Not for holiday reading Pt 1 – Kingpin and your Credit Card

My parents were on holiday and enjoying a nice dinner when they got the phone call from the bank. The clerk wanted to know if my father had recently decided to purchase $9,000 of South African diamonds online. My mother was somewhat disappointed to hear that he hadn’t, and they were both filled with dismay when they realised the truth – their credit card details had been stolen. They thought it was swiped by a waiter the previous night but couldn’t prove it, and ended up spending the rest of the vacation glowering at any retail staff who touched their card suspiciously.

Another friend who set off on a round the world trip with a brand new card found herself cashless after the very first time she used it, on her stopover in Bangkok. Not twenty minutes after she walked out of the store, her bank called her to report it had been used 5 times, and was now frozen, leaving her alone and without access to funds until she could get a replacement sent from Australia.

Not much fun.

I’ve  had my own card frozen – the bank raised an alert and flagged my card when item were purchased in three different countries over two days, which does sound suspicious, but is easy enough to do when you decide to take the cheapest all-stops flight from Australia to Ireland at Christmas and need to buy gifts en route.  Almost everyone I know has experienced either card freezing or worse, actually having their card used, so it was with some interest (and no small amount of irritation) I sat down in deckchair while on holidays to read Kingpin.

Kingpin is the story of Max “Vision” Butler, a brilliant hacker who played both sides of the law,  serving as a consultant to the FBI at one point and staging a hostile takeover of the online criminal fraud network not to disable it, but to coordinate the chaos – to consolidate and make more efficient vast online-fraud supermarkets stocked with credit card numbers, hacked bank accounts and the means of making fake cards and  IDs.

It could be heavy reading, but the story flows well. The author, Kevin Poulson, manages to write about a technical subject without drowning a casual reader in the details. It’s fascinating to view credit card fraud from the other side, that of the perpetrators, and infuriating to hear that those who do it often view it as a crime with no victims but the amorphous evil that is big  banks. Anyone who has ever stood in a petrol station with an empty tank and frozen card or had their card declined unexpectedly at a grocery or pharmacy can tell you that credit card fraud is not a victimless crime. The bank may normally pay the monetary cost but the time racked up in phone calls, waiting on new cards and feverishly checking statements exacts its own toll in stress.

However much I ground my teeth at the idea that credit card fraud is somehow okay, I found the book really fascinating. Perhaps not ideal as a holiday read, replete as it was with information on how easily a card could be skimmed (or have the details stolen via Internet Explorer). I’m not sure I needed to look quite that sternly at the waitress when she moved out of sight with my card for twenty seconds. I probably didn’t need to glare at the fourteen year old in the ice-cream parlour either. They were probably after $12 I owed for a chocolate cones, as a opposed to a nine-thousand dollar diamond necklace.

Kingpin is a excellent book, and I do recommend reading it. Just not while you are on holidays unless you don’t like the waitresses.

My One True Mug

It was meant to be a perk of the job, but my books’ blog mug has been an object of serious contention since I got it.

When I signed up, nearly a hundred blog posts ago, Boomerang Books knew how to lure me in. Not only would I have a platform to discuss my many crazed thoughts on non-fiction, reading trends and the general joy of being a bibliophile, but I would get something even better and more concrete – a free mug. A Boomerang mug, billed as large and generous.

Now, I have been disappointed before by items that were less than described. Any child who has ever got a gift from a department store Santa knows the disappointment of opening the box to discover that what you were promised was not what was delivered. (Although I’m not sure how I ever thought they would fit an Optimus Pony in a small flimsy cardboard box. Clearly you’d need something bigger, with proper handles and steel-plated to stop the transforming pony from lasering its way out.)

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I opened the package when it finally arrived.

And, Boomerang, I am sorry I ever doubted you.

It is a wonderful mug. A paragon amongst mugs. Massive, glowing, imposing, capable of holding enough coffee to get even me going in the mornings. I can not describe the sheer volume of this thing*, but it dwarves the other cups and mugs in the cupboard, laughing at their puny capacity like Andre the Giant drinking towering over Kylie Minogue. Look at it. Can you see the halo? That could just be my sitting room light, of course, but you get the idea.

It is to a normal mug what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy – immense, imposing, definitive. Its handle is large enough so that even the most clumsy and huge of morning paws can slide gratefully in under it, ensuring that my coffee actually goes in my mouth instead of all over the floor when I drop it. It dish-washes to the sort of sparkle that Kate Middleton wants in a wedding ring.

