How Football Explains The World

How Football Explains The WorldWhen you hear Foer, you think, Jeopardy-style: ‘Who is Jonathan Safran?’ You don’t—at least, I didn’t until a few weeks ago—know Jonathan Safran has siblings. Writerly siblings, no less.

Franklin Foer is Jonathan Safran’s older brother, is also a writer/journalist, and was the editor of The New Republic (for the record, there’s also a younger, writerly sibling called Joshua). It turns out too that Franklin’s a rabid football fan with an outward-looking interest in world issues, having written a book entitled How Football Explains the World*.

I’m not sure how I didn’t know Franklin existed, and how I hadn’t read his work until now. He’s written for such publications I frequent as Slate. He was also The New Republic editor at the eye of the Scott Beauchamp storm.

You remember Beauchamp, don’t you? He was a private in the US army and The New Republic published, with his permission, some diary entries that catalogue the troops’ misbehaviour in Iraq. These included saying that ‘I love chicks [who] have been intimate with IEDs’ and that he favoured a particular type of vehicle because it enabled him and his mates to deliberately run down wild dogs.

The authenticity of the entries was questioned (never mind the impeccably poor taste), with the magazine and its fact-checking coming under fire. As someone who writes and edits and checks facts for a living, I have to weigh in to say that this is not a black-and-white issue—verifying diary entries that document memories of happenings in a warzone is easier said than done. But I’m rapidly digressing—that controversy is not what this post is about. If you want to read more about it, Wikipedia sums it up pretty thoroughly here.

What I’m stoked about is Franklin’s football book, which pins complex, intangible, and very often elusive concepts of globalisation to tangible, engaging, concrete cultural understandings of football, its fans, its players, and its clubs.

Through the book, Franklin aims to answer why some nations, despite foreign investment, remain poor, how dangerous multinational corporations’ influence is, and how the world and its various cultures fits together (or more often doesn’t). It’s a clever idea that provides a compelling and cultural angle to what could otherwise be a reasonably dry, economics-focused read.

He also acknowledges that the book is a pretty good jaunt: ‘Someone needed to write a book on the subject that would require the (oh-so-arduous) task of traveling the world, attending [football] matches, watching training sessions, and interviewing [their] heroes.’

Judging him from his writing alone, Franklin feels something of a kindred spirit. He’s a football lover who lacks on-field prowess (his parents, he writes on the Prologue’s opening page, used to turn their backs to the field to avoid seeing his travesties).

And, with my tastes firmly rooted in non-fiction, Franklin’s is more my type of book than Jonathan Safran’s. (I must be the only person who doesn’t get gushily breathless of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything Is Illuminated. I haven’t read Eating Animals because I’m already vegan and already know the horrors it contains, though I do enormously respect Jonathan Safran’s exquisite bravery for researching and writing it, and for lending his literary weight to bring the issues to the world’s attention.)

With chapters entitled such things as ‘How football explains the Gangster’s Paradise’, ‘How Football Explains the Sentimental Hooligan’, and ‘How Football Explains the New Oligarchs’, Franklin clearly defines each chapter’s intent.

In them, he interviews thugs who will never hang up their hooliganism, but who are mentoring future generations on the best ways to operate—living vicariously, you could say. He meets gangsters who go by the name the Ultra Bad Boys, but who have morals that include not swearing, not using firearms, and not beating their enemies after they lose consciousness.

Jewish JocksHe demonstrates dark undercurrents of football, including fans who scorned Jewish players by hissing through their teeth to mimic the sound of Zyklon B being released in gas chambers.

He then alerts us to football and cultural faux pas, such as when football clothing and boots manufacturer Umbro came under fire for putting out a line of clothing entitled ‘Zyklon’. The word’s actual translation is ‘cyclone’, but its association is clearly, damagingly, with concentration camps.

Franklin also points to some significant historical events and football’s role in them. Romania’s 1990 World Cup qualification celebrations, for example, led to rifles being trained on then-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Along the way, he relates events to globalisation, such as how football fans became Milosevic’s troops who carried out ethnic cleansing. The fans-slash-murderers weren’t specific to Serbia, though. They can be more widely viewed as men who had lost their industrial jobs when they were outsourced to third-world nations, and who were disaffected and emasculated and desperate to reassert their worth.

Franklin has a fantastic way of conveying these tales that impressed me as much as the tales themselves: ‘In their path,’ he writes of some fierce-fisted hooligans, ‘they left lines of casualties, like the fresh tracks of a lawnmower.’

Jewish Jocks is Franklin’s latest book, released as a hardcover in November 2012. He seems to have contributed to it along with his brother, Jonathan Safran. I suspect it, along with scouring the interwebs for some of his articles, will be next on my reading list.

*There’s another version that substitutes ‘soccer’ for ‘football’, but petulant and semantic-splitting as it is, I refuse to condone that one. As The Guardian Australia learnt in their opening days, the term is football.

YA Review – Steal My Sunshine

The reading audience of YA yarns is ticklish to quantify by age and intangible by definition. Yet its common trait is the desire to be shocked, entertained and moved in the briefest possible time. I no longer have the rush of youth but do suffer the impatience of age so I love that YA reads can take me on a tour of emotions and conflicts, show me succinct snap shots of life, and have me safely home in time for dinner. It’s a bit like being a teenager again. So many issues, duelling emotions, and desperate questions that need answering – like yesterday.

Steal my sunshineSteal My Sunshine, Emily Gale’s first Australian release, is a bit of a circular re-visitation of one’s past. It centres around 15 year old Hannah, a girl with mostly pure intentions who is often at bitter odds with her mother Sarah, and older brother, Sam. She dwells on the fringe of true friendship and romance and feels most kindred to Essie, her eccentric, gin-swilling grandmother.

This story drew me in from the start. How could someone’s sunshine be stolen? It is easy to find fault with Hannah’s acerbic, confused mother, her pusillanimous father, her self-absorbed brother, and her seen-it-all-before best friend. But the key to surviving a crisis is not always about attributing blame. Sometimes it just makes more sense to acknowledge your true-self and accept how it fits in with life.

Hannah’s acknowledgment occurs when her world begins to dissolve during an oppressive Melbourne heatwave. Normality is slipping through her fingers faster than sand from St Kilda beach and she’s at a loss as to how to hang onto it. Enter Essie; the one person Hannah feels holds the answers, whose past can help Hannah make sense of her future. But Essie harbours a shameful secret of her own.

Hannah’s wild, enigmatic misfit of a best friend, Chloe, complicates the mix further. She is as intimate as a bestie should be but is not quite the right fit for the more straight-shooting Hannah. It doesn’t help that Hannah has a burning desire for Evan, Chloe’s older brother.

The disintegration of Hannah’s parents’ marriage and subsequent polarisation between Sam, her mother and herself, forces Hannah to spend more and more time with her grandmother until Essie at last, reveals the shocking truth. And this is where it gets interesting.

Essie takes us back sixty years after an ill-fated attraction leads to her expulsion from her family in the UK to Australia and the subsequent ‘cruel, immoral and shameful’ forced adoption of her baby. It is this theme of abandonment, involuntary confinement, and coercion that Gale portrays so poignantly through Essie’s heart-wrenching, personal recounts.

Though astounded, Hannah eventually finds solace and an understanding of where she belongs within her family and in doing so, reconciles with those she has been at odds with.

Touted as a coming of age novel, Steal My Sunshine summons us to acknowledge the abominable practise of forced adoption in the 1950’s and 1960’s and the realisation that not all broken things can be fixed back to perfect. But as Hannah discovers, the pieces can be saved and remodelled into something else just as special.

