Snowfall

Into Thin AirThis New York Times article just won a Pulitzer. Frankly, I’m not one bit surprised it did. Snowfall documents, through a six-part, transmedia tale that incorporates text, images, video interviews, video footage, simulations, and interactive maps, an avalanche that occurred at Tunnel Creek in the US.

Snowfall is exquisite and haunting in terms of both its story and its presentation. It sets, as the New York Times does with just about everything it turns its gaze to, the bar high. In some ways it’s is a big, sweeping tale, charting the history and complexity of an area unstable, prone to unexpected avalanches, and that arguably shouldn’t be skied. In other ways it’s a small story—a tight-knit group of experienced skiers and friends caught in a terrifying mother nature-uncontrollable ordeal.

Either way, the tale is heart-wrenchingly comprehensive. It provides insight into what causes avalanches as well as what it’s like to both be in one and to try to dig your friends out of its aftermath. It’s also an excellent example of transmedia storytelling, using a variety of platforms to execute, complement, and augment a potent story. (It feels like an online, modern version of breathtaking print book Into Thin Air*.)

First impressions of Snowfall are of snowy sparseness, with images simultaneously iconic and eerie. Its text lobs us straight into the action. One of the skiers is tumbling, catapulting in the avalanche, trying to recall her avalanche-survival skills, terrified, stuck, unsure which was is up or down, fearing she’s going to die. It’s pulsating and suffocating at the same time, and there’s no doubt in your mind that this story is going to be emotionally fraught.

‘Like many ideas that sound good at the time, skiing Tunnel Creek was an idea hatched in a bar,’ we read. Fresh, optimal overnight snowfalls make skiing irresistible and a meeting and skiing time is roughly planned.

Naturally occurring avalanches rarely kill, we find out. Human-triggered ones, on the other hand, often do. Every skier who traverses a slope subtly changes the snowpack’s structure. The thin layer of frost buried beneath fresh snow is called the unappetising name of ‘surface hoar’.

The day’s avalanche prediction for Tunnel Creek was the difficult-to-define ‘considerable’. Suffice to say, it was inadvisable to ski there. But the skiers were experienced—many of them were locals—and one even scouted extreme skiing courses worldwide.

The mood setting out was jovial: ‘Get me out of here before another spreadsheet finds me,’ says one skier, having extracted himself from a meeting. Sixteen people set out that day, ‘although no one thought to count at the time’. It was an unusually large number, particularly for that terrain, likened to someone divulging details of a spare keg found at a party. It’s not cool, with no one quite admitting to having told others, but no one is game to uninvite anyone.

Warning signs mark entry to the backcountry ski area: Do you have a beacon, a shovel, and a probe? They’re a reminder that when things go wrong, you’ll be relying on your ski buddies to save you. Each skier is equipped with avalanche beacons, or transceivers, which emit signals for others to locate you if you get buried. But equipment advances, we’re told, make people falsely bold.

‘The start of an avalanche is unlike any other force of nature.’ That is to say that they occur without warning. Three quarters of those killed in an avalanche asphyxiate or suffocate after being buried by the snow.

Reading Snowfall, cyclic and chronological in its telling, is an exercise in inevitability and denial. We know the skiers get caught in the avalanche—the opening paragraphs show us one skier being hurled down the mountain—but we can’t help but hope they make it through unscathed.

Layering the story with video interviews with survivors explaining key moments or their reactions to them, as well as visual elements enabling us to track skiers’ movements instead of imagine them, enhances the story. The skiers’ paths, accompanied by floating headshots and simulations, appear as the story unfolds.

We don’t have to view all of the videos and simulations, but even viewing one or two lends humanising, insightful detail that makes the text-led tale even stronger. Good design that balances sparsity, multiple platforms, layers, and typography can’t be underestimated either. It makes me think this is the future of storytelling—online, incorporating complementary transmedia elements, while recognising the need for good design to supplement a good story.

The one criticism I’ll make of Snowfall is that it concentrates too much on the avalanche and its build-up and not enough on its aftermath. What happens to the skiers who survive once they make it off the mountain? How scarred are they by the incident? Who really knows? The story’s presumably a teaser directing us to watch a documentary created about the event, but that’s where it lost me. I signed on to read the story; I don’t have the time or the inclination to continue on.

That said, as a contained document, Snowfall hints at the far-reaching devastation: ‘Avalanches swallow more lives than just the ones buried beneath the snow’.

*Into Thin Air, which documents one of the worst ever accidents on Mt Everest and which questions the viability of people overestimating experience and underestimating nature.

Writers’ Habits (And Hot Buttons)

Daily RitualsThe New Yorker’s style has always been double consonant-inclined, although even they aren’t entirely sure why this is the case:

The style book gives no reason for this spelling choice. What would be the point? Nothing makes the eyes glaze over so totally as the effort to codify the rules for doubling consonants when adding suffixes.

I personally hate the consonant doubles. Won’t someone think of the RSI-riddled wrists and the unnecessarily felled trees?!

There’s no need for a second ‘s’ in ‘focused’, for example; no chance that leaving it at one would diminish clarity.

Carrying this theme further, ‘program’ is a more efficient if not as pretty substitute for ‘programme’. The latter is, I think, something that’s an overhang from a time when the doubles implied education and un-ironic self-righteous pomposity.

This minutiae is endlessly fascinating for writers and editors of a certain personality type (read: me). I could regale you with the hours I’ve spent debating the unspaced versus the spaced em dash (relating to my aforementioned wrist- and tree-consideration efficiency, I’m a firm follower of the unspaced variety). But I also realise it’s a hot-button issue for a trifling minority.

Artists’—especially writers’—daily habits, though, tend to be endlessly fascinating for most people. The artistic process seems so mystical to those who aren’t trying to live it and so difficult for those of us who are. The first group wants to know its secrets to gain some insight and inspiration and the second group wants to both unlock the secret so the process is not so goddamn difficult and to console themselves that they’re not the only ones struggling.

KafkaKafka, it turns out, didn’t effortlessly metamorphasise out a book (I know I minced that pun badly, but stay with me). He was frustrated with his day job, his home, and his life generally, writing to a friend: ‘Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.’

Mason Currey turned this fascination with artists’ rituals and the insight into their lives into first a blog and second a book (begrudging credit where begrudging credit’s due: I heard about Currey from hipster mag Smith Journal to which I refuse to hyperlink because they don’t need any more traffic, which they’ll take as encouragement to continue being aloof and hipster). It’s a simple idea that probably also provided him with a kind of writing therapy.

Suffice to say, I’ve ordered it faster than you can say ‘add to basket’ and ‘checkout’. Watch this space for some writerly inspiration and consolation …

Review – Bea

Fitting in with your flock is important. Occasionally though, our sense of self is questioned, buried beneath the need to conform. Mixing like with like is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s safe, secure and reassuring.

Bea, however, is a bird who favours being true to yourself in preference to self-preservation. She dares to be different. She has unusual tastes. She does not fit in.

Bea PBBea is the enchanting debut picture book of stellar new author illustrator Christine Sharp. In Christine’s’ own words, ‘Bea is a book about appreciating being in the moment and delighting in the simple things – dancing, star gazing, and above all, friendship.’ And soaring with the fruit bats on calm nights…

Sounds poetic doesn’t it? That’s because it is. Sharp’s fluid text floats dreamily across the pages, often undulating and swirling about the tree tops just like a flock of birds. It’s wild and free, daring and challenging, playful and fun; the very essence of what makes a picture book attractive to young children.

Bea’s contemporaries lead a mundane sort of existence. They spend their days pecking at ants, watching worms wiggle and building nests. Nothing less than you’d expect from a bird. But they have never experienced the sublime joy of ‘singing sweet songs to the moon’ with your best friend like Bea has.

In contrast to their ‘birdy-ness’, Bea bakes berry pudding, dances to disco beats and dreams of travelling the world, in a hot air balloon if you please.

Christine SharpThe clever use of alliteration, which is loosely presented in alphabetical order, beckons to be read out loud and with as much vibrancy and spontaneity as the illustrations evoke. Sharp’s abilities as an artist and designer are reflected in each richly vivid page spread. A mixture of scanned pencil drawings, paintings, photography, fabrics and objects used in collages bring Bea and her best mate, Bernie, to life and deliver a beautiful, textured feel to the book. For me they evoked the stirring scent of rose gums and damp scrub and crisp mountain air. Younger readers will be charmed by the juxtaposition of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ art on each page (as defined by one seven year old).

Bea is an instantly likeable character whose slightly eccentric tendencies and far reaching desires inspire a tremendous sense of self. Her actions prompt others to ask, ‘Why?’ This is no bad thing in my book. She blithely lives her life to the beat of a different drum (or wing in this case). And her best mate Bernie admires and appreciates her all the more for it. I do too. Bea pleasantly surprised me with its simple message of how important it is to feel at ease in your own skin, no matter what your feather type.

Share this alluring picture book with pre-schoolers and those who are developing their own idea of their place in the flock.

UQP March 2013

 

Back to Azkaban

Prisoner of AzkabanHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — I read it quite a number of years ago. So it’s been really interesting revisiting it, along with the other books in the series. But this time I also got to see it through the eyes of my ten-year-old daughter.

Last year, I started to read the Harry Potter books to my then nine-year-old daughter, Nykita (see: “Revisiting Harry” & “Opening the Chamber of Secrets… again”). She loved them, but didn’t want to go on to the third book, as she was worried that it might be a little too scary. So we decided to wait a while. But last month, after re-reading the first two books herself, she declared that she was ready for me to read the third book to her.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is an interesting book. The titular prisoner is Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather and the man who supposedly betrayed Harry’s parents to the dark wizard Voldemort.

This is the book where things start edge towards darkness, focussing a little bit more on the actual circumstances of the murder of Harry’s parents. It is also noteworthy as the only book in the series in which Voldemort doesn’t make an appearance.

The book holds together extremely well. It is, I think, the best of the first three. It is longer than the first two, but not so long as to be meandering and unwieldy. It is still a reasonably tight story, with a good balance of plot, character development and set-up for future books. I have a slight problem with the time travel stuff at the end, but I think that time travel is a problematic plot device at the best of times. In terms of the Harry Potter universe, after reading this book, one can’t help but wonder why time travel isn’t utilised again to solve future problems. Why? Because it is merely a plot device that is conveniently ignored thereafter by the author. But if you can overlook that, the book is an excellent read.

What I enjoyed most about reading this book to Nykita, were her reactions. They seemed more intense with this book. There were moments when she was literally bouncing up and down with excitement as I read. Or laughing uncontrollably. And towards the end, when Sirius Black had been revealed, she was huddled in bed, blanket over her head with just her eyes peeking out. The power of the written word. Pure magic!

As with the first two books, we followed up the reading with a viewing of the film. It is without a doubt, my least favourite of the films. This film has quite a different look and feel to the first two (probably due to a change of director), which I like — it results in a visually more striking film. But it doesn’t quite hang together for me in other ways. The pacing seems wrong. Some of the scenes struck me as a little forced. And it’s the first film after the death of Richard Harris, with Michael Gambon taking over the role of Dumbledore — and while he certainly settles into the role over the next few films, making the part truly his own, this first outing lacks the subtlety of Harris’s performance.

Now we’ve gone straight into Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yes, she thinks it might be too scary… but she simply can’t bear to wait!

Catch ya later,  George

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Lest We Forget

On the eve of ANZAC Day it seemed fitting to touch on the significance of the day. Young people are often faced with a barrage of ANZAC Day information whether they are involved in commemorative services and lessons at school or simply viewing a dawn parade on the day. Explaining the whys and how of one of our most significant periods of history need not be a glorification of the atrocities of war, but rather a celebration of the indomitable fighting spirit of our nation as a whole and a message of hope eternal. I’ve plucked out a few titles from ANZAC book shelf in case you want to share the Spirit of the ANZACS with your family. There’s something there for young readers from 5 to 15. It’s by no means comprehensive but certainly worth the read…lest we forget.

