Player Profile: Jennifer Skiff, author of The Divinity of Dogs: True Stories of Miracles Inspired by Man’s Best Friend

Skiff_JenniferJennifer Skiff, author of The Divinity of Dogs: True Stories of Miracles Inspired by Man’s Best Friend

Tell us about your latest creation…

The Divinity of Dogs is a book of stories where people describe the moment they learned something profound about life from an experience with a dog. It is also part memoir, including stories where dogs have helped me through different trials in my life.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

Home is where my dogs are.  I live in Perth, Australia and on an island in Maine, in the United States.

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

When I was 12 years-old I asked my Dad for an electric typewriter.  I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

divinity-of-dogsWhat do you consider to be your best work? Why?

The Divinity of Dogs is clearly my best work to date.  Writing it was a deeply personal experience. I cried throughout the process. By all accounts from the reviews, it’s having a similar effect on readers.  They are moved by the writing.  It’s a wonderful feeling as an author to share your journey and to have others embrace it.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

In Perth, my studio feels like a tree house – lots of windows overlooking life. In Maine, my studio is nestled in the woods in the middle of a wildlife corridor. I can’t write unless everything around me is clean and tidy.  I write best when I can only see words and nature.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

True Crime.  Ann Rule.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

I was most moved by the works of Charles Dickens.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

Heathcliffe from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  I am Heathcliffe.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

Mow lawns.  Play with dogs.  Raise money and awareness for animal charities.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips. Zacapa Rum/Coke Zero with half a lime. Preferably together, on a boat.

Who is your hero? Why?

I have many heroes. I admire every person in this world who has a compassionate heart and works toward positive change to make the lives of others better.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

People love to read and write and always will.  The challenge, for all of us, will be to adapt to the ever-changing forms of publication and to embrace the change.

Follow Jennifer:

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Buy the physical book here…

Review: Granta 122 by John Freeman

granta122Granta‘s theme ‘Betrayal’ offers scope for many things, from love to war, from politics to survival, and more. As usual, the pieces included come from authors around the world and their contributions are unexpected, innovative and excellent.

Janine di Giovanni, who has reported on wars for more than twenty years, begins ‘Seven Days in Syria’ with her baby son, whose tiny nails she finds herself unable to cut. She charts this same sense of vulnerability in the lives of the Syrian people as she sees the effects of war gradually seep into their lives. Her account is personal and vivid. “There is no template for war“, she writes,  only the agony, the uncertainty and the fear, which is constant.

Karen Russell, too, writes of the effects of war but she weaves a sort of magic into her fictional story. Beverly, a professional masseuse, begins therapeutic massage on an Iraqi war veteran whose body tattoo is a “skin mural” of the war-landscape on the day his friend was killed. “Healing is a magical art” said a pamphlet which attracted Beverly to her career, and her ability to empathise with a customer and to use her massage skills to feel and relax the tensions expressed in the physical body is remarkable. But her expert physical work with this particular customer has inexplicable results, the tattoo does strange things, and there are unexpected psychological effects for both of them.

As well as reportage and stories, Granta includes photography and poetry. Darcy Padilla’s photographs of ‘Julie’ chart a life affected by poverty, abuse and AIDS but they show happiness, partnerships and children as part of her struggle to survive. And John Burnside’s poem, ‘Postscript’, echoes some of Robert Frost’s well-known lines and offers a modern perspective on an evening in snowy woods. It tells of a passing moment in which a search for a mobile phone signal prompts musings on the ephemeral nature of beauty, a cup of tea, a welcoming home and “no promises to keep“. And the only path is the one back to the car.

Mohsin Hamid tells of a young boy’s text-message based love affair with a local girl who has the ambition, it is suggested, of sleeping her way to a better life. Samantha Harvey’s small-scale apocalypse-survival scenario set on a fictional island could well be a true story. André Aciman documents an editor’s experience with a young woman writer with whom he begins a strangely satisfying relationship. Neither of them seem fully able to commit themselves but perhaps it is just his reading of the situation, or perhaps he is just a man who cannot make big decisions. The result? I will not spoil the story by revealing it.

Colin Robinson learns about group loyalty and Paddleball. Ben Marcus imagines a dystopia in which group and family loyalties are tested. Lauren Wilkinson writes of the fatal attraction of guns. And Jennifer Vanderbes writes of a lone woman fire-mapper in the forests of New Mexico whose isolated life is briefly disrupted by a male forestry worker  with whom she shares friendship and memories. Both, it turns out, have reasons for choosing to work with fire.

Callan Wink’s ‘One More Last Stand’, introduces us to a man who participates in historical re-enactments of General Custer’s last stand but who is inclined to tell tall tales to tourists and to fraternize with the ‘enemy’. It can also be read on the Granta web site at , along with other material not included in this quarter’s magazine.

Granta 122: Betrayal  is excellent reading and a fine addition to Granta’s long tradition of fostering new writing.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2013
Website and Ted Hughes pages:
Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot:

ALS Gold Medal Longlist 2013 announced

engagementThe longlist for the 2013 ALS Gold Medal has been announced.

The longlisted titles are:

  • Lola Bensky (Lily Brett, Hamish Hamilton)
  • Darkness on the Edge of Town (Jessie Cole, Fourth Estate)
  • Questions of Travel (Michelle de Kretser, A&U)
  • Montebello (Robert Drewe, Hamish Hamilton)
  • The Engagement (Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton)
  • Cumulus: Collected Poems (Robert Gray, John Leonard Press)
  • Like a House on Fire (Cate Kennedy, Scribe)
  • Lost Voices (Christopher Koch, Fourth Estate)
  • The Mountain (Drusilla Modjeska, Vintage)
  • The History of Books (Gerald Murnane, Giramondo)
  • The Fine Colour of Rust (P A O’Reilly, HarperCollins)
  • The Light Between Oceans (M S Stedman, Vintage).

Monday McSweeney’s

Technology-induced complete loss of zen means only one thing: retreating to the stationery cupboard and re-reading some fave books. I’m too time poor to revisit whole books, especially after spending over six hours yesterday trying to get a PDF to a readable stage on my iPad Mini. It’s an issue I blogged (read: ranted) about yesterday and which I still haven’t been able to, for the record, resolve.

My happy-place happy medium then will have to be McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’ genius of an online journal. It will specifically have to be the following four entries.

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do

The title itself guarantees that every doubt-wracked writer will click on the link in the hope of finding snippets of writing-tip gold. And horrifying, vaguely hysterical chuckling-inducing gold snippets it indeed contains, not least:

Think of your laptop as a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals. Because that is what writing is all about.

For the record, I wrote this blog wearing pants. Many thanks to Judi for making me aware of this guide’s existence.

Interviews With Hamsters

McSweeney’s has truly mastered the Onion-like art of delivery hilarity completely deadpan. Case in point, realistic-sound interviews with hamsters:

There’s really only so long that a hamster can sleep each day, you know? […] I like to groom myself, and others, of course. But I’ve often got a spare ten minutes and once you’ve read the newspaper lining the cage, you’ve got to do something with your time, right?


It’s the one time that I get to think, just for myself. Between the repetitive motions and the squeak of the bearings, my mind just kind of goes blank, and I don’t worry so much about everyday things: will we get fed, where is the cat, has someone pooped in my corner, you know? Stuff like that.

From The Complete Guide to the Care and Training of the Writer in Your Life

I discovered this one only recently thanks (or rather, no thanks) to McSweeney’s dangerous rabbit hole of Suggested Reads, which lurks just below the end of its stellar articles. It yields such gems as:

The arrival of a baby can be a joyous experience for the entire family. However, [… writers] can find it difficult when a new member enters the ‘writer’s group’, especially if the new member is perceived as being of higher status or as a drain on writing time and resources. Never leave the writer alone with the baby. Ever.

I’m Comic Sans, Asshole

Then there’s my favourite favourite, I’m Comic Sans, Asshole (belated warning, there’s a bit of coarse language and innuendo contained within these entries).

It opens with:

Listen up. I know the [sh%t] you’ve been saying behind my back. You think I’m stupid. You think I’m immature. You think I’m a malformed, pathetic excuse for a font. Well think again, nerdhole, because I’m Comic Sans, and I’m the best thing to happen to typography since Johannes [f&%king] Gutenberg.

It subsequently moves on to oneliners such as:

‘While Gotham is at the science fair, I’m banging the prom queen behind the woodshop.’ and ‘I am a sans serif Superman and my only kryptonite is pretentious buzzkills like you.’

Happy (but hopefully Comic Sans-free) Monday, everyone.

Review – Drongoes

I was never the highest jumper or the fastest sprinter at school, and standing in the middle of a netball court surrounded by a pack of short-nailed, indomitable girls with only a thin bib between them and my trembling heart filled me with terror. No, sport and I don’t really gel well. I lacked that flame of desire to cross the line first; unlike Jack, the newest hero of Scholastic’s Mates-Great Aussie Yarns series.Drongoes cover

Christine Bongers’ freshly released, Drongoes, is a magic little yarn about confronting fears, surmounting obstacles like Corby Park Hill, true grit and above all friendship, and is faintly reminiscent of the classic fable, the Hare and the Tortoise in so much as the unexpected outcome leaves us with an immense and satisfying sense of victor victorious.

Christine BongersIt’s Jack’s last year to beat ego-inflated Rocket Robson in the Year Five cross-country race at the athletics carnival. It’s also his best mate, asthma-stricken, Eric’s chance to simply finish the race. All of Eric’s previous attempts have been thwarted by over-anxious intentions and Eric’s inability to breathe.

Eric however excels at best-mateship and together, he and Jack embark on a determined training program consisting mostly of encouragement, patience and the ubiquitous presence of a flock of spangled drongoes.

In true slow and steady style, they compete against Rocket Robson against all odds, with surprisingly hilarious and touching results.

I’ve been a fan of this ripper series for some years now. The short, Aussie flavoured stories showcase some of Australia’s finest and funniest children’s writers. Christine Bongers’ contribution is no exception.

There are dozens of little things I liked about Drongoes: the title for one – the re-emergence of a classic slice of Aussie vernacular, the strong undercurrent of mateship, the timely message that pride (and too many pies) comes before a fall, and the subtle reference to Eric’s ethnicity and Jack’s personality through their nicknames; Puff the Magic Dragon and Drongo. But it was the ultimate act of selflessness on Jack’s part that made me want to stand up and whoop along with the cheering crowd in the end. I actually shed a tear or two instead!Spangled Drongo 2

What I love about this series is how each powerful storyline is supported by equally fabulous illustrations, in this case aptly provided by Dan McGuiness. Each page is smothered in pictures, with complimentarily themed page borders and interesting fonts; perfect for magnetising the interest of 6 – 8 year olds taking up chapter books for the first time. The explanatory text at the end is a Dan McGuiness illustratorlovely informative bonus.

I still don’t have much time or talent for sport. But I do adore spangled drongoes, who fortunately frequent my backyard too. What Drongoes did for me was to bring the two unexpectedly and effortlessly together so that the resulting spark almost ignited that flame to jump up and race off into the sunset – almost.

A genuine winner.

Scholastic Mates Series 2013

eReader Rage

The Networked NonprofitOh sweet mother of dog, can anyone help me work out how to download and open a goddamn PDF book on my iPad Mini? I bought the book. The default reader is Overdrive, but Overdrive doesn’t support PDFs and won’t download the file. I cannae work out how to download and open the book via another reader. (Adobe PDF Reader for iPad, Kindle, iBooks, etc.) Gah, ebook format wars and incompatibility make Fi very angry.

If the above Facebook post slash cry for help hasn’t already alerted you to this fact, I should probably spell it out for you: This blog post has been typed in anger.

I held off buying an ereader for this precise reason until just a few weeks ago. I wanted the format wars to be over and for the dust from them to be settled. I wanted to be able to purchase and read a book with just a couple of clicks and plenty of ease, with the biggest decision I had to make being which book to purchase. I didn’t want to spend hours researching and troubleshooting downloads and formats and getting increasingly exasperated and incensed.

This is not how I should be spending my Sunday afternoon.

The ultimate irony is that the book I’m trying to download—Beth Kanter and Allison H Fine’s The Networked Nonprofit—isn’t even a book I want to read for fun. I mean no offence by that—I’m sure it’s a rollicking read. More importantly it’s a book I absolutely must, must, must read and reference for my university study (and it does contain, I’m sure, and by pure virtue of currently being inaccessible to me, the key to my entire thesis).

I should preface the rest of this rant with a note that this is not the fault of Booku, the ebook retail site that complements Boomerang Books. In fact, although Booku doesn’t support PDF files on iPad Minis, it had the clearest, most concise, most communicationally designed (that’s a technical term) help information I was able to find. If it weren’t for Booku, I’d still be googling and randomly attempting to download apps and readers and who knows what else (and no, I’m not just saying that because I technically work for them). I also feel the need to specify that it’s not an Apple product thing. It’s an ebook format war thing. Every ereading device currently available comes with quirks and cons.

The issue is that downloading a book to any device shouldn’t have to be this hard. This format war stuff needs to be sorted the f$%k out.

The Indigo SpellI can’t recount the steps I took to get my PDF onto my iPad, partly because I don’t want to bore you and mostly because I can’t remember the myriad, seemingly unending, largely fruitless steps I took. I should also admit that although I’ve now got the book open and readable on my Macbook Pro, I still haven’t managed to do it on my iPad Mini (it appears that I can only download the Adobe Digital Editions to the former, because it’s not an app, which kind of defeats the purpose of me specifically purchasing an iPad Mini to be an ereader). If you’ve got any advice on how to do this, I’m all eyes and ears.


Who knows, maybe half of what I’ve typed here today is incorrect. But I don’t apologise for that—this ebook stuff is unnecessarily confusing. Because here’s the rub: I don’t care what format my ebook is in. Nor should I even have to know. As the producers and distributors of this product, the publishers and retailers should be across that. And they should be making it as easy as possibly for me, the enduser, to simply decided on my purchase and download it with ease. That’s how the interwebs work these days.

There’s a reason why iTunes and Amazon’s (particularly with the latter’s oh-so-dangerous, impulse buy-encouraging one-click functionality) are dominating the sales spaces, and it’s not because they’re behemoths. It’s because they’ve made it easy for people to get the things they’re after. I’m actually reasonably tech savvy and interested in ebooks (it is, after all, central to my work and industry). If I can’t work it out, what hope is there for the lay reader who just wants to enjoy some Sunday afternoon Vampire Academy (I’m eagerly awaiting the arriving of my just-released The Indigo Spell)?

To be blunt (not that I haven’t already been), I resent having to have about 17 different ereading apps downloaded to my ereading device and playing which-one-will-work roulette every time I want to read a book. I resent not being able to use the ereader of my choice, instead being dictated to by the format that it may or may not support. I also resent having my ebooks spread across various apps—I imagine there’ll be a time when I lose my s$%t trying to find a book I know I own but can’t remember its format and, subsequently, in which app’s library it will happen to be stored.

