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

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

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

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

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

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

Cat and FiddleWhere did this story begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-fiction picks for the new year

2013 has started and I’ve decided to make a resolution I can actually keep for a change, instead of committing to learn Arabic by audiobook over my headphones as I run an ultra-marathon in record time. This year I’ve made it easy on myself and resolved to do a lot more learning in my spare time, rather than sprawling on the sofa watching re-runs of Father Ted.

Luckily for me this looks like being (another) great year for non-fiction and real-life reading with plenty of exciting new offerings in the publishing works. I’ve hunted down the non-fiction releases I am most excited about this month and, in no particular order, here they are.

High Sobriety – My Year Without Booze by Jill Stark (to be released Jan 31)

High Sobriety“During the week, I write about Australia’s booze-soaked culture. At the weekends, I write myself off.”

Jill Stark is an award-winning health reporter who has won awards for her coverage of binge-drinking. You’d expect her to be a moderate drinker if a drinker at all but it turned out she wasn’t just an expert on paper and at the age of 35, she decided to take a year off the grog. High Sobriety is both the story of her dry year and a discussion of the complex relationship that Australian culture has with booze, and I’m dying to get my mitts on it.

On Looking – Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz (just published)

“You are missing at least eighty percent of what is happening around you right now. You are missing what is happening in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you. In marshaling your attention to these words, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses.”

If you’ve ever wondered if people see the world the way you do, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz’s new book is bound to fascinate. Structured around a series of eleven walks the author takes with experts (including an urban sociologist, an artist, a physician, a child and a dog) to see the world as they perceive it.

How the Dog Became the Dog – From Wolves to Our Best Friends by Mark Derr (available now)

I won’t lie to you. I’d like to tell you this came to my attention as I am fascinated by canines, evolution and human/animal socialisation and this book on how wolves became dogs is sure to fascinate on all fronts. I could point out that dog expert Mark Derr has a good pedigree (sorry, couldn’t resist) in writing accessible and entertaining books about dogs. But the main reason I want it is the cover, because who can resist a dog in a faux-Viking helmet?

So, they’re my pick for this month. Still broke after the silly season and unable to buy every fun read that crosses your path? If you’d like something to put you off the idea of buying books – possibly forever – I give you the Lousy Book Covers Tumblr. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. In this case, I’m not sure if they have a good point or whether  (Thanks to Joel at Momentum Books for highlighting this one. Joel, you’ll be getting the bill from my Ophthalmologist any day now.)

Something less sweet for the season

Much like festive food, I often find bestselling books to be either too saccharine-sweet or over-stuffed for my taste. So I wasn’t expecting to be instantly charmed when I finally picked up a copy of Jonas Jonasson’s debut offering, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.

But it had me at “hello”; from the first paragraphs of the opening chapter that paints – with less than 150 words – a vivid and hilarious picture of a cantankerous centenarian who has no intention of comprising his character in his old age.

“There was less than an hour to go before his birthday party would begin in the lounge of the Old Folks’ Home. The mayor would be there. And the local paper. And all the other old people. And the entire staff, led by bad- tempered Director Alice.

It was only the Birthday Boy himself who didn’t intend to turn up.”

An old man – Allan Karlsson – climbs out of a window to escape his hundredth birthday. He purloins a suitcase, hops on a train and what follows is both the explanation of his amazing back-story and an off-beat adventure for Allan and anyone who crosses his path. Without giving away too much it weaves together a tale of several murders, revolutions, the invention of the atom bomb, Reagan’s Star Wars, and – of course – one man’s mission to find happiness and preferably a glass of vodka to go with it. The novel’s cast of characters includes a hot-dog selling polymath, a cast of criminals, Stalin, Truman and Albert Einstein’s less gifted half-brother, and of course, Allan himself; a man with a gift – or perhaps a curse – for being in the right place at the right time.

It’s been called a “black comic novel that reads like a road trip with Forrest Gump at the wheel’ which it could be, if Forrest Gump was centenarian demolition expert with no intention of relinquishing control over his vodka supply.

Others have likened it to a darkly hilarious Water for Elephants (and indeed the book does contain a renegade elephant) but I think that fails to capture the charm, invention and capriciousness of this fascinating tale. I’m a little more reminded of Warren Ellis’s RED (Retired, Extremely Dangerous), and specifically the lighter tone of the movie adaptation, but with this book Jonasson has firmly established he has a voice all of his own and a remarkable story to tell with it.

Jonasson is a Swedish writer with a background as a journalist and media consultant. This book is his first novel and was released in 2009. By 2010 it was the best selling book in Sweden and by July 2012 it had sold three million copies world-wide and had a movie adaptation in the works. If you’re looking for a book for the festive season – whether it’s to amuse yourself or to appease an occasionally cantankerous soul stuffed with overly-rich christmas fare – I can’t recommend this book enough.

Scandalands (maybe) No 1 – but was it worth it?

The low-down on “Vile Kyle” has proved to be good reading material, reports News.com.au.  His new biography, with its wonderfully pun-y title of Scandalands, has apparently hit the top of the non-fiction bestsellers’ list after just a week on the shelves.

Written by his former producer Bruno Bouchet, the book reportedly covers “everything from his wild sex parties to low self-esteem” and has sold over two thousand copies since its release on October 23rd, “making it No.1 on the Australian non-fiction list.”

I‘m a bit curious as to what bestseller’s list they are talking about as the Neilsen Bookscan has the recently released Guinness Book of Records in the no 1 spot and the article doesn’t mention what list they are referring too. The only quote from the bookselling end is an unnamed publishing source stating, “It’s a really good result” which could be a quote about anything from Scandalands‘s bestseller status to getting through reading it without hurling it at a wall.

(I’m also unconvinced that anything with a Sandilands stamp of approval fits in the category of non-fiction, but you could make the same argument for most authorised biographies, and plenty of the non-authorised ones too.)

The biography of the self-described “most hated man in Australia” (even when it comes to coming last, it appears that Kyle Sandilands thinks he has to come first) sold 2,518 copies since it was released, which was reportedly enough to put him in at number one.

Which seems to be a surprisingly reasonable number for a bestseller. So, if you fancy being a bestselling author, does this mean that all you have to do is pen a tell-all memoir guaranteed to peeve everyone you’ve ever met, so you can afford a solid-gold yacht from the advance? All the better to live on before the book comes out, when you’ll be able to sail away from your former friends.

Sadly, almost definitely not. Don’t pick up your pen and get scribbling salaciously ala Sandialands because, as a recent piece in Crikey  explains, you’ll be lucky to cover the cost of the lawyer’s fees with your advance.

Most fiction authors receive $1000 or $2000 in advance for their books if published by smaller publishers, and then 8-10% of physical book sales after you have “earned out” that advance. …

“There are some [Australian] authors that get over a million dollars,” Ben Ball, publisher at Penguin Australia, told Crikey. ”If you look at the top-selling authors from last year in this country — Matthew Reilly, Di Morrissey — they would get very healthy advances.”

But for the less famous, that sum is likely to be considerably smaller. Non-fiction books normally gain a bigger advance than fiction , but it’s still not in the private yacht territory. Fiona Inglis, managing director of literary agency Curtis Brown, explains in the same Crikey article: “I don’t think any publisher would pay a million bucks unless someone had sales of 250,00 copies every time they put pen to paper,” she said, calling a $100,000 advance “very healthy” for well-known Aussie writers.

Perhaps losing friends and alienating your way to the top of the bestsellers’ list isn’t worth the money your will get. Unless, like Kyle, you done it already.

Non-fiction prize casts a wide net

The shortlist for the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction was been announced on Friday 5 October and it’s an impressively mixed bag.

The nominated books will are as varied in location as they are in subject matter. They will take you up Everest, across UK on foot, and down into the slums of Mumbai. They look at humanity from the darkest moments of Franco’s reign in Spain, to the innovation of the man who invented modern theatre, and go further into a long difficult look at mankind’s history of violence and what we can expect from it today.

David Willetts, the UK’s Minister for Universities and Science and chair of the judging panel, said the prize was looking for significant books which would “change our view of the world” and “make a lasting contribution to their genres”.

‘Their broad range of subject matter reflects the diversity of English-language non-fiction, and has the potential to inspire readers of all interests. It was partly deliberate to have such a wide range. Even though quality is so important all of the judges have still tried to show a range, from magisterial science from Steven Pinker, to Macfarlane’s extraordinary response to the natural world.”

I’m most excited getting my hands on Steven Pinker’s history of violence and humanity, The Better Angels of our Nature. Pinker, who is the author of the excellent “The Language Instinct” and “Blank Slate“, argues that humankind is becoming progressively less violent and that modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people. And although I’ve loved reading his previous books I completely forgot to pick Better Angels up, so the announcement of the prize was a timely reminder to get my hands on a copy.

I’ll probably try to get my hands on a copy of all six books short-listed, which is at least one of the good results of having a non-fiction prize this prestigious and well publicised. As I have said (okay, whinged before) non-fiction is often left in the cold when it comes to awards and prizes, so it’s good to see it rewarded. And even better when the net is cast this wide, pulling in so many excellent and diverse books.

The full shortlist is:

The award is worth £20,000 (approximately $30,000AUD) to the winner and aims to reward the best of English language non-fiction. It is open to authors of all non-fiction books in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography autobiography and the arts. The winner will be announced on 12 November.

It’s a long way from Hogwarts – J.K.Rowling’s gritty new novel

J.K.Rowling’s new novel was released yesterday. But before you rush to the shops with the kids in tow, be warned; if you’re expecting a bedtime story or a little light reading, her latest novel may surprise you.

Described as her “first novel for adults”, The Casual Vacancy is a complete departure from the world of wizards and the J.K.Rowling that readers have come to know. It’s a novel set determinedly in the real world, telling the story how an unexpected death and local election exposes secrets, lies and treachery in what is a seemingly idyllic English town.

There’s little magic, friendship or magnificence in the new world she has created. Rowling’s not afraid to dirty her pen, whether it be words, thoughts or deeds she’s describing. She takes on drug addiction, poverty, abuse, assault and neglect through a host of characters less interested in redemption and nobility and more interested in getting their own fix.

Allison Pearson, reviewing for The Daily Telegraph, describes it as “the Archers on amyl nitrate” and recommends hiding the book from any children. There’s certainly enough swearing in the book to justify withholding it from the kids:  Sherryl Connelly of the New York Daily News quips, disappointedly, that “J.K. Rowling has gone from Potter to potty-mouth”.

Many more reviewers have commented that it seems that Rowling was so eager to throw off the title of a children’s writer that she as gone too far in the opposite direction, penning a novel that will only be appreciated by adults interested in a dark dissection of human folly.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Rowling  – who has spoken freely about her own struggles with depression, povery and suicidal thoughts – has more than a little darkness to get out of her system after several years of writing for an audience that demanded optimism. If you think The Casual Vacancy might not be a book for you, there’s no need to give up on Rowling as she said in a recent interview with the BBC that, while she is proud of her latest novel, the next book she works on will be for children.

“I think it very likely that the next thing I publish will be for kids. I have a children’s book that I really like, it’s for slightly younger children than the Potter books. I loved writing for kids, I loved talking to children about what I’d written, I don’t want to leave that behind. But I wanted to write this as well.”

For the moment, if you’re looking for a little magic and escapism, The Casual Vacancy may not be the book for you. But if you are willing to keep the faith with Rowling’s writing skills and her knack for getting into her character’s heads (unlikeable as they may be), it could well be worthwhile putting Potter aside and letting her spin her new story.

How I Broke The Memoir – Neil Patrick Harris in print

I love non-fiction and Neil Patrick Harris (in completely different ways, mind) but the announcement of his book deal has me less excited and more than a little confused about what, exactly, it is we will be reading.

Not content with a mere biography or memoir, the scene has been set by press releases sent out today for the actor’s first book to be ‘a Work of Imaginative Nonfiction’. Tina Constable, Senior Vice President at publisher Crown Archetype, is promising entertainment but not illuminating what will be involved. She said, “Neil Patrick Harris’s wildly creative, funny, and inventive vision for his book reflects his many talents and dimensions as an artist. We are certain his book will entertain, surprise, and delight not just his legions of fans but also all readers who love a good puzzle.”