Anzac Biscuits PBPicture Books

Anzac Biscuits Phil Cummings and Owen Swan March 2013

A Fair Dinkum War David Cox February 2013

Anzac Day Parade Glenda Kane and Lisa Allen March 2010

The Promise – The Town that never forgets  Derek Guille and Anne-Sophie Biguet April 2013Fair Dinkum War

Mr Grandad Marches on Anzac Day Catriona Hoy and Benjamin Johnson 2008

The House that was built in a day – Anzac Cottage Valerie Everett April 2007

Graphic Novels

An ANZAC TaleAn ANZAC Tale Ruth Stark and Greg Holfeld February 2013 (see my reflections and review on this magnificent graphic picture book here)

Mid grade and upper primary readers

Light Horse Boy Dianne Wolfer March 2013

The Gallipoli Story Patrick CarlyonThe Gallipoli Story April 2003

When we went to Gallipoli Pamela Rushby May 2008

Older Readers 12+

A Rose for the ANZACS Boys Jackie French April 2008 (have a look at her other titles too: A Day to Remember and The Donkey who carried the wounded)

The Horses didn’t come Home Pamela Rushby March 2012

So whether you spend your day at a commemorative march tomorrow or in quiet contemplation, make sure that when you are nibbling on an ANZAC biscuit, you have something good to read.

 

 

 

Review – Mr Darcy the Dancing Duck

The first time I met the acquaintance of Mr Darcy, I was much enamoured by his unassuming good looks, impeccable manners and sophisticated demeanour. If his reserved gentility left both Lizzy and me a little wanting and him rather lonely in the beginning, then it was only a question of time and persistence on behalf of Lizzy’s friends, to eventually secure his friendship and affection.

He is after all the stuff of classic novels. Imagine how I swooned with delight when Mr Darcy re-entered my world, this time with a new tribulation to overcome.

Mr Darcy the Dancing DuckMr Darcy the Dancing Duck is the second release by the impressive new picture book teaming of Alex Field and Peter Carnavas. Loosely observing the characters and circumstances of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, this delightful tale reintroduces us to Mr Darcy, a duck contentedly residing in Pemberley Park until it dawns on him that spring is in the air and therefore ‘it’s dancing season again.’

Mr Darcy cordially greets his erstwhile friends; merry Maria, dignified Mr Bingley and the comely Caroline but as always feels a little awkward and shy around Lizzy and her sisters. His hurried refusal to dance with Lizzy intimates a weakness in our dashing hero – he cannot dance.

He is very much disheartened by his inability; so much so, he can no longer even acknowledge the presence of his friends. Fortunately they recognise his inadequacy and quickly give him a ‘helping hand’. Before long, Mr Darcy is dancing rather splendidly and even taking a few turns about the makeshift maypole. But will he be able to demonstrate his new found talent in front of those he is so eager to impress without making a fool of himself? Amidst a blaze of colour and twirling of ribbons, he does. Mr Darcy and Lizzy couldn’t be happier, dancing together in Pemberley Park. Ahh.

Alex Field (Sophia Whitfield)You need not be an Austen addict to appreciate the subtle references to the characters of Pemberley Park or to fall in abject adoration of Mr Darcy, a duck of ineffable character and appeal as I did. The crisp, clever narrative of Alex Field (pen name for one Sophia Whitfield) effectively draws the reader into Mr Darcy’s world and his largely self-imposed, perplexing social situations. It is not difficult to care about this be-speckled little duck. Younger readers will adore his bright bow tie and the way he tries to contain his hapless clumsiness. Older ones, like me, will be attracted to the very attributes and humour that make all Mr Darcys so alluring; restrained humility, beguiling vulnerability and brooding charm.

Peter CarnavasAnd who isn’t spellbound by the illustrations of Peter Carnavas? Free of any human form, Carnavas’ marvellous paintings encapsulate all the sensitivity, sophistication and elegance of the era in the most charismatically cheerful, contemporary way.

It may be 200 years on, but thanks to the passion and talent of authors and illustrators like Field and Carnavas, the celebration of love and friendship and top hats lives on.

Pride and Prejudice CoverAnd as Professor Todd mentions on the celebration of 200 years of Pride and Prejudice, “I don’t think she (Jane Austen) wanted to write a book that is simply borrowed from the library and then taken back or a paperback that’s thrown away. She wanted to write books that people valued, kept and read.”

Mr Darcy the Dancing Duck and its predecessor, Mr Darcy, are two such books. Value them, keep them and read them, often.

Perfect for primary aged children and Pride and Prejudice officiados.

New Frontier Publishing April 2013

 

 

 

Awards season

TROPHYIt seems that Awards Season is upon us! Everywhere you look there are prizes and honours up for grabs in the writing world — from the individual state awards to Australia-wide honours; from the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards to the Speech Pathology Awards. There are way too many of them for me to list here, so I’m just going to chat about a few of the ones that interest me most — those dealing with speculative fiction and writing for young people.

The most prestigious Australian awards in children’s writing are the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards. These are juried awards with appointed judges. Unusually, I have not read a single one of the books on this year’s shortlist, [hangs head in shame] although Doug MacLeod’s The Shiny Guys is sitting on my must-read-soon pile. I have, however, read a number of those on the Notables list. I am particularly pleased to see Ships in the Field by Susanne Gervay and Anna Pignataro, and Blood Brothers by Carole Wilkinson on the list. I reviewed both books last year (see my reviews: “Migrants and Carousels” and  “New Dragonkeeper”). Ships in the Field is an extraordinary picture book and Blood Brothers is another great addition to Wilkinson’s DragonKeeper series. And of course I’m very chuffed that Trust Me Too, an anthology edited by Paul Collins that includes a story from yours truly, is on there. Check out the shortlist and the list of Notable books.

Also in the area of books for young people, there are the Inkys (although the long list won’t be announced until June) and the YABBAs (although they also don’t take place until later in the year).

In the world of spec fic, the major ones are the Aurealis Awards and the Ditmar Awards. The Aurealis Awards are juried, while the Ditmars are decided by popular vote. The Aurealis Awards also have categories for children’s and YA fiction… which is BRILLIANT! Check out the shortlist.

The Ditmars are the Australia Science Fiction Achievement Awards, and include fan categories (for unpaid work) as well as professional categories. Check out the full shortlist.

And then we have the Chronos Awards, which are a Victorian state version of the Ditmars. I’m very pleased to see the shortlist includes Bread and Circuses by Felicity Dowker (see my review: “Bread and Circuses”) and Walking Shadows by Narrelle M. Harris (see my review: “Vampires in Melbourne”) — two of my favourite books from last year.

And I’ve got to mention that my other blog, Viewing Clutter (it’s a DVD and Blu-ray blog), has been nominated for “Best Fan Publication”. I’m rather chuffed about that! Check out the full shortlist.

Awards are interesting things. They mean a lot to some people and not much to others. Sometimes they can help bring attention to a particular book or author; sometimes they have very little impact. And often they are steeped in controversy. But all that aside, I think it’s rather nice to see authors and illustrators being given a little bit of recognition and encouragement. Check out the shortlists and if voting is involved, see if you’re eligible. It’s your chance to support the authors and books that you like reading.

Catch ya later,  George

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Divine Vegan Desserts

divine-veganWickedly indulgent, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth, decadent – these are not words that I usually associate with vegan food.  The words wholesome, nutritious and healthy are more likely to spring to my mind in association with this particular dietary regime – and don’t the latter descriptors actually preclude the former?  Read on, dear friend, because I might just have been wrong!   To be perfectly honest, I have always found the concept of veganism (or any restrictive form of diet) a little confronting – cutting myself off from entire food groups is not something that this greedy girl could ever contemplate.  So when a copy of Wakefield PressDivine Vegan Desserts” found it’s way into my inbox for reviewing I was a little unsure how to approach it.

Well, it turned out that was simple.  It seems that finishing off a meal with a sweet treat is not out of the reach of those who are endeavouring to make a switch to a healthier lifestyle (and even those who aren’t) and after a quick flick through these lavishly illustrated recipes I was making a list of what I would make first!  Many will be relieved to know that vegans don’t proscribe chocolate and the recipes, all dairy and egg-free, with many gluten free, low sugar and nut-free choices, are enough to lift the spirits of any dessert-lover and go a long way towards redeeming the reputation of the dessert course.

Apparently, most vegan recipe books are from overseas and contain ingredients which can be difficult to source here in Australia.  Author Lisa Fabry avoids the use of these and explains clearly and simply how to make brilliant dairy free desserts with ingredients many of us will already have on hand – or at least be able to source easily.  Fabry originates from London, but now lives in Adelaide indulging her two great passions – food and yoga. She shares her own dishes, plus a selection of vegan desserts being created by chefs in cafes, restaurants and cooking classes from around the world.

The book begins with a guide to the key ingredients in vegan baking, some baking tips and how to substitute natural colours for artificial in your cooking.  It is divided up into chapters covering baking, tarts, pies, puddings, fruit dishes, ice creams and sorbets, custards and creamy desserts and small treats, with each dish beautifully photographed.  The range of desserts is extensive and covers everything from wickedly indulgent Double Fudge Pecan Brownies, to decadent melt-in-your-mouth Banoffi Tarts and a traditional creamy, custardy trifle.  I challenge anyone to resist these dishes – they look, er, divine!

Lime Tart

I road tested a couple of the recipes – the Las Vegan Sour Cherry Muffins and (in a diversion from my usually predictable preference for chocolate) the refreshing Lime Tart.  The muffins rose perfectly and were deliciously moist and sticky, without being too sweet, but the Lime Tart was the absolute winner.  It was so quick to make, with at-hand ingredients and has a delicious zesty zing to it.  I’d happily serve it to anyone as a dinner party dessert – even those who are cynical of raw foods.  This would certainly change their minds.

I can’t say this book would convert me – I still find veganism far too restrictive and just a little confusing – but it certainly is proof that a vegan diet can have plenty of indulgence in it.  Divine Vegan Desserts is perfect for those who are interested in pursuing a healthier diet, but reluctant to give up on their sweet tooth.

Review – DON’T let a Spoonbill in the kitchen!

Don't let a spoonbill in the kitchenFun, Fun, Fun! Delicious, unrestrained, dive-head-first into it FUN, was my first impression of Narelle Oliver’s scrumptious new picture book, DON’T let a Spoonbill in the kitchen! Well OK, but why, I bet you’re wondering. I was and couldn’t wait to devour this book to find out.

My indulgence was delayed though first by the cherry-topped, pink-iced cupcakes dripping delectably across the cover and then by the brilliantly detailed end pages. (Actually it was Miss 7 who found it hard to move on from this girly treasure trove of items) When we finally did, we were rewarded with a veritable fest of musical narrative and divine illustrations.

Narelle OliverNarelle Oliver is one of those unassuming, home grown Aussie talents who quietly gets on with creating perfectly balanced masterpieces for children to savour with seemingly little effort and fanfare. Immerse yourself into the pages of this picture book though and you’ll soon be marvelling at the many exquisite elements, the lyrical storyline and informative descriptions of some of our most curious native Australian birds, and wondering just how she does it so well.

Oliver is well-known for her predilection for Australian native fauna and feathered creatures. Fox and Fine Feathers and Home are just two examples of her acute appreciation and sensitivity for them and the way she is able to preserve them in the picture book art format, allowing children to cultivate a keener sense of value for the world around them.

Narelle's art

DON’T let a Spoonbill in the kitchen! takes this one level higher for me. Each rhyming quatrain rolls sweetly off one’s tongue whether read silently or out loud; something littlies will repeatedly adore. The format is simple and reoccurring, ideal for building expectation and reinforcing fact with humour. We are introduced to a selection of birds and their chief characteristics before receiving a cautionary warning about them on the succeeding page. The ‘advice’ pages burst with exuberant colour, mayhem, mess and FUN and allow readers to make their own assumptions as to why it’s best not to take a pelican to the airport, for instance.

I struggled to find a favourite amongst these images. They are all marvellous and Oliver’s use of handmade collages, linocuts and real photo imagery make it feel as though the birds really are causing chaos in the kitchen. The overall result is a riotous, educational and hilarious picture book which is seriously good FUN!Narelle Oliver's Spoonbill launch Bris Square Library April 2013 (19)

I had the immense pleasure of attending Narelle Oliver’s launch of DON’T let a Spoonbill in the kitchen! today amongst a crowd of esteemed children’s authors, illustrators and dedicated professionals of the children’s literary industry. Supported by Book Links QLD Inc. and launched by Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, the occasion was a celebration of fine art and joie de vivre and thankfully, was unhindered by the antics of any mischievous winged individuals. Happy to report, all cupcakes remained intact until the littlies set forth upon them!