I’m sure downloading Kanter’s book didn’t and doesn’t need to be this hard. But I didn’t know the steps and I shouldn’t have had to. They should be intuitive and the process should be seamless. It shouldn’t have involved me having to first find and then type in my stupid Adobe ID multiple times. (As a side note, Adobe also forced me to give the company my birthday, which enraged me no end. The only reason they need such information is to gather marketing data on me is that they will use against me or sell on to a third party. It’s not ok, Adobe. You knowing my age doesn’t affect whether I can get a goddamn PDF downloaded and opened on my device.)

Nor should the process have had to involve me becoming an expert of what kinds of ereading apps are available and which formats they support. For the record none of the ones I looked at—Goodreader, Stanza, Kindle, iBooks, Overdrive, and Bluefire—and especially not the last two, are intuitive titles that people would think to use as search terms. Where is the generically named ‘ebook reader’ app? Where is the ereader that’s easy to find, intuitive to use, and that reads all formats?


Freeloading‘Isn’t saying that copyright laws are turning our children into criminals the same as saying arson laws are turning our children into pyromaniacs?’ is just one of the salient, incisive quotes about music piracy in Chris Ruen’s just released book, Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Appetite For Free Content Starves Creativity.

If the title hasn’t already given it away, the book is an examination of society’s penchant for expecting free music and the often-invisible flow-on effects. Some of its key areas of examination are the moral and ethical dilemmas faced (or, frighteningly, not faced) relating to freeloading as well as the industry’s (unsuccessful, cautionary tale) response to freeloading. Indeed, ‘To pay or not to pay? It is the existential crisis of the digital age,’ writes Ruen, as the internet ‘refashions reality’.

Ruen is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the gold-stamp-approval publications of The New York Times and Slate. Freeloading is painstakingly researched and contains interview transcripts and reproduced letters from industry greats who offer insight into the issues far more authoritative and more measured than those we find on internet forums.

Though his stance is clear—stealing music is stealing music, however you want to try to absolve yourself of your culpability—Ruen’s approach is balanced and comprehensive; the eminently readable (if occasionally thesis-like) book’s final pages contain footnotes to his research and quotes.

As befits a book focusing on gamechanging technology and our uses of it, Ruen’s first chapter commences with Steve Jobs unveiling the iPad, a device and its constituents the normally free-for-all enthusiast Chris Anderson proclaimed to be industry-saving and that ‘show media in a context worth paying for’.

Whether that’s eventuating remains to be proven or disproven, but Freeloading examines many of the key dust-ups and moments in the industry over the last 20-or-so years, notably the recent SOPA bill and Metallica versus Napster. The book examines the alternative models and revenue streams artists and companies are exploring such as subscription and streaming services, DIY, and 360 contracts. Most of all, it examines the cultural and ethical minefields of illegal downloading, firmly affirming the necessity of ‘user pays’ (as outlined in this industry insider quote):

If you find meaning and beauty from a musician’s work and you want them to continue creating it—then you are obliged to support them. If you like the idea of record stores […]—then you are obliged to support them. If you’re consistently doing one without the other, then on some level you, not Metallica, are the asshole. Out of basic politeness, I (probably) won’t say any of this to your face and neither will your friends, your record store clerk, or your favourite band. But it is the truth.

Hindsight’s a beautiful thing, and history has shown us that record labels didn’t handle Napster and its copycats well. Adam Farrell from Matador sums it up this way in Freeloading:

The thing the music industry did—the mistake was to reapply the rules. They thought it was a new format and they could take it over and make money from it, but all they did was create this global game of whack-a-mole. I think the biggest mistake was taking 25 million people [who] were actively engaged in music and dispersing them. They let loose a virus, in a way.

What’s unclear—and what Ruen’s book reminds us—is what the labels should have done. In a chapter entitled ‘Angry Armchair Quarterbacks’, Ruen quotes and industry insider as saying, ‘“If the industry had only made a deal with Napster …” Everyone’s got an answer for how to change the record industry, but I’m not sure what they think they would do.’

Another industry exec flags the double standards when it comes to musicians making money from their music:

… photographers expect to be compensated for their work, filmmakers expect to be compensated—for some reason musicians are supposed to work for free and if they object to this then they’re greedy and letting commerce overwhelm their art or something?

I had the (mis)fortune of working for Australia’s largest entertainment retailer throughout my undergraduate university studies, and I saw firsthand the way the industry struggled with (and failed to) address the sudden and explosive arrival of illegal downloading and filesharing. It was a fraught time and a fraught topic, incensing those of us who actually worked in the industry and who saw and experienced firsthand its effects. One of the most galling aspects was people’s so-what shruggery.

The questions and answers tended to be then and tend to continue to be:

Newspapers are dying? Well, shit happens. New musicians have a harder time building sustainable careers than ever before? A starving artist is a good artist. How will writers make great works if no on will pay them? That’s their problem, not mine. Who says artists deserve to make money anyway? Can we perceive the dire circumstances of P2P technology and fine ways to lessen its damages? You can’t find technology. No, sit down, enjoy the spectacle with the rest of us.

It’s no small irony and shackled by a weird case of resigned déjà vu that I am now living through the same Sisyphean issues in my own industry. My hope is that the publishing industry finds a way around people’s entrenched it-should-be-free perception, but also learns from the music industry’s whopping mistakes—quashing the filesharing creates more issues, but it’s also necessary to find a way to monetise the model and to collaborate.

As the Marshal McLuhan quote with which Ruen opens the book states: ‘If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves’. I can’t help but think the publishing industry should be closely reading Freeloading and other analyses of the music industry’s (at least partially self-inflicted) fate.

Outside In with Robert Smith?

Outside InRobert Smith? — the man with the question mark in his name. He’s an academic, he’s an author, he’s an editor and he’s a Doctor Who fan. His books include Braaaiiinnnsss: From Academics to Zombies, Modelling Disease Ecology with Mathematics and Who Is The Doctor (co-written with Graeme Burk). And most recently, he’s edited the mammoth essay anthology, Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers. Robert was kind enough to stop by and answer a few questions for me…

How did Outside In come about?

It really started with the “say something different” idea.

I was editing the Doctor Who Ratings Guide one day when I was reading a review of “The Seeds of Doom” by Mike Morris (the one that ended up in the book). It was such a radical take on the story that I wondered if I could find equally radical takes on all the stories. The DWRG has almost 8000 reviews, so at first I figured I could just trawl through that and surely find at least one review per story that said something different?

Sadly, the short answer was no. While there were a few that fit the bill, I quickly realised that there was no way I could fulfil this mandate just from my own website. So I started to look further afield.

And then I had the wild thought of doing 160 different writers. It had never been done before; indeed, I’d been responsible for the most diverse collection of Doctor Who essays already: Time Unincorporated 2, which had about 48 writers. This was tripling it, which seemed kind of foolish… but I also liked the challenge it presented. (I have a PhD in mathematics, so I can kind of hold this sort of complexity in my head.)

Meanwhile, I also heard on the grapevine that Arnold Blumberg was setting up a new press (ATB Publishing). Arnold was a bit unconvinced, because things on his end were really only in the planning stages. And I ended up running far ahead of the business side of things, so it felt a bit as though we were making things up as we went along. But having a definitive goal probably helped to force everything to come together.

“160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers”. Was it difficult to wrangle so many writers?

Yes and no. At first, I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off, so I had several writers on standby to contribute further pieces. But then word of mouth helped, as good writers were able to recommend other good writers and then I got into the groove of recruiting people. Conventions helped a lot, because I just walked around with a sheet of paper with the last 20 or so stories on it and asked people if they had any radical takes on the stories in question. Almost everyone did!

I did find several brilliant pieces, but couldn’t locate the writers. I chased one guy through all the Coronation St forums for his review of “The Dominators”, but then the trail went cold, so I had to look elsewhere. Fortunately, my convention asking led to Bill Evenson’s hilarious take on the story — still my favourite piece in the collection — so it worked out in the end.

But it was also a bit of a wild ride. One of the authors demanded I not change even a single comma, not even the typo we both agreed was there. Another never sent my personal copy of the DVD back to me. I also got a bit of a reputation as a hard-sell after (entirely accurate) rumours spread that I was cracking the whip on several pieces that weren’t up to scratch. Stephanie Blumberg — the boss’s wife, incidentally! — sent me her “Silver Nemesis” piece with such fear in the email I thought she was going to have a meltdown. (Luckily, I loved it outright, so she needn’t have worried.)

But one of the things I’m so proud of is just how many new voices there are. For so many people, this is their first published work and I think that’s hugely important. So much of Doctor Who output, from the TV series to Big Finish, is jobs for the boys, with the powers that be recruiting the same old names on the entirely reasonable grounds that they can trust them to produce good stuff. I really wanted to break that cycle, which required a lot of work on my part, but the payoff was enormous.

Did you have any trouble finding writers to cover all the stories?

Finding writers was both a pleasure and an incredible challenge. I ran out of my own contacts after about 50 people, which put me in a bit of a bind. So I spent ages trawling the internet for good reviews, often striking gold on the 1,900th entry in Google. When you’ve spent two days searching for a review of “The Mutants” that doesn’t say the same old thing, the pleasure when you find exactly what you’re looking for is immense. I think I shouted for joy when I stumbled upon Philip Sandifer’s piece, never having heard of his blog before (although it’s now fairly famous).

And as I started to recruit more original writers, I simply asked them for recommendations. So it spread virally, which is something I know more than a little about, thanks to my day job. (There are a surprising number of siblings in the list, as well as a number of husband and wife teams.) The only time I sat down and thought about specific names was when I looked through the table of contents of Chicks Dig Time Lords for names of good writers. The rest was very organic.

It was actually Graeme Burk who suggested I recruit a majority of original pieces. Originally I was going to do mostly reprints, because I was worried about the budget. But then I came up with the charity idea and that helped focus things: I realised that one of the strengths of the book was that, as a group, we were much stronger than as individuals. Given that everyone — myself, Arnold and all the writers bar two whom I won’t name — donated their fees to charity, it meant we were working for something bigger than just another Doctor Who non-fiction guide.

A lot of the book’s genesis thus coasted on goodwill. I was especially pleased that the professional writers involved were happy to donate to charity, even though this is their livelihood. And some of these were just brilliant: Andrew Cartmel’s letter to me regarding “Talons of Weng-Chiang” made me laugh out loud, while David Howe stepped up very late in the day with a sweet piece on “The Mythmakers” and a photo to boot.

And then Anthony Wilson — one of the unsung heroes of Doctor Who nonfiction writing — came along and proofread the book and told me to throw away about 15 pieces and get the authors to rework about as many again. He grasped the concept of the book intuitively and had enough distance to simply tell me “no” on a number of occasions. Some of the best pieces in the book — Piers Beckley’s Shakespearen play, Stuart Milne’s letter to the reader, Stuart Douglas’s alien flow chart — are a direct result of Anthony. The only credit I give myself on this is that I wasn’t precious about anything and deferred to his judgement entirely!

What is it about Doctor Who that inspired you to take on such a huge project?

It’s the sheer diversity of talent in fandom that continues to inspire me. Go to any gathering of Doctor Who fans, even when you don’t know anyone there, and you’ll hear fascinating opinions, vociferous disagreements and new insights on decades-old stories. You hear this at conventions, at pubs and on the internet. It continually amazes me just how thoughtful and articulate Doctor Who fans can be.

So that really made my job easy. The technical accomplishment of 160 writers was a cute gimmick, but what really makes the book shine is the fact that everyone’s saying something different. (Sometimes very  different: the other proofreader, Paul Simpson, complained that Lindy Orthia’s intense academic dissection of “Ghost Light” gave him whiplash after Sean Twist’s hilarious within-text take on “Battlefield”.) It meant I really just had to sit back and watch everyone bring their A-game to the table. That made it a joy to assemble and then edit.

You’ve written about Doctor Who, zombies and even Justin Bieber. What’s next?

I’m going to create a mathematical model of a Monoid invasion. You heard it here first.

Thank you Robert. That was a rather lengthy interview, so I won’t add anything beyond…

Catch ya later,  George

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Review: Schroder by Amity Gaige

What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance.”

shroderSo, begins the opening statement of Schroder, and it is prefaced by the e.e.cummings poem “here is the deepest secret nobody knows“. This sounds tantalizing, especially when you know from the cover blurb that Meadow is the narrator’s six-year-old daughter and that he has abducted her. As far as he is concerned this is not a premeditated abduction, not really, he just decided on a “spontaneous trip“,  and failed to return Meadow to his estranged wife after a parental visit. Now that the law has caught up with him, he has been persuaded to write down everything that happened.

Yet, the first thing he tells us is how, as a child, he lied about his own life in order to win a major competition, and, in the process, he gave himself a false identity which he then chose to keep. By his own account, Eric Schroder, alias Kennedy, is a liar and a fraud, a man who neglects his elderly father, has forged qualifications for his c.v., has deceived his wife and her family for years and, now, has run off with his child. He is also researching ‘pauses’ and he adds footnotes to his document in order, one assumes, to impress us with his essential seriousness and intelligence.

With his glib account of his failings, his protestations of love for his estranges wife, and his hints of childhood trauma documented in interspersed fragments describing a childhood escape, with his father, from Communist East Germany, Eric Kennedy comes across as a self-serving sociopath. Whether this is what the author, Amity Gaige, intended, I don’t know, but I quickly began to lose patience with her narrator.

So why did I go on reading? I don’t know. But that’s what sociopaths do – they draw you in, tell you just enough to make their actions sound plausible and justified, and play on your emotions to keep you hooked.

Yes, by the time I got to the end of Eric’s story I did feel sorry for the things which happened to him in his childhood. I did think that maybe they might explain why he had chosen a different identity and had made up a different childhood for himself. And I did understand how he came to live a lie. I also understood how he loved Meadow and how he justified his own actions once he and Meadow were evading the law.. But I couldn’t forgive him for never phoning Meadow’s mother – the wife he said he loved so much – to let her know that their child was safe and well. And I couldn’t forgive his self-indulgence or his casual parenting, which ultimately put Meadow’s life in danger. Given his lifelong skill at weaving stories and convincing people of his essential.honesty, I wouldn’t trust this narrative to be completely true, either. And  I  certainly would never advise his wife to take him back.

In Shroeder, Amity Gaig has created a character who is so persuasive and convincing that you begin to believe in him, although you know you shouldn’t. Bit in the end it is her skill at evoking tender emotions, the complexity of family relationships,  the joys and the worries of parenthood, and the thrill and danger of unexpected  adventures, which makes his narrative compelling.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2013
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The Stella Prize Longlist

The People SmugglerThe inaugural Stella Prize longlist was announced today, something met with much frisson (at least it was in my one-person household). The announcement has been a long time coming, both because Australian female authors have traditionally been overlooked when it comes to literary prizes and because it’s taken some time for the Stella Prize to go from indignation-inspired idea to inception.

The prize, just in case you’ve not yet heard of it, is (as the artfully designed, communication design-strong Stella Prize website helpfully tells us up front on its homepage) ‘a major new literary award for Australian women’s writing’. That’s writing by female authors, not necessarily but not excluding writing for women, often categorised and dismissed as ‘chick lit’.

‘The Stella’, as it’s no doubt known to those of us Aussies who consider it our god-given and reflexive right to colloquialise anything and everything, was named after Stella Maria Miles Franklin (AKA the author of My Brilliant Career). Its bounty is $50,000 and it’s open—hurrah, because other prizes’ either-or-ness I find frustratingly prohibitive—to works of both fiction and non-fiction.