Such as puzzling out what, exactly, Harris is likely to be writing about and if it’s worth reading? Crown’s press release is hedging on that too. “As yet untitled, Harris’s book will be a work of imaginative nonfiction that delivers an interactive, nonlinear reading experience that breaks the boundaries of conventional memoir. An accomplished amateur magician, Harris will draw upon his love of adventure and surprise in creating the book, as well as upon the many roles he has played in his life and career—from being a child star to coming out, and from acting on Broadway to becoming a proud father.”

Sounds fascinating, and all that, but what exactly does that mean we’ll be reading? A memoir? A book of anecdote-inspired crossword puzzles? A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book based on his life? (Actually, that last one sounds fun.) Neil may know but he’s also not making it explicit, preferring to joke around the subject in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m excited to be writing a book of the observations and stories of my life,” said Harris. “I read with great fondness Tina Fey’s Bossypants, so my plan is just to reprint those exact stories but change the names to people that I knew. What editor would take issue with that?”

There’s little doubt that Neil has a golden touch when it comes picking and producing his projects; from rocking the audiences’ socks off in musicals such as Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to cameos in the recent Muppet Movie, as well as his Emmy-nominated role as Barney Stinson in CBS sit-com How I Met Your Mother. And, while you won’t find his name on any other books, this isn’t his first publishing credit, also credited as the co-author (under his character’s name) of The Bro Code. So, while the press release may be alarmingly vague, we can hope that the end product will be offbeat and entertaining even if the phrase “interactive, nonlinear reading experience” makes it sound like a code for “couldn’t think of a plot or theme so put in dot-to-dot puzzles”.

What do you think – does it sound like wonderful whimsy, edgy-experimentalism or just indulgent idiocy? Will you be standing in line to buy it? Crown Archetype, who are part of the Random House, Inc publishing group, say that publication is set for 2014, so I guess we’ll all have to wait until then to find out.


Amazing, exotic, and just plain strange – the Guinness World Records book 2013

Since first being published in 1955, the Guinness World Records book has sold over 120 million copies to date in over 100 countries, but it’s not resting on its laurels. The newly-released 2013 edition comes packed with 3D technology, info-graphics and over 3,000 mind-blowing records; ranging from the amazing (oldest couple to run a marathon, at 83 and 78); to the costly (most expensive toilet, Nasa’s Endeavour, $23.4 million); to the downright weird (most watermelons smashed with a head in one minute).

We caught up with the Australia/NZ representative of Guinness World Records, Chris Sheedy, about the book and what it takes to be a record-holder. In addition to looking after all the PR and media for the region, Chris is also the official adjudicator, and attends any major record-making or breaking events that take place. When Australia took the prize for the biggest toga party and longest bikini parade, Chris was there. “I did adjudicate the biggest toga party and I personally counted the ladies in the largest bikini parade – they were both wonderful events.”

Less wonderful, but certainly as interesting are some of the odder events he has attended. “There’s an element of strangeness to most events I attend, but the record for most watermelons smashed with the head (which was broken in Chinchilla, Queensland, a few years ago) stands out as one of the more memorable. Having said that, a lot of the things we adults take seriously are pretty strange, too. Butterfly swimming, dressage… Guinness World Records celebrates the imagination of children, and to kids everything is wonderful and of equal importance.”

His personal favorite record is to witness so far was in 2008, standing on the landing ramp at Calder Park Raceway as Robbie Maddison landed the world’s longest motorcycle jump, at a distance of 106.9 metres. “It’s such a classic record – I had goosebumps.”

The 2013 book isn’t just about documenting exciting new events and records, it’s also expected to set some. “Our readership, and the book industry to an extent, expects us to lead the way when it comes to technology, and to books becoming more interactive. We constantly use technology to make the records more accessible, understandable and exciting.”

This year’s Guinness World Records book is pushing the boundaries of interaction and text, with new 3D technology, augmented reality, and the digital bonus chapter, Chris explains. “Download an simple app then point it at specific pages in the book and see the book come alive. For example, on one page the world’s biggest spider climbs out of the page, on another the world’s shortest man wanders around the page. It’s wonderful and amazing and slightly unsettling all at once!”

The 2013 book is a fascinating read, and after a few pages it’s hard not to start imagining ways to get your own name into the book. Chris isn’t immune to the appeal of setting a record. “During my first week 13 years ago I found a record I knew I could break – most grapes eaten with a teaspoon in 60 seconds. I set it up one lunchtime and no sooner had I started than the Keeper Of The Records came up and shut it down. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that GWR staff are never involved in the breaking of a record.”

If you’d like to see your own name in the book, through breaking a current record or inventing and setting a brand new one, Chris’s advice is be prepared. “Apply as soon as possible through Guinesss World Records website. It’s quick, easy and free (costs can be involved if you require a corporate adjudication) and it means the guidelines for the specific record will be sent out to you so you can follow the rules. After that, train with great passion and enjoy becoming the best in the world at whatever it is you’re attempting!”

Getting baked with good friends

Browsing my friends’ bookshelves is always interesting but the books I love to get into (in more ways than one) are their baking books. Not every house has some but when I do come across a home with a well-stocked dessert-bookshelf, I can spend hours browsing and lingering over the lush photography. Puddings and cheesecakes and fruit tarts – oh my.

My love of baking books strikes my friends as strange because I own so few myself and I am a really terrible baker. Last week I tried to get my Nigella on and make brownies. I succeeded in making brown, far too much brown, great tracts of it that crawled out of the pan and attempted to envelope the wire rack like an Alien facehugger with chocolate chips. What remained in the pan completely lacked in the delicious gooey interior that makes a brownie so enjoyable and instead had a texture reminiscent of foam mattress.

It did not, it must be said, look like the brownie in the book. Nothing I bake ever does, because I am terrible at following instructions. Some people would have measured the ingredients and not substituted on an ad-hoc basis. Others might have looked at the timing and directions. Nigella, they would have reasoned, is an excellent cook and if, like me, you generally make cakes suitable for use as ballast perhaps actually following her directions would be a better plan than ignoring the book completely.

Me, I figured it would be fine once we beaten the gloop into submission, cleaned up the worst of the over-flowing tentacles, and added a little cream and chocolate shavings. And it was.

I have plenty of regular cooking books, and can make a great meal. Savoury food is simple to improvise but I invariably ruin the more structured sugary sweet treats I attempt. Sponges, flans, pastry, pastries; you name it, I have mutilated it. I am a terrible baker and this is probably no bad thing. The main problem with baking is the fact that, after you have done it, you have lots of baked goods available to eat. Sitting there. Tempting you. Demanding to be eaten and situating themselves lasciviously right next to the salted caramel sauce and big bottle of Baileys with a “come hither” expression on their steaming sugary surface.

There’s a reason they call them tarts, people.

I like friends with baking books, and I treasure my friends that do bake. I can only hope that they also welcome my enthusiastic advances on their cooking and admire my ability to enthusiastically munch my way through every mouthful they offer me, and then some. Because one bite of a sweet thing is never enough for me.

Maybe you are one of those saintly people who glide slim, smug and ethereal through life turning down unnecessary deliciousness. Maybe you just have a little of what you fancy – a nibble of the cheese, a square of the dark chocolate, just one canapé and a small glass of wine. You can open a pack of Pringles without needing to finish the tube, and throw leftover birthday cake out when it gets dry, rather than concocting a deranged high-calorie plan to make it wonderful again. (Microwave it, and then add some fresh cream with a little Bailey’s mixed in. You’re welcome.)

You can have your cake and eat it, but you’d genuinely prefer a nice piece of fresh fruit and a game of tennis. I would salute your temperance but I am too busy being filled with hate. And food. All the wonderful tasty delicious food.

Many of my friends are brilliant bakers with a cook-book collection to match. Browsing their shelves I find treats galore to tempt me. Cheesecakes. Sponges and flans. Tiny wonderful fat-filled enlardenating pastries. Wonderful brownie books and books on decorating. Cake pops, because normal cake just wasn’t fattening enough – they had to come up with a way to make it even more delicious and bad for you.

For me to have those books and be capable of making the contents correctly would be an invitation to non-stop baking madness and an additional 20 kilos or so to settle on my waistline overnight.  I already have a deliciously-fattening craft beer habit, a penchant for Thai food and a slightly disturbing fixation on spectacularly smelly cheeses.

I don’t need to another monkey – or a sticky-sweet baked gorilla – on my back. I’ll leave the baking books on my friends’ kitchen shelves. And just try to be in the neighbourhood when they decide to give them a go.


Mid-month round-up – dieting, running and glad-wrapping your glutes

It’s a departure from my normal non-fiction areas but I have recently been devouring dieting and exercise books. There was a few factors to me picking out these books, from some interesting new releases to my new hobby of running, but I will cheerfully admit my main motivation was superficial – I wanted to look nice when I walked down the aisle (well, sand).

Nothing like needing to fit into a wedding dress to concentrate the mind, even if I was sensible enough to buy one that fitted rather than go with getting an “aspirational”outfit 4 dress-sizes smaller, and end up shoe-horning myself in on the day. (Apparently, you can tamp down your wobbly bits by wearing two sets of body-slimming underwear or wrapping yourself in cling-film but honestly, dieting sounds easier.)

For those of you who also prefer to keep your Glad Wrap for cookery but would also like to get a better handle on your eating habits, I recommend the first of my picks, the Beck Diet Solution.

Cabbage soup. Banning carbs. Super foods, celebrity endorsements and expensive supplements. The Beck Diet Solution instantly endeared itself to me by recommending none of these things. Instead its author, cognitive therapist Dr. Judith S. Beck, has written a six-week program that applies Cognitive Therapy to dieting and weight loss: teaching readers how to think differently, change eating behavior, and lose weight permanently. The result, she claims, is that the book teaches the skills needed to get off the yo-yo diet circuit, and to diet successfully and to keep the weight off permanently.

It’s a psychological program, not a food plan, and can be used with any other sensible diet program, such as the CSIRO Wellbeing Diet. The program requires a regular daily commitment but it’s short on the gimmicks and big on long-term changes and is certainly easier to apply in real life than most of the diet books out there.

Also on the sensible side, and with no mention of cling-wrapping your bottom whatsover, is Dr Carmel Harrington’s The Sleep Diet, which was just released in August. Subtitled why sleeping well is the missing link to permanent weight loss, it’s not exactly subtle about advocating sleep, good sleep and plenty of it, to keep hormones that cause hunger down and your metabolism ticking over nicely. Dr Harrington argues that we are sleeping far less than previous generations, that sleep and weight are fundamentally connected and that the depth and effect of this connection is only now being discovered. The Sleep Diet explores the science, presents the research, and provides simple rules for improving your health – and weight – by getting more sleep.

While weight loss is a focus, the book also includes a DIY sleep program which will benefit people who have no issues with their waistline but lots of issues with their sleeping patterns or with people trying to disrupt their sleep. The book states clearly says that in order to lose weight, I need to stay in bed longer. Finally science has justified my Snooze Button habit.

If I was to decide to follow the example of my third pick, Running Crazy, though, I’ll need to set my alarm gruelingly early. Running Crazy explores the world of the 100 Marathon Club, also known as the Hell’s Angels of Running. This club has only one prerequisite for membership but it’s a biggie – every member has completed over 100 marathons. Many have completed over 200. And some, some have managed 500, 700, 800 marathons. That’s almost 34,000 kilometres, or Sydney to London – and back.

Why? Well, that’s what the book explores and how these runners find the time and energy to accomplish monthly – or in some cases, near weekly – what most people have to train for a months or years to manage. And their enthusiasm is infectious – whether you have a marathon already under your belt or, like me, you’re still proud of your 5km, it’s hard not to read the book without a tiny voice at the back of your mind saying, “I could do that”.

I have to admit, I’m still unlikely to actually decide to punish myself with a marathon run let alone 100 of them, but it’s hard to wiggle out of a quick 5km run when you have read about people who routinely run a marathon a month. And at least getting out and running means I am less likely to need a few extra rolls of Glad Wrap come summer.


Getting published? Not a fantasy says Harper Voyager

Last week I posted about some good opportunities for aspiring writers who wanted to see their work published and also to achieve the far more elusive goal of actually getting paid for it.

