-based ebook distributor to Booku.com OverDrive announced it is opening an Australian office (in Collingwood in Melbourne).

This follows on from earlier news that they are working with the team from recent acquisition and Australian start-up Booki.sh on a browser-based ereading platform called OverDrive Read.

It’s great for Booku.com customers that our supplier now has a base here. It’ll mean a boost to local content as the team seals more deals with Australian publishers.

2. Book Depository’s ditching of ebooks

The company second only to Amazon as that most despised by independent booksellers, and indeed owned by Amazon these days in any case, has ceased selling ebooks, Bookseller + Publisher reports.

The people at Book Depository, which is UK-based and gained a huge share of the global printed book market by selling online and delivering free of postal charges, probably figured it wasn’t worth trying to compete with Amazon in the ebook space (or were given instructions to that effect by their US masters). If they’d continued, they’d essentially be competing with themselves, and given Amazon has so much of the market sewn up, why bother?

One Australian publisher told me he believes Amazon has as much as 80 per cent of the ebook market in Australia.

All this makes you wonder how long Book Depository will continue to compete with Amazon in the printed book space.

3. Launch of Kobo’s Writing Life

Self-publishing authors have a new starting point for ebook production following the arrival of Writing Life at Kobo.

Digital publishing consultant Anna Maguire has written a comprehensive post on the news here.

The coolest thing about Writing Life as far as I can see is that it allows authors to download the ePub (ebook file) version of their work created through Kobo, store it on their own hard drives, share it with friends, or sell it via other platforms (yes, including Voldemort Amazon).

The other most interesting point in Anna’s post is that a Kobo spokesman told her they claim to have 15 per cent of the Australian ebook retail market. If that figure is tallied with the Amazon one above, that leaves 5 per cent for the indies, Google and Apple. That seems unlikely to me and is, we can hope, indicative that the 80 per cent figure for Amazon is inflated.

4. Axing of The Canberra Times Literary Editor

During my seven years at The Canberra Times I occasionally filled in when the current literary editor, Gia Metherell, was on leave. I wrote regularly for her and continued to do until very recently. I read her section every week. I’m very sad that the pages will shortly be filled with content from the SMH and The Age and that her position has been made redundant. Not because I don’t rate the Sydney or Melbourne content, but because the local perspective on national and international works and coverage of the local literary scene will disappear from the newspaper.

That said, I believe the literary community here will rise to the challenge and build a new forum for book reviews, author interviews and literary news. Perhaps it will be crowdfunded – if so, it’s sure to succeed, because the audience is strong and loyal. The readership will grow, too, because such a publication will of course be digital and thus have broader reach.

The business model for newspapers may not be sustainable as it stands, but that doesn’t mean there is not a demand for their style of content if it is published in new and innovative ways.

If you’re interested in keeping track of developments in this story and showing your support for literary coverage in newspapers, you could join the Facebook group Save the Canberra Times Literary Pages.

The night my iPad attacked

The moo cow Tabcoosh.

The other night, around 10pm, my iPad nearly broke my nose. I was lying in bed watching a Cherry Healey doco about freegans on ABC iView (taking a break from my pilgrimage through the five existing Game of Thrones books, but that’s another blog post). The iPad was sitting on its folded over cover on my chest … until it fell forward and whacked me on the nose.

It’s fallen before, but usually I’ve managed to catch it, or it’s landed gently. On this occasion, I was genuinely concerned for the integrity of my bone structure. I checked to see whether there was any bleeding (none, and bones were intact, phew), then decided it was high time I joined my toddler son as the owner of a Tabcoosh.
Continue reading The night my iPad attacked

Have you seen my dragons?

One of the cruellest parts of being a writer is that inspiration only strikes when you’re completely and utterly prevented from acting on it. Say because you’re in the shower or you’re driving or because you’re on deadline and under pressure in an open-plan office pen where you’re doing some form of work to fund your real writing work.

Unfortunately this week I’ve discovered something even crueller: I’ve lost my enthusiasm.

I don’t want to come across self-pitying or (worse) mock-worthy like Daenerys’ with her ‘Where are my dragons?’ mopes-meets-demands, which have spawned many a swell-warranted spoof. Lost enthusiasm isn’t, after all, the worst thing to have ever happened. But it is debilitating in ways worse than writers’ block and the many other vagaries that plague writers. And I’m not quite sure how to shake myself out of it.

This loss is so all-consuming that I’ve even lost my enthusiasm for reading [cue thunderous musical interlude and melodramatic gasps and limbs a flail]. I know, right? Who knew it was even possible to lose that?

After all, one of the great quests of my life has been how to fit in more reading time (and, ultimately, less time for things like non-writing work and cleaning). It’s an internal balancing act that matches the physical, perpetually teetering balance of my tower of un-read books.

The problem with losing my enthusiasm is that I’m unsure where to find it. Is it like amnesia—something that’s only temporary and that it’ll just take the right moment to jog your memory?

Is it like losing your keys while inside your apartment and you know that they have to be here? That enough time and bag shaking will see them reveal themselves where they’ve been all along: right under your nose?

Or is it like losing your puppy and you need to plaster the neighbourhood with ‘Have you seen my dragons puppy enthusiasm?’ I’m hoping it’s not the latter, because lost puppy stories rarely end well.