FlounderingWe’ve come to the awkward bit of the blog where I must confess that I’ve read just one of the esteemed nominated titles. Romy Ash’s Floundering and Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel have been on my must-buy and must-read list for a good while, but the other longlisted titles raised an I’m-out-of-the-literary-loop feelings of inadequacy in me. Most of the books I haven’t heard of; the others are probably too clever and too highbrow for me to even attempt to read.

Still, the selection reflects a diversity of titles and showcases some of Australia’s most talented female writers. It also contains a little bit of something for everybody. For what it’s worth, I can highly recommend Robin de Crespigny‘s The People Smuggler, a humanity-packed creative non-fiction telling of the preconceived notion-busting, forced-by-desperate-circumstances side to a people smuggler.

Having miraculously survived Saddam Hussein’s torturous prisons, Ali Al Jenabi (now dubbed the ‘Oskar Schindler of Asia’) had to flee Iraq. What followed was years of furtive, hand-to-mouth living, the necessary discovery of the world of fake passports and illegal border crossings and, eventually, people smuggling. The latter came about because Ali was ripped off by a people smuggler and had to find a way to both get his family to safety and to earn enough money to get them aboard a safe boat.

I blogged more in depth about the book some months back so won’t repeat its tale or my impressions of it here (you can read the blog here if you’re keen). Suffice to say, it’s comprehensive, compelling, and will turn your impression of what kind of person a people smuggler is on its head.

9781459648173If The People Smuggler is any indication of the strength of the titles on the Stella Prize longlist, this is an excellent inaugural award-nominated field. The shortlist will be announced on Wednesday 20 March, with the award itself announced and bestowed on one of the authors on Tuesday 16 April.

*Thanks to Naomi Woodley for alerting me to the fact that the list had come out.

Everyone digs Time Lords

Chicks Dig Time LordsI may have already mentioned that 2013 is the 50th anniversary of a little TV show called Doctor Who. Every year there seems to be more and more books related to the series being published, and this year is seeing a Doctor Who publishing explosion. In addition to all the official licensed books, there are also quite a lot of unlicensed publications about the show.

Perhaps the most well known of these unofficial Doctor Who books is Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who By The Women Who Love It. And that title says it all, really — it’s a collection of essays about the series by women. It was a hugely popular book and it won a HUGO award in 2011 for Best Related Work. In fact, it has been so successful, that it spawned two other books — Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It.

Running Through CorridorsThe three above books are all from Mad Norwegian Press, who have also published a six-book series of guides to the classic series (About Time) as well as a history of the series, guides to the novels and even a fanzine archive. And Running Through Corridors: Rob and Toby’s Marathon Watch of Doctor Who. The two authors are Doctor Who fans who have had some official connection to the series. Robert Shearman, of course, wrote “Dalek” for the first season of the revived series in 2005. Toby Hadoke is a comedian who has had much success with his one-man show, Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf. He has also been a moderator on many a Doctor Who DVD commentary. Rob and Toby are also friends. And the two of them embarked on the mammoth task of watching every episode of Doctor Who, two eps a day, every day, from the show’s start in 1963 to David Tennant’s final episode in 2010. They have chronicled their epic viewing as a set of literary conversations in a series of books. Volume 1: The 60s is out, with Volumes 2 and 3 coming soon.

But there are many other books out there.

Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories Of Doctor Who
Contributors include Bill Oddie, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Ross and Rhys Thomas, along with loads of other writers, comedians, actors and even politicians. 100% of the book royalties, proceeds and net profit are being donated to Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers
Each story from the classic series has an essay from a different writer. The thing about this book is that every author had to find a unique approach to the story s/he was writing about. So you have everything from scripts to letters to Shakespearean verse. I’ve got an essay in this book — it’s about the William Hartnell story “The Reign of Terror”, and I’ve written it as a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

There are many more books out there — from Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century to Dining with the Doctor: The Unauthorized Whovian Cookbook. And there are many more due to make an appearance later this year, including a few that I’ve written for. [For a quick roundup of my writing about Doctor Who, check out my personal blog.)

It seems like the publishing world is obsessed with Doctor Who at the moment. And I rather like that. 🙂

Catch ya later,  George

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Player Profile: Tara Eglington, author of How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You

tara-eTara Eglington, author of How to Keep a Boy From Kissing You

Tell us about your latest creation…

How to Keep a Boy From Kissing You is the story of 16 year old Aurora Skye, who is a little like a modern day version of Jane Austen’s Emma – she thinks she knows everything about love and dating, when really her experience is entirely theoretical and often far off base. She runs a program called the Find a Prince Program and she’s constantly getting herself and her friends into the most ridiculous situations in the process of finding them their Potential Princes.

9780732295172At the same time, she’s dealing with her dad, the NAD (New Age Dad) who’s in the midst of an existential crisis that began after Aurora’s mum left four years ago and her pesky next door neighbour Hayden Paris, who doesn’t believe that Cupid needs Aurora’s assistance. He’s also been witness to many of Aurora’s very embarrassing moments – which seem to happen every time she tries to keep a boy from kissing her (she’s saving her first kiss for her Potential Prince).

When her friend’s love lives don’t seem to be going to plan, Aurora is forced to take her program to the next level and signs up to be part of the school play, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Unfortunately she’s cast as Beatrice, opposite Hayden Paris’s Benedict – and they’re scripted to kiss! Aurora launches a full scale operation to save her first kiss, help her friends achieve their happily ever afters and protect the vulnerable NAD from the crazy interpretive dance teacher who’s seemingly stolen his heart.

I wanted to write a book that you could curl up with if you were having a bad day and then find yourself laughing on every page. I hope I’ve achieved that.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

I grew up in Byron Bay, which I still consider to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I went to a creative arts high school, which definitely helped inspire me with confidence in respects to expressing myself in a creative way. My
upbringing also influenced my writing in terms of some of the themes in ‘How to Keep a Boy From Kissing You’ – the NAD (New Age Dad) and the interpretive dance classes that Aurora is forced to participate in are very close to the alternative aspects that define the region. Nevertheless, I still love Byron and spent part of my time writing the sequel to How to
Keep a Boy from Kissing you (How to Convince a Boy to Kiss You) whilst on holiday at my family home up there. I now call Sydney home.

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

I thought ‘Pirate’ was a legitimate profession. I spent a lot of my time making pretend gold chests and coins out of paper. That along with the fact that I thought I’d grow up and have a vault of money to swim in like Scrooge McDuck from Duck Tales, makes me worry that I was a rather materialistic child!

My father tells me at age 11 I told him very matter of fact that I was going to be an author and write books from my house in Maui. I now write books, but the house in Maui is yet to materialise (I’ve given up on the vault of money!)

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?

Aurora and her story ‘How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You’ will always hold a very special place in my heart. I wrote the book when I was 21, just because I wanted to tell a story. I hid the fact I wrote a book for a very long time, because most
people are very quick to tell you the miniscule odds of getting something published. However I always believed in the worth of the story and having the chance to share it with young girls (and the young at heart) has meant this time has been one of the happiest of my life. That said, I’ve immensely enjoyed the sequel and hope all my readers will too.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

I write in my little studio, surrounded by posters of very romantic scenes (i.e. Tiffany ads and Pre-Raphaelite artwork) signs proclaiming ‘love’ and many candles. Very Aurora-esque room. However I also write after work in the office – I’m a firm believer that a writer can and should be able to work wherever. I’ve learnt to be able to focus even if there are conversations being shouted around me.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

I pretty much read just about every YA novel out there when I was growing up, and writing within this genre I try to stay aware of what’s going on in the market. When I’m writing however I tend to read non fiction – things like specific
histories like Colour by Victoria Finlay or Beauty by Umberto Eco. I also read alot of poetry, because it tends to reflect upon the whole gamut of human emotion and triggers certain thought processes for a writer.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

Anything by L.M Montgomery. Anne of Green Gables and her other novels were a huge part of my adolescence. I loved her characters fiercely and the summer of my fifteenth year was spent finding and reading every work she had ever
written. There is such a beauty to the worlds that she created. There are shades of Anne and Gilbert in Aurora and Hayden – Aurora’s fierce dislike of Hayden hints at how attracted she really is to him, as did Anne’s for Gilbert and both characters are huge romantics with big hearts.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

Anne of Green Gables! She gets to marry the gorgeous Gilbert Blythe, so enough said. Plus, she has the most optimistic, lovely view on the world. Every stranger is a potential kindred spirit to her. I like that notion.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

I adore going to the theatre. I would love to have the chance to write for theatre one day. There’s something magical about seeing the written words of a script brought to life so vividly and often so unexpectedly by the actors that is tremendously affecting. Johanna Murray Smith just blows me away as a playwright – I am both in awe and immensely envious of her ability to write such hilarious yet immensely emotional stories. Other hobbies include adding to my jewellery collection, planning hypothetical luxury holidays and a worrying addiction to Pinterest.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

Food – dark chocolate strawberry Lindt – far too many pieces get consumed whilst I’m writing. Favourite drink? If I’m being saintly its fruit smoothies, if I’m being sinful its magaritas.

Who is your hero? Why?

There are too many to name. Anyone who takes a risk and puts themselves out there as creative professional, whether that’s as a writer, film maker, jewellery designer or musician.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

The transition from traditional print form to e-books is what is really shaking things up for the industry, along with the availability of cheap books from overseas websites – the traditional local bookstore is finding it tough times to survive.

E books can be opportunities for readers to discover new authors because its less of a risk price wise to buy something new. If someone enjoys an authors work, they may then buy the entire backlist and become a new fan. That’s a boon for the author.

However I do believe that there will always be people who prefer the print form (I am one of them) and we just have to ensure that we support our booksellers by buying locally.

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Player Profile: Felicity Young, author of Antidote to Murder

felicity-youngFelicity Young, author of Antidote to Murder

Tell us about your latest creation…

Antidote to Murder is book 2 of my Dody McCleland historical mystery series. The series is set in Edwardian London
and features Dody McCleland, Britain’s first female autopsy surgeon. In this book Dody is accused of conducting a criminal abortion, for which the penalty is death.

9780732293697Where are you from / where do you call home?

Not sure where I am from! Born in Germany, educated in the UK and lived all over the world! Home these days is Gidgegannup, WA.

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

All sorts of things! The arts (writing, the stage) was the biggest attraction, but I didn’t think I would be able to support myself that way and so chose the safer option of nursing – which I thoroughly enjoyed. The Arts came later, so I like to think I had the best of both worlds.

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?

My present series – naturally! Seriously though, I love writing about the Edwardian period and hope my passion for it is reflected in the writing.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

I write at a large cluttered desk in my bedroom. The desk faces a window that has a stunning view of our rural property. My little dog is usually sitting at my feet or, as he is now, snoring softly from my bed.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

I guess you could call me an eclectic reader who leans towards crime. I’m currently reading Peter Robinson’s latest and before that it was Stephen Fry’s bios. I also enjoy contemporary literary but don’t read too many classics these days –
had enough of those at school and uni.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

So many, where to start? The classic fairy tales, Beatrix Potter, Water Babies, C.S Lewis,Black Beauty, Hiedi, Anne of Green Gables etc progressing to the Willard price Adventure books, Alistair McClaine. Hammod Innes then Graham
Greene, Morris West etc when I became an angsty teenager.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

Hmmm, that’s a hard one. The Scarlet Pimpernel perhaps? Risking my life for a worthy cause?

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

Look after the menagerie, the farm, my organic veg patch, breed rare catfish, play the piano and fight bushfires with our local volunteer bushfire brigade.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

That’s an easy one – Oysters, champagne, and chocolate. Also very partial to spicy (vegetarian) food.

Who is your hero? Why?

Any member of my immediate family is a hero to me. They are all individuals in their own right with admirable, unique,
characteristics that I try to learn from.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

The tension between the traditional forms of publishing versus the new digital age. I hope the two forms can evolve in a way that is beneficial to both.

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Player Profile: Derek Pedley, author of Dead by Friday

dead-by-friday-coverDerek Pedley, author of Dead by Friday

Tell us about your latest creation…

Dead By Friday – how lust and greed led to murder in the suburbs – It’s the true story of two lovers who hire a hitman to kill their partners, but one of the lovers, Michelle Burgess, starts an affair with the hitman. It focuses on the 18-month period from when their affair began, through to the negotiation of two murder contracts outside a primary school, to the hitman eating one contract in a sandwich after it had been fulfilled. It also tells the story from the perspective of Michelle’s Burgess’s husband, Darren, the target of the second contract, who speaks publicly for the first time in this book.

I wanted to find out what made Michelle tick, so I commissioned respected forensic psychologist Dr Jack White to create a profile of Michelle Burgess and he delivers some genuine bombshells about her personality and her state of mind at the time of the murder.

The book is also intended to honour the memory of murder victim Carolyn Matthews, a wonderful woman whose life was overshadowed by the sordid and brutal plot that ended her life.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

I’m from Manjimup, a delightful timber town in Western Australia’s lower south west. I live in Adelaide’s far northern suburbs – the spiritual home of the Snowtown serial killers. It’s the second stint I’ve had in Adelaide – I came here for the weird crime in 1995 and liked it so much  I came back again in 2003 and stayed.

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

I wanted to be an author from the age of 8. Somewhere along the way I decided this was beyond me. So I set my sights much, much lower and became a newspaper journalist instead.

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?

Dead By Friday is easily my best work. It’s an extraordinary story that several people had previously tried to pin down without success. When I started researching it, I had interview knockbacks from virtually all the key characters. A lot of people were badly traumatised by this murder and, unsurprisngly, no one wanted to talk. It took five years of persistence, patience and negotiations to change their minds, but it was absolutely worth it.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

A small study at home with an office desk, a laptop and a shelf crammed with true crime books. On the walls are a Ned Kelly Wanted poster, A framed newspaper article about Brenden Abbott and a poster with every single Simpsons character.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

I read an unhealthy amount of true crime, but also love a good biography. I’ve rarely read fiction in recent years, but discovering GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books last year was an absolute revelation. I immersed myself in the amazing world of Westeros and now live in constant fear that the fat old guy will die before he finishes writing the series.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

I was a voracious reader as a kid, but there was nothing I read that I would describe as “defining”. In 1991, when I was a young cadet journalist, I read David Simon’s Homicide – A Year on the Killing Streets. Nothing before or since has inspired me as much as that book – the characters, the painstaking detail, the humour, the dialogue, the structure and above all, the writing.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

Stumped on this one. Hannibal Lecter? He did have such fantastic manners and tastes.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

Spare time – what a fantastic concept! I I waste time playing Call of Duty and in fact had to institute a one-year ban on it to ensure I got Dead By Friday written. Also a passionate West Coast Eagles fan and fantasy footy nut.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

I love a good seafood platter with a Heineken on the side.

Who is your hero? Why?

David Simon. I admire his writing talent and his ability to tell sprawling stories with great pathos, using very real and very complex characters. Sadly, he’s not written many books, but has promised that he will one day “put down the crack pipe of TV” and go back to books.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

Maintaining the quality of writing – and the trust of readers – amid the growing slushpile of eBooks.