In short, I really like it. Everyone likes it. And there is the problem. My partner has taken to stealing it. Visitors and friends beeline for it like tourists heading for the Mona Lisa when they hit the Louvre. Often when I finally make it to upright in the morning my beloved mug is  already lurking sheepishly in the sink, having been used by bloke who can – obviously enough – spot an excellent mug when he sees one. I can whimper all I want but the early bird gets not only the worm but the pick of the cupboard.

Hell hath no fury like an Irishwoman forced to drink from a clearly insufficient mug. Well, hell hath no fury eventually. When I have actually had some coffee. Fury is kind of hard to dig up when you have to use a small cup.

My mug. I love it.Want your own mug? You can order them online here. And I am going to tell everyone where to get these mugs, and keep telling them, in the hope that someday me and my own true mug will be reunited at last to enjoy each other’s company.

 

* But CafePress can – 15 oz. ceramic Large Mug. Large easy-grip handle, measures 4.5″ tall, 3.25″ diameter. Which ma be helpful but, I feel, lacks poetry.

 

Do you know where your towel is?

One of the nice things about being in Australia is living in the future, and getting to celebrate occasions before everyone else. My friends in Ireland are currently 9 hours behind, and people I know in the States are up to seventeen hours behind me.

This means that they all have to wait for May 25th to roll around in their own country while we get to start celebrating Towel Day right now.

Towel Day, for those of you wondering what the obsession with all things fluffy and drying in an annual celebration, held on the 25th of May, as a tribute to the late and extremely great Douglas Adams, a man of many talents. He was not only a writer for books, radio and the screen, he was an environmental activist (he climbed Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit for Save the Rhinos and wrote Last Chance to See) and musician. Adams loved also technology and his essay – DNA/How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love The Internet – published in 1999, demonstrates he was a visionary thinker, who saw the amazing potential in the future that he is, sadly, not here to share with us.

Why a towel? Well, as any reader of the Hitchhiker’s Guide (referred to as H2G2 by some fans) can tell you, being someone who knows where their towel is marks you out as both a lover of his books and a person of forethought, gumption and organisational skills even – in fact, especially – if you are not in possession of any of those things.

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet,: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

From Chapter 3 of the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

For those of you who would like to join in, you will find events over Australia and further afield on the Towel Day site. Venues in Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney are offering discounts for people who wear a towel and the internet will celebrating too. It’s also an excellent excuse to curl up with your battered and beloved Adams’s books. Settle into your favourite comfy chair, with that cup of tea that Arthur Dent so longed for, and sink back into the worlds that he created. Just remember to keep your towel on while you do it.

Go the F**k to Sleep – teenager sing-along edition

On Friday I posted about the expletive-laden bedtime book that became a smash hit after being leaked as a PDF and sold more than 100,000 copies in pre-orders, “Go the F**k to Sleep“.  The brainchild of  novelist and toddler parent, Adam Mansbach, this book contrasts sweet nursery rhymes about animals and heart-warming illustrations by Ricardo Cortes with the exhausted profanity of a parent who is clearly hitting the end of their tether trying to establish a sleeping routine.

One of our readers, Jaki, said she found the book very funny but she’d like to see a version for the parents of teenage kids who, far from sleeping too little, can’t be hauled out of bed in the mornings without the aid of a forklift and twenty bottles of Coke. “Parents of teenagers who are still up and wandering around the kitchen at 1am, and then like dead logs when you attempt to drag them out of bed for school in the morning, would certainly love to see this book redone for teenagers.”

So, without further ado, and behind a cut for those of you who would rather not see all that swearing, I give you, “Get Out of F***ing Bed”.

This is what I came up with, but I’m sure there are plenty of talented poets out there who can add their own experiences and stick them in a nifty rhyme. Feel free to compose your own verses, and leave them in the comments for people giggle at. Warning, there is lots of strong language behind the cut. If that’s not your thing, please don’t click that link or read on past this point!

Continue reading Go the F**k to Sleep – teenager sing-along edition

The book they had to write

It started as a joke and it’s not even out yet but Adam Mansbach’s expletive laden children’s’ bedtime tale is already at the top of charts, selling more than 100,000 copies in pre-orders since it surfaced as a pirated pdf less than a month ago.

This tongue-in-cheek bedtime book for parents was the sleep-deprived brainchild of novelist Adam Mansbach who, frustrated at trying to get his own daughter to nod off night after night, joked to friends that his next book would be called “Go the F**k to Sleep“.

He meant it as a joke, but soon realised that he was on to a winning idea with Akashic Books taking an interest. Originally due out in October, the book became famous when a pirated PDF of it went viral and hit a chord with tired parents everywhere.