Emily GaleGale successfully evokes all the discomfiture of living in St Kilda during a heatwave whilst confronting one’s burning personal issues. Her narrative is gripping yet fluid, and although I would have liked to have seen more emotional development between Hanna and Evan (because I’m a hopeless romantic), it would have been superfluous to the story. The ending seemed a little too convenient after the gritty intrigue created mid-novel but these are minor niggles in a book that offered a satisfying YA mix of confronting pasts, contemporary anguish and reclaiming one’s self. A YA read that shines.

Woolshed Press imprint of Random House Australia May 2013



The Big Issue’s Digital Edition

Home and AwayThe Big Issue (Australia) made an exciting announcement this week: From 7 June there’ll be another way to enjoy it. Currently a print-only magazine (and a fantastic one at that), it will also be available digitally.

It’s a complementary approach and one that I’m fairly excited about—the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), of which The Big Issue is a member, has been trialling the digital editions overseas for some time.

The response has been positive, with digital sales making up between 1% and 10% during the trial period. At the same time, the digital issues ensure that, while never replacing vendors’ incomes, give readers options to read the mag in formats that best suit their needs.

The move is indicative of one that’s affecting the wider publishing and newspaper industry—how to adapt to a digital age without losing revenue. That’s especially important for The Big Issue’s vendors, who have very often experienced tough times and are selling the magazine as a way to turn their lives around (not that I’m saying journalists and others who work for newspapers and magazines are any less in need—we all need a viable, steady income).

It’s no secret that I’ve a massive soft spot for The Big Issue, although I’d say respect rather than soft spot. The magazine provides quality content for readers as well as dignified, life-saving employment. What’s not to like about that?

The digital editions will work like this: Vendors will continue to sell the print editions, but they’ll also sell digital access cards for those who want them. The cards will contain details for downloading the mag to computers and reading devices such as iPads. As with the print editions, $3 from the $6 sale will go directly to the vendor—‘a hand up, not a hand out’.

The Big Issue has a strong track record with coming up with innovative ways to help people. Their Women’s Subscription Enterprise, for example, sees companies and people buy magazine subscriptions (I’m particularly impressed by this one—it’s not something I’d be clever enough to come up with).

Under this scheme, female vendors who otherwise may not feel safe selling the magazine on the street or who may have family commitments that prevent them from doing so, are able to pack and post the magazines, thereby earning a living.

The proceeds from the magazine sales also go to such programs as their street soccer one, which sees vendors and beyond head along to weekly football sessions that help them get fit, make friends, learn team work, and have fun. It’s kind of all-round win win.

Some players from the street soccer program are selected for the Homeless World Cup (HWC), an annual international event for homeless and marginalised people that uses football to inspire social change.

There isn’t yet a book about the Australian team, but Dave Bidini did a bang-up effort following the Canadian team at the 2008 HWC, which The Big Issue hosted in Melbourne. It’s a good indicator of the kinds of incredible work The Big Issue does, and the benefits of its profits. I, for one, will be roadtesting the digital editions (and supporting its flow-on football effect) come 7 June.

Player Profile: Jessica Shirvington, author of Between the Lives

jess-shirvingtonJessica Shirvington, author of Between the Lives

Tell us about your latest creation…

For as long as she can remember, Sabine has lived two lives. Every 24 hours she Shifts to her ‘other’ life – a life where she is exactly the same, but absolutely everything else is different: different family, different friends, different social expectations. In one life she has a sister, in the other she does not. In one life she’s a straight-A student with the perfect boyfriend, in the other she’s considered a reckless delinquent. Nothing about her situation has ever changed, until the day when she discovers a glitch: the arm she breaks in one life is perfectly fine in the other. With this new knowledge, Sabine begins a series of increasingly risky experiments which bring her dangerously close to the life she’s always wanted… But just what – and who – is she really risking?

Where are you from / where do you call home?

Sydney, Australia

between-the-livesWhen you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?

When I was a kid I wanted to become a vet.

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

Always my most recent work because I feel like with each book I am more developed as a storyteller.

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

I have an office at home. It is extremely disorganised and messy, but somehow I know where everything is.

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

I read a lot of YA and adult. I love contemporary, paranormal, fantasy. I’ve been reading quite a bit of magic lately and I like the odd dystopian.

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

As a kid, I loved Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia – still do!

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

I really don’t know. (sorry!)

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

Ski! I love the snow. Hang out with my family (boring but awesome!). Try to avoid the gym.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?

Favourite drink is probably Coke although I have a love hate relationship with it! Favourite food…I’m a big fan of soft, runny cheese.

Who is your hero? Why?

My mum. She raised me and my three siblings. Anyone who can put up with us and manage to still have a full headcount by the time we were all adults is pretty incredible!

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

Defining them somehow. I think we need some kind of coding system informing readers of age appropriateness, content, if published by a publishing house or self published, etc. I think readers deserve to have more information and know what they are paying for.

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Review – Seadog

SeaDogIn his youth, my shaggy-coated border collie had a fondness for rolling in guano, preferably just after bath time. The maturity and inability age brings to pursue such endearing past-times means I have not had to deal with that glorious dead-fish-wet-dog-poo smell for some years – until now.

Thanks to the jolly new picture book Seadog, by Claire Saxby and Tom Jellet, there’s a new canine character in my life. And I love him.

Who couldn’t adore the larger than life, guiltless, messy charm of this floppy-eared mutt? There are many things Seadog is not. He is not a clean, shiny dog. He is not a trick dog or a fetch dog. But his devotion to his young family and all things maritime knows no bounds. Even if he is permanently on the nose, wilfully disobedient and partial to rolling in piles of rotten fish, Seadog embodies the immense spirit of the sea with an unparalleled verve for life, and terrifying seagulls.

His devil-may-care personality races across each page and through the briny waves until he develops some serious grooming issues. But Seadogs ‘don’t like baths’ either.

Tom JelletTom Jellet’s super-groovy illustrations depict our scruffy hero in rough and ready style. Jellet’s line drawings boldly ignore the sticking-within-the-line rule giving Seadog the perfect unkempt, woofy appearance. Until he concedes to ‘a few short minutes’ of pampering and preening so that every hair lies neatly in place, within the lines of conformity, ‘until someone opens the door…’

From the navel flag bedecked end pages (which I took some minutes to try to translate hoping for a secret message there in – a la SEADOG!) to Claire Saxby’s easy verse-style text that reads like a rousing sea shanty, Seadog is a boisterous, enchanting read about a dog with more heart than the largest ocean and infinitely more appeal than a pile of rotten fish.Claire Saxby

In your face fun for pre-schoolers and beginner readers.

Andy Griffiths will officially launch Seadog at the Williamstown Literary Festival on June 2nd at 2.00pm. All are welcome to join Claire Saxby, however energetic canines unfortunately cannot attend!

Random House Australia Released May 2013


A Stagefright interview with Carole Wilkinson

StagefrightMany years ago there was a book called Stagefright. It was about a group of high school kids putting on a musical version of Shakespear’s Richard the Third. It was the first novel from a then unknown author named Carole Wilkinson. Carole has since gone on to find success with her Dragonkeeper and Ramose novels, as well as with lots of other books. Now Stagefright is back! And Carole is here to talk about it.

I remember reading, and loving, the original version of Stagefright back in the mid 1990s. Could you tell us how this novel came to be ‘reborn’?

It was the first book of mine to be published. The original book was for an educational series called the Rave series, aimed at young teen readers and published by Longman. The person who commissioned the original book and edited it was Maryann Ballantyne. Time passed, things happened, and now Maryann is my publisher at Walker Books. She was moving offices and came across a copy of Stagefright and started to reread it. She said she still liked the book, it still made her laugh. She said she would like to republish it, but it needed to be updated, would I like to do it.

I think every writer would like the chance to rewrite their first book once they have a bit more experience. So I said Yes!

How did you go about the process of revising Stagefright?