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Player Profile: Felicity Pulman, author of A Ring Through Time

Pulman_felicityFelicity Pulman, author of A Ring Through Time

Tell us about your latest creation…

A Ring Through Time is a ghostly romance set on Norfolk Island with a timeslip back to the brutal Second Penal Colony. Alice and Cormac are two star-crossed lovers whose ill-fated romance will haunt the future unless Allie can solve a family mystery and lay the ghosts of the past to rest.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

I was born in Zimbabwe but have lived in Sydney for more than 40 years. Home is close to the beach and to the bush and I love them both.

a-ring-through-timeWhen you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

I’ve written stories from the time I learned how to write – but never considered it a career option, it was just something I did – while dreaming about being a famous musician, or a brilliant surgeon – always something wonderful – until real life intruded! I was 40 by the time I started to take my writing seriously – a bit of a slow developer!

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?

I always love what I’m writing about; it becomes my whole world. I always find it hard to let go at the end, and I have to wait to fall in love all over again with the new book and its characters. I give every book my absolute best shot – and I hope I’m getting better with practice!

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

I’ve colonised a spare bedroom for my study and its crammed with books (mostly for research purposes, my fiction lives elsewhere.)  I have two filing cabinets + cupboards and shelves jammed with old mss, photo albums (for research) papers, etc etc. I also have an altar decorated with semi-precious stones and objects that hold special significance for me. And a CD player. There’s a lovely view out of one window, but once I’m writing I might as well be living in a cupboard!

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

Because many of my books have a basis in history (medieval and Australian) I read historical fiction and non fiction. I’m also a crime addict and I love family sagas too. Standout Aus. authors for me include Helen Garner, Marcus Zusak’s Book Thief and Geraldine Brooks.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

In my day there was little choice other than Enid Blyton.  I so loved The Magic Faraway Tree that I think I’m still writing versions of it!

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

Lisbeth Salander – I envy her strength, her courage, her freedom – but I might like to temper her prickles with the knowledge and caring of a Brother Cadfael.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

I bush walk, body surf and snorkel at home and in exotic places like Indonesia, Fiji, Mozambique, Vanuatu and the Galapagos Islands. I’ve swum with manta rays, seals and penguins – it’s a magical world underwater.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

Smoked salmon and avocado accompanied by a glass or two of chardonnay (not trendy I know, but I’m now old enough to please myself!)

Who is your hero? Why?

I admire people who perfect their craft and use it for the benefit of others as opposed to their own self-glorification – someone like Victor Chang, for example.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

For authors (and probably publishers and booksellers too) I think the challenge will be to adapt to changing technology and new ways of telling stories. I hope the book per se will never die – but once people become used to reading and interacting with stories on line and using different aps, then it might well be said that ‘the author is dead’.

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Review: Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

summerscaleKate Summerscale’s book is more than just the story of a Victorian wife’s romantic indiscretions and a scandalous divorce case. It is a glimpse of a changing society. One in which a  woman’s sexuality could be discussed in terms of hysteria and insanity caused by disorders of the womb. One in which gynaecology and psychology were new medical disciplines and homeopathy, phrenology and hydropathy were accepted and resorted to by such eminent figures as the Brontes, George Eliot (Mary Evans), Darwin,  Dickens and even members of the Royal family. And one in which the new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was established, making divorce easier and less expensive to obtain on the grounds of adultery and (for women petitioners) one additional “matrimonial offence” (i.e. desertion, cruelty, bigamy, rape, sodomy or bestiality). The law was beginning to recognize a married woman’s rights and the need to protect her  property, but a husband could still claim custody of his children and, as in the Robinsons’ case, ownership of all his wife’s papers.

Isabella Robinson was an intelligent, well-read and imaginative woman. In 1844, as a thirty-one-year -old widow with one child, she married Henry Robinson, a successful civil engineer whose business building steam-ships and sugar-cane mills often took him overseas. Henry already had a mistress and two illegitimate children, and he proved to be, in Isabella’s words, an “uncongenial partner…uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud“. He also persuaded her to hand him control of the money which had been settled on her by her father.

Isabella’s real misfortune was that like many lonely, romantically inclined women of her day, she was fatally inclined to foster romantic obsessions and to confide her most secret thoughts to her “secret friend” – her diary. How much of what she wrote there about her “wretchedest and wickedest hours” was romantic fiction, modeled on such books as Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, we will never know, but when her husband discovered the diary and read it he was incensed and determined to ruin the man Isabella had set her heart on. A Divorce Court judge, too, deemed it convincing enough to consider Henry’s petition for divorce for three months before pronouncing judgement.

The case was a public sensation and poor Isabella had to endure parts of her diary being read out in court and published in the newspapers. Fictional diaries were popular reading at the time but Isabella’s was, apparently, shocking fact. She was deemed by one newspaper editor to be either “as foul and abandoned a creature as ever wore woman’s shape” or to be a madwoman. And insanity was one plea open to Isabella in her own defence.

Summerscale’s research for this book sits lightly on a scandalous story but her endnotes show the care she has taken.  Like the well-known sequence of paintings ‘Past and Present’ by Leopold Egg, which depict the discovery and the sad results of a wife’s indiscretions, divorce was still a disaster for women and, too often, for their children as well. And although I never really warmed to Isabella in spite of her plight and the prolonged ordeal she underwent, Summerscale kept me reading to the end, when the result of the court case and the outcome for all those involved is revealed. I will not spoil the suspense by revealing what it was.

Buy the book here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2013

Website and Ted Hughes pages:

Review – The Treasure Box

Many of my generation (sadly not all) and those of the next, fortunately have not endured the atrocities of war like those seen during the Holocaust. That we are able to feel its impact, appreciate the drama and acknowledge its implications is the unique potency of a picture book. Margret Wild and Freya Blackwood exploit this power wondrously well.The Treasure Box

The quiet unassuming cover of the Treasure Box magnetised me from the moment I was handed the book. The subdued colours, lone tree bereft of leaf and life, fragments of words adrift; all at conflict with the title, which promises something far brighter and more uplifting. I was a little unprepared for the subtle magnitude of the tale, again preoccupied by the end papers, comprising scraps of text which interestingly are taken from Sonya Hartnett’s and Morris Gleitzmann’s foreign editions of their own wartime tales of displacement and loss.

We join young Peter’s story after his home town is destroyed leaving the library in ruin. Books once housed there are transformed to nothing more substantial than bits of ash as ‘frail as butterflies.’ That is all but one; a book that by fortuitous happenstance had been taken home by Peter’s father before the bombing.

Treasure box illoPeter’s father is intent on safe-guarding the book for the stories it contains; stories that tell the history of Peter’s people, of a past ‘rarer than rubies, more splendid than silver, greater than gold.’ The book is secured in an old iron box which forms part of the meagre possessions they flee with from their homeland.

Peter’s father does not survive the soul crushing exodus but instills in Peter tremendous tenacity and a promise to keep their ‘treasure safe’. Unable to continue with such a load but true to his word Peter buries the box under an ancient linden tree, to which he returns many years later. His single-handed courage and loyalty perpetuates the most valuable treasure of all – the gift of hope and love.

Margaret WildMargaret Wild’s eloquent sense of story and place transports the reader into the very heart and soul of Peter and his father. Her thoughtfully sparse narrative paradoxically permeates every inch of the page and ounce of our attention. Neither her words nor the illustrations compete for space in this book. They work in convincing unison, caressing the story along and guiding us skilfully through horrific, almost unimaginable situations like sleeping in ditches, and holding the hand of a dying father.Freya Blackwood

Freya Blackwood’s artwork is instantly recognisable, however is taken one step higher using collage and multi-layering to create a stunning subtle 3D effect. Characters literally appear to be trudging across the page, accompanied by the metaphoric charred fragments of the leaves of a million books. The story is further enriched with delicate contrasts and symbolism on each page, all in the haunting sepia coloured tones of despair and misery.

Only the intensity of the treasure box itself, shown in vibrant red throughout, never fades. By Peter’s maturity, colour and prosperity have returned to his hometown. Even the library radiates with a glorious, golden yellow – hope restored.

I happened upon this picture book late last year, in spite of its 2013 publication date. I thought it was a most serendipitous discovery, but did not fully appreciate its immense value until I uncovered its contents. Truly one to treasure.

Penguin / Viking January 2013

Player Profile: Noel Mealey, author of The Icon Murders

noel-mealeyNoel Mealey, author of The Icon Murders

Tell us about your latest creation…

The Icon Murders is a crime thriller, a tale of murder and of why people commit murder, and of the people who occupy our world, but are invisible to us, the ordinaery law abiding citizens. The story is about Syd Fielding, now  very senior in the WA police, who is accused by his best friends of multiple and brutal murders. Syd is emotionally scarred, a romantic man and a loyal friend. He has a flawed religious philosophy and a conscience that is flexible enough to accommodate violence. As he struggles to control his own inner voices, Syd must defend himself, without mercy to those who have set him up. After all, when right and wrong, good and bad, co-exist in every person … who deserves to live and who to die? It is a story about political corruption and evil, and a love story with a different ending.

icon-murdersWhere are you from / where do you call home?

I live in an apartment in Brisbane, with my wife of 50 years. We travel a lot, and spend a lot of time in Phnom Penh, where we have a hotel in partnership with our daughter. The hotel is an endless  source of interesting characters.

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

I always wanted to write, but circumstances demanded that I should not dream but should have a career that might bring in some income. Looking back now, I realise that sometimes one should follow childhood dreams. Easy to say from a distance.

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?

This is only my second book. I do believe that I have improved upon a very good debut novel. I have completed the third draft of my third book, and I am very excited about it. I have enjoyed immensely writing all  3 books, but this one is the tragicomedy that I always wanted to write

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

I am an orderly person in my usual life, however when I’m writing (which is almost always these days)  I become obsessive and my concentration is entirely upon my characters and my story, to the
point where I forget to pay the bills and to take care of my basic every day living. I start at 8 am every day and spend the first few hours dealing with stuff concerning the hotel and my superannuation, and then straight into the writing until 6pm with a short time off for lunch and maybe a long walk sometimes to clear the head. I love it.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

I’ve read a lot of crime. Lee Child, Nelson de Mille and much history and many historical novels. Before and while I was writing The Icon Murders, I read Graham Greene, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Dostoevsky. I think this combination has had a positive influence upon my writing this novel. Right now I’m reading Christopher Hitchens (“Arguably”) and hope to be able to write with his light touch.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

In Grade 7 we studied Macbeth, and I’ve had a great love of Shakespeare’s plays ever since then. To this day, I have books that I’ve kept over the years, by Ion Idriess, and Rolf Boldrewood. Wonderful adventure stories with Australian flavour, and A.W Horning  and Jacques Weygand. Tom Sawyer was another favourite and is still on my bookshelf.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

Whenever I read “A Farewell to France” by Noel Barber, I envy the main character, the young Astill (cannot remember his first name) for his carefree youth in the champagne district of France, and for the elegant style of living he managed during the war years in Paris.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

I have the hotel in Phnom Penh. My wife and I helped to get it started two years ago, and that has been an incredible learning curve for all of us. We both play bridge and love to travel. About every 12 weeks we go to Cambodia and we seem to manage to get to Paris every so often, where we have a friend who gives us his apartment at an economical rent. Love that city.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

I like white wine, but I suppose I have to say that a single malt scotch is hard to beat. I get no great fun from going to expensive ( pretentious ?) restaurants and when we eat out it is to a smaller Italian, or a good fish and chips place. I like Thai food and find it hard to go past pie and peas. Right now I’m doing the 2:5 diet which is so easy.

Who is your hero? Why?

It would be Winston Churchill, despite his terrible record in Ireland and India and his supposed dislike of Australians. I think anyone who could lead England out of the tragedy of the WWII, and who
foresaw many of the problems that would beset the remainder of the century, is worth a bit of hero-worshiping. Besides anything else, he was a great writer, with an incredible command of the language and an elegant style that holds my attention.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

I believe that we will come to see electronic readers as being a positive influence. If, of course you are a bookshop owner, then that is a challenge to be overcome. Books have been written and read for centuries. Often for the enjoyment of the reader. I cannot see that this will ever change. TV has been absorbed; we are coming to grips with Kindle etc. I don’t see a problem except for the usual challenge that we must, as writers continue to challenge and entertain and/or educate our readers.

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Buy the physical book here…

Interview with the ‘most powerful woman in’ and ‘librarian to’ the world

9780141037714There are few more pleasant surprises than finding out that the woman some have labeled ‘most powerful woman in the world’ and the ‘librarian’ to it is being interviewed by your favourite interviewer.

The woman in question is Wikimedia’s Executive Director, Sue Gardner. Her interviewer was none other than Richard Fidler. Gardner was in town for a conference and we (and by ‘we’, I mean the State Library of Queensland and the ABC) were fortunate enough to snarfoo her for a side talk.

Fidler opened by saying that he’d grown up with the weighty, doorstop tomes of Encyclopaedia Britannica; how large, by comparison, is Wikipedia? Somewhere in the vicinity of 24 million article and still growing, was Gardner’s answer. Wikipedia also has a hefty (but, as we discovered by the end of the conversation, entirely achievable) ambition to bring the ‘sum total of all human knowledge’ to everyone, everywhere, in their own language.

There was much to muse over during and after the conversation, and I’ll not bore you by repeating everything here (besides, you can hear it firsthand via the podcast). Some points that stick out, though, are that Wikipedia has morphed from a site not accepted as a viable resource and one that few editors would admit contributing to, to one that we use multiple times daily and which people are including their contribution details of on their college applications and resumes.

Wikipedia is in some ways an accidental success. Jimmy Wales set it up to complement and feed into his real baby, Newmedia, an encyclopaedia populated through contributions from experts. That’s in stark contrast to Wikipedia’s egalitarian, anyone-can-edit ethos, and it ultimately didn’t pan out. Wales reportedly says that he ‘always knew’ Wikipedia would work, although Gardner earned chuckles from the audience by saying she thinks it’s possibly ‘revisionist history’ (albeit an entirely entitled one).

When you think about it, Wikipedia’s success and unlikely, common-people beginning actually kind of fits with knowledge publications’ habits and history. For example, The Surgeon of Crowthorne documents how of the most prolific and respected contributors to the inaugural Oxford English Dictionary was actually a man in Broadmoor, the worst of the worst lunatic asylums, for murder (not that I’m implying Wikipedia’s editors are of unsound mind or morals—more that editing competency and access are what counts, not where you currently reside).

Gardner was careful to stipulate that she’s not Wikipedia’s publisher. A publisher, she clarified, is ‘editorially responsible’ (and, one can extrapolate, sue-able for it). The machinations of Wikipedia are fascinating, including the challenges Gardner and her team face to consolidate and strengthen its work.

Most of the editors are educated males, which makes sense as they’re the most likely to have the time and resources to contribute, but which also lends itself to a skew in articles towards a male, western audience. How to get more women involved, as well as more people from developing nations, are challenges that Gardner is trying to tackle now.

Fidler then asked the question that had been puzzling me for the majority of their interview: If you’re not writing or editing the content, and if you’re not corralling the editors, what exactly do you do? It was, Gardner admits, a huge initial ‘trust fall’ to accept that she didn’t have editorial control—as a former editor and newsroom runner for CBS, she was used to running the show.