While writing can be its own reward, sometimes it’s nice to see some value placed on your work by others too (and even more so when you could do with the cash to buy yet more books or perhaps a bigger set of bookshelves). When it comes to writing, I’m firmly with Stephen King who once said, “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

Want to get your writing talent out there and have a whole manuscript gathering dust? Since posting that blog, I’ve had another excellent opportunity brought to my attention. Anyone who writes fantasy and science-fiction can tell you it’s a particularly difficult area to get any way into. But a door has just opened: for the two weeks between October 1st and October 14th, and for the first time in a decade, Harper Voyager Books will be looking at unsolicited submissions.

Harper Voyager Books is the science fiction and fantasy imprint of publishing behemoth HarperCollins, and if you make it into their ranks, you would be in some exalted company. They currently publish such huge names as George R. R. Martin, Raymond E Feist, Sara Douglass and, my personal favourites, the always excellent Robin Hobb and my best new find of this year, Joe Abercrombie.

They recommend you have a good look at what sort of books they are already publishing to see if your work would be a good fit, but they are casting a deliberately broad net on this one.

“We’re seeking all kinds of adult and young adult speculative fiction for digital publication, but particularly epic fantasy, science fiction, urban fantasy, horror, dystopia and supernatural. We’ve already been publishing digital originals from our existing Harper Voyager authors, and are thrilled to expand this wider to welcome new authors and voices to Harper Voyager. The growth of eReaders and e-books have created an exciting new opportunity that allows us to begin increasing the number and diversity of our speculative fiction list. And speculative fiction readers are the most savvy early adopters so we’re keen to provide our readers with the best ebooks possible.”

Manuscripts should be between 80,000 to 120,000 words and should be completed. For more information, see  and remember, it’s only open for 2 weeks.

Still on the fantasy/sci-fi/steampunk/YA/I have really got to stop with the genres already theme,  if you’re in Melbourne tonight, Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer is being launched.  It’s free to attend, but you need to let them know you are coming. Jay has already written an excellent series of posts on how to get from scribbling in your spare time to having three major publishers try to buy your debut offering, so there could be pearls of wisdom to be had if you can get there before one – or five – too many celebratory drinks have been had.

Spring into writing

Spring has sprung and if your spring-cleaning has uncovered your unpublished manuscript, or the warmer weather is simply stirring up your creative side, it’s a great time to get working on your writing.

But what to do with your work once it’s written? There’s plenty of opportunities out there at the moment for aspiring writers, whether it’s making contacts and meeting fellow-minded writers at literary festivals, or going straight for the prize and entering a competition. I’ve rounded up a few interesting possibilities for the budding writers amongst you.

If short and sweet – but very high-profile –  is your thing, the Age short story competition is now accepting entries. Entry is free, and comes with a cash prize to boot: first prize wins $1000; 2nd prize, $800; 3rd prize, $500. Winning stories will be published in Life & Style and at theage.com.au. Entries must be under 3000 words and should not have been previously published. Have an idea but not the completed story? You have a few weeks to get it written – the competition closes on September 28th and winners will be announced in December.

Fancy writing something a little more quirky and criminal? One of the more interesting competitions open at the moment is Australia’s Security Nightmares, a national security short story competition organised by Australian Security Research Centre (ASRC).

Entrants should submit a short story with a security scenario as the plot line or essential backdrop. An Australia context to the story is required, and the story needs to be set between today and 2020. They state that, while the story is to be fictional, “it needs to be grounded in a plausible, coherent and detailed security situation. Rather than just describing on an avalanche of frightening events, writers are encouraged to focus on the consequences and challenges posed by their scenarios, and tease out what the official and public responses would be.”

The ASRC competition also aims to raise community awareness of national security challenges and the first prize winner will be taking home $1,000 for their trouble. New and unpublished writers are encouraged to enter and entries close Sunday 30 September 2012.

If you have a full book on your hands and you want to be picked up by Penguin, their Monthly Catch could be your opportunity. For the first week of every month, the General Publishing team at Penguin Australia throw their doors open to unsolicited manuscripts. As many publishers won’t even look at a manuscript that doesn’t have a literary agent singing its praises, Penguin’s monthly open week is one of the few opportunities to get your work to a publisher with a promise that it will not be tossed straight into the recycling.

Not sure if any of the above are for you? The Australian Writer’s Marketplace prides itself on including every opportunity for aspiring writers and is an indispensable tool if you are looking to get published – although it’s about to undergo a spring-clean itself and we should be seeing the 2013 edition hitting the shelves in the next month or so.

So perhaps while you’re waiting for it to sprout up in the shops, you could get started on getting some writing done.

50 Shades of Spam

For the last month I have spent the first moments of each online day deleting 50 shades of spam.

As part of being a Boomerang blogger, I keep an eye on book news. I’m signed up to a lot of publishers and author’s websites and newsletters, and get lots of information on new book releases. Normally I quite like browsing what will soon be out but recently it feels like unless I’m into badly-written smut, I’m out of luck.

I used to enjoy checking my email in the morning but . I can’t be the only person worn down by receiving calls to awaken my kinky side when I haven’t even awakened a putting-on-pants side? Who wants to contemplate tying someone up with a clothes-line when you haven’t even had coffee yet? If I tried it, pre-caffeination, I’d be more likely to peg tomorrow’s work shirt to them and accidentally leave them tied up, trussed and covered in clean laundry, when I sprint out the door late to work 5 mins later.

I may not want to read it, but no ones told the various publishers that. There’s an increasing level of desperation to tie completely unrelated books to the theme. A cookbook that involves a few allusions to food as plaything or aphrodisiac is “like 50 Shades of Grey …but with saucy recipes!” A political memoir that – very briefly – catalogues an love affair is “like 50 Shades of Grey …but set in the halls of power!

Publishers everywhere must be warning would-be autobiographers to get their kink on before they write up their story. “Well, yes, Sir Attenborough, the nature stuff and broadcasting history is all very interesting, but what we really want to know is have you ever used your tent’s guide rope for… other purposes?” You can only imagine their disappointment when they discovered his most recent release, Drawn from Paradise, is actually about the birds and not some variety of lewd art.

Sometimes, in the urge to tie their own book to the phenomena that is 50 Shades, the message in the email gets somewhat …confusing. Another book with slightly better writing and actual plot is described as “50 Shades of Grey for grown-ups” – because the original 50 Shades was clearly meant to be kid’s book. Go on, buy it for your nieces and nephews this silly season and see if you ever get invited back for Christmas dinner ever again.

It’s 50 Shades of… delete. Delete, delete and delete some more. If I want to read erotica with a BDSM theme, I’ll pick something slightly better written, thanks. (I’ve had the Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey recommended, as well as Tobsha Learner and Anais Nin, and do feel free to recommend your own favourite in the comments if you think I am missing some.)

It’s not like this is the first time this has happened. The last few years have been, variously, the 50 Shades of Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Da Vinci and The Secret and Jodi Picoult, and, of course, 50 Shades of fecking Twilight. I think the thing that annoys me so much is I thought we were were finally over Twilight and now it’s snuck back on again with the names changed.

Look, I understand it’s popular. I don’t understand why it is so popular but as it’s apparently the bestselling Australian book since records began it’s a safe bet that EL James isn’t crying herself to sleep at night over my opinion.

But if my distaste isn’t ruining her nights, oh how I wish her ebook would stop putting me right off my breakfast. Here’s to the next big thing – may it be released soon and please, please, don’t let it be more Twilight fan-fiction or I think I may be off to buy some clothesline and pegs so I can string a few people up.





Father’s Day Gifts: 3 of the weirdest Sport Books

The Olympics are over and many sport-loving Dads from all over the world are feeling a little flat, my own father included.

After several weeks with an excuse to always have the channel set to Sport he’s had to relinquish the remote. It’s not that he’s deprived normally; my Mum and I also like a good game played well but we can’t match my father’s dedication to all things sporting. If there’s a ball or puck involved, he’ll watch it. If there’s not, he watch it in the hope that there might be a ball or puck involved soon. (I once came home at 2am to find him trying to take an interest in curling. He’ll watch anything.)

Luckily for him, it’s Father’s Day soon, and Sunday September 2nd offers the opportunity not just to buy him a book about sport but a chance to introduce him to a while new bunch of sports so incredibly strange that even he doesn’t already know about them.

1.  Insatiable – Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream by Jason Fagone

How many hot dogs could you eat in 10 minutes? 10? 20? If it’s over 25, you could be the next big star of one of the world’s most controversial sports – competitive eating.

(Don’t get into practicing unless you are also a fitness freak, as the world record holder can eat 68 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. At 290 calories that’s as much as a normal person on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet would need for ten days.)

From pie-cramming competitions at county fairs to the spectacle that is the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, author Jason Fagone spends a year traveling, eating and even competing with the biggest names in the business trying to find just out just what compels a ‘gurgitator’ to force down forty-six dozen oysters in ten minutes – and what makes us want to watch them. Filled with drama, conflict and larger-than-life stars, this book is well worth taking the time to digest even if thinking about the food they are cramming makes that difficult.

(I should probably point out that typing “Insatiable” into Boomerang’s search box brings up over 20 results, only one of which involve food instead of semi-naked people cavorting. Be warned.)

2. Lucha Loco by Malcolm Venville

From the eating highs of America we go south to Mexico where the Lucha Libre – “free wrestling” – is a cultural phenomenon, renowned not only for the wrestler’s moves for the masks they wear, and the mythology that has grown around the masked wrestlers or luchadors.

I was lucky enough to make it to the Lucha Libre while in Mexico and had the time of my life – it’s part sport, part soap opera, and all drama. In modern lucha libre, masks are designed to create a persona for the luchador to takes on during a performance. Putting your mask – or your hair – on the line against a foe is the ultimate challenge in this sport. During their careers, masked luchadores will often be seen in public wearing their masks interacting with the public and press normally, and concealing their true identities. One of Lucha Libre’s most famous figures, El Santo continued wearing his mask after retirement and was buried wearing his silver mask. Now there’s a commitment to your sport.

3.  Wacky Nation by James Bamber and Sally Raynes

Has your Dad ever longed to chase a wheel of cheese down a hill or take his Stone Skimming to a competitive level? Wacky Nation is a potential player’s guide to the UK’s most absurd sports, with a plenty of advice for armchair enthusiasts thinking of getting into the game, whether it’s as the trainer of a champion racing snail or winning the World Nettle Eating Championships.

Sadly I can’t offer much advice for those athletes who want to stay in Australia. I haven’t come across a book that deal exclusively with Australian strange sports, although I have heard of a few (the Australia Day Cockroach Racing in Brisbane is surely worth a mention) so if you know of one, please do let me know – drop me a comment, or tweet @boomerangbooks to let us know we have missed one.

This is just a small selection of the sport-related strangeness out there – if you looking for a general global summation try the original Weird Sports of the World, from caber-tossing to wife-carrying (best not to get those two confused), or the whole series of books its popularity spawned on the same theme. There’s plenty out there for a sport-mad Dad with a strange twist to discover.

Just don’t blame me if he decides to take up hot-dog eating.

Getting over a fear of flying with QF32

I love to fly, but I very rarely enjoy reading books about flying, especially while in an airplane: all too often they involve words like “plummet”, “screaming”, “disaster” and “splatted”. Nothing like reading a sentence that combines all four of those and then spending a few tense hours at several thousand feet staring out the windows trying to work out if the wing normally wobbles that much.

Books that should never appear in airport booksellers (that I have actually see stocked) include all the various “air crash investigations” series, any of the 4 books I have seen with “air disaster” in their title and – of course –  Alive, the infamous story of 16 blokes crashed in the Andes eating the unthinkable, which will not only put you off flying but right off your inflight meal.

Ideally in-flight books should be diverting enough to distract you from the plane, not remind you you’re on one. So you would imagine that reading Qf32: The Captain’s Extraordinary Account Of How One Of The World’s Worst Air Disasters Was Averted by Qantas pilot Richard De Crespigny would be right out.

But as near-disaster stories go, it’s a very reassuring one, and this is down in no small measure to the calm and clear explanations of what does happen onboard when things start to go badly wrong. And Richard should know. He was the captain on what should have been a routine long-haul flight from Singapore to Sydney, piloting one of Qantas’s new A380 aircraft. It should have been a routine flight but shortly after leaving Changi Airport, an explosion shattered engine 2, sending hundreds of pieces of shrapnel ripping through the wing and fuselage, and creating chaos as vital flight systems and back-ups were damaged or destroyed.

The flight, with nearly 500 people on board, had the potential to be one of history’s worst aviation disasters. Some advance reports even stated that the plane had crashed but the experienced flight crew, led by De Crespigny, managed to land and safely disembark their passengers after hours of nerve-wracking effort.