It’s not that I don’t have plenty of things to do (in fact, I have deadlines staring me down and whooshing by). It’s not that I’m avoiding deadlines either. I just can’t summon the enthusiasm for anything—good or bad.

The question is, how do I snap out of it? The only solution I’ve so far been able to figure out is that the new Bloodlines book has been released and is currently somewhere between (and this is no small irony) Boomerang Books’ warehouse and my mailbox. That is, it’s currently unavailable. Any other suggestions?

Review – Ten Tiny Things

Tessa and Zachary have a cruisy, comfy, clean and calm machine. They use it to ride to school each day. It is climate-controlled, quiet and smooth. When it’s hot, they put on the aircon, when it’s cold, they put on the heat.

It’s comfort personified. No effort required. A lot like modern life in the West, actually, most especially for our kids, who both enjoy and live snugly in the concept of Comfort.

As humans, we strive for Comfort in life. But in our eternal quest to achieve it, we quickly miss out on Life.

We miss out on the huffpuffing strain of climbing mountains, the pulse-pushing agony of running marathons, the cold-bearing discomfort of finding the perfect snowflake or the heat-crushing agony of making it across a sizzling beach to the ocean.

And author Meg McKinlay totally gets this. She pushes her characters out of their machine and out of their comfort zone and into the real world where Things reside. Strange things. Challenging things. Breathtakingly beautiful things.

And her characters respond most excellently.

I totally appreciate Meg’s voice in this book – it’s gorgeously-crafted and a delight to read. Illustrations by Kyle Hughes-Odgers are strikingly different and as enticing as chocolate. With a folksy/block-print feel and stunning knack for pattern, Kyle uses acrylic paint and stain on wood panels which lend an authentic, earthy, ecological feel to this truly beautiful book.

A must-own – not only for its beauty, but for its subtle and important messaging.

Ten Tiny Things is published by Fremantle Press

 

Review – My Home: Broome

Home to the Yawuru people, Broome was heavily populated in the 1880s by pearl-hunters, keen to snaffle their share in the rich waters around this far north-western town. People from all over the world inhabited Broome, and indeed, its population is as still as much a cultural melting pot as ever.

This glorious tour around this remotely tropical place is a feast for the senses. Fascinating snippets of text have been written by an author who spent her first ten years in Broome – in fact, she’s only spent a total of ten years in Broome, because she is ten. Yes, that’s right. Tamzyne Richardson is descended from the Yawuru and Bardi people of the Kimberley region of WA, and this amazing young girl actually penned the bones for the book when she was home sick with the swine flu when she was eight.

Taking the reader all over town, Tamzyne’s love for Broome is than apparent as she lauds the beauty of this highly-desirable destination. She also includes information on the weather and seasons, local foods and industry, history, local flora and fauna, the local people, legends and more.

The book has been lusciously illustrated with a collage-like effect of images coordinated and contributed to by author/illustrator Bronwyn Houston, a descendent of the Nyiyaparli clan of the Pilbara region. Bronwyn led a series of art workshops with school children to both learn a variety of illustrating techniques, and provide images for the book.

The result is a fine collaboration and a striking collection of varied image and style and colour that works beautifully, with that childlike appeal that warms the heart. A must-own for schools and libraries all over Australia.

My Home: Broome is published by Magabala Books.

Featured Author – Lane Smith

Lane Smith was born in Oklahoma but moved to California as a child. He studied art at Art Center, College of Design in Pasadena, California, and helped pay his tuition by working as a janitor at Disneyland. Graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration, he moved to New York where he began his life as illustrator, working for several publications including Time, Mother Jones, and Ms.

Lane has both written and illustrated many books but has also collaborated with authors such as the talented Jon Scieszka. The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs are two striking examples of their work.

Lane has worked in other mediums, too. He was an art director for the 1996 movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. He has also worked for Disney and Pixar as a conceptual designer, working on Monsters, Inc. and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Smith’s earlier books include Pinocchio: The Boy (2002), John, Paul, George, and Ben (2006) and his latest include the fabulous It’s a Book and Grandpa Green (a Caldecott Honor Book).

Other books include Madam President (2008), The Big Elephant In The Room (2009) and It’s a Little Book (2011).

Lane is married to book designer Molly Leach, who has designed nearly all of his books. Lane says “When she designed the Stinky Cheese Man back in 1992, folks called it a ‘watershed moment’. Suddenly every designer wanted to make books with crazy type and upside-down pages. The problem is it is very hard to do unless you know how. Molly knows how. She is also very funny and very pretty.”

Lane and Molly live in Connecticut and New York City.

www.lanesmithbooks.com

Marr’s homage to the 1980s

Back in 2010 I reviewed a novel called Fury by a new author named Shirley Marr (see: “Contemporary fury and historical shadows”). I liked Fury a great deal, so I was very eager to see what Marr would come up with next. Well, it’s finally out — Preloved. Mixing Chinese superstitions, a teenaged ghost and 1980s references, Marr has given us another enjoyable read.