The internally devised rules and the democratic editing community overseeing them mean that Gardner can instead dedicate her time to developing new functionality (for example, Wikipedia’s about to release a WYSIWYG CMS, which I didn’t realise they didn’t already have) and working with lawyers.

It seems there are a bunch of people out there who aren’t keen on what’s been written about them and who aren’t afraid to loose some lawyers to try to get entries taken down. That’s not even starting on the contentious entries, including those of Barack ‘was he or wasn’t he born in the US’ Obama and Todd ‘legitimate rape’ Akin, which come with their own, specific and special challenges.

Gardner first came to know Wikipedia because her staff was complaining: ‘The interns are using Wikipedia. How do we stop them?’ She first truly came to respect its level of operation and its efforts to source and authenticate information when it was reporting the Virginia Tech Massacre. Wikipedia’s editors, she realised, were having the same conversations as bona fide journalists in newsrooms around the world: How many are dead? Has that been confirmed? Who’s confirmed it? And so on.

She also said something that stopped me in my note-taking tracks: We’ve had it all wrong for decades. Journalism isn’t a profession. It’s a function, a tool, a way of thinking, something reasonably smart people do as they try to investigate something.

It was Fidler who, despite earlier expressing well-founded incredulity at Wikipedia’s aim to bring information to anyone and everyone everywhere, ultimately led us to realise its reasonable, achievable, and important ambitions. He told a story of meeting a Chinese exchange student at a dinner party. When he and his co-diners raised the topic of Tiananmen Square and its cultural, world-changing ripple effects, the student thought they were joking. Having grown up in mainland China, she hadn’t known about the event at all. It’s sites such as Wikipedia, we shocked, goosebumped audience members realised, that will likely prove integral in disseminating information in future decades.

You can download and listen to Gardner and Fidler’s interview in full here.

Neil Gaiman’s sneezy picture book

My youngest daughter just got given a copy of Neil Gaiman’s new picture book, Chu’s Day, for her birthday. I loved it so much, that I had to write about it immediately.

Chu's Day

Neil Gaiman is no stranger to books in which text and graphics combine to tell a story. After all, he made his name writing comics and graphic novels such a Sandman and Books of Magic. And he’s gone on to write illustrated children’s books such as The Dangerous Alphabet (illustrated by Gris Grimly) and the wonderful The Wolves in the Walls (illustrated by Dave McKean). But I think this must be his first book for much younger kids (please shout me down and correct me in the comments section, if I’m wrong about this).

Chu’s Day is a story about a little panda with a big sneeze. And it is a charming book. It is cute; it is clever; it is simple; and is utterly delightful.

Gaimen’s text is superb with its play on words and sounds. Chu’s Day sounds like Tuesday, but also alludes to the sound of a sneeze — Aaaachooooooooo! But just as Gaiman knows well how to use words, he also knows how to not use them. So many picture books are overly wordy, with the text and pictures telling the reader exactly the same thing. Not so with this book. Gaiman holds back, allowing the pictures to add to the story — to show the reader things that are not said. Nowhere does the text actually describe the outcome of Chu’s big sneeze — that is all done with the illustrations. This allows preschoolers to discover important elements of the story for themselves (without having to have all the revelations read to them).

And the illustrations by Adam Rex are BEAUTIFUL! There is so much to look at on every page. The detail, particularly in the library and the circus, is glorious. You could ignore the words and just stare at these pictures for ages.

I’m being very effusive about this book, but it is everything a good young children’s picture book should be — engaging text; gorgeous illustrations; and a touch of wit to keep the parents amused.

Catch ya later,  George

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Player Profile: Margareta Osborn, author of Hope’s Road

margareta-osbornMargareta Osborn, author of Hope’s Road

Tell us about your latest creation…

My latest book is called HOPE’S ROAD (Bantam, Random House). This novel is a  captivating rural romance set in the rugged, beautiful high country of East Gippsland.

Montmorency Downs has been in Tammy McCauley’s family for five generations. The land, and all it has to offer, flows through her veins, and she couldn’t imagine any other life. When her abusive husband walks out, he strikes where it hurts most, and Tammy is forced to do something she never imagined she could do.

Joe McCauley has long been estranged from his family. Sixty years ago he walked out on his parents and brother, and never looked back. He now lives alone on McCauleys Hill, widowed, with no friends or family to rely on. When he falls and breaks his hip, he is forced to rely on his neighbours and great-niece – who he has never spoken to – to avoid being placed in a home.

Travis Hunter is struggling to adapt to the role of single father. A dog trapper who hasn’t spoken to his brother in years, he is attempting to suppress growing feelings for Tammy and trying to be a father – but doesn’t know how to. Still heartbroken from his wife walking out on him, he finds it hard it hard to let anyone in, especially his ten year old son, Billy.

hopes-roadWhen a massive flood threatens their land and lives, they must come together under the most difficult of circumstances to save each other.

Hope’s Road brings these characters together in a tale of love, faith, heritage, and loss. When pitted against adversity – whether in the form of abusive, unfaithful husbands, absent mothers, deep feelings of betrayal and anger, lack of self belief, the perils of the land or the temperament of Mother Nature, Tammy, Joe and Travis will unite to show that no matter what life throws at you, there is always hope.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

I’m a fifth-generation farmer who has lived and worked on the land all my life. Home is the beautiful Macalister Valley of East Gippsland where, with my husband and three children, I spend many hours in the mountains where my novels are set.

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

A farmer, a parks and wildlife ranger or a nurse with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. I’ve managed to achieve variances of the first two of the three. I also seemed to think back then I could write in my spare time. Why I thought there would be any of that, I have no idea!

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?

My children. Because a) they are adorable (most of the time). I love and cherish every moment with them, and b) they are a blank canvas. It is up to us to guide and support their growth in life. It’s such a privilege (and challenge).

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

My office. It is chaotic. Farm bookwork rubs up against writing paraphernalia. Craft work and the linen press compete for attention. Sometimes I just give up, grab my laptop and head for the nearest hilltop. At least the view is good there and I’m not filled with guilt over what I SHOULD be doing.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

I have an eclectic taste. I like to read good quality fiction. I love anything written by Geraldine Brooks, Caroline Overington and Diana Galbaldon. Other all time favourites are The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd), The Dovekeepers (Alice Hoffman), The Guersey Litereary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & A Barrows). I also like to throw in the occasional Lee Child or Vince Flynn novel and even some of Robin Hobb’s fantasy tales.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong Books. I adored them and whilst watering the farm trees in the drought of the early 80’s, I devoured the whole series. It took me the whole summer. When I found out Grant Bruce was born not 30 kilometres from where I lived, and the country she was writing about was ‘my’ country’, I was in heaven.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

Elizabeth Bennet. Why: Mr Darcy (especially if he looks anything like Colin Firth in a wet shirt). Need I say more?

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

Fight bush fires. Hike around the mountains searching for brumbies. Arrange church flowers. Ride motorbikes, horses and waterski like a mad woman. Oh, and I bake cakes and make the odd quilt.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

A camp oven roast followed by apple pie and cream. Drink? Where do I start? Cowboy shots (see my book BELLA’S RUN :). Vodka and raspberry? I will have to say though, nothing goes past my late
mother’s cold tea punch recipe, especially on a boiling hot day.

Who is your hero? Why?

My husband. He embodies everything that is good in a man.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

Accessibility to books for everyone. It’s all very well to have e-books being the way of the future. But here in the bush, we need to have good internet access to ensure we can join in this evolutionary
change. Here, where I live, I can barely download one book let alone a whole personal library.

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Buy the physical book here…

A life in words: CAL Scribe Fiction Prize winner Lesley Jørgensen

Lesley Jørgensen didn’t start writing with big ambitions, much less with the goal of picking up the CAL Scribe Fiction prize. Her entry, Cat & Fiddle, began life as the first piece that she had to write for her RMIT Novel 1 workshop. It grew into a humourous and touching multilayered portrayal of contemporary life, interracial love, and generational and cultural clashes, and picked up the 2011 award.

Cat & Fiddle explores the multicultural and generational culture clash in modern-day Britain when the lives of two very different families, the Muslim-Bangladeshi Choudhurys and the landed English Bournes, become entwined during the renovation of Bourne Abbey. Lesley’s own background is as diverse and fascinating as the cast of her novel; she’s trained as a registered nurse while also completing simultaneous arts and law degrees, and has worked as a medical-negligence lawyer in Australia and England. While in England, she married into a Muslim Anglo–Bangladeshi family.

We caught up with her to ask a few questions about the book, and what tips she has for aspiring writers.

What was the hardest part of writing? And the most enjoyable?

I found the actual writing of it quite easy, and very enjoyable, particularly when I was also working as a lawyer.  Full-time writing doesn’t suit me particularly: I just get fat and lazy. But ideas seem to germinate and develop very effectively in my unconscious while I am running a legal practice, so I usually find that lunch breaks and evenings are my most productive times to write.
While I am lucky enough to have never found writing painful or difficult, the process of organising my writing into a coherent whole, to see it as a whole, and of having to cut my own work, very difficult indeed. I would be nowhere without the necessary slashing and burning of my petite but ruthless editor, Aviva Tuffield.

Cat and FiddleWhere did this story begin?

I started with an image of a woman seen at a window, who is mistaken for a ghost, and who is in fact a ghost in her own life. I had no idea at the time as to where this image had come from, although with hindsight, it was very much how I thought of myself, in the last year of my marriage. In time, this character became Rohimun Choudhury and the rest ‘growed like Topsy’ with no particular plan or aim in mind. And when Mrs Begum and Doctor Choudhury came on the scene, they pretty much took over, and it was out of my hands from that point on.

Everyone in the book is struggling to reconcile their cultural clashes; were you worried about tackling so many religious and cultural viewpoints?

I think litigation lawyers deal every day with multiple truths and multiple points of view, all of which have some legitimacy. Every point of view has its own truth and its own validity and that was why Cat & Fiddle ended up as an ensemble piece, with nine major characters, rather than one or two.
I wasn’t worried about tackling multiple viewpoints, rather that I wasn’t tackling enough of them. I still feel quite a yen for writing a couple of chapters dedicated to the remaining minor characters, such as Mrs Begum’s friend Mrs Darby and her Lydiard Women’s Institute intrigues, not to mention Doctor Chaudry’s nemesis Professor Bertha Beeton.
As far as the religious and cultural differences go, they have always fascinated me, particularly where you have that tension between fairly extreme right-wing beliefs, such as fundamentalist Islam or born-again Christianity or cultish beliefs such as Scientology, and everyday life in a first-world Western society. The complicated manoeuvring and the multiple personas used by individuals trying to reconcile their adopted beliefs with their own lifestyle and their own needs, is impressive, moving and sometimes quite sad.

The book contains a great many tantalising descriptions of food and drink, especially Mrs Begum’s cooking. Is food and writing about it a passion of yours?

I am so not a foodie. Brought up with bad British cooking, I can cook just about nothing, but eat just about anything which is very handy in extreme situations like school camps, backpacking in Eastern Europe and cooking for myself with no packets available. People who can cook well and even invent their own recipes seem to me a race apart and it is certainly one of the reasons that I have so much respect for Mrs Begum and anyone else who can do that kind of thing.

What advice would you give to people who want to get their own novel from in their head to into print?

Bum on the chair is always the absolute first rule: nothing can happen without that. There are people who just write, and do it all off their own bats: I am not one of them. I took the path of doing a well-recognised course which was taught, most importantly, by working writers rather than academics. Writers know what they’re talking about, and they will bring out the best in you. And if they have a paid job lecturing, they don’t have to live on beans while they write. I can fully recommend the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing course, which is heavy on the work-shopping (essential) and will also bring you friends for life and connections which may help you get published.

Lesley now lives in Adelaide with her two children and is working on her next book, a fiction murder mystery based on a real-life South Australian murder a few years ago. “And I’m trying very hard to keep those two pushy women, Mrs Begum and Mrs Guri, out of it!”

The Lost Tail picture book

The Lost TailA really interesting picture book made its way onto my review pile recently. It combines a simple story with the cultural heritage of the Papua New Guinea tribes. The Lost Tail is written by Patricia Bernard and illustrated by Tricia Oktober.

This picture book is set against the backdrop of the Goroka Show, a yearly tribal cultural festival in Papua New Guinea. Each year, tribes from across the country come together to celebrate their culture with displays of music, dance and rituals. Nura is a young boy and a member of the Bundi Boys dance group that is going to attend the Goroka Show and perform their snake dance. As the smallest member of the group, Naru holds up the tail of the long back snake made of straw and cloth that they use in the dance.

The Lost Tail tells the story of Naru’s journey to the festival, and then of how he loses and finds the rest of the group at the Show… just in time for their performance. It’s a very simple story, but one that allows for the inclusion of much cultural detail. As Naru travels to the Show, he remembers his mother’s words, telling him about his tribe’s mythology. And when he is lost at the Show, he encounters many other people, thus introducing the reader to ghost dancers, chicken dancers, warriors and beauty queens. This story is a journey of discovery for the reader.

Bernard’s words are straightforward and to the point. Oktober’s illustrations are lovely and colourful. They work well together.

The back cover includes a bit of information about the Goroka Show, but not nearly enough. I was left wanting to know more about the Show and about the tribes of Papua New Guinea. I think the book would have benefited from a page or two of non-fiction at the end.

Young kids are likely to enjoy the simple story and colourful pictures, but there is also material for older readers to dwell on.

Catch ya later,  George

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Doodles and Drafts – Peter Allert Part Two

Today we continue to follow exciting new Queensland talent, Peter Allert and have a sqizz at his first published children’s picture book, Long Live Us!Long Live Us PB

Q Where has your work appeared?

My first book was ‘Long Live Us’ written by Edel Wignell and published by IP Kidz in 2011. Since then I have been focussing on my own illustrations and writing my own children’s book. I was part of a SCBWI Illustrators Exhibition at the Brisbane City Library in 2012 exhibiting my illustrations from Long Live Us and other projects.

Over the years I have volunteered my services as an illustrator to gain more experience, this was helpful in building my portfolio.

I have Illustrated Artwork for Aurealis Australian Fantasy & Sci-Fi Magazine This has been exciting as you have to sum up a whole story into one illustration which can be a challenge. But these are the challenges that make being an illustrator worth it for me. Anything that allows you to be creative should be encouraged.

Q What children’s books have you illustrated?

In 2010 I finished illustrating my first children’s book for Interactive Publications, Pty, Ltd. “Long Live Us!” was written by Edel Wignell and published by IP Kidz in 2011.

Q How long did it take to complete your picture book project, “Long Live Us!”?

As I was working fulltime it mostly worked on the weekends and whenever I had spare time, from the character inception, storyboarding, final illustrations and adding colour in was approx. 15 to 18 months.

Peter Allert illoQ I can barely master a stick drawing. Do you like to dabble in the written word and if so, have you consider writing your own children’s book?

Yes, I would encourage any illustrator to attempt this. Apart from it possibly turning out to be a published book, it also gives you insight into the processes of how a book is developed. I am working on several ideas at the moment, I will be happy to share them once they are closer to completion.