Not that you are meant to use the book to send your little ones to the land of nod.  Contrasting cutesey ryhmes and stunning illustrations by Ricardo Cortes with exasperated and exhausted profanity, it’s “definitely not a book to read to your child”, said the publisher in an interview with The Guardian, but “it will resonate with anyone who has ever spent 20 minutes, 40 minutes, four hours reading ‘just one more bedtime story’.”

For something that started as a joke, it’s doing pretty well in the real world. Pre-order sales of the books have taken the top spot on Amazon.com’s bestseller charts before it was even officially released, film rights have been optioned by Fox and the book has sold more than 100,000 copies in pre-orders since it surfaced less than a month ago. It’s easy to see the appeal, if you just read one of the sample verses. (Profanity has been carefully occluded, but you can use your imagination. The writer certainly does.)

The cats nestle close to their kittens now.
The lambs have laid down with the sheep.
You’re cozy and warm in your bed, my dear
Please go the <bleep> to sleep.

Joel over at BookU has already written at length about the book, and the implications that it has for evaluating the effects of piracy on book sales, but mainly I’m hoping that it will set off a spate of other books that I have longed for since people joked about them.

Chief amongst those is a books of poetry by cats, called “I Could Pee on This“, but there are plenty of other fictional books that I’d like to take a look over. JK Rowling has already published one such book that was originally just a fictional book, the Tales of Beedle the Bard. Maybe it could be the coming trend?

Wikipedia has a massive list of books mentioned but not yet penned, but my vote for the first one I’d like to see off the press has to be an actual copy of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, complete with DON’T PANIC written in massive letters on the front. Which is advice that the poor parents currently reading Go the F**k to Sleep could probably do with.

 

To smut or not to smut?

I was really enjoying Ken Follett‘s Pillars of the Earth. Right up until the moment where the hairdresser started reading it over my shoulder.

Pillars of the Earth is an epic book covering many topics; about religion, philosophy, politics and architecture. It explores treachery, pride, revenge, love, and grief.  It includes mammoth descriptions of life in the middle ages, warts and all. And it includes a few – a very few in over a thousand pages – brief sex scenes that take up a couple of pages.

So, guess which ones I ended up reading at the hairdressers? The saucy bits. Much in the manner that random play on your MP3 player only selects Baby’s Got Back from three thousand other songs when Grandma is in the car with you (and worse yet, knows the words), Pillars of the Earth decided to wait until I was out and about and had someone close enough to read it over my shoulder before whipping out the four letter words and lurid descriptions. The hairdresser was amused at my embarrassed page flicking. “Enjoying your book?” Um. Not really. Well, not anymore.

I’m not a massive fan of love scenes in books generally. Sex sells, I am sure, but not to me. It’s something I tolerate in a book, if it’s necessary to the story. It’s not just that the sex scenes will wait until you are in the middle of a big group – reading on public transport, squashed book to nose on an airplane etc – to flash their bits. I’m not that fond of the language used, all that heaving and throbbing and attempts to describe women’s genitalia that end up sounding like someone took LSD and then got lost in a florists.

I’ve also never been convinced by a lot of stock phrases used, such as those that liken erotic touch to sticking your fingers in the plug socket, you know, “his touch coursed through her like an electric current.” I’ve been electric shocked on several occasions, and I can say that none of them were much fun or erotic in any way. Police are issued with ‘tasers for a reason and that reason isn’t to bring joy to miscreants everywhere. I mean, you don’t see people sitting on electric fences going; “Eeek! Mmm. Eeek! Mmm!” Well, I don’t. Maybe I just don’t know about those sorts of farms. Perhaps if I read more books about it I’d be more au fait with the sensual use of the electric cattle prod. But something about the average sex scene just causes me to put the book down before my mother looks over my shoulder when I am reading it and asks what a merkin is. (Don’t google that one at work. Or at all.)

I have some company in my prudish dislike of overblown sex-scenes. The Literary Review is up to the eighteenth annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, inaugurated in 1993 in order to draw attention to, and hopefully discourage, poorly written, redundant or crude passages of a sexual nature in fiction. Last year’s top place was taken by Rowan Somerville, whose novel The Shape of Her included phrases such as, “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.”  Somerville insisted the scenes were perfect for the purpose, responding, “‘There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of the nation, I thank you.” (This is slightly more amusing when you realise Somerville is, in fact, Irish.)

So, what do you think? Do books need more sex? Less sex? Should the scenes fade to black or do you demand a full run-down of the action (oh my).

And does anyone know where I can find a new hairdresser?

Winter Warmers and writing festivals

Baby, it’s cold outside.