The main story hasn’t changed a great deal. It’s still about a bunch of unsporty kids who go to a very sporty school who have to put on a school musical. They decide on a musical version of Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard the Third. I certainly didn’t start all over again. But I did a lot of rewriting.

There are seven characters, and I found I still liked them all. So I didn’t change them, just tinkered with their ethnicity a bit as they go to a multicultural school and the mix of places that migrants and refugees come from has changed over the years.

I did work on the subplots for each of the characters. I didn’t think I’d done a very good job of that the first time round. I really enjoyed that.

What’s the biggest difference between the original version and the new one?

The new version is almost 10,000 words longer than the original!

I wrote the original book about 17 years ago. Technology has changed, but that didn’t impact the story as much as I thought it would. Because the school is all about sport, technology wasn’t a big part of school life for the characters. The big change from then to now is mobile phones. No one had one in the original book. So I had to decide whether to mention them or have a school that banned them. In the end, I decided that if my main character was going to have a mobile phone it had to serve a purpose to the plot, so Velvet’s phone ended up with its own subplot.

The most surprising thing was that, in my view, things are much more conservative now than back in 1996. I did a lot of self-censoring. I had to clean up the language! And I made the main characters a year older so that I was comfortable with the level of romance that happens between the characters.

Were there any changes that your publisher/editor specifically requested?

No. It was up to me what to change.

Are there any other books/stories from your past that you would like to have a crack at redoing?

No. I think that was a one off. It was out of print and had only ever been sold into schools. All my other books are still in print.

Assuming it’s not TOP SECRET, what are you working on now?

I am working on the 5th Dragonkeeper book. This is the one that follows on after Blood Brothers. It has a working title … I haven’t told anyone what it is yet … will I tell you? Why not. It’s called Shadow Sister. My publisher might want to change it. I hope not.

Another Dragonkeeper book! Very exciting news! My daughter, who’s currently reading Blood Brothers, wants you to hurry up so she doesn’t have to wait too long. 😉

My thanks to Carole for answering my questions for today’s blog post. I can certainly understand her excitement about this release, as I went though a similar bookish rebirth last year with my YA short story collection, Life, Death and Detention (see “The long and winding road to a new edition”). And I can’t wait for her new Dragonkeeper novel.

Catch ya later,  George

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Review – Ferret on the Loose

Stand in the kids’ section of any library and you’ll soon discover what under 10 year old readers gravitate towards; pacey, riveting chapter books, starring jump-off-the-page characters with the odd quirky picture thrown in to keep it all real.

Ferret on the LooseThis is precisely what New Frontier Publishing is delivering with their dynamite Little Rocket Series. Like Aussie Mates and the (now ceased) Aussie Nibbles collections, Little Rockets junior fiction is aimed at that Golden Age of reading where kids are still willing and able to suspend belief for action and fun and downright silliness. This series certainly ticks all those boxes. The books have a generous physical feel and look about them which will stand up to many years of being loved. Ferret on the Loose is the latest to hit the shelves.

Take a club-full of feisty ferrets and over-anxious owners, a determined founding father, Mr Olfart, (yes you read correctly) and a best friend who doesn’t mind rodents in the slightest and you’ve got one crazy recipe for fun.

FerretTen year old Lucy and her pet ferret Flash are seasoned competitors in the annual Fastest Fearless Ferret Race. Only trouble is, Flash doesn’t always quite live up to his name. Not that he isn’t fast, he is. But he is unpredictable and given to distraction. No amount of coaxing and cajoling with chocolate can entice him down that clear plastic racing tube to fame and fortune, and the gold trophy that Lucy longs to see her name engraved on sooner than later.

Tragically, Flash’s training goes from bad to worse when he is confined to barracks after nearly concussing himself and then mysteriously disappearing. Lucy is distraught. Her ferret-racing nemesis, Elisha Muggins, is conspicuously smug. And come the day of the big race, Flash is still missing. It is not until the winners are announced that Lucy realises the winner is in fact, her Flash, in disguise!

You’ll have to read this zippy little tale yourself to find out who the real ferret-napping culprit is. Benjamin Johnston’s animated coloured illustrations and Heather Gallagher’s comic use of names and situations will keep you and readers aged 7 and beyond amused along the way.

New Frontier PublishingThings I learnt from Ferret on the Loose: Wanting to win above all else is not wise. And letting a ferret loose on a moving tread-mill is even less wise.

New Frontier Publishing Little Rocket Series May 2013


The Green Kitchen

The Green KitchenOne of my greatest gripes about being vegan (or vegetarian—the same rules apply) is also a rather politically incorrect one.

That is, that it’s assumed I thrive on the smell of incense, that I have musty-smelling dreadlocks, and that I wear tie-dyed clothes.

I’m not that kind of vegan, and the mis-lumping irks me no end. I’m an urban-dwelling one who’s conscious of her carbon footprint, but who is also rather conservative.

You wouldn’t at a glance be able to tell me apart from meat eaters, and even if it loses me my leftie badge, I’m actually fairly ok with that (I think it’s easier to change the system from the inside, you catch more flies with honey, or whatever’s the appropriate adage).

It means, though, that I want to be able to eat delicious food in well-designed restaurants; I want to be able to cook healthy, tasty food from aesthetically appealing cookbooks. Both are surprisingly, frustratingly difficult to achieve.

Discovering the Green Kitchen Stories blog (and its just-released cookbook, The Green Kitchen) was a godsend. I don’t wish to generalise all Swedes just as most people generalise all vegans and vegetarians, but hot damn they know and execute good design. The blog and book understand and deliver function and form and, frankly, make me extremely happy.

David Frenkiel (one half of the couple who put this wonderfulness together) is a magazine art director. It shows. The images are utterly, enviably exquisite. And as if the blog and cookbook aren’t enough, I just happily lost a couple of hours in their Instagram feeds. Bliss.

Vegie CurryEven better, Frenkiel’s vegetarian journey largely mirrors my own. We’ve both been unhealthy vegetarians, omitting meat but existing on carbs and sweets.

He fell in love with a health-conscious meat-eater, Luise Vindahl (I know, right, I really do think those two terms are mutually exclusive), and the two started experimenting with cooking healthy vegetarian food.

The organic, honest approach is palpable in the blog and the book. It’s part of what (apart from the incredible images, of course), makes them so enticing. There’s no judgement and certainly no efforts to bamboozle you with terms and ingredients you wouldn’t normally know. Crucially, the recipes are healthy and tasty.

I’ve recently flopped over into the world of veganism—it’s where I’ve always been heading, but have been stymied by my poor cooking skills and the aforementioned, politically incorrect frustration—so the vegetarian-ness of the recipes no longer entirely applies. But Frenkiel and Vindahl offer vegan tweaks, so with a bit of effort, I’m able to make the recipes work.

Early favourites include the pictured vegie curry, which contains yellow split peas and such goodies as the underutilised rhubarb. And I’m keen to road test the pictured pizzas. If those aren’t enough to make you want to go vego, I don’t know what will.

Vegie PizzasI’m still obsessed with the blog and the book, but it’s worth mentioning too that there’s an app.

Yes, these guys really have thought of everything (and when I say everything, I mean largely freely available online tools that cater to their audience’s needs).

Now, if I can just convince them to come into my kitchen and cook for me, I’ll be set.

Magnificent Chookens (AKA How Far Would You Go To Obtain A Book?)

The Magnificent ChickenHow far would you go to obtain a book? it seems, is actually more than a hypothetical.

I waited for months in breathless, is-it-here-yet anticipation for a rerelease of The Magnificent Chicken: Portraits of the Fairest Fowl, a book about chickens (hereafter referred to as ‘chookens’).

Those who know me know I have a bit of a thing for chookens and, coincidentally, Ira Glass (the latter wrote a special foreword to the book, which was first published in 2001).