Q Which Aussie children’s book illustrator do you admire most and why?

I believe Shaun Tan has opened up a lot of doors for illustrators in Australia and inspired many to pursue their craft. He combines his mastery of painting and illustrating with new perspectives in storytelling. Plus he’s just a nice guy.

Q Name one ‘I’ll never forget that’ moment in your illustrating career so far.

Professionally I’m not surprising anyone by saying that when they send you a copy of the book you have just illustrated or written and you see it the first time with your name, it is one of the best moments in your career. On a personal level though I completed an illustration I was very proud of and still am to this day. I looked back and said ‘did I do this?’ That is also a great moment for illustrators because you know all your long hours and work have paid off.

Q What is on the storyboard for Peter?

This year I will be attending and volunteering for the CYA Conference for the 8th Year in a row. I would encourage anyone considering becoming an illustrator, writer, or both to attend this conference. It gives you a great set of skills and understanding of the industry to start you off. Apart from that I would like to start another book and illustrate some of the photographs I took in Japan or Sweden last year. I am always open for new challenges and will add any of my new work to my website

Have a look at this charming little trailer for Long Live Us! featuring some dubious fairy tale folk and one very hungry troll. (just click on the link)

Long Live Us!


Player Profile: Lisa Walker, author of Sex, Lies and Bonsai

lisa-walkerLisa Walker, author of Sex, Lies and Bonsai

Tell us about your latest creation…

‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ is the story of Edie, a shy, awkward redhead who has returned to her childhood home on the north coast of New South Wales after her ‘perfect’ boyfriend dumps her by text message. It’s been called ‘a quirky love story’, ‘a zany romance’ and ‘a bloody good laugh.’

Where are you from / where do you call home?

I was born in Holland, grew up in Fiji and spent my teenage years in Brisbane. I then worked all over Australia, from the Barrier Reef to the Snowy Mountains. I am now delighted to call the beautiful north coast of New South Wales home.

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

My first ambition was to become a dolphin trainer. After that I decided I wanted to become a park ranger and, eventually, I did! Really though, I have always wanted to write, it just took a while for that simmering desire to become a reality.

sex-liesWhat do you consider to be your best work? Why?

I only have two published novels at this stage, ‘Liar Bird’ and ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ and also a radio play ‘Baddest Backpackers.’ I love them all but ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ is my favourite, because while it is a comedy I think it does capture the joy, pain and drama of falling in and out of love.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

I work in a corner of my bedroom on a small desk which is usually overun with paper. The best part about it is that it has a view of the sea, although that can be quite distracting at times. I have a collection of objects on my desk that remind me of my stories. ‘Liar Bird’ is a ceramic tree frog, while ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsai’ is a small statue of Japanese lucky gods.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

I am a very eclectic and whimsical reader. I love a good comedy, but also read a lot of literary fiction. Most recently, I have enjoyed ‘Nine Days’ by Toni Jordan, ‘Black Mountain’ by Venero Armanno and ‘Little Bee’ by Chris Cleave. My goal for 2013 is to read as much Australian fiction as possible.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ turned me into an obsessive cupboard dweller as a child. I was sure that one day I would get through the back wall to a snow-covered landscape with a lone lamp post, a faun carrying parcels and a bunch of talking animals. Actually, that feeling is still with me.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

Lucy from ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ because she gets to Narnia first!  Who wouldn’t want to be Queen Lucy the Valiant?

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

I surf at least a few times a week – every day if it’s good. On holidays, I am as active as possible and come back exhausted. I love disappearing into wild places with no internet or phone.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

Mangoes and coffee! I’m pretty wholesome really.

Who is your hero? Why?

My heroes are too many to mention.  I admire people who are prepared to stand up for what is right – in particular, those who dedicate their lives to protecting our environment.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

The use of computers in various ways impinges on leisure time that would previously have been used for reading. I am guilty of that myself. But it is clear to me that there are still large numbers of
passionate readers out there. The book is far from dead.

Follow Lisa:

Buy the physical book here…

New Video: Boyd Anderson interview about AMBER ROAD – Random Book Talk


With intrigue, romance and suspense to rival Gone With the Wind, AMBER ROAD tells an epic story of one woman’s indomitable spirit against the backdrop of World War Two.

As an empire is swept away, a young woman’s world is ripped apart…

It’s 1941 and seventeen-year-old Victoria Khoo lives in luxury in colonial Singapore. Her carefree days are spent fantasising about marrying Sebastian Boustead, scion of a great British merchant family, and becoming mistress of his imposing mansion on Amber Road.

Not even Sebastian’s arrival from London with his new fiancée, Elizabeth Nightingale, can dampen her dreams…

Then the war reaches Asia and ‘Fortress Singapore’ abruptly surrenders to the Japanese. As the inhabitants are deserted by Britain, Victoria is forced to protect both her family and her rival, Elizabeth, from the cruelty of the occupation.

Victoria’s old life has vanished in a heartbeat – but nothing will stand in the way of her destiny. Not the war. Not Elizabeth. And certainly not Joe Spencer, the charismatic Australian who both charms and infuriates her at every turn…

Available now.

Also available as an ebook.
Brett: You make no allusions about the parallels between AMBER ROAD and Gone with the Wind. In fact it kind of percolates right through the book. Interestingly Gone with the Wind brought to the screen in 1939, just as the Second World War was starting. How did that classic inspire you and the characters in AMBER ROAD?
Boyd: Well that’s actually where the whole thing started. I was riding my bike one day and I had just seen the Gone with the Wind film—which I have to say I think is better than the book—probably for the twentieth or thirtieth time and it was just, as you say, percolating around in my brain. That story about the end of the civilisation of the South because of the Civil War is really not a big story when you think about what happened as a result of the Second World War. That was the end of the British Empire. An entire empire finished. Not only did that empire finish over those five or six years, it finished on one day: the fall of Singapore was the end of the British Empire. You can date it to one day. That’s the store I wanted to write. Then I, as you say, percolated around for a bit and I’ve also found that I like the characters of Gone with the Wind: that strangely strong woman and the resourceful heroic man and how their relationship brings out what it does in the two of those people against the backdrop of a completely changing world is what excited me. So I sat down and started writing it and just couldn’t stop.
Brett: I can’t imagine how much effort goes into researching a book like AMBER ROAD. Where do you begin?
Boyd: You begin by loving research. If you don’t like research, if you don’t like delving into why things happen, you can’t do it. Fortunately, I love doing that, so it’s not a task, it’s a pleasurable pastime. The sources I had were impeccable because apart from all the sources that are available in Google, the libraries, archives and so on, I had sources in my own family. My wife is from that part of the world and she has relatives who lived through the time and I was able to interview them and get specific information and was directed into specific sources that were rather exclusive and certainly sources I hadn’t seen delved into in fiction before.
Brett: The detail of the history is remarkable and it feels, at times, personal. I believe that Ang Sana lodge, Sebastian… one of the main characters’ family home has a link with your own family, or inspired by a home in your own family?
Boyd: Part of my wife’s family actually lived in Amber Road right until the sixties but not in a house like that. A house like that comes from another branch of the family not in Singapore, but in Malaysia. They had houses of that type in other parts of the Malay Peninsula. So essentially putting all those things together. There were houses like that in AMBER ROAD—Amber Road is a real street by the way—and there were houses like that in those days, I mean they still exist. It’s a quite different road now; it used to be right on the waterfront, now it’s about a mile front the waterfront. There’s so much landfill in Singapore so it’s got a completely different feel to it.

Random Romance Part 2: Bloom

{A1F44EA0-4FE8-4BD8-A186-90C403554B09}Img200This review follows on from Random Romance Part 1 of 2: Breaking the Rules.

In Bloom, 36-year-old married mother of three Emma Eddington feels fat, forgotten, and all-round frumpy. Her husband works all the time and her children see her as their housekeeper meets taxi driver. She’s also frustrated because the misbehaving family dog has become her sole responsibility and regularly humiliates her in public:

The dog yanked her inelegantly from one side of the track to the other, tangling the lead around her legs. She rued the day the kids talked her into getting a dog. Getting fit would be so much easier without this powerhouse rodent-sized pet dragging her all over the bushy parkland.

The one upside is the handsome runner she sees in the park each night, a man she fantasises about as an escape from her daily mundanities. Murphy’s Law would have it that the personal trainer running bootcamps Emma’s yummy mummy friend encourages her to sign up for also happens to be the runner from the park.

Ramon, as the runner’s name turns out to be, asks if anyone has any injuries that might prevent them from participating fully in the class. Emma considers if she should say that she is ‘almost disabled from lack of exercise’, but doesn’t want to embarrass herself further. Of course her lack of fitness warrants Ramon paying Emma more attention, something her friend Lisa comments on: ‘Emma smirked. “You’re joking. The man feels sorry for me. I’m thirty-six and have the muscle tone of cooked spaghetti.”’

Things go the way romance novels do, despite Emma considering herself ‘suburban sludge’ and unworthy of Ramon’s affections. There are some reasonably clever, entirely-recognisable-to-mums exchanges in Bloom, including the following recognisably long-suffering conversation between Emma and her children:

Emma, still trying to catch her breath, groaned inwardly. The last thing she needed was to take that badly behaved dog into a classroom full of Prep kids.
‘Darling, that’s not a good idea.’
‘But Daddy said yes.’
‘Did he? I better have a talk with Daddy then.’
‘Yay! Thanks, Mummy.’

Another time, she hears the following chorus: ‘MUM! Where’s my singlet?’ Jack’s high voice rang up the stairs. Sally’s voice followed. ‘MU-UM, Elias says I’m too little to use the toaster.’

I have to admit that I was less able to suspend my disbelief for Belle’s second novella than for her first. Second time around, Ramon seemed too convenient, too confident, too nice (and I mean nice in its blandest sense), and too ready to perform a community service by giving women pleasure. Really? I found myself thinking at various stages, before reminding myself that romance as a genre is fantasy and largely divorced from reality. For a light escape, and particularly when read some time apart from the first Ramon instalment, the novella’s fine. Besides, it arguably makes it a good fit with the ‘random romance’ theme.

Strangely, the text’s greatest, most outrageous flaw for me was the fact that the character leaves the dog locked in her car while she goes to meet her friend for coffee. I realise it’s a fictional character leaving a fictional dog in there, but nothing about it is ok. ‘Dogs die in hot cars’ is the RSPCA’s awareness-raising tagline. It takes just six minutes—less than the time it takes to order and drink a takeaway coffee—for dogs to overheat in cars and die. It was, for me, an inexcusable and unnecessary error (and one I hope can be rectified given that the text is digital and, therefore, easily adjustable). Belle could have had the character perfunctorily set the dog up with a bowl of water at the table with her and moved on with the story.

Still, that’s a small detail and not one that affects the book as a whole. Bloom is a decent read and one many married mums will relate to and enjoy.

Bloom is available now. You can find out more about Belle and her books on the Random Romance page.

Thanks to Random House for the opportunity to review this title.

Random Romance Part 1: Breaking the Rules

{0AFED444-0DB7-4CFD-B467-4CFC0A7F16E6}Img200The merger between Random House and Penguin sparked much speculation about what the new company’s title would be, with ‘Random Penguin’ a clear, outlying favourite. That the company opted for the less fun ‘Penguin Random’ was a slight disappointment to us all, and we’ve all continued to run with ‘Random Penguin’ instead.

Random House Australia and its romance arm have shown they have a fabulous sense of humour, though, releasing their newly created ‘Random Romance’ series (and in the nick of time for Valentine’s Day, no less). Random Romance is an all-digital list of romance titles by Australian authors. It includes some rural romance (or, as I’ve heard it dubbed, ‘ru-ro’) titles, romcoms, and two erotic novellas.

I dipped in to the two novellas, Bloom and Breaking the Rules, which are both by Melbourne-based writer Kate Belle. Though standalone stories, they feature different women whose lives are changed by one man: accomplished lover Ramon Mendez. Both books are 100-ish page novellas, so speedy reading and, thanks to digital technology that now conceals a book’s identity from the rest of the passengers on public transport, surreptitious reading too …

Part 1 of 2: Breaking the Rules

Grace Kingston is a career-driven, slightly obsessive-compulsive academic who’s closed her heart off to love. Ramon is a cocky, tardy PhD student studying contemporary female eroticism and sexuality who specifically requested Grace to be his supervisor. Cue the couple getting off to a bad start:

She was instantly suspicious. What kind of man in his early thirties would choose to student that particular topic? It was the domain of women, her domain, not something men dabbled in—unless they were perverts.

Ramon gives Grace a book to read (purportedly one that inspired his studies). It’s entitled Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, and Ramon has been its dutiful student now turned teacher. It goes without saying that teacher–student relationships are rather frowned upon, but Grace (who’s technically the teacher but who is quickly becoming the student) finds herself falling for Ramon after their initial bad start: His handsome features were difficult to look at without feeling drawn to him, and the last thing she wanted was to be attracted to this presumptuous upstart she was to supervise.

Grace had always ‘prided herself on her immunity to attractive men. That was an affliction other women suffered from, not her.’ But, unable to offload supervision duties to her male counterparts, Grace begins to appreciate Ramon’s charms.

Breaking the Rules is the first in Belle’s novella series, and it’s an accomplished, engaging read. One gets the sense that Belle has (or still does) work in academia—the setting and the story elements ring lived-reality true. At the same time, Belle delivers a book that’s anything but focused on stuffy academia. She has a light touch and injects wit into serious moments. She also employs the word—now a new favourite of mine—‘unsnibbed’ in reference to undoing a lock.

Breaking the Rules is out now. You can find out more about Belle and her books on the Random Romance page.

Thanks to Random House for the opportunity to review this title.

The Sylvia Plath Moment

9780571268863I had my own Sylvia Plath moment this week, by eerie coincidence just days before the 50th anniversary of her death. The ancient, galvanised something-or-other pipes that channel gas to my apartment’s stove sprung, well, the plumber stopped counting at four leaks.

I spent days inhaling gas, first inadvertently and then deliberately as I tried to determine the leak’s source (at it turned out, sources, plural). Eventually, after having my neighbour over to help sniff with, er, fresh nose, and plagued both by an unbearable, eyes- and skull-aching headache and by a nagging fear that were I to go to sleep I might not wake up, I abandoned my apartment in favour of fresh air at my parents’ house.

Plath’s death has always held a macabre fascination for the publishing world, and it arguably kick-started her posthumous catapult to revered writer—she hadn’t published all that much prior to her death, although what was published and what has been published since are testament to her undeniable (if unstable) talent.

Her death also feeds into the legend of the tortured writer—one can’t, it seems, write without at the very least crippling writer’s block and at the worst all-consuming mental health issues that drive you to suicide. Would Plath be quite such a sensation without her tragic demise? We’ll never know. In my inexpert opinion I think her writing prowess would undoubtedly be recognised, but I’m unsure whether she’d be such a cultural phenomenon.

Speaking of cultural references, Plath’s approaching death anniversary has been overshadowed by controversy. The Bell Jar has been reissued with what can only be described as a poorly chosen cover. Faber’s chick lit-reeking design (AKA, the antithesis of The Bell Jar’s heavy topics and a design that would likely have disgusted Plath were she alive), features a red-lipsticked woman powdering her chin via the reflection in a compact.