The book doesn’t just shed light on what happened on that flight. It follows Richard’s life and career, from his time with the RAAF through over 20 years and Qantas, and explains the skills and training of a top-level airline pilot. Richard clearly loves to fly and is confident in the air, but he’s sympathetic to those of us who aren’t, as he explained in an interview with Escape’s Doc Holiday.

I have and will always be sympathetic to nervous flyers; this is why the QF32 crew behaved the way they did, informing and debriefing the passengers. I can’t emphasise enough that the crew have extraordinary skills and are trained to look after you in the case of an emergency. Whatever the emergency, the pilots and crew in the good airlines have been trained for every contingency and you are in the best hands! They know what they are doing. They have been trained, they are knowledgeable and they will not panic.

And is he confident that training is backed up by safe planes? When should we be staring out the window at the wobbling wing and wondering.

Aboard the top world airlines: never. You are safer in the aircraft than you were driving to the airport.

So, thanks to this book, from here on in I’ll feel a little calmer in the air. Instead, I’ll be worrying while in the car Anyone got any recommended reading for when I’m not driving?

Dancing Up a Storm

Hello again! This is my first blog post in a bit as I have been busier than George R R Martin avoiding questions on when he’s finally going to finish the Game of Thrones series.

I spent most of last month working on a conference, getting married in Fiji and taking a short honeymoon on a boat in the Whitsundays, all of which were blessed with stunning weather and incredibly slow internet connections. (You try getting your email while anchored off the glorious blue and white of Whitehaven Beach. Or caring about getting your email when you have urgent swimming, snorkeling and reading in the boom-net to do.)

In the interest of my (and my new husband’s) sanity, I decided to take a month off blogging about books. But taking a month off blogging is not the same thing as taking a month off reading. I was well prepared and equipped. I loaded my e-reader with endless awesome texts, packed a few hard-copies into my luggage in case of power failure, and then came back from vacation to discover that Australia Post had been holding on to enough posted book parcels to necessitate thinking about purchasing (yet another) bookshelf. My to-read list doth runneth over, frankly, as does my “books I must post about” list.

Also running over is my poor credit card bill which, in addition to the cost of the honeymoon and reading material for it, has also just soaked up a bill for a book launch. And not just any booklaunch. Melbourne’s tallest man*, Jay Kristoff, will release his debut novel, Stormdancer, on Friday September 7. It’s a Japanese-inspired steampunk fantasy (Jay once described as “‘Free Willy’ meets ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ in Steampunk feudal Japan with a Rage Against the Machine soundtrack), the first installment of what will be the Lotus War trilogy and, as I was one of the lucky advance reviewers I can tell you, it’s very very good.

It’s got a glowing review from Patrick Rothfuss (who wrote the excellent Wise Man’s Fear). It’s garnered a hard-to-earn Kirkus Star and got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, and was also their PW Pick of the Week. Most importantly, it kept me sane and happily entertained over a period of three days before getting married when fretting over details and guest-mishaps was causing most of my brain run “what-if” disaster videos on a loop and for that, I can not recommend it enough.**

According to Jay, everyone is welcome to come on the launch night but don’t expect much standing on ceremony.

“I’ll mumble my way through a half-assed speech and then will be totally happy to sign your books. We’ll have books on sale there on the night, but if you want to bring copies bought elsewhere, all good too.”

If you’d like to get your mitts on a signed copy, Jay will be signing books on Friday September 7th from 7.00 – 8.30pm at the Dymocks City Store on 234 Collins St in Melbourne. Everyone is welcome but I have it on good authority that people who feel like coming to the Afterparty following the launch will be particularly welcomed and even more so if they buy Jay a drink.


* I may be making this up.

**Also he’s absurdly tall and if you don’t buy his book he will come in the night, drink any decent bourbon you have in your drinks cabinet and then move all your most-used items to the top kitchen shelf where you can’t get at them.***

*** I am almost definitely making this up.


Getting the hearse before the horse – Clive James on premature obituaries

I’ve always enjoyed the acerbic wit of Australian-born critic and writer Clive James, so it saddened me when I recently read that he is soon likely to write no more. Various newspapers reported on James’s struggle with leukemia, quoting directly from an interview he recently gave BBC Radio 4 program Meeting Myself Coming Back, and it seemed the outlook for him is very grim.

“I’m getting near the end. I don’t want to cast a gloom, an air of doom, over the program but I’m a man who is approaching his terminus… I’ve been really ill for two and a half years. I was diagnosed with leukaemia, then I had COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], which is a fancy name for emphysema, and my immune system packed up. And that’s just the start. I almost died four times.” Particulary poignant were his wistful comments that he might never see Australia again. “I’ve been so sick since January 2010, especially my lung disease, that I’m not allowed to fly,” he said. “You couldn’t get enough oxygen aboard a plane for me to get me to Sydney.”

Clive has been a prolific writer with a penchant for stressing humour over accuracy; his first almost-autobiogrpahy  Unreliable Memoirs was published in 1979 and followed by four other volumes of autobiography, several books of poetry, four novels and literary criticism and essays spanning over the last 40 years. It was a surprise to me to discover that his pen might be so soon and abrubtly halted and apparently it was a bit of a surprise for Clive too, who woke up to discover that rumours of his impending demise were being greatly exagerated.

Apparently the Daily Mirror cherry-picked out quotes from an interview he did with the BBC. And that Daily Mirror story, picked up around the world by news outlets, soon had readers convinced that Clive James was at death’s door.

Not so, says the man himself. “On Thursday morning the Daily Mirror carried an interview with me. It was harrowing. You would have thought that I had only a few hours to live. The strange thing, though, was that I never gave the interview to the Mirror. The newspaper had got hold of a transcript of the BBC radio show Meeting Myself Coming Back and selected a few dozen quotes so that I seemed to be practically expiring in the arms of the journalist assigned to register my dying breath.”

The Daily Mirror journalist took his verbal comments out of context and deliberately played up the worst. “In the radio interview I say that I am getting near the end of my life. Well, at my age everybody is. But if you put the statement as baldly as he did, it sounds as if I am passing out in the journalist’s lap. To be the kind of newspaper writer who doctors fiction until it sounds like fact is to work a confidence trick. I admit that everything attributed to me by the Mirror journalist I did actually say in my BBC show, but he shifted the context by leaving out when and in what circumstances I said it. He thus turned one kind of fact into another kind of fact, which means he turned it into a fiction.”

Clive isn’t the first writer to have his obituary penned obscenely early.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge was pronounced hanged while still very much alive. Ernest Hemingway had a scrapbook of his obituries, when after a plane crash he was erroneously reported dead. Rudyard Kipling‘s death was incorrectly announced in a magazine, to which he wrote, “I’ve just read that I am dead. Don’t forget to delete me from your list of subscribers.”

Most famous of all is Mark Twain who was placed dead or close to it on two occasions, who gave us the sentence that all other would respond with from there on it – “The report of my death was an exaggeration” (which is usually misquoted as “The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”). Let’s hope that in James’s case the reports are as ridiculously early and there’s plenty of life left in him – and his pen.

Mid-month round-up – the I want to write like you edition

If you are the type who likes to put a pen to paper – or fingers to the keyboard, as the case may be – you’ll often find that your first thought after finishing a really excellent book is wishing you had written in. My writer’s envy goes off pretty often; set off by writers such as Bill BrysonChuck Palahniuk or Marion Keyes, or by  individual books such as deliciously filling and wonderfully waspy Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, or by This Is a Call by Paul Brannigan, his biography of Dave Grohl (partly as I do like his writing style, but mainly as he got to hang out with Dave in all sort of awesome rock and roll venues, and I am a huge screaming fangirl for the Foos.)

This month Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman rocketed straight to the top of the that list. Caitlin writes about many subjects so very dear to my own heart – feminism, religion, pop music and pornography – with a spectacular lack of reserve and respect for her own dignity, and brilliantly blasphemous sense of humour. It’s fun, it’s funny and it is bang on at making points I usually struggle horribly to explain at about 1am and after my eight beer.

“Because the purpose of feminism isn’t to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right “types” of women is what’s screwed feminism for so long – this belief that “we” wouldn’t accept slaggy birds, dim birds, birds that bitch, birds that hire cleaners, birds that stay at home with their kids, birds that have pink Mini Metros with “Powered by Fairy Dust” bumper stickers, birds in burkas, or birds that like to pretend, in their heads, that they’re married to Zach Braff from Scrubs, and that you sometimes have sex in an ambulance while the rest of the cast watch and, latterly, clap. You know what? Feminism will have all of you.

What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be.

Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are.”

In short, if it weren’t for the fact that we’re both in committed relationships (with me getting married next month), I would be completely in love with her. As it is, I just want to be able to write her next book.

Also on reading list was Ben Elton’s Meltdown. Elton was a writer I wanted to be like in the early 90’s, when he released books like Stark and Gridlock; funny, sarcastic and challenging all wrapped up in an excellent read. As the years wore on though, I found he was losing me, culminating with the preachy and over-laboured Blind Faith (which might have been a good short story, but certainly didn’t need a whole book to thrash its point out). So it was with a little trepidation I picked up Meltdown and found to my delight it was an excellent return to form.

Published in 2010 against the backdrop of a world still reeling from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC, not KFC as I keep thinking) it follows the changing fortunes of a group of friends brought high in the good times and dashed against the rocks of their own hubris. Anyone can handle success, Elton points out, it’s how you handle failure that really matters. Meltdown is funny, touching and relevant, political and personal, and a return to the books that I wanted to see Elton writing – and to the books that started me writing myself back in my late teens.

And lastly on my list of reads this month is Yann Martel’s Booker-prize-winning Life of Pi. I wasn’t reading  this one so I could finally shut up all those people who react like I have just said I hate puppies to when I tell them I haven’t read it (tempting and all as that is) but instead as this month’s Book Club book. What did I think of it? Well, this blog post took a little longer than planned (I got lost once again giggling at How to Be a Woman) so I’ll have to tell them first, as I think I can hear the first of them – clinking wine bottles in hand – at the door.

Positively pessimistic – and happy about it

It has not been a good month for blogging. I hoped that things would settle down after the house move but it was not to be. I have since developed what can only be described as an Epic DeathCold, complete with hacking cough and tonsils of flame, sapping my energy for anything other than sitting under a duvet and groaning sadly.

I’m not feeling particularly good about this, which according to many people is a bad thing. Optimism, they tell us, is immensely powerful; a panacea for work success, financial success, and your health. Optimists get sick less often than pessimists and heal faster, apparently. If I were a little more positive, popular wisdom suggests, my immune system would be more robust, my love life and career better, and I’d look like an attractive member of society rather than a shambling coughing zombie curled over the keyboard with finger-less gloves on.

Well, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, popular wisdom has very little idea what it is talking about. She says that baseless optimism is not, in fact, a cure for what ails us but be a source of dangerous inaction on issues that require thought and action and that, most tellingly, all those studies that people say are out there proving the benefits of optimism for health simply do not exist or are deeply flawed.

Her book, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, is a history and critique of the multi-billion-dollar positive-thinking industry – of the endless self-help books and DVDs, grinning life coaches and firey motivational speakers big on enthusiasm and small on content. As she explains, people who say that optimism alone is excellent for your health are sadly lacking in the facts, and in Smile or Die she lays out both these facts and the reason why adherents of pointless positivity might not want you to know these facts.

I was introduced to Ehrenreich by her powerful essay, Welcome to Cancerland, on her own experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer. She believes that the over-overwhelming (and always pink and fluffy) optimism industry that has grown up around  breast cancer doesn’t allow those diagnosed with it the most basic human reaction – the freedom to feel anger and upset that this is happening to them. After all, she argues, if we are encouraged to believe that positive thinking can cure disease, isn’t it the sufferer’s own fault they are still ill? Does our societal insistence on positive thinking place yet another burder on those who are diagnosed rather than offering relief?

In Smile or Die she starts with her experiences with breast cancer and then explores the rise and rise of positive thinking in America, from its dawn as a reaction to Calvinism in the nineteenth cenury, though its evolution as part of the New Thought Movement, and on to its prevalence in modern life, where books such as The Secret sell millions of copies with their promises that positive thinking can eradicate disease, overcoming obstacles, and help readers to accumulate massive amounts wealth and material success.