If I hadn’t been sold on a book with stellar photographs of unusual chookens, I’d have been sold on such a book that contained Glass’ seal (and words) of approval.

I did an H&R Block-ilk fist pump when I was notified that the book had been released and shipped. Then I waited interminable weeks, practically shaking down the postie as he delivered not my book, but misinformed, blatantly incorrect and xenophobic LNP propaganda.

LNP xenophobic propagandaI promptly wrote that asylum seeking by boat isn’t illegal—my pen didn’t work so well on the waxed card and my handwriting doesn’t work so well in general—and returned that tree-wasting rubbish to its sender (see picture, right).

Despairing and in no small way aware of the irony that of all the books delivered to my house regularly, this was the book that hadn’t arrived, I emailed Boomerang Books to ask if they could possibly trace my book’s delivery.

Then, some 12 hours later, when I was on my way back in the dark from a knee-rehabbing walk, I glanced into my neighbour’s yard. Propped against a window that is in no way near a gate or letterbox, and in a part of the yard that is both difficult to get to and that would mean no one would like stumble across something, was a package that looked distinctly Boomerang Book-ish. Better yet, it looked about the size I’d have expected my chooken book to be.

I went round to my neighbour’s front door (my building is on a corner, which confuses some people, and the entrances are on the side not near the yard in question), but he or she wasn’t home (they were brand newly moved in and I hadn’t yet met them).

Bearded Buff Laced Polish Large Fowl HenI could have returned in daylight, but my my-precious obsession with what I was sure was my book had me legging it over a tall fence and into a brushy garden in the dark and on a recently-operated-on knee.

The part of the fence I grabbed to steady my climb turned out to be rather wonky and I landed heavily in the garden, not-so-vaguely worried I would be injured, unable to climb back over, and arrested as an intruder—‘I was just checking if it was my book, officer’ sounds slightly silly even to me.

Long story short, it was my book, although how and why it had been delivered there still escapes me. I made it back over the fence ungainlyly and with my crotch covered in fence dirt, and legged it back to my property.

The Magnificent Chicken is indeed magnificent, and I’ve spent many an hour poring over the pictures and text. The reason the book was (and is) so ground breaking is that author Tamara Staples shows us rare breeds of chookens in glamorous ways we’ve never seen before (did I mention it’s another Chronicle Books effort?). The chookens are photographed against complementary textured backgrounds, and the images capture their regal and distinctive traits.

ChookenGlass’ essay examines what happens when you try to treat a chicken as you would a human for a photo shoot.

It incorporates the This American Life interview he conducted with Staples and contains that quintessentially familiar but not too familiar storytelling style and voice. It demonstrates the level of difficulty and precision required to photograph chickens so beautifully.

I’ll admit that chicken shows don’t sit well with me (and that’s what these fancy chookens are bred for). But if this book helps people come to appreciate and relate to chookens more than something they eat, then I’m marginally more ok with it.

I am grateful that this book has introduced me to more breeds than I knew existed, and there are a bunch of chookens to whom I can relate. Take the Bearded Buff Laced Polish Large Fowl Cock, with its Grumpy Cat-style facial expression and wayward hair or the awkward-looking Silver Sebright Bantam Cockerel.

I feel a lot like both the Self Blue Belgian Bearded D’Anvers Cockerel and the Bearded Black Silkie Bantam Hen in this cold weather, and a lot like the Bearded Buff Laced Polish Frizzle Bantam Hen year round. And yes, this book has strengthened my Operation Chooken resolve (that is, to find a way to have chookens at my place). Watch this space.

Darth Vader and Son

Darth Vader and SonThere are few books more suited to the Ones I Wish I’d Written category than Jeffrey Brown’s Darth Vader and Son. A pint-sized picture book, it’s brilliantly as much a book for big kids as small ones.

In fact, I suspect many a new parent who grew up with Star Wars will be buying it as a nostalgic, wry chuckle-inducing alternative to reading their kids Winnie the Pooh and Teletubbies (both of which are far less gripping and far more teeth-grindingly tedious the millionth time*).

The Darth Vader and Son premise is an alternate reality in which Darth Vader is closely involved in Luke Skywalker’s life (there’s a soon-to-be-released princess version with Leia).

The book opens with reworked iconic yellow opening text scrolling against the darkened backdrop of the galaxy. This is Episode Three and a half, and Vader is dividing his time between his fatherly duties and his battle against the Rebel Alliance.

Darth Vader and Son marries disparate but instantly recognisable and relatable themes, and contains subtle Star Wars nods. ‘I don’t want a sister’, Luke pouts on one page, while Leia puts dresses on an assortment of Star Wars-themed dolls.

‘But Dad, you said we could go to Tosche Station after nap!’ Luke later wails. ‘I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further,’ Vader replies. ‘Luke, why aren’t you ready for school?’ is followed with ‘Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate you.’

Truthfully, though, the one that made me laugh myself a hernia is when Luke is trying to select a Ja Ja Binks stuffed toy. As Vader wisely tries to tell him, ‘This isn’t the toy you’re looking for …’

Darth Vader and SonI won’t tell you any more because I think it’s a book best experienced first hand (testament to its quality is that I’m saying that as someone who’s not a dad and not even a mum). Suffice to say there are ‘I am your father’ and ‘Are we there yet?’ references and plenty more.

The book incorporates a classic idea that’s so simple you can’t entirely believe no one had done it before. Simultaneously, it’s so clever that you are envious and know you wouldn’t have thought of it yourself in millennia. Who else but Chronicle Books to release this title? Seriously, between them, Text, and Scribe, I’m in publishing awe.


*I won’t rant about Pooh, whom I even as a kid found annoyingly, patronisingly stupid. It astounds me that anyone liked or continues to like the tales and I think we should give kids more credit for their intelligence and give them interesting, articulate, un-bumbling protagonists. But I’m ranting …

On My Bedside Table

Bedside read listWant to know who I like to curl up in bed with after a long day behind the flat screen? Curious to know how I spend the midnight hours? Well I can reveal that at least three of those listed below are amongst the many who keep me occupied into the wee hours of the night. But enough about the books weighing down my bedside table.

As a solution to my incurable curiosity about what  makes a good read and what is good to read, I will be featuring who and what some of Australia’s most popular authors and illustrators like to go to sleep with, or bathe with or dine with…you get the picture.

And so to kick off our inaugural On My Bedside Table post we begin with a clutch of very clever children’s authors and illustrators. Look carefully and you may just pick up an idea or two for your own reading list. Enjoy!

Susanne Gervay ~ Children’s and YA award winning author and patron, director and co-ordinator of numerous societies associated with Kids’ Lit.

Conspiracy 365 (series) by Gabrielle Lord

Hey Baby! Corinne Fenton (picture book)

Trust Me Too edited by Paul Collins (anthology of stories)

Jandamarra by Mark Greenwood illustrated by Terry Denton

Lighthorse Boy by Dianne Wolfer illustrated by Brian Simmonds

Ten Tiny Things by Meg mcKinlay illustrated by Kyle Hughes-Odgers

Gracie and Josh• I have a pile of picture books and illustrated stories at the moment. Maybe because I’m into picture books – of course there’s my Gracie and Josh illustrated by Serena Geddes there too.

Anil Tortop ~ Illustrator, designer and sometimes animator

• The second book of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (via Kindle)

• SCBWI bulletin

• Nonstop Nonsense by Margaret Mahy

• Downloaded picture books (on my iPad to have a look at very often. But I don’t read all of them. Just look at the pictures…)

Maggot MoonMichael Gerard Bauer ~ Children and YA multi CBCA award winning author

Just last night I finished reading Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. A powerful, moving book that I really liked. It’s set in what appears to be England but the country is under a vicious totalitarian rule as if it had lost WW2. The story centres around a young boy called Standish Treadwell and the horror of his life, and eventually his attempt to expose a fake moon landing which is about to be broadcast by the government as an example of their power.