9780571245642I won’t just say that this cover is inappropriate for the book’s content, I’ll say it’s just generally dud (the cover pictured to the right is much, much better). Nothing about it jumps off the shelf at you to encourage you to read much less buy it; nor does it evoke carefully thought out design for a long-time bestselling book that’s sure to generate huge interest and new sales. BBC America quotes Jezebel’s Morrissey summing it up well: ‘If Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself, she probably would’ve if she saw the new cover of her only novel The Bell Jar […] Also, it’s ugly and the colors suck.’

But I don’t need to say any of that, because social media said it faster and funnier for me with literary aficionados proposing and photoshopping cover parodies. The Guardian compiled a bunch of them, which you can view here alongside the original, offending 50th anniversary design. My favourite is the cover that’s gone literal, with a bell and a jar sitting side by side.

The questions are: Now that we know what the 50th anniversary shouldn’t look like, what should it? Oh, and have you seen any other The Bell Jar cover parodies I should know about?

Hello iPad Mini

photo[4]There are some weeks so bad that only comfort food and obscenely expensive aspirational purchases can save you. I’d argue I’ve just had one of those, having found out I have two tears in my knee and require an arthroscopy, getting flooded twice as badly as I did in 2011, and discovering that my stove has sprung a mammoth gas leak that will need wall-punchingly expensive plumbing repairs.

So, although I’d like to say that I bought my long-awaited, much-adored iPad Mini under happy circumstances (perhaps even—as I inadvertently worded it the other day—getting the clap on the way out of the Apple store), it’s come more as a consolation prize.

As consolation prizes go, though, I’m not complaining. The iPad Mini’s pretty incredible, and in just a few short days and limited plays, I’ve fallen in love with the following …

Its ereader capabilities

iPad_Mini_ereaderI’ve held out buying an ereader until now because I’m a dedicated worshipper of the cult of Apple, because I wanted to wait until the format wars died down, and because no ereader on the market did quite what I’d hoped (read: none were ‘Apple pretty’).

The crisp, white, Garamond font-inked pages unfurling on the iPad Mini actually made my heart soar. The handy functionality that enables me to highlight paragraphs, add notes, and more kind of make me wonder if I’ll ever return to physical copies, where I’m forced to dog-ear pages, add post-it notes that easily become unstuck, and rustle through pages down the track when I’m looking for a quote about something interesting that I vaguely remember marking somewhere along the way. In short, I’m obsessed with it and am currently plotting which ebooks I should buy.

Its accompanying magnetic cover

photoI had to buy it separately, but the iPad Mini’s light grey, magnetised cover that snaps on and snaps to without affecting usability or streamlined pretty is fantastic. Sometimes it’s the little things that really please.

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) app

SMH_AppThere are, rather confusingly, two SMH apps, and I downloaded both before discovering that the one I want appears in the iPad Mini’s newsstand. And, despite the initial confusion, the correct app’s proving brilliant. Indeed, traditional newspapers may be struggling to make the digital shift, but you wouldn’t know if from Fairfax’s SMH app. It’s crisp, clear, image-driven, and extremely aesthetically appealing. It’s also packed with handy functions to save stories for later, share with others, and jump to favourite sections.

I’m pretty sure this newspaper app will be my gateway app to the likes of apps for the New Yorker, Longform, and the New York Times.

The Foxtel Go app

photo[3]Released just a few weeks ago and sounding far too good to be true, this app enables you to connect two iPads/iPad Minis to one Foxtel subscription. My parents have two Foxtel connections these days purely because they were sick of me poaching the TV to watch football at precisely the same time they wanted to watch some form of British TV.

I’ve long since moved out and drive back over to take advantage of said second Foxtel connection (I mean, it’s not as if I can afford to install Foxtel at my own place) and, though I’d heard I could effectively siphon off their connection to my iPad Mini, I was convinced it wouldn’t work. Surely Foxtel would detect I wasn’t on the same network, that I in fact wasn’t even in the same house?

It turns out not (although I’m still unsure whether this is deliberate or an as-yet-undiagnosed quirk), and I can now successfully pilfer Foxtel’s football from my parents’ connection. Provided it doesn’t change the ‘loophole’, Foxtel Go is officially the best. app. ever.

Finding out what’s next

I’m just days into my iPad Mini discovery tour, so I’m sure there are more than a billion features and apps I’ve not yet discovered. Are there any you’d recommend I download immediately and roadtest?

*Please excuse my rather dodgy phone photos—I’m a little incapacitated and a lot a fan of take-it-from-your-phone efficiency and ease. You get the right idea from them, yeah?

Doctor Who and the Daemons

The DaemonsIn my last post, I wrote about The Diary of a Dr Who Addict by Paul Margs. In that book, the protagonist, David, mentions that his favourite of the Doctor Who novelisations (indeed, he says “Best book ever. No contest.”) is Doctor Who and the Daemons. So, of course, I had to re-read it… and tell you about it.

I used to read the Doctor Who novelisations all the time as a teenager — read and re-read and re-read — until my copies were tattered and dog-eared. Now, as an adult, I tend not to re-read books all that often. So it was rather nice to take a little nostalgic wander and re-read Doctor Who and the Daemons — my first novelisation re-read since Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth and Doctor Who and the Cave-monsters back in 2011 (see “Daleks and Cave-monsters”).

In this adventure, the third Doctor and his assistant, Jo Grant, head to the small town of Devil’s End, where an archaeological dig is about to unleash a demon. Of course it’s not really the occult at work — it’s an ancient alien science with the Doctor’s old enemy, the Master, at the helm.

The book is written by Barry Letts, one-time producer of the series and the co-scriptwriter of the televised story (using a pseudonym).

In all honesty, I don’t think this is the best of the novelisations. In fact, I thought it was a tad pedestrian, adding little to the on screen story (which I reviewed last year) beyond enhancing the spectacle of scenes that suffered from lack of special effects — the flying gargoyle chief amongst them. While I enjoyed reading the book, I much preferred Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth and Doctor Who and the Cave-monsters. All up, this book is not as good as the televised story, which has bucket-loads of atmosphere and visual style.

One of the charming things about the old Doctor Who novelisations is that some of them had black and white internal illustrations. Such is the case with Doctor Who and the Daemons, which has illustrations by Alan Willow.

The Daemons 2

While Doctor Who and the Daemons may not be the “best book ever”, it has made me yearn to dig out a few more of the old novelisations and give then another airing. But which one to start with?

Unfortunately Doctor Who and the Daemons is not currently in print. But fear not… because it is available as an audio book. And it’s read by Barry Letts! Now that I’ve re-read my print copy, I’m tempted to get a copy of the audio book to see how it compares.

Catch ya later,  George

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Latest Post: DVD Giveaway  — Doctor Who: The Legacy Collection




Start Something That Matters: The TOMS Story

9780753540244Breakout shoe-selling social enterprise TOMS has recently become the McDonald’s-like lightning rod for all that is wrong with well-meaning charitable organisations. The TOMS premise is that for every pair of canvas shoes it sells, it gives one pair to a child without shoes in Africa (or insert other struggling country or continent here). All of which sounds good and definitively feel good, until you realise that by swooping in with shoes, you’re not fostering local industries. Ergo, you’re perpetuating a cycle of charity handouts and poverty.

TOMS, the name of which is derived from ‘shoes for a batter tomorrow’ or ‘tomorrow’s shoes’, is not the only company to be accused of this—in fact, most world aid falls into this bucket—but its runaway success has catapulted it into the spotlight and made it the poster children for this complaint.

That well-what-is-the-right-thing-to-do controversy and the fact that all the cool kids are wearing the shoes made me want to read Start Something That Matters (SSTM), the autobiography slash business inspiration manual written by TOMS founder and CEO Blake Mycoskie, who goes by the more egalitarian title of Chief Shoe Giver.

SSTM doesn’t actually address any of the aforementioned criticisms, either because it’s adopting the McDonald’s response and choosing for the most part not to respond or because (more likely) it was written before the criticisms were levelled. Either way, SSTM is an engaging, speedy read, with Mycoskie first charting how he came up with the idea for TOMS—he was on holiday in Argentina, saw their awesome national shoe, the alpargata, recognised there was a market for it in the US, and decided to combine it with some charitable aims that helped poverty-stricken children—and how he then put that into action.

SSTM is something of a sweeping manifesto on how to find your passion and how to turn that passion into a job that saves the world. It starts off with TOMS, but also (surprisingly to me, at least) offers examples of other businesses that are trying to make a difference. One includes Falling Whistles, a non-profit organisation that sells vintage whistles to raise awareness about issues, and to promote peace, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (its tagline is ‘whistleblowers for peace’). Whistles, the business founder discovered, were reportedly sometimes what child soldiers were sent into battle with.

SSTM is rah-rah American to the nth degree, so I’ll not deny that there were moments that really grated. It’s not that Mycoskie is entirely cocky; it’s just that he’s blessed with that distinctly American self-confidence we Australians would swiftly identify, cringe at, and hack down. Still, for all its you-can-do-it enthusiasm, the book’s also honest about the mistakes made and lessons learnt along the way, such as the time they produced a shoe with too much material and people were slipping over in them. Or the time Mycoskie went all out on a design without conducting market research and ended up selling just five pairs—he wore one of the leftover pairs for months afterwards as a reminder to himself of the look-before-you-leap lesson he learnt from it.

TOMS’ success is undoubtedly its story—it’s interesting, it’s infectious, it’s gone viral, and Mycoskie is willing and able to tell it. The fact that the shoes are super cute and comfy rounds it out and makes it the difference between a well-meaning charitable organisation and a worldwide success. I might just be buying myself a pair or two of TOMS, although only after I’ve further researched this whole well-meaning, but not-so-helpful one-for-one giveaway controversy …

2012’s Best Book Covers

Book cover design is something of an obsession for those of us who’ve ever worked as booksellers and/or who hope to one day have a book published. So when the New York Times (AKA the purveyor of all things good) issues a list of 19 of 2012’s best book cover designs, we tend to pay attention.

Megan Wilson, art director of Vintage Books, sums up the design rule-defying cover of The Map and the Territory, a book I’ve admittedly never heard of but that’s artwork I have just spent minutes poring over:

9780307946539I have no idea what this cover means and it shouldn’t even work—it’s barely legible—and yet it’s so different from anything else that it begs to be studied closely and then taken home. This is the sort of cover that transcends any clever marketing plan, helpful sales input, and well-meaning editorial direction.

Hope: A Tragedy, a novel by This American Life contributor Shalom Auslander, marries an image of an innocent, Bambi-inspired deer with scrawled-out text. The cover, the summary tells us, ‘may only hint at Auslander’s caustic humor and outrageous plot, but you just know that deer is about to get hit by a station wagon’.

Gravity’s Rainbow delivers a striking rainbow of phallic objects set against a grey felt background—it’s a simple cover, but one that’s incredibly aesthetically appealing. The Watergate cover nails that whole ‘designer who’s read and understood the book and its wider cultural context’ thing that often proves elusive. In this case, the key element is wiretapping.

9781847086228Penguin’s Drop Caps series warrants a mention too (seriously, when does a Penguin title not warrant one?), but my favourite would have to be the out-of-the-box, textured-looking The Flame Alphabet. That’s a cover that I could stare at for hours, that I would consider displaying as an artwork, and that makes me want to bust out my crafty inner child.

It’s too early in the year to predict what 2013’s list will hold, but I’d hazard a guess that David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls might be a contender. Nor can I predict how the ubiquity of ebooks will, in coming years, influence cover design (and, by extension, such best-of lists as this). My guess, though, is that we’re going to see ongoing innovation and improvement in cover design, both because digital tools are perpetually improving and because in a flattened digital world, distinctive, arresting covers are going to mean the difference between books being clicked on and quickly skimmed by.

Player Profile: Susanna Freymark, author of Losing February

susanna-freymarkSusanna Freymark, author of Losing February

Tell us about your latest creation…

Losing February – my first book. It is a story about love and loss and lots of bad sex.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

I was born in Melbourne but grew up in the dusty steelworks town of Whyalla in South Australia. Even though I live in Sydney, I call Federal, in the Byron Bay hinterland, my home. I lived there for 10 years.

9781742612782When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

I wanted to be an air hostess (as they were called in those days), a wildlife conservationist (like in the film Born Free), a teacher (which I became) and a writer.

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?

I couldn’t possibly answer that. And I don’t believe I have done anywhere near my best work yet. Can I get back to you in ten years time?

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

A study with lots of fun things on my desk like blue gorillas, a Dexter and Superman doll, a pig painted as a tiger by my daughter and lots and lots of books and inspirational pieces of poetry on the walls. It is eclectic but tidy. My mind is chaotic so I need a tidy desk. I look out of four big windows across the train line and trees.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

I love to read. Helen Garner, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver – so, so many wonderful writers.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

All the Famous Five and Secret Seven AND The Magic Faraway Tree ( I still fantasise about the pop biscuits and topsy-turvy land). Standouts include February Dragon by Colin Thiele, I Can Jump Puddles by Alan Marshall, The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. I could go on. I lost myself in books.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

One of the kids who ate those pop biscuits in Magic Faraway Tree? I think I’d like to Heidi. I read that book so many times and the goats, the mountains, the bed in the haystack, I sooo wanted to be Heidi- she was a little social activist too.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

I gaze – I sit in the garden with the chooks and the dog and simply look at the sky. I love to be on, in or near the ocean. Eating out, walking, annoying friends and making up stories about strangers on the street.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

Favourite food is pancakes – there isn’t anything that doesn’t go with a pancake. I am waiting for them to be the height of culinary fashion again. Whisky is a favourite, and real old-fashioned lemonade – but not together.

Who is your hero? Why?

Nelson Mandela- because of his resilience and his ability to forgive. Can I choose Winnie-the-Pooh and his friend Tigger. What characters – what a wonderful philosophy they have on life. They remind me not to take myself too seriously.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

Reaching an audience- there is so much noise competing on the airwaves of life. the internet, television, YouTube. Everyone, it seems wants to be famous. We will have to be more discerning when we realise how much time we waste (even though it is fun) looking at funny dog and cat videos.

Follow Susanna:

Buy the physical book here…

Flip-Flopping To Phew

Life and natural disasters have kept me a bit quiet of late (I won’t bore you with the details here, but I will bore you with them in my next, soon-to-be-posted blog, which charts me consoling myself over these testing times by purchasing an iPad Mini). Said disasters are precisely, though, why I’m happy to concentrate on some good news: the publishing industry isn’t kaput.

I’ve been discussing with peers for sometime now that, despite all the sky-is-falling-in headless chicken predictions, the industry has been not dying but rather reshuffling. Just as cinemas and DVDs now sit alongside each other fairly complementarily, so too are/will digital and physical publishing. There’s enough room for errybody, I feel like shouting. It’s not about what form it takes; it’s about its usability and inherently delivered value.