Amy is a bit of an outsider. Her best friend is desired by every boy at her high school, so Amy is usually passed over. And she has a reputation for being odd. Her home life is also less than ideal. Her parents are divorced and she lives with her mother, who seems unable to hug her. Her Chinese mother also has a superstitious streak a mile long and is constantly dispensing such useful advice as: “never tweeze the hairs off the tops of your toes, or you will see ghosts.”

One day, while dressed as Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride, Amy finds an old locket. Opening the locket releases a ghost. Logan is a teenage boy who died in the 1980s, but doesn’t realise he’s dead and has no memory of what happened to him. It’s now up to Amy to help him… so that she can be rid of him.

It’s an interesting novel with many threads weaving through it. There’s the mystery of what happened to Logan. There’s a paranormal romance angle with the concept of reincarnation being explored. Then there’s a nice look at the cultural aspects of growing up Chinese-Australian. On top of all that, there are the joys and heartaches of teenage life in high school.

And then there are all the 1980s references. Amy’s mother has shown her lots of classic 80s films, which have become part of her pop-culture landscape. Her mother’s second-hand store is also a way into this past decade. Amy’s school has been doing 80s dress-up days leading up to their 80s themed formal. I was a teenager in the 1980s, so I loved all these references — the roaming pack of Jason Donovans is hilarious. But I do wonder at the relevance of all these references to modern day teenagers, who the book is aimed at. Will they even understand half the stuff that’s being alluded to?

Marr has created a wonderful set of characters you really come to feel for… even if you don’t always like all of them. I also love the way Marr has you doubting the existence of Logan. Is he really a ghost? Or just a product of Amy’s troubled imagination? Or maybe even a fox spirit? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

I really enjoyed Preloved. It’s very different from Fury, but that’s a good thing. I look forward to seeing what Shirley Marr comes up with next.

There is one negative thing I have to mention, and that is the editing. Typos happen, that is just part of publishing life. But there did seem to be a few too many in this book… often taking me out of the moment as I was reading. Hopefully these will be fixed up in future editions.

Catch ya later,  George

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Review – Stargirl

Stargirl is one of the strangest and most memorable fiction novels I’ve read in a long time. Aimed roughly at 11 – 15 year olds, it has enormous crossover appeal – and would readily be enjoyed by younger readers and adult readers.

Author Jerry Spinelli has created a bizarre, romantic and fanciful character in Stargirl – a hippy-like teen who enters Mica Area High School one year and sparks the curiosity of fellow student Leo, a wannabe television producer who runs an in-school TV show called Hot Seat.

Leo and his friend Kevin, like the rest of the school, become emotionally embroiled in the antics of Stargirl who walks the canteen at lunch time, strumming her ukelele and singing Happy Birthday to unsuspecting victims. Who leaves congratulatory or Get Well Soon cards on the doorsteps of random people in the community. Who wears long floaty dresses and carries a bag with a sunflower on the side. Who dances on her own. Who cheers for the other team as well as her own and causes a right sensation on the basketball court. So much so, she is asked to join the cheerleading team, but when Stargirl takes it too far by helping a member of the opposing basketball team, things begin to go awry.

Things also begin to go awry for Leo, who becomes strangely attracted to Stargirl and, as the curious popularity of his love interest begins to turn to outright ostracism, Leo finds himself embroiled in a Lord of the Flies style hate campaign that boggles Stargirl and her elegantly childlike and innocent way of being.

Set in the haunting Arizona desert, this is a haunting and moving story of teenhood, of love, of being different. It’s about the Blue Eyed/Brown Eyed consequences of refusing to ‘fit in’ and be like everyone else. It is moving, a little frightening, tender and peculiar. It’s different – and Lord knows the literary world needs different.

This book is immensely rewarding and its ending is as poignantly peculiar as its subject matter. In fact, its ending left me lingering in the air – like that microsecond before freefall. I couldn’t even breathe – I just sort of sat there and waited for the ground to catch me.

If you want unusual, this is your read.

Stargirl is published by Orchard Books

Down To Earth

Down To EarthThings It Would Be Helpful To Remember Before The Fact #147 was, for me, that I’m monumentally allergic to codeine. Recalling that at the crucial, pill-swallowing moment would have saved me a not-fun night of vomiting so regularly and with such force that I’m no longer sure there’s any enamel left on either my teeth or the toilet bowl.

The upside is that the subsequent sickness-related self pity inspired a desire for home comforts. Which in turn led me to finally crack the spine of a book I’ve long overlooked for ones made more exciting by vampires or damaged protagonists with a penchant for BDSM. It’s Rhonda Hetzel’s pretty, pretty, textured-pretty Down To Earth.

The subtitle, ‘A guide to simple living’, sums this book up better than any other words I can find. It’s a personal reflection on Hetzel’s own dissatisfaction with cash-strapped, rat-race-like consumerism and her search for satisfaction in simpler, more wholesome, less money-driven, more environmentally aware existence.

On one level I was disappointed with Hetzel’s book—it says very little that we don’t already know. On another I was inspired—it affirmed what I knew and appeared doable and not entirely scary. She’s effectively taken the gnawing doubts that there’s got to be ‘more’ to life than ‘this’ yearning for simplification that we all have and made the all-embracing leap.