It’s a fascination read and often a very funny one. Ehrenreich’s writing is engaging and amusing as she ranges across the history of positive thinking and its place in contemporary religion, business and the economy. She doesn’t advocate a return to hand-wringing and crying in the corner but to living life in full possession of the facts, and making decisions based on those facts. If you want to become rich, for example, perhaps the first place you could save money is by not buying books and conference tickets that promise riches in return for nothing other than thinking about it. If you have had your fill of self-help books promising the world but delivering little more than time-consuming daily affirmations and excessive exclamation marks, Smile or Die might be – literally – the last self help book you ever need.




The Five Stages of Internet Loss

This delay in posting this blog is thanks to a sudden and complete lack of internet. We moved house last week and – while our new internet provider promised us we would be back online in moments – as always reconnecting to the net has taken a couple of weeks, countless emails, and approximately 4 hours on the phone waiting to speak to what is apparently their lone consultant, while their hold system regales us with music that can only be described as “low-budget 70’s porn movie soundtrack”.

As anyone who has gone checking their email before breakfast to total modem silence can tell you, it’s hard to adjust to a life offline. Little things such as paying bills, checking your bank balance and looking up information (“hey, when is George R. R. Martin‘s next book due out anyway?”*) go from instant to impossible.

You move through the 5 stages of internet loss**.

Stage one – denial and isolation. This can’t be happening. You need to send email. You have to log-in to work. You have to log-in to Twitter and Facebook. You have to check the news; the Zombie Apocalypse could have started and you wouldn’t know. Signs of stage one include relentlessly pressing F5 on your browser and nagging your partner by repeatedly asking if the modem is definitely plugged in.

Stage two – anger. How the hell could this happen? Don’t they know there are bills you need to pay, and whole pages of Lolcats being updated daily? How can they do this to you? You have no idea what’s happening in the world – what do they expect you to do, buy a news-paper? What if there are zombies outside? You just don’t know – you’d be eaten in moments! Do they WANT you to be eaten? That’s just brilliant customer service right there, isn’t it.

At Stage 2, you spend large amounts of time on hold composing vindictive customer complaints in your head, swearing loudly at bad jazz music and shouting, before being REALLY POLITE to the consultant as they are the only person who can help you.

Stage three – bargaining. Alright, this is bad situation, but maybe you can make it better. You could see if there is a wireless hotspot… but you can’t the web to find out. How about asking the zombies if they have internet in their old homes? Maybe you could go to another internet provider? Hey, if you just check how much their data packages cost – oh wait, you can’t as you have no net connection. ARGH.

Stage four – depression. Screw it. You have burned through all your mobile phone’s minutes while on hold and all its data to stay on top of urgent emails, and you can’t use Skype to call them as you have no internet. You can’t get online. You can’t do anything. You might as well just sit here freezing in the dark and let the zombies eat you. Yes, the heating and lights are working fine. But that’s NOT THE POINT.

Stage five – acceptance. Well, the internet isn’t available right now. Hmph. Perhaps you could do something else instead? Like read that book you’ve been meaning to get to? Or finally tidy the bookshelves a bit? Maybe this doesn’t have to be so terrible after all.

Look, I’m not advocating a life free of internet. As I am hard of hearing and can’t use phones, if you took away my internet I’d never get any bills paid or order anything online, for a start, so I’d be sitting in an ice-cold darkened room with no books to read at all.

But with a little less time spent online, I have managed to get so much more done; I’ve actually read some of my massive back-log of books, for a start. While I’m delighted to finally have my connection back, in our new place we have moved the computers to a slightly less central location so we won’t be as tempted to while away all our hours on them. And we have moved our book collection to a room with a massive comfy bean bag and futon which is technically the spare bedroom but will, in fact, be our library. Which has to be a win whether the internet is working – and the zombie apocalypse has arrived – or not.


* According to Martin, a realistic estimation for finishing The Winds of Winter could be three years, but ultimately the book “will be done when it’s done“.

** This post is thanks to the Kübler-Ross model of the 5 stages of grief, which I was delighted to discover I could remember correctly from my first year in college. So at least one of the books I read then actually managed to stay in my brain.


The second rule of book club…

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

“…um. No, not yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Country Cookbook: Seasonal Jottings and Recipes

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

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

Good Health in the 21st Century

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

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

Cramming for book club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Many Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Darkest Corner of the Crime Writer’s mind (part 2 of 2)

Yesterday we published part 1 of our interview with Elizabeth Haynes, whose debut novel Into the Darkest Corner deals with domestic abuse, obsession and OCD, and she discussed writing crime and suspense fiction. Today we have her hard-won advice for other writers starting out.

She completed the first draft of Into the Darkest Corner, her first published book, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2008. Did she set out to write a publishable book from the start? “No, definitely not! When I first heard about NaNoWriMo in October 2005 I was very excited by the challenge. I’ve always written but never anything full-length, what this did was to give me permission to write and not stop, not to worry about the quality or fuss over the plot.”

“NaNoWriMo has to be fun, otherwise it’s not really worth doing. If you set out to write something for publication I don’t think it would be nearly so much fun to participate. Even now, with a publishing deal for future books, I have to write in November as though it’s just going to be for me to read, otherwise I think it would be overwhelmingly scary.”

“I’d won three years of NaNoWriMo before I did actually manage to finish a story, though, the others were all still mid-plot by December, and even after five months of trying to edit it myself it took my cousin to say to me ‘why don’t you send it off?’ It hadn’t been something I’d considered as a possibility until then.”

Writing may have a reputation for being a one-person job, but Elizabeth find that other people’s views and opinions are vital to help her get the best from her plot. “It always helps me to discuss it as it evolves an awful lot through the writing and editing process. Talking about it sparks new ideas and helps me see what the underlying themes are, and which bits work – or don’t. I think this is because I always write at speed, without anything other than a germ of an idea to start me off.”

“Writing is a very solitary business but it’s only when you share your work with other people that you can start to make it better. I would advise joining a local writing group – or starting one – and listen to feedback when you can. Try writing in different genres to stretch your literary muscles. And write-ins (where you meet other writers and, basically, write) can really help to get your creative juice going. Being answerable to other people helps you maintain focus!”

Elizabeth loves to write and meet writers, but it’s not just enthusiasm that makes a great book; she recommends getting the experts in for a dispassionate read and further development. Even if that’s nowhere near as much fun as the writing itself!  “I think my biggest hurdle is always the editing process. I can write a good-ish story, develop some cracking characters and finish it with no real concept of where it’s all gone wrong. I’m lucky to have a brilliant editor who seems to have an almost magical insight into how to make things better.”

It’s not just editors she asked for an opinion; her second novel, Revenge of The Tide, is about a woman is an office worker by day and pole dancer in an upmarket club by night. While Elizabeth has the background in office work, pole-dancing wasn’t in her repertoire. “I did actually go along to pole fitness classes. This was so far out of my comfort zone it was ridiculous – I’m 40, a mother of one and definitely not built for fitness classes of any sort – but the instructors and the other girls in the class were brilliant and welcoming. I did the warm ups with them (which just about killed me) and then watched them do the rest of the class, sitting on the floor of the studio with my notebook, drawing stick figure representations of the moves.”

“Having watched pole dancing on television (and inspired by a pole dancer who was on Britain’s Got Talent) you would think I had all the information I needed – but I’m so glad I did the class as I learned a lot of things you wouldn’t necessarily realise – such as the friction burns you get on the inside of your thighs, and the fact that the poles in clubs are thicker than the ones used for pole fitness. If I experience things like this, I can write about them. I did also have a long phone conversation with a former dancer, who let me in on the secrets of what it was like in the world of gentlemen’s clubs.”

It wasn’t her first time trying to get into the head of a character with different views; In The Darkest Corner’s main character, Catherine, suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) brought on by trauma. Elizabeth not only had to understand OCD but write about it in a way that made a reader understand it too.

“I’ve had very positive feedback on it, which I’m relieved about because I have no direct experience of OCD, other than that I’m on that continuum – as I think we all are – which starts with little habits and supersitions, like counting your steps or avoiding ‘unlucky’ numbers. I had a lot of help from a dear friend who is a consultant psychologist. She recommended me some books, which included not only treatment protocols but case studies of people who have OCD. I think obsession is something we can all relate to because everyone experiences milder versions at some point; compulsion is something else, the fact of having no option but to behave in a certain way, even as an intelligent, outwardly ‘normal’ adult. That was very difficult to write and I’m still not sure it comes across.”

“I think sometimes characters come to me quite easily, other times they take a bit of coaxing before I know them well enough to tell their story. I have two characters in my latest book who are either socially inept or socially phobic, and it’s been difficult to draw them out enough to get a clear sense of who they are. But knowing their world, knowing what it’s like for them to live, definitely makes things easier.”

Her characters aren’t always 100% fictional. “I always use at least one real person’s name in each book (with their permission!). With Into the Darkest Corner, it was Naomi, my friend and fellow police analyst. My third book contains a character named after a friend on Twitter, who insisted on being used thus! Revenge of the Tide has a character called Robby Nicks who is actually my next door neighbour!”

Her readers – and her neighbours – will be relieved to hear that while she occasionally draws on real-life for ideas, that’s not the case with her portrayal of Robby. “He isn’t a baddie in real life!”

Into the Darkest Corner of the Crime Writer’s mind (part 1 of 2)

Elizabeth Haynes’s suspense-filled debut novel, Into the Darkest Corner, was penned as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2008. Just three years on, it sits on Amazon’s 10 Best UK Books of 2011 (alongside George RR Martin’s Dance with Dragons and Steve Jobs’s biography) and her second book, Revenge of the Tide, has just hit the shelves. In this, the first of a two-part blog, we ask her about writing about and working with crime, and where she got the inspiration for her first published novel.

Elizabeth lives in Kent, in the South East of England, but has family ties in Australia – her grandparents came to Pearcedale, Victoria, in the early 1950s and lived in a tent there while they built their home themselves. “My grandmother was a keen and talented writer who might have had a completely different life if she’d not had six kids and a husband to look after. She wrote a long story about their experiences called ‘Now We Are Pioneers’, which was published in Australian Woman and Home magazine – so maybe I get my enthusiasm for writing from her.”

When she’s not writing about crime, she works with it; Elizabeth is a police intelligence analyst. “Analysts do a variety of specialist jobs for the police, but at the core of all of them is examining crime data to look for patterns which can then be used to direct police resources to where they will be most effective. Analysts who work for neighbourhood police might look at burglary data in terms of method, time of day, proximity to transport, types of housing targeted etc to try and then predict where the offenders might strike next. Some analysts specialise in major crime, things like murders, kidnappings and rape, providing timelines to show the key events, and phone analysis to look for evidence. We also look at criminal gangs and analyse the relationships between the members – it’s quite a varied set of jobs and never gets boring.”

“It’s the ideal job for a writer, really, because one of the fundamental skills of the analyst is the ability to ask ‘what if?’ to every situation, to look beyond the obvious and to make predictions. It requires discipline and creativity too.”

It sounds interesting, if a little terrifying at times. So, does she get many ideas for stories from her job? “I don’t get many plot ideas from the job because unfortunately real life crime tends to be either very dull or meaningless, with little or no motive, or else it is violent and gruesome and sadistic – and then it becomes morally difficult to fictionalise something that is happening to real people.”

Her first novel, Into the Darkest Corner, which deals with domestic abuse, obsession and OCD, draws on her work generally as opposed to being inspired by one particular story. “When I wrote it, I had been reading a lot of domestic abuse crime reports and although nothing I read directly inspired the story, what I did get from it was the sense that this happens to ordinary people from every social background – and that the reasons why people stay in abusive relationships can be extremely complex. I found it very difficult to write the most harrowing scenes but having built up to it through the course of the book I felt it would be an injustice to turn away at that point. Domestic abuse does happen every day to real people, and if I’m to write about it for what is essentially reading entertainment, I wanted to make sure that people come away with some degree of understanding about how bad it can be.”

“What I do get from the job, however, is an idea of how an investigation might work, where the limitations are and what the procedure would be. The police community has been incredibly supportive of me and I’m very lucky to have a huge network of people who are specialists in one field or another – and always willing to offer expert help for research!”