I’m also at present re-reading Barry Heard’s book Well Done Those Men about his Vietnam experience and the terrible effect it had on his life. A great read and soon to be a movie.

Anna Branford ~ Writer for children, maker of things and bath tub reader

There is a funny selection on my bedside table just now! Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is there because I’ve been recovering from a cold and it is always my best companion when I’m not feeling well.

The AntidoteOn top of that is a book by the hilarious and wise Oliver Burkeman called The Antidote, which is a wonderful critique of the practice of positive thinking.

And right at the top of the pile is Sue Whiting’s new book, Portraits of Celina, which is spooky and beautiful all in the same moment.

On my Bedside table Anna BranfordFeeling inspired yet? I am. Time to grab whatever is on the top of your pile and curl up together.



Animal Farm: From Page to Stage

Animal FarmAlongside To Kill A Mockingbird, Animal Farm would have to be up there as one of the most-loved books we were required (forced) to read at school.

While I struggled with Shakespeare (though the waffle is clever, my small brain still found it waffle), Brave New World (the book’s extremely dated) and anything poetry-related, Animal Farm’s belyingly simple animal analogy spoke volumes to me. ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ has to be one of my favourite lines of all time.

With too many books to read before I die, it’s unlikely I’ll ever get round to re-reading the Animal Farm. But seeing the book translated from page to stage by what is arguably Queensland’s best emerging-artist theatre company was too good an opportunity to pass up.

So I turned up on Wednesday night, one of the few ‘adults’ among a sea of school students. (I don’t in any way consider myself grown up, but I overheard some of the kids referring to me as ‘that lady’ when one inadvertently almost ran into me while enthusiastically and elaborately regaling her friends with a story.)

Not having read the book for a good decade or more (I’m not going to give you an exact number lest it remind me just how old I’ve gotten), my plot recollection was hazy. Pigs take over a farm; it’s a story that symbolises communism and the corrupting influence of power. Beyond that, it’s fair to say most things were a surprise.

Shake ‘n Stir‘s Animal Farm adaptation opens with a pig execution, silhouetted. It’s a shockingly violent, strobe-lit beginning—one that left me tight-chested and afraid. I recognised most of the performers from 1984, the other classic Orwell production Shake ‘n Stir brought from book to stage last year (an annual alternate, it seems, to Animal Farm, which is returning for its second season).

Each performer plays multiple and distinctly disparate characters, including one cast member alternating between a donkey and a chicken. They switch seamlessly and cleverly between them with simple mannerisms and simpler props.

Knuckles held just so connote pigs’ hooves and straightened legs and pronounced, toe-to-heel strides signify horses. Ears affixed to headbands connote pigs, and a long, frayed industrial rope slung over shoulders and flicked signifies a horse’s mane. The cast members wear kneepads too, which they need as they spend vast amounts of time kneeling, crouching, and flinging themselves about on all fours.

To Kill A MockingbirdI’d forgotten that there were two main pigs, Napolean and Snowball, so I’d definitely forgotten how the latter later comes to be blamed for anything and everything. I did, however, remember Boxer and his demise, so was shaken and emotional when he was taken to the knackers.

Though I knew Orwell had created some animal edicts, I was reminded again of their cleverness at first declaration and later as they’re shaped to suit the pigs’ modus operandi—‘no animal shall sleep in beds’ is amended to ‘no animal shall sleep in beds with sheets’; ‘no animal shall drink alcohol’ becomes ‘no animal shall drink alcohol to excess’; and ‘all animals are equal’ turns into ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. The last commandment is rather eerie for me having finally, ungracefully butt-shuffled my way to veganism in recent days.

There’s never going to be a ‘wrong’ time to read or watch Orwell’s animal tale, but one could argue that now’s as good a time as ever—just hours ago, Australia unconscionably excised itself from the migration zone, intentionally denying people who arrive here the chance of claiming asylum.

The Animal Farm season’s largely sold out (thanks in good part to school kids), but I do hope at least a few ‘adult’ politicians find their way into the other seats to revisit a book they (hopefully) read long ago.

An Illustrated Guide to the Leviathan Series

AeronauticsThere were three books in Scott Westerfeld’s awesome YA steampunk series — Leviathan, Behemoth and Goliath. I loved these books and was very sorry to see the story end. So there was much joy when I discovered The Manual of Aeronautics.

Let me start off by saying that what I loved most about the Leviathan trilogy was the world that Westerfeld created. It is a fascinating steampunk, alternative history of the 1910s. But it isn’t entirely steampunk. Only half of his world relies on steam driven technology — nations that call themselves Clankers. The rest of this world is Darwinist, relying on genetically manipulated animals rather than machinery. Mr Westerfeld brought this divided world vividly to life in his three books. He was ably assisted in this task by the amazing accompanying illustrations from Keith Thompson. As I read the books I dearly wished for more of Mr Thompson’s work.

After reading Goliath I assumed it was all over. But it’s not — because August last year saw the release of The Manual of Aeronautics: An illustrated guide to the Leviathan series.

This book is a glorious showcase of Mr Thompson’s illustrations and Mr Westerfeld’s ingenious world — every page a full-colour glimpse into their imaginations. Clanker technology and Darwinist genetic creations are put on show, accompanied by some informational text. And the book concludes with a lovely quartet of portraits.

Whereas the illustrations were the accompaniment in the three novels, with this book it’s the other way around. Whilst you may only read the text once, the illustrations are worth going over and over again. So much beautiful detail!

If you liked the Leviathan novels and the world depicted therein, then YOU MUST get The Manual of Aeronautics.

Why not check out my reviews of the Leviathan trilogy:

Catch ya later,  George

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The Edible Balcony

Indira NaidooA book. A book by Indira Naidoo. A book by Indira Naidoo about growing vegies on your inner-city balcony. Could there be any trifecta much more exciting than that?

The Edible Balcony tackles the problem most of us environmentally conscious city folk struggle with: How to grow edible goodies we shouldn’t—but do—go to the supermarket for. More importantly, how to do so easily and sustainably?

Naidoo’s produce-to-plate ‘epiphany’ came when she tasted a flavoursome tomato at the farmers’ markets—it far exceeded anything store-bought. It was, the farmer told her, something she could grow herself. Who’d a thunk it? And no, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s easy to lose sight of where our food comes from; easier still to think it’s more convenient to get someone to do the growing and picking labour.

Naidoo set out not just to grow some vegies, but to—as any good reporter does—research it, write about it, and arguably make it tax deductible. The result is this plant-to-plate how-to guide for busy inner-city brown thumbs such as me.

The problem is—and I completely admit it’s my failing and my failing alone—the book’s comprehensive. At this stage in my scatteringly busy life and beginner gardener regime, I probably need something a little smaller and more manageable.

But I have to stress that that’s wholly and solely my fault. Naidoo’s showing us it’s relatively easy to grow an array of vegies on our balconies, but she’s also showing us that you have to properly commit. Knowing her full-time media background (i.e. one that involves insane hours and insaner travel), I thought it’d be a little more pop things in a pot and hey presto.

Pistachio RisottoIt’s an invaluable lesson, though. It’s made me appreciate where my food comes from just that bit more. And it hasn’t scared me off. I am going to do this, but I think I need to back myself into it by first cooking one of Naidoo’s recipes and then attempting to grow some of its ingredients. Risotto with Zucchini Flowers, Peas, and Fresh Pistachios (pictured courtesy of my dodgy phone pics) might just be that goer.

The one inescapable criticism I have of The Edible Balcony is that the font really, really doesn’t fly. I’m obsessed with typography and this handwriting-meets-remedial font—I don’t know its name and don’t want to—does what would otherwise be a good book a complete disservice.