The leap is back to much of what our parents and grandparents knew and did: growing your own food; mending rather than throwing things out; buying only what you can afford. Common-sense stuff, but that we’ve vastly and devastatingly departed from. It had plenty of this knowledge which has been lost or forgotten (or at least it has for me). A triple plus: Down To Earth had heaps of info on composting, worm farms, and keeping chookens—my three main current areas of interest.

I’ve spent many an hour researching and pinning images of chook tractors that I intend for my father to build. Tractors for chookens I’ve not yet convinced him I have to have. You see, we’ve had them previously and he has prior experience in building said pens and keeping said chooks.

That I was viciously attacked by the rooster and still have the physical and emotional scars from is something that I’m prepared to move on from, especially as I have no intention of having a rooster. The fact that I don’t actually eat eggs and that I live alone and travel a lot are, I feel, him dwelling on the semantics—me and the chookens would exist in happy, soil-improving, egg-producing bliss.

But I digress. Down To Earth is a heart-warming, rallying reminder of that which we know as well as a few new facts we didn’t. It’s also the lived, imperfectly honest journey of someone who’s tried and tested their way through the experience.

Oh, and did I mention it was incredibly, complementarily pretty? The book’s design (and, clearly, the budget outlaid to realise it) is earthy, wholesome, and straightforward while still being House-and-Garden-magazine salivating. It’s the perfect combination of being enticing but not intimidating. Me and my not-yet-purchased chookens wholly recommend it.

Untitled stories

Small press publishing is an important part of Australia’s literary landscape and is well deserving of some attention. So every now and then, I like to devote a blog post to a particular small press publisher or publication. As well as having released two books, Melbourne-based Busybird Publishing also holds the reins on two magazines — Page Seventeen and [untitled]. And it is the second of these that I’m going to look at today.

I have some history with [untitled]. This magazine (or pocketbook, as they refer to it) has published two of my stories — “Photographic Memory” in issue 1 and “Tall, Dark and Handsome” in issue 4. I also had the great honour of launching issue 2 in 2010. So when issue 5 was released earlier this year (after some delay due to the editor having been hit by a car), I eagerly went along to the launch and purchased my copy.

The latest issue of [untitled] strikes you with its bold and colourful cover, which illustrates one of the stories — Nicolas Hoover’s “The Humerus is Not a Funny Bone”. Kev Howlett has been the cover artist for all five issues, and his bold, graphic style makes any issue of [untitled] instantly recognisable.

Within the pages are a selection of great stories covering topics as diverse as clowns, real estate and isolation; and genres from comedy to speculative fiction. This issue also contains the winning stories from 2012 [untitled] Short Story Competition.

As with any short story magazine or anthology, I liked some stories better than others… but there is no substandard material in this lot. The editors of this little mag have done a great job of selecting a range of quality writing.

My personal favourite from this issue is “The Worry Man” by Adrienne Tam. This story got second place in the competition. While I certainly recognise why the judges chose “Skin on Skin” by Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones as the winner (it is a great piece of writing), it is “The Worry Man” that stuck in my mind with its wonderfully evocative dark urban fantasy. But there were a number of other standouts — from the chilling “Bringing Them Home”, to the eerie sci-fi of “Convenience Store”, to epic destiny of “The Greatest Day”.

To find out more about [untitled], check out their website. If you like reading short fiction, then I’d highly recommend picking up an issue or two (or five) of this pocketbook / mag. And if you write short fiction, check out their submission guidelines.

Catch ya later,  George

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News – The Famous Five 70th Anniversary

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Enid Blyton’s much-loved Famous Five series, five of the world’s most illustrious children’s illustrators have teamed up with Hodder Children’s Books to present new special anniversary covers for the first five adventures in the series. Quentin Blake, Oliver Jeffers, Helen Oxenbury, Emma Chichester Clark and Chris Riddell have all turned their hand to illustrating the covers of this wonderful set of books.

Available in this new version of the series (published May 2012) are:

Five on a Treasure Island (Quentin Blake)

Five Go Adventuring Again (Helen Oxenbury)

Five Run Away Together (Emma Chichester Clark)

Five Go to Smuggler’s Top (Oliver Jeffers)

Five Go Off in a Caravan (Chris Riddell)

This wonderful illustration initiative is in support of the House of Illustration charity, the world’s first dedicated home for the art of illustration. Developed by Quentin Blake, the charity puts on exhibitions, runs competitions and organises events with some of the UK’s leading illustrators. It also works in schools and acts as a hub for emerging and established artists. Their ambition remains to create a permanent home to celebrate the past, present and future of illustration.

A percentage of royalties from each of the 70th anniversary edition books will go to the House of Illustration.

How well do you know your Famous Five? Head here to test your knowledge!

The Famous Five series is published by Hodder Children’s.

Gary Crew’s Beech Forest

In the Beech Forest is a new picture book for older readers, written by Gary Crew and illustrated by newcomer Den Scheer. It is a fascinating and haunting read, with moody illustrations that are not married to the text.

Master story teller Gary Crew has hit the nail on the head yet again, with a dark and brooding tale about a young boy taking a walk through a beech forest.

“He was an ordinary boy, nothing special, and he went into the forest alone. He had no particular purpose other than to look, as adventurers do, or to slay imaginary monsters, as children do, so he held his head high, and gripped his toy sword, in case.”