Access to experts is always a help when researching fiction, but how do co-workers and friends react when they find out that Elizabeth writes crime and suspense thrillers? “Everyone I’ve spoken to about being a writer has been without exception very positive, interested and encouraging. What’s interesting is how people who know me well, friends and family, have reacted after reading my books. Whilst this has also been hugely supportive, I think people are surprised by the violence, the swearing and the sex. I think I come across as quite mild-mannered and they wonder where it all comes from!”

You can visit Elizabeth’s website here. Due to her generosity in taking the time to answer all our questions on suspense writing, this will be a two part blog. In tomorrow’s blog, we ask her hard-won advice for other writers starting out.

Mid-month round-up – the good behaviour edition

This month my reading has been all about training dogs or children. Training one requires patience and kindness to build confidence, the other dominance, stern punishment and endless rote learning administered by a stern task-master. And probably not for the ones you think either.

The stern approach, of course, is for the kids. Earlier in the month I picked up Amy Chua’s controversial Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, a memoir of one family’s experience of using a disciplinarian style of parenting that Chua calls “Chinese parenting”.  It offers a very different perspective on child-rearing and building confidence.

“Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.” By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.”

The book-jacket quotes say Battle Hymn is humourous and sparky, and it is, but it wasn’t the kind quotes on the cover that propelled this book to New York Times best-sellers top ten but other, less favourable quotes. Readers and reviewers called her a an inhuman mother and a menace to society, and her nickname quickly become Mama Grisly. I read this book occasionally gaping in horror at her methods and, frankly, if she had been my mother I suspect I would have run away from home. But with one of her own children taking to the papers (and the book’s afterword) to thank her mother for a life lived at 110%, her training methods does seem to have some advocates.

Battle Hymn’s method of training children is probably less gentle than the two other books I read this month. Dogswise and The Only Dog Training Book You’ll Ever Need both advocate gentleness, kindness, consistency and the importance of rewarding good behaviour rather than constantly shouting “Bad dog!”, which I suspect some dogs eventually come to believe is their name. (Ours certainly did, along with “Stop that!” and “Don’t eat the postman!”)

Why dog-training? Well, I’m hoping to get a dog in the next few months and I’m not sure my vague memories of my twelve-year old self teaching our smart but neurotic border collie how to high-five will be up to scratch when confronted with a new puppy. Lacking the severe nature needed to raise anything with Chua’s method, I’ve been reading up on clicker training, dog psychology and – I admit it – how to train a dog to get your book from the bed-side locker.  Don’t judge me. It’s a useful skill.

Not actually a training book, but coming under the category of interesting application of real-life skills, comes this story from England – forensic detectives rescue writer’s manuscript. Trish Vickers lost her eyesight to diabetes seven years ago but continues to write long-hand in pen. Her son Simon comes over once a week to read her work back to her and help her revise but, during one visit last year, Simon found 26 blank pages instead of the latest installment – her pen had run out.

Rescue came from an unlikely quarter – the Dorset police fingerprints’ section. They took the manuscript and, working in their spare time, used various methods to track the indentations made by the pen and thus reveal the text. Apart from one line, they managed to recover the lot. And they didn’t just rescue her writing, the police also gave her book a thumbs-up, as Trish was delighted to report. “The police also said they enjoyed the bit they read and can’t wait for the rest.” She has promised them that from here on in she will double-check her pens are full of ink so they can definitely enjoy the story when it’s done.

Which shows that whether you are training a child, a dog, or even an aspiring writer, a few kind words can go a long way towards getting things done.

ABIA Awards highlight Australian non-fiction reads

The finalists for this year’s Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) have been announced and it’s looking good for Australian non-fiction reader and writers this year.  The ABIA awards are voted on by booksellers and publishers, rather than literary panels, so rather than focusing on high-brow fiction these awards instead highlight what publishers and bookshops find that readers can’t get enough of.

Real life reads have no shortage of sales but they often get left out in the cold when it’s time to give out writing prizes and awards. Not so with the ABIA awards; not only are two categories  out of seven exclusively for non-fiction reads (biography of the year and a general non-fiction category) but plenty of non-fiction has made its way into lists where you would normally expect fiction to reign supreme.

The Book of the Year for Older Children (age 8 to 14 years), has one such hat-tip to real-life reading in its listing of Lonely Planet’s lively Travel Book, Not For Parents Edition. The book of the year category also has a non-fiction offering in William McInnes & Sarah Watt’s memoir, Worse Things Happen At Sea, a celebration (and occasional commiseration) of Australian day to day family life, which is listed alongside such fiction feasts as Caleb’s Crossing and Foal’s Bread.

Non-fiction is also well-represented in the newcomer of the year (debut writer) category, with 3 of 5 of the new writers penning memoirs. Two of those books,  A Private Life by Michael Kirby and Life Without Limits (written by Australian-born Nick Vujicic who hasn’t left being born without arms or legs get in his way becoming an international inspirational speaker) have also nominated for biography of the year. How-to writing also gets a shout-out in the form of a nomination for container-gardening guide The Little Veggie Patch Co, which I suspect will shortly be responsible for yet another pile of dead pot-plants on my balcony.

The nominess for Biography of the Year will also delight fans of sports-writing with 2 of the 5 finalists, Darren Lockyer by Darren Lockyer & Dan Koch and The Long Road to Paris by Cadel Evans, jostling for first place. Hazel Rowley’s fascinating Franklin and Eleanor rounds out the list of biographies to five.

The finalists for General Nonfiction book of the year are:

There’s plenty there to keep even the most avid booklover reading but if you only have the time to devote to the pick of the crop, the various winners will be announced on May 18 as part of the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Holiday reading rituals

The Easter weekend is drawing to a close and whatever way you like to celebrate your holidays I hope you had a good one; full of chocolate eggs and cute bunnies (if that’s your thing) and plenty of time to read brilliant books (because that’s everyone’s thing, right?).

I was lucky enough to spend my long weekend in various locations in sunny Queensland, including Townsville and Magnetic Island. It might be autumn but that far north the sun is still packing plenty of  punch, especially for someone who is blessed with the easy-burning Irish complexion. The mornings in coastal Queensland are clear and bright, and the evenings deliciously balmy, but the heat at height of midday makes it too darn hot to do anything other than curl up in a patch of shade and settle down for a few hours of reading.

Which is my excuse for loving the ritual of reading every afternoon while on holiday and I am sticking to it.

By filling our mornings with swimming, and our late-afternoons  and evenings with meals and socialising (and, for me, one of the few activities that can’t be improved by reading – a bit of horse-riding) we all had plenty of time to get stuck into our books. With a few hours in the shade to spare each day, I managed to polish off Elizabeth Hayne’s excellent but terrifying psychological thriller Into the Darkest Corner without giving myself the total heebie-jeebies.

I do like to chomp through horror and suspense while away somewhere sunny as opposed to reading while home alone as the bright sunshine tends to ward off the horrors that a well-written thriller can bring on. And if that doesn’t work you can always start reading a different book instead – after all, you’re on holiday! My travelling companions agreed, and we all took plenty of time out to catch up our books over the long weekend.

One of them said that, for her, she finally knows she is on really on holiday when she has had the time to fall asleep while reading a book. Everyone has their own holiday reading rituals; I like to use the time to indulge in a feast of easy-to-read fiction, such as horror and YA but my partner prefers to catch up on serious and science reads he has been too busy to devote some brain-time to over the working week. I have one friend who uses a bit of time off as a opportunity to finally get through everything in their teetering pile of books bought but not yet read and another who likes to re-read their favourites while on holidays.

Whatever the holiday reading ritual, there’s nothing more relaxing than having the time to settle down for an uninterrupted read. Here’s hoping the Easter weekend had a few hours to spare for reading for you, and if it was something you’d like to recommend please leave a note in the comments and let me know. With all the reading I finally got done this weekend, I’m on the look-out for books for the next holiday!

The first rule of book club is…

…bring a bottle of wine, apparently. I’m not sure what the rest of the rules are – this is my first ever book club – but everyone was very clear about the wine.

Despite a lifetime of loving books and reading books and obsessing about books and occasionally fresking people about by thrusting books at them shouting, “Take this! You must read it!” (and then calling them to check if they are), I have never been to a book club. I’m not sure how this has happened; I love talking about books and I love drinking booze, and apparently book clubs exist to combine the two, but somehow I have missed out. So when a mate recently suggested a book-club meet, I was eager to jump in. Many of the book clubs I have seen seem to exclusively deal with fiction so I was chuffed when I spotted a non-fiction book under the possible reads, and even more chuffed when people said the non-fiction one sounded ideal. (It’s nice to know I am not alone in my real-life read loving ways.)

The book we chose is Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which created no small amount of conversation and controversary on its release in 2011. This was at least partially fuelled by a Wall Street Journal publishing an exerpt from the book with the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” which suffered, apparently, from the same problem as the book did – many readers completely missed what Chua claims is irony and self-deprecating humour implicit in the title and believed that Chua was bombastically advocating the superiority of a very strict and ethnically defined approach to parenting.

To be fair, it’s easy to see how this could happen; although Chua describes her book as a self-depreciating memoir, anecdotes such as the “Little White Donkey” one, where Chua describes how she got her  unwilling younger daughter to learn a very difficult piano piece by threatening no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for years, and the donation of her dollhouse to the Salvation Army don’t exactly evoke an image of a self-depreciating but loving Mum so much as  a harpy on the rampage. And Chua seems delighted to horrify her audience by emphasising the excesses of her approach and her opinion of other methods of raising children.

“Some might think that the American sports parent is an analog to the  Chinese mother. This is so wrong. Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1)  schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your  children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you  must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever  disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the  teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be  permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and  (7) that medal must be gold.”

Unlike the over-achieving and occasionally terrifying Chua I have just done the basics for tonight’s book club meet. I have read the Battle Hymn, and a little extra in the form of looking up a few reviews and interviews with Chua (I’m not sure if you get extra points for that, or if you get accused of cheating), and asked the organiser what else is required and will happen on the night. Wine drinking, apparently. Lots of it.

I’ve even ended up looking up the normal conventions for book clubs, finding this set of 6 rules from some bloke called Nick, who has declared himself “Official Book Club Rule Master of the Universe”. (My mental image of a book club Master of the Universe has a librarian in a He-Man style-outfit, somewhat like Conan the Librarian. I am not sure if this is what he was going for.) His rules are helpful in that they specify munchie types (chips are bad as they crunch, apparently, and accidentally picking a terrible book means you have to provide a good dessert or snack to make up for it!), unhelpful in that he suggests cleaning toilets more throughly and slightly worrying in that he is very clear that “what happens in Book Club STAYS in Book Club”.

…which begs the question, what is going to happen in book club? Do I need to be nervous? Should I have brought a mask in case we end up out burgling book-store or will we be reclining on cushions, dicussing literature, while nubile assistants peel grapes for us? Should I be expecting lively conversation or structured questions? Should I bring my beret, in order to look like a more serious reader? I can always dig my old reading glasses out – as they’re slightly the wrong prescription these days they give me a rather ferocious-looking squint and can be some help if I go for the Conan the Librarian look.

And, hey, if that doesn’t work, at least I know my bottle of wine is good.

Mid-month round-up – the Hungry edition

So this month, like most of Australia, I have been spending my spare time glued to the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It’s a page-turner in the traditional sense, and it’s very easy to see why this trilogy was quickly picked up for movie adaptation.

The novels are set a post-apocalyptic America where the Haves live in urban luxury in a futuristic Capital and the have-nots are forced to eak out a survivalist existence ruled by the type of labour their area, or District, is able to supply to the Capital. The first book, the Hunger Games, follows teenager Katniss as she is forced, by a combination of the Capital and her family ties, to compete in a televised battle with 23 other teens which only one person can survive. Which is a bit of shame because Katniss and one of her competitors have some serious chemistry going on… Fast-paced, entertaining and manages to smush a lot of themes (Dystopian future, complete with sci-fi twists! A sharp-shooting survivalist heroine straight from a fantasy novel! Her family! An unjust government! A boy! Another boy! Bullies! Surrogate sisters! Lots of other people she needs to rescue, kill or rescue and kill!) into a coherent narrative that reels you in fast and keep you hooked on what happens next.

The Hunger Games series has been frequently compared to Twilight and I can see why – in a good way. The first book is very much YA, and is set firmly in the experiences of its teenage protagonists. But, unlike Twilight, in the Hunger Games there is actually something at stake and a female protagonist who – although certainly flawed – is willing to fight for her future as opposed to mooning around tripping over inanimate objects and clumsy plot hooks. If the comparisons to Bella are putting you off, give Katniss a chance to change your mind before you write off the Trilogy completely – it’s an entertaining story well-told, and worth devoting some reading time to.