Narelle Oliver's Spoonbill launch Bris Square Library April 2013 (2)

This is a picture book to treasure and to laugh at over and over again.

Recommended for pre-schoolers and those who crave to be a pelican (like me).

Omnibus Books by Scholastic Group Australia April 2013

 

 

Rosie Black’s last stand

Rosie BlackDark Star, the third and final book in The Rosie Black Chronicles by Lara Morgan, came out last year. I read it then and have been avoiding the review ever since. I hate it when a book fails to meet my expectations, especially when it is still a good book. It leaves me floundering when it comes to writing the review. But I can avoid it no longer. So, here goes…

In Genesis, we met Rosie Black, an ordinary teenage girl in a future dystopian world, who was inadvertently drawn into a world of corporate espionage, trying to stop the powerful and corrupt Helios corporation. With the help of her pilot aunt, a feral teenager named Pip and a mysterious man name Riley, she destroyed the Helios base on Mars and put a huge dint in their plans. In Equinox she discovered that Helios had other plans on the boil, and Rosie was drawn into things yet again. Now, in Dark Star, Helios’s ultimate plan is revealed, along with the true power behind the corporation. And Rosie finds herself battling seemingly insurmountable odds.

It’s an action-packed book with lots of twists and turns. There are interesting characters and concepts. And the whole thing is rather well written. And yet, it just didn’t do it for me.

You may remember I had similar feelings about the first book (see: “The Rosie Black Chronicles”). But I enjoyed the second book a lot more (see: “Reviewing Rosie Black”). So I was really expecting to love the third book. Alas, I did not. I did enjoy it, in the same way that I enjoyed book 1, but I didn’t love it.

I think, in part, this comes down to the fact that I’ve never really found the lead character all that engaging or likeable. I was starting to warm to her by the end of book 2. But in this book, she goes through so much that she comes across as almost super-human… so you don’t get the sense of her being an ordinary teenager. It was all just a little too much. I also found some of the character motivations a little muddy this time around.

But if you’ve read the first two books, you do have to read this one… if for no other reason than to finally find out who’s behind Helios and what they are up to. I really did like all of that. And there are lots of other good things in the book, particularly in terms of certain supporting characters.

All up, Dark Star is a good book… just not as good as I was hoping it would be. It is still very much worth a read.

Catch ya later,  George

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Player Profile: Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites

lowres3Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites

Tell us about your latest creation…

My debut novel is called Burial Rites, and takes place in Iceland, in the early nineteenth century. It tells the story of Agnes, a servant woman who has been sentenced to death for her role in the brutal murder of two men. In the absence of a prison, she is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on a northern farm. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoid
speaking with Agnes. Only Tóti, the young assistant priest appointed as her spiritual guardian, is compelled to try and understand her. As winter descends and the hardships of rural life force everyone to work side by side, the family’s attitude to Agnes starts to change, until one night, she begins to tell her side of the story, and they realise that all is not as they had assumed.

Burial Rites is actually based on true events. I lived in Iceland when I was a teenager, and heard the story of the murders then. Not only was I fascinated by the crime, but I became very curious about one of the women involved: Agnes. Writing this book was my attempt to more fully understand this mysterious historical figure. Many historical records tend to demonise Agnes, which I disagree with. My motivation to write the book came from a desire to explore her humanity, and her complexity.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

I was raised in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, where I’m now living again after a few years in Melbourne. I loved the inner-city life – the buzz and culture – but there’s something to be said for having a veggie patch, fruit trees, and a lot of wildlife on your doorstep. It’s nice being close to so many wineries too…

burial-ritesWhen you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

I can’t remember not wanting to be an author. I’ve always wanted to write, although I understood from an early age that I’d probably need another job to pay the bills. So, I’d go from wanting to be an author and a teacher, to an author and a geologist, to an author and a doctor – but the aspiration to become an author was constant.

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

I’m not sure that I’ve written enough to be able to consider what might be best! I’m very proud of my debut novel, Burial Rites, but I’m also looking forward to challenging myself and improving as a writer.

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

I wrote Burial Rites in a converted walk-in wardrobe in Melbourne, and my current office is not too dissimilar! I have a large desk (important for when I need to spread things out) squeezed against a window. I need a source of natural light. There’s a lot of things up on the wall – maps, photos, notes – and I have a few bookshelves close to hand. It’s not too cluttered, but I do have piles of reference books everywhere, which I frequently knock over by accident. I’m quite clumsy.

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

Whatever is at hand! Whether I’m writing or not, my reading habits remain the same. The only difference is that I might be reading extra material for research when writing. Oh, and I also read more poetry when I’m writing – it reminds me to pay attention to the rhythm of my prose. As for particular genres, I tend to read literary fiction, although occasionally I’ll let someone persuade me into reading a crime novel, or speculative fiction, or fantasy. I’m currently reading a lot of fantastic Irish authors – Emma Donoghue, Colm Toibin. It’s getting me in the spirit to start my next book, which will be set in Ireland.

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

I was a very big reader of Enid Blyton as a child, and ‘Little Women’ was really important to me in my formative years. I went through a stage where I would read it once a month, just because I loved the characters so much. I saw myself in them.

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

A certain six year old in my life recently told me that I’m exactly like Hermione in Harry Potter. He’s probably right. I’m a bit of a know it all, I don’t brush my hair very often, and I could imagine nothing better than spending hours and hours in a library.

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

I’m learning Swedish at the moment! I like to learn practical skills. I’ll go through a phase of bread baking, then I’ll decide I want to build a worm farm, then I’ll make a lot of jam. I don’t usually admit to it, but I also play the tin whistle, and I’m learning the guitar. I’m not always so industrious though. I do spend a lot of time watching films and frittering hours away on the internet.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

That’s a hard one. I’m a big coffee-drinker, and I do love a nice glass of red. Sometimes the simple things can be the best. I can get very enthusiastic about a well-buttered piece of toast.

Who is your hero? Why?

I have many heroes, and all of them are kind, gentle, curious people who make the world a better place through the little acts of compassion they perform every day. None of them are famous. You wouldn’t know them if you saw them. But they’re extraordinary in the way they give to others and lead by example.

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

Ooh, tough one. I’m not one of those who like to go around prophesying the death of the book. I don’t think humans will ever be able to quench their need for storytelling, nor do I believe we will every stop reading. I do think, however, that it is crucial for bookstores, publishers and authors to evolve and adapt to suit changing technologies and reading habits. Adapt or perish – I think that’s a good motto for these uncertain times we’re in.

Follow Hannah:

Website URL: www.hannahkentauthor.com
Facebook Page URL: https://www.facebook.com/HannahKentAuthor
Twitter URL: https://twitter.com/HannahFKent

Review: She Rises by Kate Worsley

9781408835906In a recent article about women’s writing it was claimed that respect and a wide readership is more likely if the author adopts a male perspective. Kate Worsley’s book half fulfills this criterion by offering a male and a female perspective in alternating chapters, but it also subverts it. However, to explain just how Worsley manages this subversion would be to give away one of the secrets of the book.

In 1740, fifteen-year-old Luke is drinking in a Harwich tavern when he is press-ganged into His Majesty’s Navy. His induction into life on board the warship Essex is brutal and overwhelming, and Worsley captures his experiences vividly. The smell of the bilges and of the men, the constant noise and movement, the hard, unfamiliar routines, the roughness, the fights and the course language, the dangers and the brutal punishments – Luke becomes familiar with them all. But all the time he yearns for his lost love.

In a different, less dangerous but equally disorientating way, young Louise Fletcher (Lou) exchanges life on an Essex farm (where she was “trained up from the age of twelve in the dairy work, in cow milking, and the buttermaking, and cheesemaking, and getting up the wheys and syllabubs”), for life as a lady’s maid in the busy sea-port of Harwich. Rebecca, her mistress, is the spoiled and willful daughter of Captain Handley, who runs a profitable packet boat which plies between Harwich and the Low Countries. Louise’s introduction to the Handley household and to her new mistress is strange, and Worsley immerses Louise and the reader in this new town life with its constant bustle, its odours, its tall houses “rackety as a row of sties”, the ships and the sailors, the drunk and the maimed, and the unpredictable and ever changing sea.

One of the great strengths of this book is Worsley’s ability to inhabit the world of her characters and to capture their language and their emotions. There are secrets here, too, and the loss of loved ones and the loss and finding of identity are constant themes.

Louise is forewarned of the dangers of seafaring life. Her father and brother both went to sea and never returned, and Lou’s mother has charged her with the task of seeking news of them, especially of her brother. Lou finds and loses a loved one; and finds and loses her own identity. Rebecca suffers several devastating losses, as does her whole family; and Luke sees and experiences losses of many different kinds on land and at sea. When Lou and Luke are finally brought together the consequences are not entirely unexpected but nor are they the stuff of clichéd romances. The story does not end there, nor does it have an especially happy ending, although given the circumstances and the era that, perhaps, would not have been possible.

For a first novel, Kate Worsley’s She Rises is remarkably assured. The descriptions of shipboard life, the dangers, the sickness, the fears and terrors of it, are gripping, and the characters are likeable and (mostly) believable.  Worsley evokes the atmosphere, the people and experiences of many different places and she tells an exciting story.  The course language of the sailors, and their inability to see women as anything more than providers of gross sexual gratification, is realistic but may offend some readers; and the depiction of lesbian love and sex may offend others. Both, however, are but part and parcel of a lively and enjoyable story. She Rises certainly deserves to gain respect and a wide readership for this particular woman writer.

Copyright Ann Skea 2013
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/
Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot: http://ann.skea.com/Arielindex.html

Review – Night Watch

Night WatchWho hasn’t watched an African wildlife documentary and not been enthralled by the lives of the majestic beasts that roam within? I may be easily amused but their appearances and antics still impress me, as does Phil Cummings’ and Janine Dawson’s latest offering, Night Watch.

Our African stars are Giraffe, Elephant, Hippo, and Baboon. They are neighbours, living side by side around the lake, getting on with their everyday lives but rarely exchanging more than a passing nod or ‘gruff grunt’ with each other; a modern predicament in today’s high density living society.

One day though, danger comes ‘prowling…creeping…stalking…sneaking’; Lion is on the hunt.

The animals rally nervously together and thanks to an ingenious idea of Baboon’s (being smarter than he looks) they hatch a shrewd plan and form a vigilant night watch. Lion is out-witted and frightened senseless by their deviousness. From then on, it’s business as usual, each resuming their insular coexistence by the lake, but no longer afraid of the night or what it could bring.

Phil CummingsThis likeable picture book touches on the importance of cooperation, teamwork, survival (of the cleverest) and the value of friendship with bucket-loads of charm and wit.

Phil Cummings pleasing rhythmic text pulses with humour and sound and stands up to repeated readings. But it is Janine Dawson’s gorgeous watercolour illustrations which convincingly convey the verve of the African savannah for me. They radiate the naivety, ingenuity and vulnerability of the characters with a sunny vibrancy sure to charm the pants of young readers.Janine Dawson

Working Title Press suggests this picture book provides plenty of potential for imaginative interaction, activities and kinetic play for children from 3 – 6 years of age. I am inclined to agree. But of course, if you are partial to safaris through the wilds of Africa, it’s worth a look too. Because you never know when you’ll need to outsmart a marauding lion do you?

Working Title Press April 2013

 

 

Literature’s Bono: A One-Man Zeitgest

One Man ZeitgeistI tried to obtain a review copy of Caroline Hamilton’s One Man Zeitgeist: Dave Eggers, Publishing and Publicity when it was first released as a prohibitively expensive hardcover in 2010.

And I was, I’ll admit, summarily miffed that the publisher wasn’t even polite enough to issue me a ‘nice try, but you can pay for it in full’ reply.

I caved and bought One Man Zeitgeist in recent weeks because I needed it for my university research and because I discovered that it’s finally out in a more affordable paperback format.

Almost incontrollable itching to hyphenate the title aside, I actually laughed when the book arrived. It was so slim Boomerang Books had to pack the mailbag with some extra cardboard lest its flimsy pages get minced beyond readable recognition in transit.