With these words Crew draws the reader into the forest along with the boy. With an imagination fuelled by the video games that he likes playing, he wanders through the forest to discover its heart. He goes on a journey through his own mind as much as through the physical forest — a journey that will undoubtedly alter him.

Den Scheer’s illustrations are moody and dark, with their black and white execution adding to the atmosphere. The first illustration is a literal interpretation of the text on the first page. But from there on, they take on a life of their own, plunging us into… the boy’s imagination? Or perhaps the secret, primal goings on of the forest? And slowly, with each illustration the boy ages and his clothes change — indication that the journey through the forest is perhaps a metaphor for the journey of life.

This is the sort of book that you can read again and again… each time gaining some new insight. I think it would be an excellent book for classroom study.

The ‘packaging’ of the book is interesting. It has a striking black hard cover with embossed gold lettering and one back and white illustration panel glued to the centre. It is tactile and beautiful and beckons one to pick it up and look inside. But this is hidden behind a rather dull paper dust jacket. The same illustration is lost in the overwhelming sepia/brown background. A real shame, as I fear that the dust jacket may result in less people picking up the book to discover its wonderful contents.

In the Beech Forest is an enticing book. Highly recommended for ages 10+!

Catch ya later,  George

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Review – Look, Baby!

I’m totally obsessed with Cheryl Orsini’s work, and I’m yet to encounter a Penny Matthews book I didn’t like, so Look, Baby! seemed a winner to me. And I wasn’t disappointed.

This simple and sweet toddler book follows the travails of a wee baby as he navigates his day – from waking in his cot, through dressing and breakfast, to banging pots in the kitchen, a visit to the park, dinner, bath and bed.

Rhyming text on each verso page underpins a full page illustration of baby in action, and each opposing recto page features a line-up of objects that can be seen from the main picture, each labelled.

Perfect for very young children, the book is not only designed for word comprehension but contains a lovely narrative that pulls the reader through the book.

Orsini’s illustrations are pure delight and will readily engage the very young, through to toddlers.

Would love to see this as a board book, as I’m sure it would be dog-eared in no time.

Look, Baby! is published by Working Title Press.

Fifty Shades of Breath-Hitching Hilarity

Fifty Shades of GreyIt’s hard (no pun intended—and none intended for the ones that also appear later in this blog because the more you try to avoid euphemisms and innuendo, the more doggedly they appear) to know what to write about a book that everyone’s surreptitiously reading and talking and writing about. What more can I possibly add to the furtive-meets-open-mocking discussion?

I suppose I can add that while the writing’s at times either/or inadvertently hilarious and annoying, there’s a reason why EL JamesFifty Shades of Grey is a runaway success. Scoff how you will, just like the vampire–human love story that inspired its penning, Fifty Shades is, essentially, a rip-roaringly addictive, right-spot-hitting story.

To recap (in case you’ve been doing something enviably exotic and removed from the interwebs and popular culture such as setting world records scaling snow-capped mountains with a pet goat perched upon your shoulders), the book embarks on an epic love story between a nerdy, literature-studying girl and an all-knowing, all-controlling, self-made billionaire broken and made mysterious by his damaged past.

It began as self-published Twilight fan fiction and spread, courtesy of interwebs-based word of mouth, like publishing wildfire. The rest is history that publishers are now, by commissioning and rushing through anything remotely similar in style, desperately trying to repeat. That includes the distinctive (dare I say iconic?) covers that, as with the Twilight series before them, will spawn many, many recreation attempts.

Fifty Shades DarkerNot being a big erotica reader—one might say I was put off some years ago as a bookseller by a certain dodgy customer who regularly returned erotic fiction, and who once did so with a bookmark that infamously turned out to be a long, curly, grey pube—I was surprised that Fifty Shades took a long time to get to the sexy bits. Seriously, there are many, many, many chaste chapters of suspense before Christian and Ana get it on, which may disappoint those who expect bodice-ripping from the outset.

That’s not to say there’s not a lot to follow, and I’ll not deny that there came a point in the third book (page 117, to be precise) where I thought: I’m not sure I can read any more sex scenes. Please, give me some more plot. But as S&M goes (or so I’m told), despite its promises the book’s sex is relatively middle-class vanilla.

But there’s also plenty personality-wise to interest, not least the plot-driving email exchanges between Ana and Christian, which were at times so witty I was I’d-never-think-to-write-that envious. They’re an interesting couple and the narrative gripping enough to make you want to know where it goes.

I’ll not deny, though, that wanting to see the story unfold precludes one from poking fun at it and highlighting its Swiss-cheese-like plot holes relentlessly. Were I a drinker (which I’m in this case sadly not), I’d invent a drinking game for every time someone’s breath ‘hitched’ or Ana bit her lip.

Yes indeedy, the repetition of certain terms and phrases reinforced to me the need for editors (James was clearly given one by the time the second and third books, published with publishing house money, were released). Meanwhile the stalker-like behaviour and too-talented-by-halves nature of the Christian character leant itself to hours of teeheeing about how a real-life version would have you taking out an AVO faster than you could dial triple-o that masked slight I-wish-I-could-find-such-a-man wistfulness.