Finished the Hunger Games and starving for some set-in-the-not-too-distant-future-reality-TV-gone-mad reading? You could pick up a copy of Stephen King’s Running Man, which pits his anti-hero against the ultimate live game show in a world where reality TV contestants run from annihilation at the hands of hunters. (Jersey Shore and forthcoming Australian adaption, The Shire – it’s an idea. We’re just saying.) If you are going to go this route I would suggest getting your hands on a copy of The Bachman Books, 3 novellas he wrote as pen-name Richard Bachman, which includes Running Man and another chilling tale of reality entertainment gone mad, The Long Walk.

If you fancy some classic sci-fi on the same theme, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game fits the bill nicely. Released in 1985, it picked up both a Hugo and a Nebula award, and a movie adaptation is currently in production. Set in a future where government agencies breed child geniuses to train them as the ultimate soldiers against alien invaders, these gifted children are the best and greatest hope for humanity – if they just can survive the rigorous military training.

Or if you with a taste for violence that makes the Hunger Games looking restrained could also try Battle Royale, a novel set in an alternative-Japan where a totalitarian government abduct high school students and force them to fight each other. The novel is extremely popular – and controversial – and has been adapted into a film and a manga series to boot. Be warned though; with its exploding collars and constant gore and violence, Battle Royale and its spin-offs are not for the faint-hearted.

But if you were feeling a bit faint-hearted, chances are you weren’t hankering for a second helping of the Hunger Games anyway. I am, and if anyone wants me, I’ll be re-reading a few of my old and rather gorey friends…

It’s not goodbye, it’s au revoir

It’s the end of an icon. The 2010 print set of the Encyclopædia Britannica will be the last one they make. After 244 years,  and with more than 7 million sets sold, the 2010 print edition will be the last set to grace the shelves as the iconic reference books move completely to the digital format.

It’s been in production since 1768 when it was published in Edinburgh as three volumes. It was in print before Captain Cook laid eyes on Australia. When 1900 rolled in, it was on its ninth edition. It has covered the American War of Independence, the Irish 1916 Rising, and World Wars 1 and 2 as contemporary matters. And when sales peaked in 1990 (when it sold 120,000 printed sets) it was just twenty years from being pushed out of print forever.

I am admiring their attitude, it must be said. They printed 12,000 sets in 2010 and, with a third of those $1,299 sets yet to be sold, they are switched from discussing over-stock to shilling these remaining sets as a collector’s item.

The 2010 print set is the final edition and will be available at the Britannica Shop only while stocks last!  Don’t miss this final opportunity to own one of the most important printed reference collections of all time. Supplies are limited, so order yours before it is too late. In short, it’s a magnificent collection to grace your home or office library.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite rainy day activities was to pull down a book from the encyclopedia set in our house and read randomly through the articles. Even when I was a child, these books were impressively old – one of my parents had had them as a kid so when I used them for reference my school projects tended to be slightly uninformed by anything that happened after 1950 or so. Lying on the floor, reading in a fort made of reference books, allowing my eyes to wander the pages and randomly discover new topics, from aavarks to how to use an abacus, from tree-kangaroos to trepanation.

There were several things that irked me about them, it’s true. The darn things were heavy and putting them all back up on the high shelf wasn’t easy. They were missing a volume, so I would never know what lurked between In and J. And, for all those people who insist on going on about the smell of old books being like vanilla (if that is what you think vanilla smells like, I never want to eat your baking), these ones smelled of must, dust and a hint of sharpness that my father informed me with glee was probably mouse pee.

Mouse pee is not, of course, an issue with my new e-reader. And I love my new e-reader. I love that it can download a book in moments, and has already downloaded 80 of them. I love that I can usually get a few pages preview for free before committing to buy books (and that, believe me, has saved me from a few blunders). I am excited about the fact that I can take twenty new books on holiday in a space the size of a small novella, that I could – if I choose to – some day haul the full weight of the Encyclopædia Britannica itself – all 44 million words of it, on 32,640 pages – around in my handbag without risking even the smallest shoulder strain.

And it’s not like the books are going out of business – the Encyclopædia Britannica lives on in digital form and the company is showing turning a profit (85% of its revenue comes from the largely digital education market). They will continue to produce, amoungts other things, the Britannica Book of the Year each year, a reference guide to all the events of the year in question. And, as they point out, this move will actually allow the reference books to increase in size. Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, said in an interview with the Guardian, “Today our digital database is much larger than what we can fit in the print set. And it is up to date because we can revise it within minutes anytime we need to, and we do it many times each day.”

But a part of me – a small part, forever sprawled on the bedroom floor, surrounded by a mountain of books – mourns the passing of those wonderful leather bound books that used to fascinate me so on those rainy afternoons indoors.

Book-rooms, book-cases and cognitive biases

Some of you may have noticed a bit of a book-room and book-accessory theme on this blog in the last few weeks. Well, it turns out that once you start noticing these things they just keep popping up everywhere. My recent browsing has been filled with fascinating little book-related asides such as:

  • America’s smallest library – The Book Booth is based inside an old-style red British telephone booth in New York’s Hudson Valley and is (probably) the smallest self-contained library out there. An initiative of Clinton Community Library, it won’t be locked at night and can fit two people at a time, provided they don’t mind getting cozy.
  • Like the phone booth idea, but not sure about the red colour? There’s always blue. And if you are going to go with a blue phone-booth you might as well go one step further and make that blue booth a homage to the most iconic one out there – the Tardis. Yes, really. Now don’t you wish you had listened in woodwork?
  • Don’t have phone booth or tardis handy? Smaller again is the personal library kit, ideal for those of you are always lending out books but rarely getting them back. The kit comes complete with self-adhesive pockets and checkout cards to place in your books, and a stamp  to date-brand the checkout card, and apparently comes with the power to “shush” people as you please (well, you are practically a librarian now).
  • If you’re not a lender, but you are someone with surplus of reading materials, this set of shelves could be the reminder you need to get reading what you have before you buy more. Italian furniture design firm Saporiti have created this beautiful bookcase system of modular bookcase letters that allows you to spell custom words and phrases (in this case it says, simply enough READ YOUR BOOK CASE).

It is not that I am obsessed (well, much) that once you start noticing these things, you just can’t stop. It’s like when you take an interest in a subject and suddenly references start popping up to it everywhere.  Apparently it’s called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, an overly clunky way of describing how often once you have come across a new and obscure piece of information or idea, you keep noticing afterwards that you have encounters with same subject again. (I’m hoping that I don’t come across the words Baader-Meinhof again in a hurry – sounds like a sheep with a cough.) It hasn’t it on to the list of common cognitive biases yet and I hope that by the time it does they have named it something less difficult to spell and remember.

If you are looking for excellent books on cognitive biases and the funny ways your mind works, you could try reading Mind Hacks by Tom Stafford for an in-depth analysis, or the eminently easy-to-read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, who is to interesting theories on cognition what Jamie Oliver is to cooking. Or pick up the recently released Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman’s exploration of our various decision making processes, our extraordinary capabilities and the faults and cognitive biases we are prone too.

And, with that, I leave you to your regular non-fiction programming with a promise that I will endevour not to fill yet more posts with bookshelves. Well, for a few weeks at least.


Amazing dates

2012 is shaping up to be a year with plenty of notable dates. If you are following the Gregorian Calendar, today is a leap day. This means two things; firstly, that February really doesn’t know when to leave the party gracefully. (“It’s a year that’s divisible by four! Why don’t I just stay over? No, no, I’m fine with no bed and no overnight gear – I can sleep on your sofa. Hey, have you got any pizza? I’m starving.”) And 2) that, according to tradition, this the day of the year when women are allowed to propose to men. I looked into this one and apparently we Irish could be blamed for this particular bit of tradition.

St Brigid was exasperated by the fact that only men were allowed to propose and generally did so with the complete lack of punctuality the Irish are famed for. She struck a deal with St Patrick to allow women to propose to men – and not just the other way around – on this one day every 4 years. (I had never heard this one – my entire familiarity with our most revered female figure was the story of her miraculously expanding cloak which allowed her to finagle a few choice acres out of a stingy king. Would that the same trick worked on real estate agents in Sydney.)

And turning down such a proposal was considered to be very poor form. In some places, a man was expected to pay a penalty, such as a gown or money, if he refused a marriage proposal from a woman on Leap Day. Which sounds like a good way to wangle a new dress or a few books out of  someone if you are very, very confident they will say no.

Anyway, the “once in a few years” event of 2012 that I am most keyed about is not an attempt to extort more books from my poor beleaguered partner. Come November I’m hoping to schlep up to Cairns and catch the total solar eclipse.   I’ve had a yen to see an eclipse since I read an Enid Blyton book where the plucky kids outwitted their tropical captors by knowing when a solar eclipse would occur, and proceeded to pretend to the stunned locals that they had caused it and wouldn’t reverse the spell unless they were given lashings and lashings of ginger beer. I have wanted to see an eclipse for as long as Timmy the dog has wanted to bite prissy Julian firmly on the arse and tell Anne to stop cleaning his bowl and put some damned food in it. Not even Stephenie Meyer’s using the word as a title will put me off.

If you can’t make the solar eclipse, you can always comfort yourself with the transit of Venus in June (and Australian astonomer Nick Lomb‘s excellent book about it). Or you could make the most of the end of this amazing date and go pick yourself up something nice – today is Boomerang Books’ Discount Day!

Whatever you do this year to mark amazing occasions, you are bound to do better than Guillaume Le Gentil, whose suffering in the name of astronomy and science was so hilariously summed up in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Le Gentil set off from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from India, but various setback left him still at sea on the day of the transit-just about the worst place to be, since steady measurements are impossible on a pitching ship.

Undaunted, Le Gentil continued on to India to await the next transit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his instruments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4th, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but just as Venus began its pass, a cloud slid in front of the sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: 3 hours, 14 minutes, 7 seconds.

Stoically, Le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route, he contracted dysentery and was laid up for almost a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives had had him declared dead in his absence and had enthusiastically plundered his estate.

A Feast of Books

Last week I blogged about my desire find a house with a library (preferably one behind a hidden door), where I could pander to my love of reading and store my ever-expanding collection of books.

I’ll cheerfully admit that my reach definitely exceeds my grasp on this one. House with libraries tend to come with wings and servants and other items that I can’t really afford, no matter how much I want them. I have lavishly-illustrated coffee-table book tastes on a mass-market paperback budget, sadly, so I need to look at other options for indulging booklovers’ desires.

Instead of insisting on a full library, you could always just get really creative with where I put my bookshelves or invest in some bookshelves that double as decoration, as some places have done.

Or you could pick up a spectacular piece of book art, such as Brian Dettmer‘s intricate and amazing creations, made from out-of date encyclopedias, medical journals, illustration books and dictionaries. He uses knives, tweezers and surgical tools to cut, carve and shape these old books into three-dimensional works of art. Nothing inside is relocated or implanted as he manipulates the books to forms sculptures that reveal and revel in the books’ contents and their breath-taking complexity of illustration. His work isn’t cheap but if you did find between $3,800 to $32,000USD down the back of the sofa, you could be the proud owner of one of these pieces.

If you want to go the whole hog*, but don’t want to spend a king’s ransom**, you could always indulge your love of books with a culinary adventure, such as Gastro Park’s Game Of Thrones’ feast. Inspired by the TV adaptation of George R R Martin’s infamously bloody series, this fantasy-fueled banquet will set you back a pricey but affordable $100.

Much like the books, the meal is not for those scared of a bit of gore. The feast opens with bloody strips of raw venison, pinned by arrows and garnished with eyeballs and dirt. That grisly appetizer is followed by charred raven’s feet in broth, then a huge portion of crispy suckling pig (complete with a large knife for back-stabbing), and then the dessert; a glistening dragon’s egg, served on a bed of snow and sand and topped with a generous pouring of pure liquid gold.

It’s a feast fit for a king (or, in the case of the liquid gold, for someone who believes they are one). And considerably more delicious than it sounds; the eyeballs in dirt are liquid mozzarella served on tapenade, for example, and the raven’s feet are piquillo peppers in a black squid-ink batter. The spectacular dessert is a work of delicious fiction; some smashing reveals the “dragon’s egg” to be a spray-painted chocolate shell encasing a liquid passionfruit and vanilla centre. And the liquid gold, deployed to such a devastating effect in the books, is a far more feast-friendly orange curd.