I’m not implying that Hamilton’s work is flimsy—far from it—just that the book is a lot thinner than I, after three years of attempting to get a hold of it, expected. It is, as the cover tells us, the ‘first extensive analysis of the works of Dave Eggers, a man who has grown from a small-time media upstart into one of the most influential author-publishers of the twenty-first century’.

I fell in love with Eggers from the opening pages of his breakout memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and have developed a near-obsessive fascination with and respect for him and his career and humanitarian work ever since.

McSweeney’s is a hipster-worthy publication, but it’s posted some fantastic monologues in its time, not least I’m Comic Sans, Asshole. It’s also beautifully presented. Eggers is one of the few authors, Hamilton writes, whose work it possible to identify ‘on the basis of typeface alone’.

ZeitounBetween his wresting back of the publishing ownership and power from the big guys, his determination to give back via his work and his work’s proceeds, and, well, every single outstanding and bestselling text he’s since published, Eggers is pretty much my hero.

Even if he hadn’t been, Zeitoun would have made him so. That book rocked my world and re-reinvented (he seems to have undergone multiple reinventions) Eggers’ career and ethos. In fact, the book arguably cemented his abilities to make the world a better place through words.

Oh, and then he kicked off 826 Valencia, a charitable arm that sees writers volunteer their time to tutor children from underprivileged backgrounds. As Hamilton quotes Eggers in the book from something he reportedly said while speaking to a journalist: ‘I felt like I was back where I knew what I was doing on the planet. I was liberated by a sense of obligation. I knew how I could be useful.’ Useful? Yes. Heroic and inspiring? Yes, indeed.

‘Through sheer weight of media coverage alone, Eggers has earned the rather extraordinary accolade of being a “one man zeitgeist”’, Hamilton tells us. It’s also seen him dubbed, backhandedly, as the ‘Bono of Literature’. It’s a scathing indictment, but one that reeks too of tall poppy syndrome and jealousy.

Eggers’ is a career that confounds most of us—fans or foes—but Hamilton’s book brings us the most comprehensive understanding to date of a career that’s undoubtedly going to continue to influence the way the author–publisher and the industry as operates. One Man Zeitgeist reads like a PhD thesis, which is arguably what it was.

But kudos to Hamilton for getting it published as a commercially available book that has some chance of being read by someone other than her supervisors and her mum—that’s the ultimate (and arguably very Eggers) outcome for postgraduate students. I’ll be keen to read future instalments from her—surely Eggers’ life and career will warrant further study (and yes, I’m aware I’ll likely have to wait for the paperback versions and pay for them too).

Review: The Ambitions of Jane Franklin: Victorian Lady Adventurer by Alison Alexander

9781742375694Lady Jane Franklin, “a Victorian Lady Adventurer” as this book’s title proclaims, is best known for her unflagging support of her husband, the Arctic explorer Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in 1847 on an expedition to chart and navigate the North West Passage. In all, Jane Franklin raised the funds for seven expeditions to find her husband or some record of what had happened to him and his men. She was also unflagging in her efforts to protect his reputation against accusations that the men resorted to cannibalism in an effort to survive after abandoning their ship. She was a determined and energetic woman.

How Jane came to be a Victorian adventurer is less well-known but, as Alison Alexander notes, other biographers have charted her extensive travels and the lady herself left copious records of her life. Alexander, however, has turned to a variety of new sources of information to fill out what she suggests is a more honest assessment of Jane Franklin’s character. Jane, it seems, was not averse to lying or to doctoring her writings in order to present herself as a loyal, devoted, loving and, above all, ladylike and charming wife, but this does seem to have been the way most people who met her saw her. Perhaps earlier biographers were naive in taking her writings at face value, but Jane was certainly not the only writer to fudge the facts, and in the end Alexander’s biography does nothing to reverse the accepted view of her character, it merely adds “ambition” to Jane’s goals. It also demonstrates the intelligence and intellectual curiosity of a woman who took every opportunity to explore the world around her, to broaden her own knowledge, and to be as innovative and effective in society as she could be.

Jane’s childhood, schooling and young adulthood were not very different to those of other young women born into middle-class immigrant artisan families in England. Her father was a successful Protestant Huguenot silk-weaver whose own father had fled Catholic France, set up business in London, and become a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Jane’s schooling was carefully attended to but she was clearly not satisfied with just needlework, card-playing and genteel, ladylike conversation. She read widely, travelled widely with her family, and her father settled on her a sum of money which gave her an independent income. What was unusual, was her late marriage, at the age of thirty-six, to a forty-two year old widower who was already a celebrated explorer. She appears to have had no shortage of eligible suitors but, until then, had rejected them all.

Alexander is not the first to suggest that Jane saw in Captain John Franklin an honest, decent, modest man who was in need of a clever wife whose drive and determination could further his career. Certainly, Jane had those qualities and she exercised them, but she had been a friend of John’s first wife Eleanor, and had met John Franklin socially whilst he was a celebrated and feted explorer who had also fought in several naval battles and had been wounded (slightly) at the Battle of Trafalgar. They got on well together, and she knew John was often away and that his wife had a good degree of independence. She knew, too, that although his first marriage had not been untroubled he was a mild man who appreciated intelligent women and was a warm and loving father to his small daughter. Whatever Jane’s reasons for accepting John Franklin’s proposal of marriage, there is nothing about their life together to suggest that ambition was Jane’s only motivation, and his love for her was certainly matched by her life-long devotion to him.

John Franklin was knighted a year after their marriage and for the next three years he was frequently absent on naval duties. Jane travelled in Spain and North Africa during this time, meeting up with John whenever possible, although this was made difficult by his roving commission. Then, in 1836 John was appointment as lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Most of this book is taken up with Jane’s life in Tasmania. This was certainly an adventure which she relished and she used her position as governor’s wife to the full. As well as helping her husband with administrative work (which was not unusual for a governor’s wife) she tried hard to improve educational opportunities for boys and girls; she initiated social gatherings at which intellectual discussion was promoted; she was instrumental in founding a scientific society and in building a Classical museum for the arts; she established the Huon land-scheme to encourage colonists; and she took an interest in the aboriginal population and fostered a young aboriginal boy and girl. She also explored the island extensively, reaching some of the most remote parts, and she climbed the rugged 1274m. densely vegetated Mount Wellington. Jane was also the first woman to travel overland from Melbourne to Sydney, camping each night along the way.

Judging by the footnotes, which mostly list manuscript references, Alexander’s research has been extensive. Unfortunately, after the tantalizing excitement of her ‘Introduction’, the book often reads like paraphrasing of these documents. Alexander’s express claim that she “stopped short of trying to get inside Jane Franklin’s head” is undermined by her frequent authorial interjections which interpret Jane’s feelings or offer Alexander’s own exclamatory comment on the situation. Some readers may find that this enlivens the book: I just found it unnecessary and irritating.

As a Victorian woman ‘adventurer’, Jane was not unique. Like Frances (Fanny) Trollope, who published her own adventures in America in the 1830s, Jane perhaps hoped one day to publish her writings. Her status ensured that her story has been told, but there were other independent-minded, intelligent women who, as early settlers in Australia, had equally exciting and adventurous lives and were equally influential in shaping their society.

Clearly, Jane Franklin was a remarkable woman. That she crossed swords with some who resented her influence over her husband whilst he was governor of Tasmania, is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that revisionist historians have questioned her interference in the lives of Tasmanian Aborigines. However, she worked hard to improve the life of the colony. The Royal Tasmanian Society, the Huon settlement and the Ancanthe Museum still exist. And although they only lived in Tasmania for seven years, Lady Jane and Sir John Franklin are still well remembered there.

Copyright Ann Skea 2013
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/
Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot: http://ann.skea.com/Arielindex.html

Talk Like Shakespeare Day – April 23

talk-like-shakespeareApril 23 is Talk Like Shakespeare Day!

How to Talk Like Shakespeare:

  • Instead of you, say thou or thee (and instead of y’all, say ye).
  • Rhymed couplets are all the rage.
  • Men are Sirrah, ladies are Mistress, and your friends are all called Cousin.
  • Instead of cursing, try calling your tormenters jackanapes or canker-blossoms or poisonous bunch-back’d toads.
  • Don’t waste time saying “it,” just use the letter “t” (’tis, t’will, I’ll do’t).
  • Verse for lovers, prose for ruffians, songs for clowns.
  • When in doubt, add the letters “eth” to the end of verbs (he runneth, he trippeth, he falleth).
  • To add weight to your opinions, try starting them with methinks, mayhaps, in sooth or wherefore.
  • When wooing ladies: try comparing her to a summer’s day. If that fails, say “Get thee to a nunnery!”
  • When wooing lads: try dressing up like a man. If that fails, throw him in the Tower, banish his friends and claim the throne

Take a look at the Talk Like Shakespeare website here…

Children’s Book Council Awards Shortlists Announced for 2013

cbcaThe shortlists for this year’s Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards have been announced.

The shortlisted titles in each of the categories are:

Older Readers:

  • The Ink Bridge (Neil Grant, A&U)
  • Sea Hearts (Margo Lanagan, A&U)
  • The Shiny Guys (Doug MacLeod, Penguin)
  • Creepy & Maud (Dianne Touchell, Fremantle Press)
  • Friday Brown (Vikki Wakefield, Text)
  • The Wrong Boy (Suzy Zail, Black Dog Books).

Younger Readers:

  • Pennies for Hitler (Jackie French, Angus & Robertson)
  • Other Brother (Simon French, Walker Books)
  • After (Morris Gleitzman, Viking)
  • Children of the King (Sonya Hartnett, Viking)
  • Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend (Steven Herrick, UQP)
  • The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk (Glenda Millard & Stephen Michael King).

Early Childhood:

  • The Terrible Suitcase (Emma Allen & Freya Blackwood, Omnibus)
  • With Nan (Tania Coz & Karen Blair, Windy Hollow Books)
  • The Pros & Cons of Being a Frog (Sue DeGennaro, Scholastic)
  • Too Many Elephants in This House (Ursula Dubosarsky & Andrew Joyner, Viking)
  • It’s a Miroocool! (Christine Harris & Ann James, Little Hare)
  • Peggy (Anna Walker, Scholastic).

Picture Books:

  • The Coat (Ron Brooks, illus by Julie Hunt, A&U)
  • Tanglewood (Vivienne Goodman, illus by Margaret Wild, Omnibus)
  • Herman and Rosie (Gus Gordon, Viking)
  • Sophie Scott Goes South (Alison Lester, Viking)
  • Lightning Jack (Patricia Mullins, illus by Glenda Millard, Scholastic)
  • A Day to Remember (Mark Wilson, illus by Jackie French, Angus & Robertson).

Eve Pownall Award for Information Books:

  • Python (Christopher Cheng & Mark Jackson, Walker Books)
  • Lyrebird! A True Story (Jackie Kerin, illus by Peter Gouldthorpe, Museum Victoria)
  • Topsy-turvey World: How Australian Animals Puzzled Early Explorers (Kirsty Murray, NLA)
  • Portrait of Spain for Kids (Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art)
  • Tom the Outback Mailman (Kristin Weidenbach, illus by Timothy Ide, Lothian).

New Tim Winton book Eyrie coming in October

wintontim01New novel by Tim Winton to be published by Hamish Hamilton in 2013

Ben Ball, Publishing Director, Penguin Books Australia has revealed a new novel by Tim Winton will be published on 14 October 2013.

“I’m delighted to be able to announce that on October 14 this year we will be publishing a new novel by Tim Winton, his first since the Miles Franklin Award-winning Breath. Each new work from Tim is a major event in Australian publishing and a privilege to be involved with. Eyrie is one of the very few books I’ve ever read that can genuinely be said to change the way you look at the world. It goes straight at the big questions, and like the greatest contemporary novels, expands its readers’ understanding of what it’s like to be alive now.

Eyrie tells the story of Tom Keely, a man who’s lost his bearings in middle age and is now holed up in a flat at the top of a grim highrise, looking down on the world he’s fallen out of love with. He’s cut himself off, until one day he runs into some neighbours: a woman he used to know when they were kids, and her introverted young boy. The encounter shakes him up in a way he doesn’t understand. Despite himself, Keely lets them in. What follows is a heart-stopping, groundbreaking novel for our times – funny, confronting, exhilarating and haunting – populated by unforgettable characters. It asks how, in an impossibly compromised world, we can ever hope to do the right thing.” – Ben Ball, Publishing Director, Penguin Books Australia

Eyrie by Tim Winton will be published by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books on 14 October 2013.