Fifty Shades FreedA small side note is that I got a little confused by the mix of ‘Grey’, ‘Steele’, and ‘gray’ throughout the book and couldn’t help but wonder if there was a reference in there James hadn’t been able to make explicit. I’ll also admit the third book made me angry.

While the first two had been two-dimensional and guffaw-worthy, the third was one-dimensional, too quickly turned to guff, and was an absolute cop out. I don’t want to give the plot away, but I couldn’t help thinking it was as lame and as inexplicably over-the-top as Bella and Edward’s relationship with the naming of Renesme.

No matter. I had committed to seeing the trilogy through by then and wasn’t entirely unsatisfied overall. And while I’ll happily poke fun at the books, I’ll also happily admit I’ve read them and that even if they’re not capital-l literature, if they’re getting people to read books and talk about books and reading, then they’re not so bad at all.

Phryne Fisher’s high flying mystery

In March I wrote about Kerry Greenwood’s first Phryne Fisher novel, Cocaine Blues (see “Phryne’s cocaine blues”), originally published back in 1989. I enjoyed it a great deal and wanted to read a second novel before I started watching the television series. And so here I am, to tell you about Flying Too High.

Originally published in 1990, Flying Too High is the second novel to feature the sassy Lady Detective, Phryne Fisher. Ridiculously wealthy, but from a background of poverty, Miss Fisher wanders the streets and society circles of 1920s Melbourne, solving crime — and bedding the occasional eligible young man. As with the first novel, Greenwood follows the same formula of multiple cases that become intertwined. This time around it is the kidnapping of a young girl for ransom, and the murder of a much-detested patriarch.

As with the first book, I found the mystery and crime elements in this one to be interesting but unremarkable, with nothing particularly surprising. In fact, I thought the kidnapping case to be occasionally unconvincing.

It is the characters and locales that set this book apart from other crime novels. Phryne is such a deliciously mischievous and over-the-top character. Not only does she solve crime, bed handsome men and drive a fast sports car, but in this book we find out that she can fly a plane — not to mention the fact that she is quite nonchalant about walking along the wings of a Tiger Moth while in flight. This woman has nerves of steel!

The regular supporting characters are all fascinating and endearing in their own ways, particularly Bert and Cec, the communist cabbies with hearts of gold. This book also introduces the character of flying ace ‘Bunji’ Ross, an old friend of Phryne’s. She’s a great character, who I hope will show up in the other books.

Of course, there are also fabulous clothes, wonderful food and alcohol, and society aplenty.

My favourite moment in the book is when Phryne and ‘Bunji’ are dining out at the Windsor. Although Phryne is in her element, ‘Bunji’ is a fish out of water, dismayed by the menu choices…

… she sat down in the Windsor’s plush dining room and stared hopelessly at the menu. ‘I say, old girl, I don’t really go for all this stuff, you know. I suppose steak and chips is out of the question?’

‘Steak and chips you shall have, Bunji, old bean,’ agreed Phyrne, turning to the waiter. ‘Filet mignon and pommes frites for Madam, and bring me lobster mayonnaise. Champagne,’ she added to the hovering wine waiter. ‘The Widow ’23.’

Anyone who orders a vintage Veuve Clicquot by asking for ‘The Widow’, gets the thumbs up from me. 🙂

I enjoyed this book just as much as the first, and I would certainly be happy to read some more. But I’m taking a break from Phryne’s literary adventures to watch the television series, which I will review soon over at my other blog, Viewing Clutter.

BTW, if there are any Miss Fisher fans out there who would like to WIN a Blu-ray copy of the television series, I’m currently running a giveaway on Viewing Clutter. But be quick, entries close this Friday.

Catch ya later,  George

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Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

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Five Very Bookish Questions with author Lorraine Marwood

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

I love verse novels, poetry, fantasy and historical narrative.  Ooh sorry for liking so many – I’m sure there are more also. There are so many enthralling genres for children’s books now and I love verse novels and poetry for the concentrated does of emotion and sensory experiences they bring to the reader. And fantasy novels are so rich and varied now and the writing so powerful.

Historical fiction has always been a special delight to me as the atmosphere and the unique details bring to life a rich journey undertaken by people similar to us, yet reacting and living in a differently orientated world.

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

One I especially love (and still have the copy) is Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald.  Fairy tales, my sister’s books… English school girl comics… horse books. Once I arrived at high school I was bewildered by a school library (no such thing in my primary school) and borrowed vociferously.  I remember discovering Nancy Drew there – books about Egypt, historical romance, adventure, A Wrinkle in Time – I read and read and read.

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

Atmosphere, a feisty character who draws empathy from the reader and a surprise-laden plot.

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

Read aloud to your young toddler; read aloud and share with your young child at all ages; taking trips to the local library together; sharing choices in the local bookshop; subscribing to a magazine; showing the love you yourself have for books and bookcases!!

And also starting a family diary or journal, where you all write a sentence each- about your day, your week – extra chances to read!