That written, the images of Naidoo tending her garden and the meals she produces are exactly as they should be—warm, personal, beautiful, and enough to make you want to start a balcony garden of your own. I know for a fact my friendly neighbourhood possum, who’s infamous for his night-time raids of my apartment, would very much appreciate such a garden to fossick through …

Continuum 9

Each year, Melbourne plays host to a speculative fiction / pop culture convention called Continuum. This year’s convention, Conintuum 9, will take place on 7–10 June at the Ether conference venue in the Melbourne CBD. You should all come along! Let me tell you why.

Continuum is rather unique. There’s nothing else quite like it here in Melbourne. In terms of spec fic and pop culture, there are the big regular events such as Armageddon and Supanova. But these events are expos rather than conventions and the focus tends to be towards film, television and comics. There are a huge number of stalls with shops, clubs and groups displaying their wares; there are a few talks and presentations from their multitude of guests; and there are long lines for autographs and photos. And there are thousands of people.

Continuum, on the other hand, is a convention rather than an expo. While there is usually a small dealers room, the focus of the event is on talks and panel discussions. These conventions cover various media as well as literary spec fic, but their guests of honour are usually authors. And these conventions are small. While Supanova is likely to have thousands of people trouping through each day, you’re only looking at a couple of hundred for Continuum. Apart from creating a more intimate atmosphere, this also allows for greater interaction between the attendees and the guests of honour. You don’t have to wait hours in an autograph queue. If you want your photo taken with a guest, you just approach and ask. And best of all, you can actually engage the guests in conversation. Which brings me to this year’s guests…

International guest of honour is US author, NK Jemisin. Her novels include The Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods) and The Dreamblood Duet (The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun). She’s also had numerous short stories in publications such as Clarkesworld, Postscripts, Strange Horizons, and Baen’s Universe. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo (twice), the Nebula (twice), and the World Fantasy Award; shortlisted for the Crawford, the Gemmell Morningstar, and the Tiptree; and she has won a Locus Award for Best First Novel as well as the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award. NK is also a counseling psychologist, video gamer, anti-oppression activist, and blogger. Check out her website.


Australian guest of honour is multi-award winning author/editor/publisher Paul Collins. Paul has written well over a hundred books including the Earthborn Wars trilogy, the Jelindal Chronicles (Drangonlinks, Dragonsight, Dragonfang and WarDragon ) and his latest series, The Maximus Black Files (Mole Hunt, Dyson’s Drop and the forthcoming Il Kendra). As an editor he has put together numerous anthologies including Metaworlds, Dreamworlds and the recent Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable book Trust Me Too. Somehow, between all his writing and editing, he also manages to run Ford Street Publishing which has released books such as Sean McMullen’s Changing Yesterday, The Key to Starveldt by Foz Meadows and my Gamers series (Gamers’ Quest, Gamers’ Challenge and the soon to be released Gamers’ Rebellion). Check out Paul’s website and the Ford Street Publishing website.

Paul Collins   

But there is more to Continuum that just the official guests. There are always a plethora of authors in attendance, appearing on panels, doing readings and generally chatting and mingling. At this year’s event, you’re likely to bump into people such as Trudi Canavan (The Black Magician trilogy), Narrelle M Harris (Walking Shadows), Sue Bursztynski (Wolfborn), Richard Harland (Worldshaker) or Kirstyn McDermott (Madigan Mine).

This year happens to be the 50th anniversary of a little television series called Doctor Who. So, of course, Continuum 9 will be marking the occasion with a number of panels devoted to this particular series. So that’s another great reason to come along. 🙂

I’ve been to every Continuum so far and I’ll certainly be at Continuum 9. I’m slated to do a reading, launch Gamers’ Rebellion and appear on a host of panels, including “Melbourne’s YA Novellists” and “So You Want To Get Published”. Can’t wait!

For more info on Continuum 9, check out their website. Hope to see you there.

Catch ya later,  George

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Doodles and Drafts – Shifting through the Haze with Paula Weston

Paula WestonIt’s not that I’m not fond of paranormal spec-fiction; it’s just a genre that happens to feature much further down on my reading list – picture books dance all over them in fact. But when Queensland author, Paul Weston announced the release of her first YA novel, I was simultaneously intrigued and fascinated and then, pleasantly surprised.

Shadows, Book 1 in the Rephaim series, is a tale easy to warm to. Paula’s brisk and breezy writing style ensures a tight, zippy read. Her feisty characters, both human and non-human, imbue each page with snappy dialogue, witty innuendo, and believable outcomes. Exhilarating action is balanced beautifully with brief ‘shifts’ of reflection and pace that enables the reader to be fully drawn into Gaby Winters’ confused new world of Fallen Angels, Hellions and demons – The Rephaim. The course and cheeky interplay between Gaby and rogue, would-be saviour, Rafa, provides just enough romantic conjecture to stimulate ones carnal curiosities while the lightly seasoned scenery possesses a delicious sense of tropical Aussie atmosphere. I became so engrossed in Gaby’s pursuit of answers; about her brother Jude, and about her half-angel self that the end came all too soon.

And so I’ve been cunningly lured into the realm of the Rephaim. Looks like paranormal fiction has just moved further up my list.

HazeTo honour the spot I’ve reserved for the second instalment in the Rephaim series, Haze Book 2 due for release 22nd May, I have the author here herself to share a bit more about her paranormal fascination and, her obsession with the Foo Fighters.

Q Why paranormal spec-fiction? What is the attraction for writing this in genre?

A: I like the idea that there’s more to the world than we can see, and paranormal (and urban fantasy, magical realism etc.) stories provide plenty of scope to explore that in a contemporary setting. For me, it enhances the escapism to have a story with other-worldly elements set in a very recognisable world. There are endless ways to be creative with mythology and world building – and it’s a lot of fun!

Q Do you have favourites? If so list your favourite read of all time, holiday spot and season of the year and why.

A: I have a long list of favourite books across genres, but if we’re talking spec-fic particularly…The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, and – of course – The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien.

My favourite holiday spot is Turin in Italy in autumn. It’s a beautiful city with amazing history and buildings, has incredible food and wine, gorgeous countryside nearby, friendly people, and it’s not as overrun with tourists as other major Italian cities. It’s in the Piedmont region (just like the Sanctuary in the Rephaim series).

Q Who / what inspired the characters in the Rephaim series?

A: The series started with an idea about a girl and guy with a complicated history that only he remembers. There was an attraction between them, but if he took advantage of that, he knew there would be serious ramifications if/when she got her memories back. I knew there were paranormal elements in how she lost her memory, and that the two of them were caught up in a bigger conflict. I’m also a huge fan of Joss Whedon (particularly his Buffy, Angel and Firefly series) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural), so it’s fair to say their writing and TV shows inspired me.

Q If you could ‘shift’ with anyone, who would you choose and where would you shift to?

A: I would shift with Murray (my husband) and visit our family around Australia. And then we’d go to Turin!

Q Before signing your two-book deal with Text Publishing, did you have all four books in the series clearly thought out in your mind, or already on paper?

A: Yes, I had roughly plotted out the four books (and had a rough draft of Haze, book 2). The lovely people at Text were aware there were four books in the series when I was offered the initial two-book contract. As a new writer, getting even a two-book contract was a pretty big deal. Text then made the offer for books 3 and 3 the week before Shadows was published, which was a huge moment for me.

Foo FightersQ How many times have you been to a Foo Fighters concert? How does their music, affect what you are working on?

A: I have been to two Foo Fighters concerts. Both were awesome, but my favourite was the River Stage concert the guys did at the Botanic Gardens after the Brisbane floods. It was a more intimate and chatty show and they played a lot of album tracks – it was a concert for hard-core fans. Loved it!