Vanguard Prime to the rescue

GoldrushSuperheros, pop culture references and a fast-paced story combine to make an exciting and easy reading experience. What am I talking about? Goldrush — the first instalment in Steven Lochran’s Vanguard Prime series of teen novels.

Sam Lee was an ordinary teenager until he suddenly developed super powers. Now he finds himself recruited by the elite military superhero group, Vanguard Prime, and given the superhero name Goldrush. As he attempts to fit in and gain control of his new-found powers, he is thrown into the middle of a struggle to save the world from the ultimate super villain, the Overman.

Vangaurd Prime is obviously inspired by established comic book superheros, from The Avenger to X-Men. In fact, there are quite marked similarities to the latter —instead of ‘mutants’, the superheros and super villains are ‘neohumans’. There is certainly an element of the derivative and predictable in this book. But Lockran handles it all with such enthusiasm, humour and lightning speed, that it really doesn’t matter. In fact, a familiarity with the comic book heroes of the past helps make this book even more enjoyable.

There is a lot to like in this book. The humour is wonderful… particularly the way in which the superheroes are marketed to the public. Love it! Sam’s character development is good — from reluctant recruit to vital team member — making him sympathetic and likable. But it’s all the pop culture references I loved the most. My personal favourite is the Star Trek reference to ‘Kobeyashi’. The moment that name is mentioned, every die-hard Star Trek fan knows exactly what’s going down. And there are many other references, from the obvious to the obscure. Even the name of the lead character is reminiscent of Stan Lee, legendary comic book writer and co-creator of so many superheroes, including the X-Men.

The narrative is divided between first-person present tense (for Sam) and third-person present tense. I’ve got to admit to not particularly liking this. I’m not a fan of present tense. I don’t mind it for first-person narrative where everything is from a particular character’s point of view, and that character’s inner thought processes are vital to the story … but I find it jarring in third-person. I can see why the author used it, as it does have immediacy and impact, but I’m still not keen on it. I’m sure that not all readers will share my bias, so please don’t let it put you off. I did get used to it as the story went along.

All up, Goldrush is a fun and exciting read. I’ll certainly be ordering the next instalment, Wild Card.

Catch ya later,  George

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The Secret Lives Of Men

9781922070357I’m not normally a short story reader. Short stories often feel—to me, anyway—as though they’re trying too hard to give us some grand moral lesson in a short space of time. They feel deliberate and laboured. And then, just when I’ve given myself over to the tale, they end.

Georgia Blain’s Secret Lives of Men is the exception to that rule, though, with Blain sucking me into her short stories immediately, relinquishing me only once I’d raced from story to story in a single afternoon. The stories did, of course, end sooner than I’d hoped, but Blain’s ability to quickly and wholly immerse me in each story as I lurched from one to the next lessened that usual frustration.

In the opening tale, which gifts the collection its title, the narrator is haunted by a moment of tragic recklessness from her teenage past. ‘We always knew the locals hated us,’ is the scene-setting opening line, and Blain shows us her narrator’s age, education, affectation, and later-earned wisdom with a subtle aside on the following page. The boy the narrator was interested in:

… wore the uniform of all others, the moleskin jeans, the striped cotton shirt, but he wore it with insouciance (a word we didn’t know then)—panache, some of us said when we were drunk; style, when we were sober …

Blain dedicates the book in part to ‘Harry, the dog, who seemed to creep into my stories with as much stealth as he crept onto the couch’, and it’s hospital-visit dogs that help the second story (and dogs in general for the subsequent stories) unfold.

9781743313374‘Wednesday is dog day’, the story opens. It’s the day dogs visit the hospital cheer up patients, including the narrator who’s suffering from mysterious post-operative fevers.

It’s a wrenching tale simply told—perhaps the inclusion of animals, albeit fictitious ones, lends the story an added level of emotion. Later in the book we encounter Doris, the diabetic dog delivered to a different protagonist by his junkie daughter.

The stories are understated, but its Blain’s light touch and hand-picked highlights that makes these stories strong. It’s something you’d expect from an author named as one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists and who has been shortlisted for a bunch of prestigious awards.

I’ve admittedly never read Blain’s other books, including Closed For Winter, which was both a bestseller and later made into a film. My reason for that is a she seemed a little like literary royalty (she’s Anne Deveson’s daughter) and lot too intimidatingly talented for words.

No one’s more surprised than me that I’ve come to her work via my not-favourite form of the short story. But it’s perhaps these accessible, less-terrifying tales that have opened the door for me: based on what I’ve read here, I’d like to read more.

Review – Grandpa’s Gold

GGoldOnce upon a time, not long ago, unearthing quality crafted, self-published children’s books was like fossicking for gold. They were out there, but often buried under layers of fools’ gold. Grandpa’s Gold is one of the genuine gems.

For me, one of the greatest rewards of being a parent is being able to share the world’s wonders and its treasures with your offspring. Heading off on adventurous travel, although beset with obvious challenges, creates unimaginable, lasting memories for young and old alike. Seasoned children’s author, Robin Adolphs, has struck gold with this slick, memorable story about a young boy and his grandfather sharing such an adventure.

Jake has a Grandpa who possesses a 4WD and the ancient ability to read maps. Best of all, he knows how to find gold. He and Jake set off one day in search of it. Along the way, Grandpa reveals just how elusive the precious metal is and how tricky it is to find. Jake is fascinated to learn that if he listens hard enough for a ‘kind of WHOOP-WHOOP noise’, gold won’t be far away.

They set up camp in the goldfields. Jake hears many noises that first night but none of them the WHOOP-WHOOP of gold. That is until Grandpa introduces Jake to the mysteries of a metal detector. Jake is spell-bound by it, having had ‘no idea the earth was so noisy’.

Each buzz, crackle and whirr prompts them to stop and dig. Soon Jake’s pockets are bulging with treasures: a rust billy can, an old hob-nail, a broken horseshoe, even the head of a pick-axe; relics of a yesteryear all too wonderful for a small boy to leave behind. Grandpa’s efforts are less fruitful until he relinquishes the detector to Jake. WHOOP-WHOOP! ‘And there is was. Gold!’

This appealing tale transported me back to the time I spent fossicking the gem fields of west Queensland. Miles and miles of Brigalow scrub, rocky outcrops and the promise of stumbling across the next pink sapphire kept me there for a spell. Fossicking for one’s fortune is an addictive occupation only the human race has bothered to adapt for; only we can devote countless hours to sifting through barrows of scree, tediously sluicing gallons of mud or blowing up mountains in search of something so ridiculously small and shiny in comparison to the huge, dirty effort expended looking for it.

Robin AdolphsRobin Adolph’s story suggests there is more to be gained from the quest itself than the find. (She’s right. There is something almost therapeutic about time spent this way.) Grandpa and Jake share much more together than plain old greed. They experience the thrill of adventure, a shared camaraderie and those marvellously unquantifiable feelings of anticipation and inflated expectation.

A winning picture book embraces many levels. Grandpa’s Gold does this in spades. This is cheekily represented in the last page spread with an alluvial multi-layering of treasures that Jake is determined to find one day.

Perhaps the best discoveries in Grandpa’s Gold for me are the illustrations of Arthur Filloy. Big, bold, cartoon-style drawings flood each page with sound and motion. Jake and Grandpa are depicted in beguiling caricature fashion. I particularly like the way the illustrations involve both pages with shales of rock, drifting clouds and nocturnal eyes appearing on pages of text– something not often found in self-published picture book offerings. The simple line drawings of an old timer from a by-gone era ‘using’ the treasures Jake mines on each opposite page are genius and help span a young reader’s understanding of the passing of generations.

But that’s not all. Ex-teacher Adolphs gives us one last reason to linger a little longer in search of hidden treasure – A did you find…Quiz at the back of the book. This was the clincher for my Miss 7, who declared Grandpa’s Gold as ‘a very cool book’. Eureka!

Recommended for 3 – 8 year olds as enthusiastically as heading off into the sunset in search of adventure with them.

Butternut Books April 2013

Adolphs’ other titles under Butternut Books include Yesterday I Played in the Rain and The Pile Up.

Lucky SE Queenslanders have a chance to experience all the fun of finding gold this weekend at the official launch of Grandpa’s Gold 13th April at Logan North Library 10.00am, Underwood, QLD

 

 

 

Argo

ArgoI realise I’m coming to Argo about six months and a wallop of Academy Awards nominations later, but how good is that film?!

My penchant is for non-fiction tales, so I’m particularly partial to films based on truth-is-stranger-than-fiction events.

And there are few tales that could be any stranger than the one involving a fictional sci-fi film created as a cover to retrieve six American embassy workers holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s home after Iranians stormed the American embassy and took hostage all but these six escaped workers.

The riots stemmed from America granting immunity to the Iranian leader and all-round bad guy, and the glossing over of America’s role in inciting the overspill of violence and the casting of the Iranian people as rather two-dimensional are the two criticisms I’ll make of Argo. But for the most part I’m applauding it as a film that stayed fairly close to historical fact, allowing for a little injecting of creative licence to ramp up the storytelling tension.

Riveting from the get go, Argo credits audience intelligence. It tightly weaves a historical and plot tapestry, assuming and expecting that we will pay close attention and will keep up. Archival-style footage wrought as graphic novel-like tableaus break up and highlight the opening protest and embassy-barraging scenes. Everything is understated but highly strung and it’s impossible not to be affected by that unrelenting, pulse-raising tension for the entire film.

Ben Affleck plays protagonist and CIA agent Tony Mendez, whose specialities include forging passports and extracting people from fraught situations. He’s the one tasked with finding a life- and face-saving solution to smuggling out the six highly prized (but for now secret) targets when every option presented is poor.

It’s winter in Iran and it’s hundreds of kilometres to the border—the six can’t, as is first suggested, cycle. Snow covering the ground ensures that they can’t pretend to be agricultural inspectors; meanwhile the mere 74 foreign journalist visas issued are closely monitored.

It’s watching Planet of the Apes with his son that gives Mendez the idea that he and the six American escapees will pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting for a location for a fake sci-fi film entitled Argo. As his superior says of the preposterous idea: ‘This is the best bad idea we have.’

In truth, with Affleck as protagonist and director, I’d almost steered clear of Argo. With the exception of Good Will Hunting, I’ve found Affleck’s films to be forgettable. But, as my friend Naomi commented, he seems to do his best work when he’s juggling both acting and directorial roles, and with Argo he’s made a return to that early (only?) form.

John Goodman plays larger-than-life prosthetics expert (I’ve most recently enjoyed him as Denzel Washington’s character’s drug dealer in Flight) and Alan Arkin plays a film industry great with just the right amount of cynicism and sass. His character’s bestowed a lifetime achievement award. Of the penguin suit-requiring ceremony he says, ‘I’d rather stay at home and count the wrinkles on my dog’s balls.’

‘I should have brought some books to read in prison,’ is what Mendez says to his colleague just before embarking on the mission. ‘No, they’ll kill you long before prison,’ his colleague blackly comically replies. Fortunately for us audiences (and for Affleck’s career), Mendez survived. His book, Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which has rocketed to the bestseller list thanks to the film’s success, will be the next on my reading menu. For book-to-film-adaptation examination, of course.

Hello Hipster Ipsum

Hipster_IpsumIt’s with enormous wish-I’d-thought-of-this envy and even greater gratitude that I blog about this next website. It’s also with genuine stomach pain that well may be from a laughing-induced hernia. But first: some background to the website’s inspiration.

We’re all familiar with Lorem Ipsum dummy text. That is, the suitably generic, repetitive, and non-distracting text we dump in to give a sense of what a layout will look like before we’ve got the finalised content to fill it.

The standard passage, which our eyes are meant to and do skim over, is reportedly drawn from sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33 of Cicero’s de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (The Extremes of Good and Evil). It reads as follows:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

I think the translation for this (or some other passage from Cicero’s book, at least) is:

But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?