Name three books you wish you’d written.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Love that Dog by Sharon Creech

The Truth about Verity Sparks by Susan green

About Lorraine

Lorraine Marwood is a poet and author. Her fifth book with Walker books will be published in 2013.  She has written two verse novels and five collections of poetry. Her verse novel Star Jumps won the Prime Minister’s award for children’s fiction in 2010. She is also the author of two Aussie Nibbles and loves taking poetry/creative writing workshops with both children and adults.

www.lorrainemarwood.com

The People Smuggler

The People SmugglerHistory is written by the victors, or so the saying goes, so it’s rare but eye-opening to read the version written by those not celebrating the spoils. And none are more eye-opening than the memoir of convicted people smuggler Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oskar Schindler of Asia’, which shows ‘queue-jumping boat people’ and the people who smuggle them in a light that differs vastly from that cast by our popular vote-seeking politicians.

Written by Sydney filmmaker Robin de Crespigny over three years and myriad hours of interviewing Ali (I’m going with ‘Ali’ because I’m unsure whether to use ‘Al Jenabi’ or just ‘Jenabi’ and don’t want to cause offence), The People Smuggler is written in an imperfect but credible first person. It’s as if Ali himself, who only recently learnt English, is telling the tale.

It’s a smart decision because it both makes your connection to the tale more personal and intense and because, well, it helps you realise that such incredible awfulness not only happened, it happened to one person.

Sigh.

The People Smuggler is a fabulous, must-read book, but I won’t deny that it made me simultaneously heart-swellingly impressed at the triumph of the human spirit to keep getting up when it’s being nothing but repeatedly steamrolled and despondent at the horror the human race deliberately, unconscionably inflicts on itself.

Ali’s tale begins with his happy childhood in Iraq, which changes forever when at school he accidentally blurts out a phrase his father says in the privacy of their home: ‘Saddam is a bastard.’ His father disappears the very next day, and thus begins the family’s plunge into the murky world of incarceration, torture, mental health issues, and near starvation.

As the oldest son, but still a young child, Ali is nonetheless tasked with rescuing the family. This continues for the next 20 (or more) years, as he first earns them money at the markets, then graduates to working at a tailor’s, and later gathering intelligence for the resistance movement. In between, he himself is repeatedly captured, locked up, and tortured in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, emerging as one of its few survivors.

In danger, on the run, and with his family too in mortal danger, Ali is forced to leave Iraq. The journey beyond is equally harrowing as the homeland horrors he’s attempting to flee. Call me naïve, but I was shocked at how hard it was to leave or stay anywhere. Ali’s refugee journey didn’t involve a relatively linear leaving of Iraq, arriving in one or two places, then landing in Indonesia as a gateway to Australia.

Instead, his escapes were repeatedly thwarted and he was forced to double back or was captured and repatriated to the places from which he’d come, let down by those who and those organisations which were supposed to help, before desperation forced him forward again.

How many times can one person survive this? I kept wondering. That one person has even one of these things much less all of them, happen to them seems utterly unfair. Which is how Ali came to be in Indonesia, ahead of his under-threat family, under threat himself, penniless, and desperate to bring them to safety.

Double crossed on top of being double crossed on top of being double crossed, Ali is cheated more than once out of his scrounged money and promised safe passages to Australia. Which is how he comes to be a people smuggler—one with a conscience. By controlling the process, he reasons, can put his family on a boat to Australia.

The People Smuggler pieces together the events and terror that force people to take their chances on rickety boats. It fleshes out and humanises the people the politicians would rather we didn’t identify with and that the 30-second sound bites cannot ever capture.

It forces us to re-think the government’s ‘children overboard’ scapegoating version of events, the actual ways to ‘stop the boats’ that significantly differ from politicians’ postured but ultimately empty promises. It highlights the farcical and inhumane systems we have in place for processing—or not processing, as the case often seems to be—refugees we turn into detainees.

Ali sums up the situation well:

This is the first time I have heard of queue-jumping. I try to imagine this queue. What do they think? That when the secret police are shooting at you, you run down the street yelling, ‘Where’s the queue? Where’s the queue?’

He also writes:

It is unclear why Australians are so strangely concerned about asylum seeks arriving by airplane; maybe because there’re no pictures in the paper or on TV. But they are so afraid of the two percent who come by boat that they lock them up like criminals. As with the Jews in World War II, the refugees’ pitiful plight inspires irrational fear. If Australian people only knew the strength it takes to get on one of these boats, to keep holding onto life after the horrors these people have been through, they would be filled with awe and admiration.

That’s exactly what I’m filled with after reading The People Smuggler. I have a good mind to post copies to our not-so-esteemed ‘leaders’, especially the blustering, ‘I’ll stop the boats’ one who has a penchant for wearing budgie smugglers.

Review – Zac and Zeb and the Make-Believe Birthday Party

Zac and Zeb are good friends. They love to paint, dance, cheer and have proper adventures together. They also love to celebrate together.

It’s Zac’s birthday. There are friends and food and games and fabulous things that go pop! Zac has a wonderful time but at the end of the party, his friend Zeb is glum. He isn’t happy for Zac. He wants his own birthday party. An upbeat Zac assures his friend his birthday is coming up next.

Of course, Zeb races home with excitement, thinking ‘next’ means tomorrow, and when he wakes the next day, he spins and dances, waiting for his friend to arrive. But nobody comes (those dratted imaginary invitations).