I don’t listen to music when I’m writing, but I do listen to the Foo Fighters when I’m driving and I find it gets the ideas flowing – particularly if I’ve struck a brick wall with a particular scene. There’s something about the heavier tracks that hits me in the chest and helps me find the mood for fight scenes – or finding Gaby’s voice when she needs to be resilient. But at the same time, the Foo Fighters’ acoustic, gentler tracks can also help me channel a more vulnerable voice.

Q What was the most despised thing you’ve ever found in your school lunchbox?

A: My mum used to make me cheese and jam sandwiches, which I really didn’t like. Now I eat brie and quince paste on ciabatta which is kind of the same thing…Turns out my mum was ahead of her time!

Q Do you think childhood happenings shape your adult writing voice and style? Have yours? Share one moment from your past which has direct bearing on your present.

A: Experiences in my teenage years have shaped how I approach stories, but I think reading hundreds of books over the years (then and since) nourished the storyteller in me, and helped me find my own voice and style. I was an often angry and rebellious teenager and I’ve definitely channelled some of that for Gaby’s voice in the Rephaim series. For reasons that become apparent through the series, Gaby often feels like an outsider and tends to deal with that through anger and sarcasm. I often felt like I didn’t fit in (as most teenagers do at some point) – I still do at times – so that voice is usually easy to find.

Q Tell us what we can expect from Book 2 and Paula Weston.

A: Haze (out 22 May), has more twists and turns and some answers. Readers can expect to learn more about the Rephaim (particularly the Outcasts), more about Gaby’s twin brother Jude, and more about Gaby’s past. There’s more action, more secrets revealed, and the Rephaim discover something that threatens all of them. And, of course, there are some interesting developments for Gaby and Rafa.

Both books published by Text Publishing – Haze Book 2 available from 22nd May 2012.

The Dog Paradox

The Dog ParadoxI’ve blogged a bunch about Matthew ‘Oatmeal’ Inman’s genius blogs*. Now I get to blog about his just-released book, The Dog Paradox, which is built on his comic by roughly the same title.

If you haven’t had the pleasure and pain of laughing so hard you think your ribcage might combust, then being struck by a truth-induced sadness it just about makes you weep, I suggest you visit this comic (and the rest of the Oatmeal’s while you’re at it).

In it, Inman (the Oatmeal) charts, though succinct, sassy statements and definitively brilliant cartoons, how his dog isn’t afraid of large wilderbeasts or garbage trucks, but is skitteringly terrified of cats and hairdryers.

He writes of ‘friendbeasts’ and ‘invisible horsebeasts’, of unbridled excitement at you arriving home irrespective of how long or short a time you’ve been away, and of dogs’ apparently unrivalled sense of smell that still involves them getting up close to sniff another dog’s butt.

In fact, the blog’s so uncannily accurate that anyone who’s ever lived with and loved a dog will wonder if Inman’s been spying on them.

It’s best you read it yourself because I certainly can’t convey its aptness here, but my favourite part involves the phrase with which I now pepper my conversations: ‘Lick balls sooper clean. Lick balls even moar clean.’ And really, who knew a well-drawn syringe could be so image-finishingly hilarious?

The whole thing’s made even cuter and more hilarious when you see a real-life picture of Rambo, the dog on which the comic, book, poster, and plush toys, are based. He’s an adorable and sufficiently odd-looking Maltese–Shitsu-type dog—not nearly as ferocious and fierce as his cartoon persona would have him be.

Oh, and the Oatmeal just keeps giving. There’s also this cartoon about how he sees his dog and how his ‘squirrel enforcer’ dog sees him. The butthole as the ‘eye of Sauron’ and the crotch being the ‘slip and slide to the heart’ are somethings that will forever stay with me.

Suffice to say, I’m a slightly huge Oatmeal fan. Doubly so because he’s one of the few people who’s successfully built a career producing and releasing free online content. Which is all the more reason to buy The Dog Paradox book, the poster, and the fluffy merchandise—Inman presumably makes some margin off those so he can continue producing and posting comics for us to enjoy (and develop laughing-related hernias) free.

*I thought I’d actually blogged here about the dog paradox comic, but now can’t find the post. Maybe I just spammed you with an excited email saying, ‘Check out this comic!’

The Silent History

The Silent History Entry ScreenI’ve been reading and hearing about an award-winning transmedia app created by former McSweeney’s managing editor Eli Horowitz. Suffice to say, I was both intrigued enough to want to download this app, but wary enough that it might be so hipster I’d want to avoid it.

I gave it a whirl after finding out The Silent History (please excuse my dodgy phone pics) was partially free for a short time—the classic first-hit’s-free way to turn you into a junkie. I have to say it’s worked. Last night I caved and bought the remaining instalments. Then I shirked work and responsibilities to plough through to the novel’s end.

The app design, with its beautiful, functional, and communication design-considered circles and complementary navigation is fantastic. And, as a typography-obsessed nerd from way back, the fonts and layout are like crack.

Crucially, though, underpinning all of this is a compelling story that combines serialised, multi-narrated, interview-based testimonials detailing a generation of children born silent but not stupid. Basically, Horowitz and co. have assembled an app around a good tale, not tried to tack on tales to high-tech tools.

The story begins with an emerging phenomenon: people start giving birth to Silents, or people who are born without language or any ability or willingness to obtain it (some characters disparagingly and politically incorrectly refer to them as ‘mutetards’). It’s new, it’s widespread; no one quite knows what’s ‘wrong’ with these people or what to do with them. Some people consider them freaks; others try to save them; still others try to take advantage of them for their own purposes.

The story is told through 120 individual testimonials that equate to about 500 hundred pages of text. These contained, snapshot-like segments subjectively narrated by parents, teachers, friends, doctors, opportunists, and impostors—an array of characters touched by the silent phenomenon, each with their own agenda and point of view; none entirely (or not clearly) reliable.

Complementing the testimonials are field reports, or short, site-specific stories that expand on, and are related to, the main story. You have to physically be at the location (i.e. your device recognises the GPS co-ordinates) to unlock these reports. Being in Australia, I’m clearly a long way away from doing so, although I didn’t mind—the story was meaty enough without these and I’m often annoyed by periphery.

The Silent HistoryBesides, I was too gripped by the testimonial writing, which is incredibly strong. Many of them are reminiscent of McSweeney’s monologues: understated, finely crafted, and containing incisive, view-altering insights that sucker punch you.

It’s impossible to convey some such entries here, although I will say I loved their reference to a ‘pet-friendly gambling park’ and how two characters hire a car for a dollar as long as they’re willing to be injected by microchips that make them thirsty every time they see a drink called Slush (these premises are beyond the realm of comprehension, and yet they aren’t).

The McSweeney’s monologue-isms were especially strong in the middle of the app, presumably because the writers had gotten the scene-setting aspects out of the way and could flex their creativity. Which they do, writing characters that are at times entirely unlikeable, bona fide crazy, and yet impossible to turn pages past.

Having finished the novel quickly and having read it chronologically, I’d be interested to go back and cherry pick characters’ versions and re-read them from the start. But I’m time poor and, I’ll admit, wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending. It was—spoiler alert—not really an ending, slightly cop out-y and certainly without any concrete answers to what caused the Silents and more.

Still, The Silent History has set the future-of-storytelling benchmark high and it’s given me plenty of food for thought for my own attempts at transmedia work. I recommend checking it out (even if it’s only the first section while it’s free).

Going Vegan With A Gammy Knee

Colour Me VeganGoing vegan while hampered by a gammy knee and while trying to conquer a PhD is arguably not one of my smarter moves. The knee injury was unavoidable. (I was mown down by an opposition player.) The veganism is, arguably, unavoidable too.