The meal is a marketing ploy for the Game of Thrones‘ TV show Australian DVD release. Chef Grant King is less that a bibliophile himself – he had never heard of the books or the show but quickly discovered it to be to his taste: “Anything about chopping dudes up, I’m into that.”

As for this bibliophile? I’m still looking. I have found one ideal home; a lovely and spacious house where one room has walls completely covered in bookshelves. It was love at first sight.  I’m just hoping that love will get the hint and send the several hundred thousand through extra to me I need to purchase this place. If anyone wants me, I’ll be looking down the back of the sofa.


*The whole hog is, of course, the suckling pig.

**Okay, there’s just no excuse for this much pun.


Down the Rabbit Hole (into the bookcase)

My partner and I are house-hunting for a bigger place and I figure this is the perfect chance to select places that contain space for the ultimate home indulgence. Not a spa bath or sunroom or walk-in wardrobe (although they would be nice) – I’m gunning for a library.

I’ve had a yen for a bookroom since I stayed in a home where the entire bathroom had been converted into a reading room, with books, glorious books, stretching from floor to ceiling on two of the walls. Going to the bathroom in that house tended to take about ten times as long as it needed to.

Seeing that numerous celebrities had indulged their bibliophile tendencies by creating their own libraries also didn’t help me squash my urges. But what really set it off was this picture, shared on Facebook and G+ and probably lots of other social networks that I am not cool enough to know about yet. This is not merely a book room, this is a book-room with a bookcase that opens to lead to another room, apparently also full of books and bookcases. It’s some sort of Batcave for an avidly reading reclusive superhero. A Bookcave.

It. Must. Be. Mine.

Sadly, I have no idea how to get it. I can’t find out the original source of the picture (although I have seen it claimed variously to be in NZ, the USA and built by a company in Ireland, so someone is telling porkie-pies).  Someone clearly designed and built this thing. I thought of finding a woodworking builder and then leaving them to it, but even they don’t always know what to do as this post on Woodweb shows. A little searching did find websites for a company that offer to install secret passages and hidden rooms in your own home, thrilling my inner 9-year-old who is still obsessed with Enid-Blyton. They seem more preoccupied with security than book-hoarding, possibly as if you afford their services you may need somewhere to store your loot.

We don’t have a few hundred thousand spare floating around the place but there are also websites that tell you how to build your own “hidden door” bookshelf. This is an absolutely fool-proof plan apart from the fact that I have two left thumbs when it comes to DIY and find even the simplest of IKEA instructions as challenging as reading Twilight without throwing up.

Reading this didn't help.

Also, it has been pointed out we don’t actually have a new house yet. Details, details.

Sadly, with the budget we do have it looks unlikely that I’ll be getting my Bookcave, or even spare wing to house my large library. But I have at least secured a promise that, whatever size home we end up in, we’ll make space for at least one more bookshelf.

Maybe even two or three if we can. Or four. Four is a nice number. We can find the space. I mean, really, who needs a second bathroom anyway? Guests? Well, if we just fill the spare room full of books they won’t be able to stay with us. Which will neatly solve the second bathroom issue too.


Mid-month reading list – the Sex edition

Regular readers will remember that I spent most of last month engrossed, entertained and occasionally utterly grossed out by John Long’s Hung Like an Argentine Duck, which literally digs up some of the weirdest evidence and facts from the evolution of sexual reproduction, including necrophiliac snakes and the possible inventor of sex from our very own WA – the armoured shark-like Gogo fish. (Apparently 380 million years ago you didn’t need to flash a lot of flesh to be sexy.)

It was a fascinating read, and I’m blaming it for a month of non-stop reading about nookie and the many and myriad ways in which the drive to procreate affects the world we live in.

Sex, Bombs and Burgers by Peter Nowak

Nope, it’s not the latest Michael Bay movie (that would be Sex, Bombs and EXPLOSIONS EXPLOSIONS EXPLOSIONS). This is a far more thoughtful, but still fabulously entertaining, read in which Nowak argues that most of the major technological advances of the last sixty years have stemmed straight from the trio of billion-dollar industries that cater to our basest impulses. War. Fast Food. Pornography.

They get a deservedly bad rep but Novak argue that without the intellectual – and financial – investment that humanity is willing to spend on satisfying its rage, lust and greed, we’d all be living in cave.  From cars to aerosols, cameras to cold medicine, most of the technology that make life easy today can be traced back to either the porn, military or fast food industry. The investment in the military that gave us missile systems also gave us Silly Putty, developed as a war-time replacement for rubber. The food innovations that happened during the war paved the way for the rest of the 20th century and for the fast food industry to capitalise on our urge to sate our appetites. And when we’re not hungry for food anymore, well, that’s where the pornographic industry – with its innovative genius for using new technology to make a buck while more traditional media is still wondering if this internet thing will catch on – comes in.

Novak, who admits that he was inspired to research and write the book by the Paris Hilton sex-tape (specifically the fact that it was shot using the newly-developed night vision mode, meaning that military technology had gone, ahem, hardcore in quick time) is a writer with a knack for making the technical easy to understand and the quirky hilarious. A really excellent read, and certainly a better story than anything Michael Bay has stuck his name on recently.

The Red Queen by Matt Ridley

If Novak wants to blame war and fast food as well, Ridley is laying the blame purely at the feet of sex – or specifically, sexual reproduction and evolution. He argues that reproduction is the sole goal for which human beings are designed, with everything in our nature and physical form being carefully chosen to get us over the finish line of reproductive success. It uses the Red Queen from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – who has to run at full speed to stay where she is – as a metaphor for the evolution of a whole range of sexual behaviors. Using scientific studies it explores the whole gamut of sexual behaviour; from polygamy to attempted monogamy, from harems to homosexuality, to how individuals choose their mates and what traits they find attractive, and comes up with a fairly persuasive argument for sex being the motivating force behind, well, pretty much everything.

It’s not a new book – published in 1994 and shortlisted for Rhone Poulenc General Prize for Science Books that same year,  I really should have read this one already. For those of you who have, you might find his in more recent offering – Rational Optimist, how prosperity evolves – something to take your mind off sex, if only for a few moments.

90 Day Geisha by Chelsea Haywood

90 Day Geisha details 20-year-old Canadian model Chelsea’s 90 day crash course in art of “hostessing” in Japan. It’s not, as Chelsea quickly learns, about sexual favours; a hostess is someone to talk to, to provide small talks and drinks, to light cigarettes and flatter clients and occasionally accompany them on karaoke duets, and over-worked businessmen will pay very handsomely for the privilege of a hostesses’ attention for the evening.

Made infamous by the murder of Lucie Blackman in 2000, hostessing is little understood and Chelsea’s book is both an explanation of it and her exploration of it. It’s not a simple thing to understand or to do, as she soon discovers as her clients charm her with wit and personality, sweet words and lavish and expensive gifts. Even though sex is meant to be off the cards, in the hard-partying, no consequences, all-night culture of Tokyo’s Roppongi district, Chelsea finds that both her determination and her marriage will be tested under the late-night neon lights.


Mugshot or marriage material?

Recognise this rather guilty-looking face?

Srs Rochester is srs.

If you’re a fan of Gothic romances or if you’ve studied the Brontë sisters’ novels, you probably should. Let’s see if some text can jog your memory a little.

“I knew my traveller with his broad and jetty eyebrows; his square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair.  I recognised his decisive nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils, denoting, I thought, choler; his grim mouth, chin, and jaw—yes, all three were very grim, and no mistake.  His shape, now divested of cloak, I perceived harmonised in squareness with his physiognomy… My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth.”

That shifty miscreant is none other than Charlotte Bronte’s stern-but-deliciously-squishy Mr Rochester. And the reason that he looks so guilty is that he – along with several other fictional characters – have been recreated from the author’s descriptions via a method normally reserved for society’s less law-abiding people – law enforcement composite sketch software.

According to it’s creator, writer and auther Brian Joseph Davis, the project “is a combination of literary criticism — which I know well — and forensics — of which I’m an utter amateur.” He uses the forensic software program Faces ID to visualise some of literatures’ most famous characters.  This program gives users about 10,000 individual facial features to choose from and Davis used the authors’ own descriptions of their characters as guidelines for his selections. The results – strange, enlightening and occasionally creepy as they are – often throw an intriguing new light on an old story or character when he posts them on his project’s Tumblr site, The Composites.

Characters done so far include Aomame from Murakami’s 1Q84, Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Davis is happy to take requests but warns you need to know if there’s enough of a physical description before you send them in. No amount of clamouring from readers will enable him to achieve the impossible and craft a likeness from thin air when the author hasn’t provided the needed descriptive text, he points out.

“Unfortunately, there will be no Holden Caulfield. At a glance, the entirety of his self description amounts to “I have a crew cut.”

I have been debating sending in some of my own literary crushes. He may already covered Mr Rochester but there is always Wesley from the Princess Bride, Jaime Lannister from George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones series and (lest you think I am all about the men of days gone by) my one and only Twue-est Wuv – the Batman.

Yes, Batman. He’s tortured and complex AND he has a bat-belt and remote-controlled car. What more do you want? Who else would you rather see described? And would you take a chance with this version of Mr Rochester, or are you holding out for one of the other faces that have played him over the years? (Michael Fassbender, anyone?)




Real life love stories

December and the holiday season is a receding memory (even if several of my neighbors still have sad and tattered pieces of tinsel wilting on their doors and balconies) and we are entering what I call “the chocolate season” – Valentine’s Day and Easter.

I don’t usually make a fuss over Valentine’s Day. It’s not that I hate the day so much as I want every day to be “hey, you can whisk me off to Paris now” day – if you limit yourself to one day of the year, what happens if they decide they want to do it in July? Do you have to wait the eight months or can you split the difference? But there is no doubt it’s a time when many people’s thoughts turn to love so if you are looking for real-life romance, here’s a few books guaranteed to warm the heart and stir the reader into great romantic deeds – and possibly purchasing that ticket to Paris.

If you are want inspiring tales of real life love, check out the recently released All There Is by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay. In it he shares with the reader more than 30 touching personal stories of real-life love and marriage, as told by the people who experienced it.  From falling in love to remembering a lost loved one, from the excitement of falling head over heels  to love that endured despite discrimination, illness, poverty, distance, this collection is a powerful and uplifting reminder of the strength of the human heart.

It shows love in all its complexity and diversity. Long-term relationships and newlyweds, gay and straight partners, high school sweethearts and long-distance penpals, from couples who met in a military base to those who reunited in their old age, this compilation of stories is a must-read for those who love love stories and will touch the heart of even the most determinedly non-romantic.

StoryCorps is an American nonprofit organisation who have, in the last decade, collected more than 30,000 interviews from more than 60,000 participants in order to give people of all backgrounds and beliefs an opportunity to record and share their stories. These stories are recorded on to a CD for participants to share, archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress,  and broadcast on public radio and at their website.

If you’d like something romantic but not in the modern day, there’s no end of great love stories in history to inspire you. Some have been heavily interpreted and rewritten in the manner of a traditional romance such as Andrea Stewart’s stirring Rose of Martinique, the biography of Napoleon’s partner, lover, confidant and political advisor, the captivating Josephine. (You could also read their love in their own words with Napoleon’s Letters to Josephine, a collection of their correspondence.) For those who like their love stories lengthy, complex and a little bit tortured, try Norah Lofts Eleanor the Queen, a fleshed-out account of the life of Eleanor of Aquitane, who married two kings and was one of the most influential women of her age.

They don’t have to be famous to be an epic love story, as Martin Goldsmith’s Inextinguishable Symphony proves. Martin (the host of NPR’s Performance Today where he shares his love of classical and rock music), is the American-born son of two German-Jewish musicians who met through music and managed to escape the Holocaust. He follows his parents through their early musical training, their blossoming love and marriage, to their miraculous rescue and escape to America.

He also follows his family members that were not so lucky and remained in Nazi Germany, suffering ever-tightening persecution and eventual journeys to the gas chambers. This story of love and music in turbulent times is a challenging but  ultimately uplifting read and well worthy of a place in your reading this Valentine’s Day, however you choose to spend it.