When Zac stops by and finds an even more glum Zeb, he gets an idea. A make-believe birthday party! complete with a space rocket present (made from a box) that takes them on a make-believe journey to the moon where they feast on an imaginary birthday picnic.

While I must admit Zeb irritated me a little, Zac is the sweetest (and smartest) little thing, and this is a story kids will enjoy for its action and gorgeous illustrations. Sarah Massini has created beautiful images, awash with cute characters. Varied typefacing is also creatively done, making for a well-rounded book.

Zac and Zeb and the Make-Believe Birthday Party is published by Nosy Crow.

Finding (Rhinos and) Kony

The Last RhinosHad you written a book detailing how you were negotiating with wanted military leader Joseph Kony to rescue endangered rhinos prior to a few months ago, most of the developed world would have asked, ‘Joseph who?’

But thanks to Invisible Children’s awareness-raising campaign that went so gangbusters that the term ‘viral’ doesn’t do it justice, a book combining rhino rescue and Kony had me whipping out my credit card before you could say, ‘what a topical and timely read’.

I thought The Last Rhinos was a standalone first book by South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony. Turns out it’s one of many he’s written (or rather co-written with ghost writer Graham Spence), each one a bestselling work of equal parts heart and humour.

The Last Rhinos launches us straight into action (and outrage) as Anthony and his team discover some rhinos in their care had been viciously killed for their horns and set about tracking the poachers. It sets the tone for the frustrating fight conservationists face daily to keep these incredible, thick-skinned, but soft-hearted creatures safe from one of the most ridiculous, wasteful, and cruel human obsessions ever.

As Anthony writes:

It’s difficult to remain calm when you see a rhino brutally slaughtered for a horn that consists of little more than keratin, the same fibrous structural protein you find in hair and fingernails. In fact, it’s impossible. You’re more likely to be consumed by raging fury, but that won’t do any good.

Anthony has channeled his rage by dedicating his life to combating this issue in any and every way he can. Enter Kony, the man Invisible Children implored us to find (the doing deals with, not so much).

The difference I can anecdotally identify, and that makes me (and I’m guessing many others) warm to him, is Anthony’s pragmatism. For example, he writes that:

… the demonising of commerce and industry that defined the green movement in the past has to end. People have to live on the planet. Both sides must develop a better understanding of the use and value of the natural world. If an animal-rights group bluntly opposed mining, then I would expect all their members to stop using metal and glass in their own lives.

Fair point. And one that likely contributes to his ongoing success in finding a satisfactory middle ground. By gosh Anthony is also funny. I laughed more than I’d ever expected to reading a book about such dire stories, but his ability to find the humour in even the darkest moments was uncanny.

He referred to a stray they’d adopted as a ‘pavement special’: ‘She slept on our bed and spent the night purposely angling to get her butt right in my face as a wake-up present’.

Then there’s George the galago, AKA a too-cute-for-words bushbaby who won hearts and stole food and water right from under guests hands and forks with equal measure: ‘Unfortunately George used to join us sometimes for dinner. I say unfortunately because George had the table manners of a goat.’

Elephants also feature in this book, and yield some of the most incredible and touching moments, such as how they look after their matriarch who’s starting to go blind in one eye, or how the herd came to the rescue of wildebeest Anthony and his team had rounded up to move: they lifted the latch on the pen and stood back to let the wildebeest bound out. It’s definitely made me want to read The Elephant Whisperer.

Most surprising was Anthony’s take on Kony and his LRA army, with whom he did a deal to try to protect and rescue the 15-remaining white rhino of their kind in the world (and no, ‘15’ is not a typo).

He did this only after exhausting all other available rhino-protecting bureaucratic channels that were so frustrating they made me, experiencing it only second hand, want to punch someone on the nose.

Anthony painted Kony and his army as less the heartless, child-seizing thugs as which they’ve long been portrayed and more a misunderstood bunch maligned by those in power whose PR interests it’s in to cast them as the bad guys.

The Elephant WhispererI think the issue’s a bit more complex than that and that Kony is a little less innocent than Anthony considers him to be. But I do think he’s also a little less bad than he’s been painted, and Anthony’s insights into Kony’s camp were money-can’t-buy fascinating.

Anthony himself put the issue a little more cleverly and succinctly: ‘Someone once told me that the only difference between a rat and a hamster is PR.’

Without giving too much away, this book didn’t go exactly in the direction I’d expected. The result of that external issue (and through no fault of Anthony’s) made me despair. Especially as he went on to outline the escalation that’s currently occurring as the ill-informed demand for rhino horns skyrockets.

That is that poachers are poisoning waterholes and allowing rhinos (not to mention other animals) to die slow, painful deaths before pouncing to saw off their toenail-like horns. Horns that, despite the myths, hold no real medicinal value. Don’t get me started on how some poachers are even leaving grenades in the rhino carcasses to take out rangers who will pursue and arrest them. Gah.

But I don’t want to finish on a downer. Anthony’s book was an inspiring page-turner larger than its potentially depressing issues. The rhino might be in trouble, but I’ve never felt more reassured that they’re in good hands than with the likes of Anthony and his team going all-out to protect them—with or without Kony’s help.