The passage-as-placeholder notion has been around since the 1500s, the Lorem Ipsum generator website Lipsum tells us. That’s a feat in and of itself, especially that it’s still being used in this fast-moving, fleeting interest-dominated, and arguably more superficial digital age. I think, though, that the modern era version of this dummy text has just been born (yup, the background text meets history lesson is over; it’s time for the big website reveal).

WordPress and general and generous interwebs guru Jason Cosper has created a hipster-themed version of the Lorem Ipsum text. You read correctly. It’s known as Hipster Ipsum (and I highly, highly recommend you roadtest it for yourself). Is there anything more genius and hilarious?!

‘Do you need some dummy text? *sigh* Of course you do’ reads the site’s intro text. ‘I bet you still use Helvetica too …’ From there you (the user) nominate the number of paragraphs of text you need and whether you want it ‘hipster, neat’ or ‘hipster w/ a shot of Latin’ (I posted a wee screengrab). Either way, stereotype-skewering text and it’s on-the-money marvelling ensues.

I could list the millions of reasons why I love this concept and love its execution better, but it’s funnier just to post some sample Hipster Ipsum below (I went for ‘hipster, neat’):

Mustache thundercats swag, cardigan selfies try-hard blue bottle farm-to-table viral ugh mcsweeney’s 8-bit carless next level mixtape. Tousled brooklyn mumblecore cosby sweater narwhal skateboard. Cosby sweater high life odd future, tattooed seitan freegan vegan mumblecore keytar pop-up vice hashtag. Banh mi put a bird on it tofu, sustainable irony small batch 90’s american apparel actually +1 mixtape tonx fanny pack. Bicycle rights bespoke yr, ethical try-hard literally tofu vice post-ironic. Craft beer blog PBR mlkshk, aesthetic echo park wayfarers hella wolf viral fixie umami quinoa literally chillwave. Scenester beard food truck fingerstache pour-over.

Fanny pack VHS gluten-free sriracha kale chips. Thundercats helvetica cliche four loko raw denim pickled lo-fi vice readymade truffaut, bushwick leggings. Typewriter keffiyeh forage letterpress, blue bottle portland gastropub sriracha. Raw denim american apparel put a bird on it fashion axe marfa. Bushwick stumptown occupy, gentrify cosby sweater quinoa carles marfa banh mi +1 keytar pinterest church-key selfies. Plaid brunch hashtag iphone VHS, try-hard art party tofu keytar twee ethical hoodie cardigan occupy odd future. Sustainable squid dreamcatcher banksy yr 8-bit.

Plaid blue bottle aesthetic vegan VHS. Fashion axe cray post-ironic cred yr, bushwick blog shoreditch sriracha. Gentrify you probably haven’t heard of them odd future, mustache semiotics cosby sweater selfies iphone carles wolf kogi neutra scenester. Pitchfork beard salvia, flannel dreamcatcher freegan tattooed Austin jean shorts thundercats messenger bag direct trade. Pork belly before they sold out put a bird on it, truffaut blog vinyl locavore cosby sweater jean shorts. Vegan master cleanse leggings, fingerstache aesthetic dreamcatcher try-hard iphone mcsweeney’s. Biodiesel american apparel gastropub jean shorts, banh mi fixie craft beer thundercats lomo cosby sweater blog twee sriracha umami.

You probably haven’t heard of them readymade terry richardson, before they sold out plaid lomo marfa. Hoodie godard etsy, kogi truffaut sustainable american apparel fap. Banjo street art fanny pack, 8-bit brooklyn DIY food truck flannel neutra ennui. Shoreditch selvage blog, PBR hoodie fashion axe iphone messenger bag literally cosby sweater meggings mixtape sartorial umami put a bird on it. YOLO beard american apparel narwhal, tattooed tumblr ethical williamsburg hashtag odd future wes anderson deep v chillwave bicycle rights. Try-hard next level PBR fingerstache. Ennui organic intelligentsia, tonx photo booth single-origin coffee hoodie banjo letterpress sriracha umami quinoa bushwick.

I could post this stuff from here to eternity. And yes, I’m fully aware that the hipster theme means that text that’s not meant to be read is indeed read. Whatever, it’s, like, totes gold. Beer me.

(Huge kudos and thanks to Justine Gannon for introducing me to this.)

Doodles and Drafts – An Interview with Lucia Masciullo

At a time of year when there are more new children’s book releases than autumn leaves drifting about, it’s nice to grab a cuppa, sit back and remember that what makes a book brilliant is the genius behind its creation.

Lucia Masciullo Today we meet one of those geniuses, the quietly charismatic illustrator, Lucia Masciullo. Her story is fascinating. Her style is utterly beguiling. And thanks to her clever connection with my addiction to marshmallows, her name is no longer impossible for me to pronounce!

So grab that cuppa and prepare to be absolutely delighted…

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

First of all I’m Italian and this is why you probably can’t pronounce my surname (by the way it’s quite similar to marshmallow but with no sugar: ma-shu-llo). I am born and bred in Livorno (Leghorn on English maps) on the coast of Tuscany and I moved to Brisbane in 2006 with my partner Vincenzo.

More than an illustrator I like to think I’m a visual explorer: I love to experiment always new styles and new techniques. Maybe because I started to work as illustrator only 7 years ago, but the more I learn about illustration and visual art, the more I want to know.

I’m also a Biologist and maybe that’s the reason why I like to study things I’m passionate about. I keep the same enthusiasm I had at the Uni, but instead of learning about cells, animals and plants, now I want to learn things like what the best color to represent an emotion is or how to balance words and images in a composition.

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

I have several favourite colors. It depends on my mood, I guess. I like Amber in the morning, Cool Grey when I’m wistful, and Apple Green when I’m hungry and so on.

I think your personal perception always influences your art, especially while working with colors. It’s inevitable. So I try to feel the same mood that I want to depict. The colors choice is easier this way and listen to music with the same mood I want to represent helps me a lot. It’s probably like being an actor: an actor can pretend to be sad or happy, but it’s way more believable if he can really feel the emotion he wants to convey.

Q What, whom persuaded you to illustrate?

When I was a child I was pretty good at drawing, but I was also good at swimming, math and amongst other things, sprinkling water from my mouth. So I wasn’t encouraged particularly to pursue art.

Maybe I felt that my dad wouldn’t easily accept me doing art as a job. Furthermore drawing was something so important for me, that I couldn’t accept failure or critiques: I didn’t want to show my drawing to anyone. So whatever the reason I ended up studying Biology.

But few years later I realized that if I wanted to do something useful with my life, if I really wanted to make the difference in this world, I had to do something that I really cared about. So I bet on my passion for art.

I would say that learning how to illustrate professionally has been a wonderful experience, but the truth is that the main reason I’m an illustrator today is because of my partner Vincenzo. He encouraged me and supported from the very beginning, giving me the strength to keep going the times when I wanted to give up.

Q Are you a natural or have you had to study your craft? If so where?

I have always been quite good at figuring out simple forms and basic lines out of complex images. Some people may look at a picture and imagine a story or (piece of) music. Others may look at a tree and figure how to climb it. When I look at utility pole, a building or a face of an old woman, I can easily imagine how to reproduce that image using simple lines and shapes. This is my natural talent and that’s probably why I’m good at drawing.

But of course this is only the beginning of the story. You need to perfect your skills: in other words you need to practice. A lot. I attended a three years course in Illustration in Florence and I started drawing and painting 24/7 since. I was caught by the art bug. And I still am.

Q Was it a work opportunity that prompted your move to Australia?

Yes and no. It was a work opportunity for my partner: he won a European Endeavor Award in 2006 that allowed him to work at the University of Queensland for one year. I came in Australia as his partner, so you could say it’s love that brought me to Australia.

The initial plan was just to stay one year, but (lucky us!) things have gone differently.

The Boy and the Toy illoQ How do you develop your illustrations? Do digital computer programs feature significantly in what you produce?

For each illustration I start by drawing a rough sketch of the scene I have in mind with pencil and paper. Just to get the feeling of it and to evaluate if it’s a good idea or not. Then I draw the final scene, defining the characters and the background. Always with pencil and paper. I draw the same scene few times, until I’m happy with the composition.

At this stage I scan the drawing and refine it digitally using a tablet. It saves me a lot of time. I can change rapidly the scale of the elements, correct mistakes and balance the composition (when I’m not sure if an image is well balanced, I flip it right/left and make adjustments until the original and the flipped image look both nice).

Then, when everyone is happy with the drawing (myself, the publisher and the author sometimes) I make a few digital colored sketches and use those as a guide to paint the final artwork.

Different media may give different effects and moods to the same illustration. For picture books I like to use acrylics or watercolors to which I add details with pencil or ink.

I like the transparency of watercolors and the joyful effects water creates when mixed with pigments. I also love acrylics because they work on every surface and they are great if you want to add a textural element to the illustration.

Q Where has your work appeared?

I’ve illustrated six picture books, three young adults’ novels and I also did little black and white illustrations for the popular series Our Australian Girl.

I’m also the co-founder of Blue Quoll, a digital children’s book publisher company and I’ve illustrated the first two titles.

I have exhibited my works in Brisbane in a number of occasions and I’m very proud that two of my illustrations have been selected for a National exhibition titled ‘Look! The art of Australian picture books today’ that showcases the best of children book illustrations in Australia: my works have been presented among those of some of the most important names in the Illustration industry.

The Exhibition was set at the State Library in Melbourne in 2010, and has been moved subsequently to Brisbane, Canberra and to several Regional Galleries since. Now it’s going to be held for the last time at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery until April 2013.

Q What children’s books have you illustrated? Do you have a favourite?

These are the children’s books I’ve illustrated:

Queen Alice’s Palaces by Juliette McIver ABC 2013

Come down, Cat! by Sonya Hartnett Penguin 2011

Family Forest by Kim Kane HGE 2010

The Boy and the Toy by Sonya Hartnett Penguin 2010

When No-one is Looking – On the Farm by Zana Fraillon HGE 2009

When No-one is Looking – At the Zoo by Zana Fraillon HGE 2009

No, I don’t have a favourite. I always try to do my best when I illustrate picture books, so I really like them all: they are my little creatures.

Q How long, on average does it take you to complete illustrations for a picture book?

From the first sketches to the final artworks it takes four to six months.

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

I draw almost every day, but I also have a part of my day dedicated to the routine: emails, online activity, parcels to send, events and meetings to attend … even though I’m usually quite good at procrastinating all the things that do not concern drawing.

I think the best part of my working day is when I find solutions to my problems. It may be the right color palette for a scene, an original point of view, the right expression for a certain character. Sometimes problems seem complicated, they absorb all my thoughts and sometimes even my dreams. But the bigger the problem, the bigger the satisfaction when I find the right solution.

Oh and of course I like to receive positive feedback from publishers: I can’t stop smiling in front of an enthusiastic email!

The accidental Princess LuciaQ 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?

Oh yes, it’s absolutely the same for illustrators. I always bring with me an A6 notebook where I can scribble and sketch freely. My favourite subjects at the moment are utility poles, people and cups. Leafs and trees, sometimes. I also take note of all the sensational ideas I have for my future best seller picture books.

Q 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?

To illustrate my own story is something I really would like to do. As I said I like to collect ideas for future books, but when I go to Libraries and Bookshops and I see all the amount of beautiful books already done, I just wonder why should I write another children’s book? I guess I’m waiting for the right story, the story I really would like to tell.

Besides I’m not very confident in my writing skills. Probably I’d use more pictures and no much text.

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

There are many Australian illustrators I like: Gus Gordon, Freya Blackwood, Robert Ingpen, Kerry Argent only to name a few, but the one I admire most is Shaun Tan, even though his books are technically picture books and not children’s books.

When I first arrived in Australia I found everything was different from my Italian life: food, buildings, trees and my English was quite poor and it wasn’t easy to make new friends. I felt a bit lost. So when I read The Arrival, it hit me personally: not only the pictures were astonishing and sensational, like the kind of pictures I’d like to create, but the story was my own story. I had the feeling that he had written this book for me!

Then I met Shaun in 2010 at the Bologna children’s book Fair and I really liked him as a person: he is a very nice guy, friendly and generous (he helped me in obtaining my Australian permanent visa). A truly inspirational illustrator.