Hermione Hoby (yes, I officially love her name, although I’m not sure whether her naming pre-dates or was influenced by Harry Potter) penned something hopeful (and far, far more articulate than I could) a few months back:

This is meant to be a bleak time for young people and words, as an entire generation is assailed by ‘death of journalism’ notices and financial catastrophe. Yet economic collapse can bring opportunities. When there are no jobs to be had at established magazines, and when the spectre of student debt makes further study impossible, you can either despair or you can, like a growing number of New York graduates, just set up your own thing.

Publishing in New York (where else?) is undergoing something of a new-generation revival, she writes: ‘… a new, post-digital dawn in which a web-literate and politically engaged generation is re-energising journalism with fierce-thinking in stylish print and online publications’. In essence, a bunch of emerging writers equipped with talent, nous, determination, and freely available digital tools are creating their own eminently readable publications.

Just yesterday, esteemed online journal Kill Your Darlings (a publication that’s arguably an Australian version of said quality publications run by emerging writers) published Connor Tomas O’Brien’s ‘The Great Old Media Revival’. O’Brien argues (and quotes others who argue too) that great artists ‘dance the flip-flop’. Roughly translated into plain speak, to ‘flip-flop’ is the act of going from physical to digital and then back again. One example cited here involves:

  • carving a statue out of a physical material
  • digitising the statue with 3D technology
  • printing the image to make the statue physical again.

O’Brien echoes what I’ve been thinking/saying: far from being rendered obsolete, old-school media is undergoing a revival. Cue O’Brien listing a bunch of stats comparing traditional papers, magazines, and bookstores closing and opening in recent years (hint: there’s quite a few of the latter).

We’ve had such a massive shift towards digital in recent years, he argues, that the novelty’s worn off. Instead, he says, we’ll likely ‘look back on 2012 as the year of ambivalence, the year in which we started to understand [and, presumably, embrace] the nature of flip-flopping’, where digital and physical become complementary and ‘intertwined’.

With articles such as these, it seems we’re finally getting past the end-of-the-world predictions and instead to the more realistic, good-news ones. The sky isn’t falling in, there’s room for both digital and physical, and there are opportunities for emerging writers. Phew.

The Diary of a Dr Who Addict

The Diary of a Dr Who AddictHow could I possibly come across a book called The Diary of a Dr Who Addict and not want to read it immediately? After all, I was, am and will always be, a Doctor Who addict. So, a novel about a kid with a similar obsession just had to be read. The fact that it was written by Paul Margs, who has also written Doctor Who books, made it even more appealing.

Set in 1982, The Diary of a Dr Who Addict is a coming of age story — a little one-year slice from the life of a boy named David at a crucial time in his growing up. He is about to become a teenager. He is about to start high school. And most important of all, he is about to watch season 19 of Doctor Who — the season in which Peter Davison took over the role of the Doctor from Tom Baker, who had held it for a marathon run of seven years.

David is a boy who relates so much of his life and experiences to his favourite television series. So there are lots of references to Doctor Who, both obvious and subtle. This includes what is perhaps the best Doctor Who to real-life comparison ever… when talking about his love of books and reading, David says:

“Books are bigger on the inside than on the out, just like a police box.”

Truer words were never written.

But there is a lot more to this book than Doctor Who. It is also a story about growing up, about accepting who you are and about finding your place in life. Most importantly, it is about the realisation that you don’t have to give up everything from your childhood in order to grow up.

I found reading this book to be an incredibly personal experience. Firstly, because it is such an intimate account of David’s thoughts and feelings about so many things (and one gets the feeling that there is a lot of Paul Margs in David). And secondly, because I saw so much of myself in David. In 1982, I was 14… so a little older than David. But I felt the same excitement as him over the introduction of Peter Davison. I too had read all about the new season of Doctor Who and eagerly awaited it, wondering what this new Doctor would be like… talking about it incessantly. I too, read and collected the series novelisations. There are so many little things that I could relate to as I read this book — from Doctor Who, to the excitement of a first video cassette recorder, to a growing interest in writing. Yes, just like David, I wrote my own Doctor Who stories as a kid.

But I also related to David’s feelings of isolation. I too often felt different and out of place, even though not always in the same way as him. I was a strange nerdy kid who preferred books and tv to playing sports. I wrote stories. I was quiet and socially awkward. I thought Doctor Who was the greatest thing EVER!

Just as I eventually grew up and found my place in the world, I finished The Diary of a Dr Who Addict feeling certain that David would as well.

The Diary of a Dr Who Addict is a lovely, thoughtful, touching, amusing, life-affirming, joyful read. And it has shot up into my list of all-time favourite books.

One final thing. Towards the end of the book, David reveals that, in his opinion, the Doctor Who and the Daemons novelisation is the “Best book ever. No contest.” So, of course, as soon as I finished The Diary of a Dr Who Addict, I went over to my Doctor Who bookcase and pulled out my battered old copy of Doctor Who and the Daemons. But I’ll tell you about that in my next post.

Catch ya later,  George

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Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

Latest Post: DVD Review  — Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror




Doodles and Drafts – An interview with Peter Allert Part One

I struggle to decipher my own handwriting. I can barely make a stencil look decent and my attempts at creating hangman stick figures always fills my opponents with pitiful glee. This is why I admire anyone who has even an infinitesimal amount of artistic flair.

The process of anything emerging be it writer, illustrator, butterfly, and to a lesser degree, human baby is a beautiful thing and deserves some examination.

Peter Allert IllusOur doodler today is Peter Allert, whose artistic flair, I am happy to announce is anything but insignificant. In fact Peter’s drive and dedication to his craft are so great; they have filled more than one post can cope with alone. So here is Part One of my interview with Peter Allert, illustrator of children’s books (Long Live Us!) and bona fide gentleman to boot.

Q Who is Peter Allert? Describe the illustrator in you and what sets your work apart from other Aussie illustrators.

I was born in South Australia and moved up to Queensland in the 1980’s with my parents, I spent time living in Sydney but have made Queensland my home for the last 13 years. I have always illustrated in one form or another but have become quit driven in my 30’s to discover my potential.

ill-animals-frog3I believe I am an artist at heart who has found I express myself best through illustrating with watercolour pencils and ink. My strength is illustrating animals, capturing their fur or feathers, bringing their eyes to life as if they were looking at me. I am most proud of this work. I have also illustrated a variety of other subjects including fairy tale and children’s book characters and Science Fiction themes.

I think what sets me aside is that I use watercolour pencils rather than straight watercolour paints, therefore I am able to apply the detail I am comfortable with. I also mix my love of photography with my work so I can capture a natural realism in my subjects. I like getting out and about and seeing the world, I feel this helps bring perspective to your illustrations. I am still finding myself as a writer and poet but draw inspiration from my other writers and close friends.Peter Allert Possum

Q What is your favourite colour, why and how does it influence or restrict what you illustrate?

I guess like a lot of illustrators it is hard to choose just one but if I had to it would be green. To me it’s a very nature colour with so many ways it can be applied. It can be applied to illustrations not just as a straight green but also through using other amazing blues, yellows…etc. It influences my work as I like illustrating natural subjects and I find they always have an element of green in them. It may however restrict me if I had a dark subject matter, I would always want to add a brighter colour to inspire hope.

Q When did the coloured pencil drop for you? What, whom persuaded you to illustrate?

When growing up I guess coloured pencils were all around me, in school, at home, they were inexpensive and there was always a colouring book that needed my attention. After seeking feedback about my work I found the straight pencil a little limiting. With water coloured pencils I could enhance and bring the colours to life, with the right paper I could add other dimensions and finishes to my work. It just displayed and continues to display great potential. I also like detail and I can accomplish that with pencils.ill-book-mr-q

Deep inside me, even when I was younger child I wanted to create and be artistic. I didn’t exactly know what it meant for me personally or that you could possibly make a living out of it. But when I decided to make this profession part of my life I was inspired by Shaun Tan, Gregory Rogers, Narelle Oliver, Maurice Sendak, & and many of the illustrated children’s books I grew up with.

Q Are you a natural or have you had to study and suffer for your craft?

I have had some study in art and illustrating over the years but I would have to say I am mostly self-taught. That said, in the beginning I was finding my work lacked some fundamental things and I knew I needed advice and training. I took some basic classes, attended conferences and researched other artists. I started diversifying my subject matter, built my portfolio and over the years improved my craft. I wouldn’t call it suffering I would call it dedicating yourself to long hours of improving your skills and yourself.

Q How do you develop your illustrations? Do digital computer programs feature significantly in what you produce?

If I have a particular idea or theme in mind I will simply start drawing small sketches and exploring ideas. I’ll make notes and over a period of time, this may take days or weeks, I will then start the main illustration. With most of my illustrations I will lightly draw it first with pencil on pressed smooth watercolour paper. I then slowly add layers of colour such as a yellow base, followed by a light green or blue then to add some dimension I will add variations of the same colour. Indigo makes a great darker colour to use when additional shading is required, I will very rarely add black unless there is a reason. Once I feel it is ready I will apply water with a brush, mixing the colours and bringing the illustration to life. I include more layers or shading to add depth, and then use an ink pen if required.

ill-animals-ambrose1I will often note the pencil number and photograph different stages of the illustration to remember how I reached the final stage. A lot can happen in the creation process so if you end up liking the final piece then remembering how you got there is important. Remember that when illustrating a picture book you want the illustrations to be consistent in both colour and appearance. This helps me anyway. I do not use any major software programs as such but I do scan my images and clean them up in order to send on to publishes.

Q Do you draw every day? What is the most enjoyable part of your working day?

To be honest no, but the enthusiasm is there. Like all illustrators who are also working it is a constant juggling act. The best part of my day is the morning; I have been probably stewing on an idea and have all this energy and want to put it down on paper.

Q It’s accepted that writers often scribble ideas on the back of takeaway menus, napkins, bus tickets, whatever they can when ideas strike – is this the same for illustrators? When you get a shot of inspiration and desire to draw, what do you do?

You draw it anyway you can. I once started illustrating on a napkin because I made the mistake of leaving my notebook behind. If you have an idea, write it down, draw it, and make a note of it because it will disappear. Too often have I laid in bed with an idea or two thinking it is such a great idea how could I possible forget it and when the morning comes it’s no longer under my pillow.

Long Live Us troll

Join me again soon for Part Two where we learn a little more about Peter and his work in the fractured fairy-tale, Long Live Us!

Player Profile: Caroline Overington, author of Sisters of Mercy

IMG_1744Caroline Overington, author of Sisters of Mercy

Tell us about your latest creation…

Sisters of Mercy – two sisters, born years apart, in two different countries; one is raised without the other, and they come together only for the reading of their father’s Will – after which, one of them mysteriously disappears.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

I am a Melbourne girl, but Bondi is now home.

9781742750422When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

A journalist!

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?

I am still learning – with every book, I learn a little more.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?

I have had an office for years and I have never, ever used it. I get too lonely. I like to write in the lounge room, with my laptop on my knee. Telling everyone to please shush.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?

Cormac McCarthy, The Australian Women’s Weekly (I’m the Associate Editor there!), The Australian newspaper, Twitter

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?

The Secret Garden (and, much much later, Story of O.)

If you were a literary character, who would you be?

Bugs Bunny. I like his chutzpah.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?

I have twins, a husband, a dog, a lizard, family in Queensland and in Melbourne, plus a full-time job. So, you know – busy! But happy.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

Gin and tonic – with mint (it’s a vegetable! or a herb, anyway.)

Who is your hero? Why?

My children. I know, ugh. But it’s true.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?

There will always be books. There will always be reading. I just wish I could write more of the first and do more of the second.

Follow Caroline:

Buy the physical book here…

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The Forgotten World of the Blue Mountains in the late 1800s

From the author of the acclaimed Grassdogs comes a breathtaking story set in the Blue Mountains during the late 1800s

forgotten-worldWhen I was a babe in rags my father had three wives …

Half-brothers Byron and Clancy Wilson are inseparable during their childhood. They run wild in the dark valleys of the Blue Mountains, run riot during their school years in Katoomba, and run afoul of the ogre of the town, Constable Barnaby Clout. But it is a love triangle between the brothers and emerald-eyed Violet Kefford, as well as a dramatic jewel heist, that ultimately tests their unconventional family.

The Forgotten World is a breathtaking story that lyrically charts the landscape and people of the Blue Mountains in the late 1800s, and sees real characters in Australian history, such as Sir Henry Parkes, artist Julian Ashton and Lord and Lady Carrington dancing through its pages. Poignant and unforgettable, it plumbs the depths of family loyalty and betrayal.

Buy the book here…


mark-oflynnMark O’Flynn was born in Melbourne and now lives in the Blue Mountains. Mark studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, and in 2001 he was funded by the NSW Ministry for the Arts to write the play Eleanor & Eve, which premiered at Varuna in 2002, and was remounted at the Q Theatre in 2003. This play was the most successful production there for five years.

After his stint in the theatre, Mark turned to fiction and poetry. He has published four poetry collections and a novella, Captain Cook. Mark’s first full-length novel, Grassdogs, was published in 2006 after he participated in the HarperCollins Varuna Manuscript Development Program.

His short stories, articles, reviews, and poems have appeared in a wide range of journals and magazines both here and overseas, including Australian Book ReviewThe BulletinThe Good WeekendHeatWesterlyMeanjinSoutherly,IslandOverlandNew Australian Stories and Picador New Writing.

False Start, Mark’s comic memoir, was recently published by Finch Publishing.

The Story of the First Woman to Set Foot on Antarctica

 A stunning Australian novel based on the true story of the first woman to set foot on Antarctica

chasing-the-lightIt’s the early 1930s. Antarctic open-sea whaling is booming and a territorial race for the mysterious continent between Norwegian and British–Australian interests is in full swing. This was the era when Antarctica was closed to women, in spite of hundreds applying to expeditions.

Determined to learn more about the first women to reach Antarctica, Jesse Blackadder travelled to Norway where she made the exciting discovery that the first woman to reach the Antarctica Peninsula was not an explorer but Ingrid Christensen, a 38-year-old mother who left her six children behind and travelled there on a whaling boat four times in the 1930s with her husband, taking a female friend or two on each trip.

With this intriguing fact as inspiration, Jesse tells the story of a sea voyage from Cape Town by the Norwegian whaling magnate Lars Christensen and three women: Lillemor Rachlew, who tricked her way onto the ship and will stop at nothing to be the first woman to land on Antarctica; Mathilde Wegger, a grieving widow who’s been forced to join the trip by her calculating parents-in-law; and Lars’s wife, Ingrid Christensen, who has longed to travel to Antarctica since she was a girl and has made a daunting bargain with Lars to convince him to take her.

Loyalties shift and melt and conflicts increase as they pass through the Southern Ocean and reach the whaling grounds. None of the women is prepared for the reality of meeting the whaling fleet and experiencing firsthand the brutality of the icy world.

As they head for the continent itself, the race is on for the first woman to land on Antarctica. None of them could possibly know how their arrival will change them forever.


jesse-blackadderJesse is an award-winning short-story writer and freelance journalist, fascinated by landscapes and belonging. Her earlier novels are After the Party and The Raven’s Heart (2011). She was awarded the Guy Morrison Prize for Literary Journalism in 2012 and the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship in 2011/2012, which enabled her to travel there for the second time on a six-week voyage. Born in Sydney, Jesse now lives near Byron Bay.