It’s always where I’ve been heading—some 23 years of vegetarianism were really aspiring veganism except that Australia wasn’t ready. Something’s shifted recently (maybe hipsters are to thank/blame) and veganism is starting to become (shudder) cool. It means there are marginally more options for me when eating out and more places to buy food for when I’m cooking in.

That said, it’s still face-palmingly hard. Rather than a graceful segue into veganism, I’m more akin to a fat man trying to scale a bootcamp wall—red-faced, hopelessly entangled in the netting, trying to haul my wobbly butt up the scaffolding enough to enable me to flop over to the other side.

Suffice to say I’ve spent the past few weeks a lot frustrated and perpetually grumpy. That’s partly because my knee isn’t healing the way it should be. I’m going to take a punt and say that I don’t think it should be getting red and egg-fryingly hot from me walking around my apartment while talking on the phone. I’m also going to issue an aside that all knees generally, and my knees especially, are exceptionally ugly.

Vegan's Daily CompanionThe knee niggles combined with going vegan mean everything’s gotten exponentially and exhaustingly hard. I can directly attribute the latter to the exasperating fact that meat consumption and its related unsustainability and cruelty are entrenched and feel insurmountable.

I can also attribute it to the fact that I’m a rubbish cook and haven’t yet sorted out my menu. I’m getting hungrier sooner but am eating things that, though healthy, aren’t low enough GI to sustain me. Then I’m eating more to fill this grump-inducing, concentration-skewering hunger and ultimately gaining weight. None of this is helped by the fact that I’m not able to exercise (see above re: gammy knee).

Still, there’s hope.

I’ve found a podcast that’s doesn’t require me to go bunk and live off the grid. (I’m a pragmatic vegetarian and vegan and can’t stand the personal hygiene-challenged alternatives I invariably get lumped with.) It’s by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, an English major who almost pursued a career in academia before deciding instead to pursue a career writing books about veganism. (Parallels much? Except that I will be finishing this PhD if it kills me.)

Patrick-Goudreau has a bunch of books—The Joy of Vegan Baking, The Vegan Table, Colour Me Vegan, Vegan’s Daily Companion—and lots of complementary resources. These include a fantastic podcast, which I’ve been listening to non-stop, back to back, and in which Patrick-Goudreau delivers wise, measured, practical, applicable wisdom. She knows her stuff, mixing information with punchy topics, memorable soundbites, and even literature and etymology.

The Joy of Vegan BakingI’d recommend fast-forwarding the first five minutes of every podcast, though—it’s a very American thing to do to ask for money and to talk up your stuff, but it grates my Australian ethos exponentially. I reckon if you want to support Patrick-Goudreau, buy her books.

That’s what I’m doing, although I’ll confess that her baking cookbook is my number one priority (weight loss here I don’t come). Once I work out my menu and properly adapt, being vegan will be fantastic. No, really. This is my third attempt at making it across the line, but this time I’m certain I’m going to make it. Until then, be warned that I’ll be vaguely hungry and a little bit grumpy.

Review – Somebody’s House

Somebody's House PBHave you ever wandered down your street and wondered who shares it with you? Do you like to let your curiosity conjure up interesting occupants based entirely on the external appearance of a dwelling? I do. I’m not sure if young children do this as consciously as us more questioning grown up types but Katrina Germein’s newly released picture book, Somebody’s House, allows them to do just that, and absolutely guilt-free.

At the bottom of a little girl’s town by the sea is ‘a long, looping street’. I immediately want to visit this street and find out who we’ll meet. As the little girl drifts along it, she passes houses of every size and description and colour. She catches glimpses of the occupants’ lives from the objects she spies in their gardens or poking out of windows or perched up in trees. Each page poses the enigmatic question, ‘who do you think is inside?’

The speculative answers are the result of her assumptions and vivid imagination and, quite possibly true, although I’m not sure if scarf-knitting ewes and high-heel wearing peacocks are your run-of-the-mill suburban types.

Katrina GermeinIt doesn’t matter a pip because this is a joyful exploration of colours and rhythms, and shapes and forms that will entertain readers from 0 – 5 years and give beginner readers hours of fun as they navigate their way through the musical text.

It’s easy to wax lyrical about picture books when the words sing and the illustrations bombard the senses with tons of movement and bouncing detail. Somebody’s House does precisely that. A comfortable familiarity grew each time I revisited ‘somebody’s’ street yet I was delighted to continually find something new and quirky to smile at.

Anthea Stead’s exuberant use of acrylics, oil pastels and sgraffito* saturate the pages with a festival of colour and patterns. There is enough going on to attract young readers back for a second look again and again and the use of subtle visual clues not only adds to the whimsicality of the story but allows them to deduce who lives inside each house.

Known for her straightforward and honest way of sharing life’s truths with children, Germein has created a beautiful picture book that reinforces one’s sense of belonging and sense of place, while lightly alluding to the marvellous diversity of society and family types that exist all just metres away from one’s own front door.

Recommended for 3 – 6 year olds and anyone curious about their neighbours.

For those lucky enough to be living in Adelaide, pop along to the Lobethal Markets nestled in the Adelaide foothills on Sunday the 19th of May for the official launching of Somebody’s House.

Somebody's House Launch

• Sgraffito is a painting style that uses painted layers and ‘scratching’ techniques to create an image. This technique can be used on walls, ceramics and paper or canvas.

 Walker Books Australia May 2013


Shoulda, Coulda Written That

Weird Things People SayEvery writer goes through a patch where they stumble upon books they could have written. Said books send them into an I-should-have-written-that, I’m-never-going-to-make-it tailspin (cue diva-like facepalms and internal wailing). Me? I’ve found two books (three if you count the just-released sequel to one).

The first (with its related second) is Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. You know, the kind of bestselling book that could have been written by any writer who has ever been forced by virtue of the industry’s poor pay to moonlight as a bookseller.

Sure, we related the gems customers spoke to our fellow booksellers as a kind of if-you-don’t-laugh-you-cry group therapy. Sometimes we even pinned quotes of such sayings to our lunchroom walls. But only one of us put penned these crackers to paper.

‘Did Beatrix Potter ever write a book about dinosaurs?’, ‘Did Charles Dickens ever write anything fun?’, and ‘I’ve forgotten my glasses, can you read me the first chapter?’ are three such entries.

More Weird Things They’ve so transported me back to my bookselling days I have a contained, blank-faced blink going on while reading them. Suffice to say, memories of customers getting cranky at me for not remembering which orange book was merchandised in the window some six months before have come flooding back.

That’s a reasonable grump they had going on. There aren’t exactly many orange books (cough Penguin Modern Classics cough) published, are there?

OCD-inclined (although not strictly diagnosed OCD) Ursus Wehrli tidies up mess and organises that which is disorganised. It sounds pretty much like something many of us do daily. Except he tidies up things we wouldn’t necessarily realise were messy. And he photographs the before and after.

The Art of Clean Up is the third book I’ve recently found. And it almost made me weep with simultaneous joy and envy. Who’d have thought a serving of chips and tomato sauce could—or should—be organised into potato-strip tallies? Who now, having seen the pic of them, could imagine them any other way?

The Art of Clean UpAlphabet soup organising is an oldie but a goodie. Separating the balls in a ball pit is one I’ve longed for but never imagined was possible. That’s because of the labour involved and the kids you’d have to heartlessly eject from the pit, bottom lips aquivering, in order to do so. I’m also not sure I’d want to see what’s on the bottom of a ball pit, which would be an unintended consequence of such an exercise.

The envy-inducing aspects of these books are that they’re good ideas and that they’re so simple they’re under your nose. They’re also, painful as it is for me to admit, harder to come up with than first appears. Which returns us to the idea-brainstorming cycle. What to come up with that will be a bestseller but that’s a simple idea …?