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

Well, of course I’ll never forget the moment I received the first ‘yes’ by two Australian Publishers. The first one was by Hilary Rogers at Hardie Grant Egmont; the second one was by Jane Godwin at Penguin.

In both cases they sent me a manuscript, asking me some preparatory sketches: characters design and a couple of background scenes. I did my best and I sent them back my sketches. Amazingly for me, they liked them and they asked me if I was interested in working with them, illustrating the entire picture book.

After years of frustration and hardworking, trying to refine my artistic skills, finally someone was giving me a chance. This was the only thing that I was waiting for, the possibility to show what I could do. I remember I began jumping all over the house because I couldn’t contain the enthusiasm. And I’m happy now Hilary and Jane couldn’t see my lack of professionalism.

Queen Alice's PalacesQ What is on the storyboard for Lucia?

In December (2012) I finished to illustrate a lovely picture book that will be published in April, titled Queen Alice’s Palaces, based on a hilarious rhymed story by Juliette McIver.

These days I’m working on a breathtaking manuscript by Sonya Hartnett, a challenging one. I love her stories, but I hate them at the same time, because they are so intense I can’t stop thinking about them until I’ve illustrated them.

I for one can’t wait to see them.

Player Profile: Lisa Forrest, author of Inheritance

website photo with glassesLisa Forrest, author of Inheritance

Tell us about your latest creation…

My latest creation is a YA fantasy novel set in the circus called, INHERITANCE. I started my career as an author of YA fiction but my last book, BOYCOTT (a non-fiction account of the controversial months before the 1980 Moscow Games when PM Malcolm Fraser tried to stop Australia from attending the Games; I was 16 and captain of the women’s swim team), had been quite a gruelling experience and I knew that if I was going to write another book I really needed to write something fun!

As a teenager, I liked the stories of Trixie Belden and her teenage team of super-sleuths, the Bob-Whites and I was keen to head in the direction of mystery-and-adventure-with-friends. Then I interviewed John Flanagan.  We (my son, husband and I) loved his Ranger’s Apprentice series. Since the series had been inspired by John’s son it got me thinking: my own son was too young at the time to inspire a teenage series but my niece, a circus girl who lives in Wollongong, had just crossed the teenage ‘threshold’. At the time she was a reluctant reader so I started researching with her in mind. I discovered that our word circus came from the Latin word of the same name which was Romanised from Greek word, kirkos, meaning circle or ring.  So I started playing with the spelling of the two words, circus/kirkos and threw into the mix the first circus in Rome, Circus Maximus, and began to imagine an ancient circus troupe called the Cirkulatti, always led by a woman, known as the Eminence, who it was said could whisper to the minds of her audience. Her powers – and those of her troupe – were so coveted by rulers of the various civilisations that they honoured the ascendance of each new eminence with a piece of jewellery, which together became known as the Curios of the Eminence.

What if my Wollongong circus girl had one of these curios and people were after it?  Who might they be? Perhaps the Cirknero, the dark side of the Cirkulatti who were not content with supporting the throne but instead wanted to control it? If my Wollongong circus girl had the curio did that mean it could help her overcome those who are chasing her? And if she’s in possession of a curio, does that means she’s linked to the eminence – or possibly destined to be the next eminence?

At first I’d intended to write a fictional eminence. Then, reading E.H. Gombrich’s, Little History of the World, I learned about Theodora, empress of the Holy Roman Eastern Empire in the mid-500’s, who ruled as an equal with her husband, Justinian. She, apparently, rose from the circus to be Justinian’s wife, and during her lifetime was a hugely influential and important figure. The coincidence was too perfect.

So, INHERITANCE is about a girl called Tallulah who’s always known she’s different – she has the gift of communicating without speaking, a secret she shares only with her childhood nanny, Irena. But, when she joins Cirque d’Avenir (which she thinks is just a local holiday circus school) she finds she isn’t the only one with a special gift.  As she gets drawn further into the Cirque d’Avenir ‘family’ she discovers a world of dark ancient powers and centuries-old greed that requires her to call on all the skills Irena taught her – as well as the protection of a mysterious cuff her nanny left with her for safekeeping.

But what is the secret power of the cuff – and why are men willing to die to possess it? Tallulah has always understood that being different is dangerous – but will that stop her from accepting her true inheritance?

9780733328923Where are you from / where do you call home?

I grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney. I now live in the inner city but we still spend a lot of time on the north side – the beaches are the best!

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

My first ambition was a small one – to swim for Australia at the Olympic Games!

I joined Dee Why Ladies Amateur Swim Club when I was 8. My younger brother wanted a fibreglass surfboard but Dad said he couldn’t upgrade from the foam Koolites we rode until he could swim 400m. He joined Dee Why Men’s, got his name in the results section of the local paper, The Manly Daily and not  to be outdone I followed him down there the next week. Apparently, I cried all the way to the 25m finish line of my first race (a sort of combination dog-paddle, over-arm freestyle) but it mustn’t have been too distressing because I was down there again the next week. That winter, as Dad took me to Killarney Heights once a week to learn to do freestyle with my face in the water, Shane Gould, Gail Neal and Bev Whitfield saved Australia’s sporting pride at the 1972 Munich Games by winning 5 gold medals between them (Australia won a total of 8). Shane was 15, Gail and Bev were 17 (back in the 70’s we still thought that 16 was the age girls ‘peaked’ at). A few weeks after Munich, Gail Neal arrived at my primary school with her gold medal. That was all the inspiration I needed. I made the calculation: in 1976 I’d be 12; in 1980, I’d be 16. Even better I’d be in Year 11. Since Mum’s big thing was education I thought she’d be happy that I could squeeze the Olympics in between my School Certificate in Year 10 and my HSC in Year 12. The timing couldn’t be more perfect!

I eventually started my international swimming career when I was 14.  The first trip I went on, to the Commonwealth Games in Canada, included a four week training camp in Hawaii prior to the Games, and the possibility of an extra few weeks on the other side of the Games – if we swam well enough – for the World Championships in West Berlin. I won a silver medal at the Games in the 200BK so I was away for a total of 12 weeks.  So I was on the other side of the world for long periods of time and I suffered from homesickness very badly but my parents only had the budget for me to call
home once a week. That’s when I started to write. In the days before email I wrote letters like books. It was the journalists who travelled with the Australian team who recognised I was a ‘writer’ and suggested (since I was always talking to them about my favourite footy team, Manly) that I should be a sports reporter when I retired. I worked for more than fifteen years as a broadcast  journalist/presenter before I had the confidence to tackle a novel.

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

INHERITANCE. It’s my fifth novel – so I expect it to be better than anything I’ve written just because I’m more practised! But the scope of INHERITANCE is also just so much more ambitious than
anything I’ve written in the past. I’d never written fantasy – but that turned out to be just one of the many challenges of this book. Turning the idea of an ancient magical circus troupe reforming in modern times into a narrative meant I quickly had a grand saga on my hands that included magic, mystery, history, and family (the Cirkulatti is an extended family), not to mention battle scenes, all interwoven with the most important element of YA fiction: relationships, and a hint of romance. Just getting to the end of the story, I felt, was an achievement in itself!

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

I do have an office in my house and it is chaotic. But I didn’t write a lot of INHERITANCE in my office. During the creation of Inheritance I had so many serious doubts that I could pull it off I had to switch a few things around. I normally exercise when I first get up (at 5.30am) but since I didn’t get to my desk until I’d got my little boy off to school (after 9), there were just too many hours to convince myself that I wasn’t imaginative enough to write such a book. I knew that the Crown Street Grocer, in Sydney, where I got my first coffee of the day, opened when I got up so I explained my problem to Joe, the owner, and being the generous soul that he is, he welcomed me in. Every morning I was on his doorstep at 6am with my laptop. His early morning customers were very respectful – probably because I was there most days for more than a year working on my book, they realised it was taking all of my concentration!  So if my head was down they didn’t disturb me but if my eyes were up and wandering they were friendly and encouraging, which was really helpful. And hours later, when my battery had run out, the voice of doubt could find no purchase in my mind since there were a thousand or more words added to the book.

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

I cover a wide range because I try to keep up with the books my son reads – he likes to talk about them with me, although he’s scooted way ahead of me now with Feist’s, Magician – as well as the popular YA stuff like The Hunger Games, Melina Marchetta’s, Finnikin series, and anything Margo Lanagan writes. Plus there are the adult classics that I don’t think I’ve read enough of!

Because there aren’t enough hours in the day when you’re a writer as well as mother and wife, I’m a big fan of audio books. Right now I’m listening to Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – the magic is beautiful and but sinister at the same time. Before that I was listening to Campbell Scott read For Whom the Bell Tolls – the story of Robert Jordan’s doomed mission to blow up a bridge in the mountains near Segovia. All the way through the book I knew it was doomed but Hemingway’s words, his characters, drew me on so that when the fatally injured Robert Jordan finally said to Maria, ‘we will never go to Madrid,’ I wept as if it was a complete surprise! I don’t remember the last time I’d shed so many tears over a book.

I’ve had a magic realism phase, a Jeanette Winterson phase, an Ian McEwan phase, an F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald phase, read Possession, by A.S Byatt, a number of times, and loved Madeleine St John’s, Women in Black – who wouldn’t like a book that has a heroine who changes her name from Lesley to Lisa when she went for a job in the a department store (a lot like David Jones) in the late 1950’s, because Lisa sounded more sophisticated!

I read a lot more non-fiction when I was an interviewer; not so much now but I will always read anything David Marr has written. He’s a dear friend and one of the most brilliant people I know.

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

I’ve written already about the influence of Trixie Belden and her friends.

When I was younger I had an illustrated picture book called Children of the World that I read over and over – I was a bit disappointed when I began my international swimming career to find that there weren’t young girls and boys in Hawaii, Canada or Germany dressed in the national costumes like I’d seen in my book! And I loved a collection of ghost stories called, Shudders and Shakes.

Mum always said that the only way she could get me to school every day when I was little, without crying, was the promise of a Golden Book at the end of the week. When I got older she included a book among my Christmas presents and there was usually a story as to why she chose it for me. Shudders and Shakes had been one of those; so was the The Thorn Birds – Mum heard an interview with Colleen McCullough on the radio. I was barely 14; I read it in about two days! And she gave me a gorgeous edition of My Brilliant Career that was illustrated with all the costumes from the movie. I was a teenager during the years of the great Australian mini-series so I read (and loved) A Town Like Alice, and, 1915, and All The Rivers Run (actually my geography teacher loved that book so I also read it because she recommended it for the descriptions of the meandering river). I liked historical fiction like Exodus by Leon Uris and, thrillers like The Bourne Identity and the gentle story-telling of Maeve Binchy’s, Light a Penny Candle.

At school I loved To Kill a Mockingbird (I recently listened to Sissy Spacek narrating it and I can’t recommend her reading enough) and Pride and Prejudice, of course. Hated Tess of the D’urbervilles – it’s got to be said!

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

Trixie Belden, Scout Finch, Sybylla Melvyn, or Elizabeth Bennett. Do they need explaining? Although, we’ve just read Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men and I rather like Tiffany Aching – precocious and brave and true, all good qualities for a girl.

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

Well, not surprisingly (sorry), I mostly hang out with my husband and son.

I was almost 39 when I had Dex, I had no intention of getting married let alone having children, but my best friend was diagnosed with an awful cancer and given no time to live and suddenly I thought ‘what are we here for?’

After a very fulfilling life of my own, I’ve been happy to let Dex lead me down paths (in his completely obsessive way) I would never have gone without him: sea creatures (particularly the really ugly creatures of the deep), dinosaurs (particularly the ugliest and including the swimming reptiles), insects (particularly the enormous spiders, dragonflies and millipedes of the Carboniferous period), cars (particularly the supercar of this century, the Bugatti Veyron – we searched London for one when I was there to work at the Olympic Games last year and finally found a bright-yellow Grand Sport spider at a dealer in Berkeley Square; we were all in awe) and, of course, the world of fantasy fiction. I would not have written INHERITANCE, I’m sure, if he wasn’t in my life

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

Very hard to narrow down a favourite!  But I’ve got a sweet tooth, so I eat a LOT of salad in order to earn my cake. Chocolate cake, cheese cake, orange and poppy seed cake, lemon and coconut  cake, red velvet cake … I like them all. And a piece of cake goes very well with a macchiato (with a sprinkling of chocolate on top). Although, I’m also quite partial to a glass of Sangria.

Who is your hero? Why?

I’ve had different heroes at different times in my life. I’ve mentioned Shane Gould and Gail Neal when I was a young swimmer. Madonna was a hero for a long time. I was on holiday in the US – actually
on my first visit to New York – when the True Blue album was released and Madonna appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair completely transformed from the early NY downtown boy-toy we’d known, to the sleek, platinum-blonde diva that marked the next phase in her career. Her transformation appealed to me because in my own, post-swimming career, I’d been trying desperately to move away from ‘the swimmer’, to extend my range as a journalist beyond sport, and I’d finally got a break. I was on holiday because I’d left my job as ABC sports reporter/presenter/commentator and when I got home I’d be taking up my new position as a roving reporter on The Midday Show. If Madonna could do it, so could I. I was with her through the brilliant Ray of Light album, and on the next album, Music, her song, What if Feels Like for a Girl, spoke so perfectly to experiences I’d had in early relationships when I was at the height of my post-swimming/media career. But she lost me when she started to doing weird things to her face. I may be naïve, but I’m trying to hold onto the belief that a woman’s magnificence can transcend a few wrinkles. My Nan, who passed away a few years ago now, is someone I’d like to emulate as I age. She stayed very modern in her attitude all the way to 96; she didn’t have much, materially, but was rich in common sense – a commodity we suffer from a chronic shortage of these days.

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

Time is short, and the choice in entertainment, for the consumer is massive, so getting, and holding, the reader’s attention is probably the biggest challenge.

Ideally, a good story, well told, should do that. But getting attention in a saturated market is tough. And does ‘well told’, these days, mean faster-paced, or offering a respite from a world that is already
fast-paced? I’m not sure there is one winning formula. My favourite movies are the screw-ball comedies from last century; fast-talking, wise-cracking, clever, often professional people were popular entertainment when the world moved at a slower pace and women, more often, stayed at home. Remakes of those movies for me are slow-moving and pretty dull – more often an insult to our intelligence compared to the originals, but people flock to them.

Ultimately, I think we’ve got to write the stories we’re drawn to and hope that others will be drawn in too.

Follow Lisa:

Facebook Page URL: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lisa-Forrest/220300424775831

Player Profile: Tiffiny Hall, author of Red Samurai

Hall_Tiffiny_TWD_front_colour_newer image_credit_Marina OliphantTiffiny Hall, author of Red Samurai

Tell us about your latest creation…

Red Samurai is book 2 in the Roxy Ran trilogy for readers aged ten and up. Roxy is now the White Warrior. She has a secret crush she is desperate to keep secret plus the school bully to deal with. Roxy’s sister, Elecktra, has always been a great magician, but when she shows off her magic tricks at school, the town of Lanternwood begins to transform with a sense of samurai and the ninjas are no longer safe. There is an enemy lurking and it soon becomes clear that the White Warrior is about to meet her match. Red Samurai is a fantastic read for anyone dealing with bullies or struggling with their confidence. If you love romance, martial arts, magic and adventure you’ll love this book.

Where are you from / where do you call home?

Melbourne, Australia. I also feel at home in any dojo or book shop.

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

I wanted to be an author. Every time I blew out the candles out on my birthday cake I wished for the same thing – to be a published author.  I should have been an elite Taekwondo athlete, but I liked writing action more than seeking it.

COV_RedSamurai.inddWhat do you consider to be your best work? Why?

White Ninja. It was my debut novel and endorsed by literary legend John Marsden. Creating Roxy Ran and her world was so much fun. I wanted to read a story about a girl who was strong, went on adventures and stood up for herself.

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

I have a writing room at home. A very messy desk with a collection of 20 ninjas standing at attention beside my computer. There are piles of manuscripts, a patchwork of post-its and towers of kids books swallowing up my big Mac. I write next to a window that has a palm tree in the distance and I love watching how the leaves change throughout the day from spiky with sharp afternoon sun to feathery when I first wake up at dawn.

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

Kids books. I like to meet as many kid characters as possible. I also love poetry. Emily Dickinson is my favourite. I also like to read books for big kids. I’m currently rereading Lolita. And I love humour – David Sedaris can’t be taken out in public.

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

John Marsden novels. I was lucky enough to be taught by John at school. He lit the flame for writing when I was in Grade Five. I won a John Marsden award for creative writing and my heart was set – I wanted to share stories too. John signed one of his books for me ‘to Hall-of-fame writing’ and the book sits on my writing desk for inspiration.

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

Alice in Wonderland. She had such a wonderful adventure and I agree with Lewis Caroll in the importance of believing in nonsense before breakfast. As a children’s author you’ve got to believe in nonsense to make sense to your audience.

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

Lots of ninjaring. I’m a 5th Dan black belt so I love to practice my kicks and take classes. I love to do anything that exercises my body or my imagination. I play the piano and have a grand piano I love to bash every day. Bubble baths. Movies. Washing puppies. Talking to my chatty parrot. Teaching kids martial arts and self-defense. Working on TV. It’s all fun stuff that allows me to meet really interesting people and experience unusual situations.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

Food = mango. And chocolate. I wish a chocolate covered mango existed! Drink = cofffeeeeeee. My only vice. I know being a health nut I should be into green tea but I just can’t give up my steamy mug of coffee first thing in the morning.

Who is your hero? Why?

JK Rowling. She introduced so many kids to reading. Harry Potter was rejected over and over but she didn’t give up. She was on a mission to share her story and the world is better for it.  Other heroes of mine are anyone battling illness. You don’t know a real fight until you’ve been really sick.

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

The digital age. Books are slow to write and slow to publish. They are competing with the immediacy of blogs, e-books and apps. Publishing in the traditional sense could become irrelevant as more bookshops shut down and distribution changes. But I don’t think this will happen. How could we live without the smell of a new book!  People are busier than ever and time poor. For many, reading has become a luxury not a necessity. Attention spans are more frenetic too. Kids are more visual than ever through social media and posting their lives through photos. Creating pictures with words could become a thing of a past unless we continue to work together with  technology to promote reading through really cool books and authors.

Follow Tiffiny:

Website URL: www.tiffinyhall.com.au
Blog URL: http://www.tiffinyhall.com.au/news
Facebook Page URL: https://www.facebook.com/tiffinyhall
Twitter URL: https://www.twitter.com/TiffinyHall

Review – No Matter Who We’re With

No matter who we're withIt’s heartening to see the partner publishing arm of the kids publishing industry is not only thriving but consistently providing ways for rising Aussie authors to produce their work. IP Kidz, an imprint of Interactive Publications, is one such entity and Robert Vescio is one such author. His new picture book, No Matter Who We’re With was released just last month.

The title immediately suggests a topic slightly left of field, yet the cover depicts a family relaxed, joyful and at ease with each other. Or so we think…I do so love the juxtaposition of ideas a picture book can present like this even before you open it.

We soon discover that the protagonists of the story, two young siblings, spend time with both mum and dad who live apart. The cause of the parents’ separation is not dwelt on and in spite of this physical inconvenience, the children love both mum and dad unconditionally because ‘they take very good care’ of them. The parents’ love is no less understated and reciprocal.

Dad is great at dress-ups. Mum has a ‘splendiferous garden’. Both are pretty good at satisfying the kids’ culinary demands.

Robert VesicoVescio has crafted a quaint, endearing story; fun and straightforward in its delivery; positively instilling comfort and an assurance that families can still thrive and survive despite not living in a coexisting environment. (Interestingly, this theme is just as relevant for families with spouses serving abroad or serving time for example, not just those with divorced parents)

The children narrate the tale themselves which gives the book an uncomplicated, personal and almost childlike touch. Reference to the time before the children’s parents separated is gently repeated throughout; a time they clearly still remember and cling to. But there is little to be maudlin about. The children take delight in every minute spent with either parent. Their reactions represent acceptance of a common family situation. Their behaviour offers reassurance that security, peace and love can be enjoyed no matter what your family circumstance.

Cheri ScholtenCheri Scholten’s cheerful illustrations sustain the atmosphere of unreserved love. They are almost manga in appearance and use colour and perspective effectively to emphasise detail. I especially love the gigantic bowl of Spaghetti Bolognese Dad dishes up after the kids spend the afternoon making cupcakes at Mum’s.

Parents and carers should find No Matter Who We’re With easy to read and share with children regardless of their actual circumstances.

Recommended for 4 – 8 year olds.

IP Kidz March 2013

Stay tuned for my next post featuring another excellent title addressing this theme.

 

Three’s The Website Charm

One of the perks of my job specifically and the interwebs more generally is that I get to seek out, muse over, discuss, and then write about brilliant, off-the-wall, quirky, and fun concepts. That job admittedly comes with a veritably enormous amount of envy. How, I often wonder, do people come up with such insightful, useful, or entertainingly useless goodness? And why, I wonder more, won’t my brain work the same way?

LifenPublishing is my go-to blog on days when working in the publishing industry wears me down. Nothing sums up or skewers the head-to-wall buttingness of the industry like this blog does (and nothing sums up my daily efforts like this cupcake-related entry).

Just in case we weren’t sure the blog had its finger on every industry pulse, my friend and fellow editor Judi showed me the other day that LifenPublishing completed a salary survey. It makes for bleak but necessary reading; I recommend having chocolate at hand when you click on that link.

But that’s not the reason I’m blogging. This is actually a good-news post, with three sites popping up on my radar this weekend (and so now on yours). And yes, I’ve saved the best for last.

Three-Hundred and Sixty Five

The first site seems now static, having finished its 365-day project. That said, that’s ok; the blog’s probably best enjoyed retrospectively as a whole (even if I am itching to switch around the placement of that hyphen in its title). It’s a Tumblr ‘celebrating the beauty of the ampersand’, the squiggly line I can’t for the life of me draw freehand but that’s a handy shortcut for linking things together. And frankly, its good use of white space and typography is something I could stare at all day long.

Taken on its own, the ampersand-themed site is art. Delved a little deeper and it’s an adventure in discovering font types beyond those we find ourselves returning to out of habit or because of organisational style dictates (don’t get me started on how one client’s restricted colour palette has made me fall out of love with teal). And who knew there could be so many interpretations of the humble ampersand? The mind boggles.

MailBooks For Good

The second site benefits an organisation I’m involved with (The Footpath Library), although it should be noted that the first I knew of the whole thing was the same time everyone else did: when I got the Google Alert. MailBooks For Good is best explained via the two-minute video on its site, but it in essence involves a dustcover that can be turned inside out to form a pre-paid envelope pre-addressed to a charity that promotes literacy.

The thinking is that once you’ve read a book, you send it on to give it a second life and to benefit those who might need it more than the dust mites on your bookshelf do. I might be troubled by the single ‘MailBooks’ word (I think it should be two), but I am impressed that someone’s finally come up with a use for a pesky dustcover (a crazy design I think is long past its use-by date as a form).

The Tutor Crowd

The third site involves a savvy UK-based tutoring school having found a clever, clever way of both correcting rubbish graffiti grammar and branding their work in an innovative, memorable way.

Their tagline explains the premise succinctly:

English tuition doesn’t have to be stuffy, boring and expensive. At The Tutor Crowd we’re taking the classroom to the streets, correcting London’s graffiti to spread our message.

The Tutor Crowd amend London graffiti to ensure correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar, affix one of their brilliantly designed stickers—which promote a free English tutoring trial—next to said graffiti, then snap a pic and post it on its Tumblr so the rest of us can teehee.

The simple, date- and location-tagged Tumblr demonstrates the org’s community service. They change the likes of ‘cheep date’ to ‘cheap date’, ‘so hot rite now’ to ‘so hot right now’, and ‘dolla dolla bill yo’ to ‘dollar dollar bill yo’.

Warning: I’ve mentioned some of the tamer entries. There are some rudie ones by pure virtue of the fact that graffiti is often gratuitously graphic. Still, nothing neutralises an intended insult and amuses the rest of us like a good, grammar-correcting culture jam.

As my friend Steph Jong, a graphic designer with a canny eye for good design and good grammar, said: ‘Knowing there’s a movement like this helps me sleep at night. Like, seriously.’