The skies might still be blue but, with the temperature dropping to the chilly depths of the low teens, winter has arrived in Sydney.

Walking to work this morning, everyone I passed was bundled up in hats, wool coats and scarves, except for one confused looking group of Irish backpackers I passed who were happily running around in t-shirts and shorts and admiring how warm it is.

I used to think 13C was warm too – in Ireland, 23C is hot and over 25C is sweltering. I’m not joking – we once had a “heatwave” where noon temperatures stayed at 27C for a week and doctors were issuing medical advice on sunstroke and dehydration to a confused populace from every radio and TV. When I first arrived in Sydney I basked in the sun even in the middle of winter. Sadly, I have now been in Australia for long enough that when the temperature drops below 15, I get chilly.

The Queenlanders are rubbing it in too – happy Facebook and Twitter updates on how balmy it is, people talking about strolling in the sun at South Bank. In return my Sydney and Melbourne friends write unhappy little comments on their Facebook, and then we all get together and tease poor Canberra for its sub-zero temperatures at night.

On the plus side, all this cold is perfect reading weather. What could be nicer than curling up under a blankets with a really massive book? I’m back on my epics again – (rereading Game of Thrones, and catching up on the new Robin Hobb’s) and getting stuck into some non-fiction too.

That said, I may be longing for the sun but next week there is nowhere better to be in Australia for the annual Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay. Fatima Bhutto  whose powerful memoir “Songs of Blood and Sword” explores of one of the world’s best known political dynasties and the tumultuous nature of life in Pakistan, will give the opening address setting the stage for a festival that explores the topic of power. Talks and panels will explore various diverse issues under this big umbrella, from reactions to Wikileaks, dealing with China’s growth in wealth and power, leadership and climate change.

The festival casts a broad net, taking in fiction and non-fiction, and inviting everyone from AA Gill and Anthony Bourdain to discuss food and life (sadly,  sold  out) to poets and political analysts to showcase their work.  If you are interested in climate change, don’t miss a chance to see paleoclimatologist Curt Stager (whose recent release, Deep Future, is currently keeping me company under the doona for evening reading) and others will talk about current issues and the future of action on climate change.

If you can’t make it to Sydney, (perhaps it’s just too cold for you here) you can still catch plenty of the highlights as the ABC will be broadcasting on Saturday and Sunday May 21 and 22 from the festival. You can also still find a lot of content from from 2010, allowing you browse your reading interests from under your doona. It’s enough to make you feel all warm and fuzzy.

Breaking up is hard to do (get the books before you go).

My first relationship cost me something very precious; about half of my Terry Pratchett collection.

We shared a love of the same authors but all the book-swapping in the world was not enough to keep us together. As the faster reader, I normally loaned him my books when I had finished them, meaning that a several much-loved texts arrayed his bedroom walls by the time we broke up.

Young love is not merely blind (and incredibly nauseating to have to sit behind on the bus) but also pretty stupid when it comes to thinking through that inevitable first-ever break-up. Alas, I was so unschooled in the ways of love that I didn’t realise it is vitally important that you begin smuggling your books out at the first sign that “together forever” is probably not going to make it past the end of the month, and that your plans for several tattoos, backpacking Central America and  being a writer are not compatible with their lifestyle choices of golfing, motoring a 4-wheel-drive around the city centre and actually getting a proper job.

Once the break-up drama was over and the dust had finally settled, I realised that his absence from my life was going to leave a massive gaping hole – right in the middle of my bookshelf. And I had no idea how to deal with it. I was a student, so replacing books I had already read was an extravagance I couldn’t condone (along with proper food and toilet paper – one of the perks of working for uni nightclub was that you were allowed take home the half-emptied giant rolls of toilet paper they replaced nightly, something valued hugely by me and the approximately ninety million students I shared a flat with). Our mutual friends were already completely over the drama, so asking them to get the books would have been bad form. His house had a guard dog which, far from being unfriendly, would bark delightedly at me and then lick me to death, so burglary was not an option.

I could have done the traditional asking for them back, but I wasn’t sure how to bring it up. (And also, they weren’t talking to me, and my first relationship was sadly pre-email, Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone, and all the other normal methods of contacting people who are ignoring you without you actually having to speak to them.) I probably should have just asked his mother, who would not only have removed all traces of me from the house but probably fumigated the rooms afterwards and written, “and stay gone” in big letters on the bag. But in the end I just gave up on them, and got around to replacing them over the next few years while I was in another relationship.

And then my second big relationship ended, costing me not only my rebuilt library of Terry Pratchett’s but also my Stephen King’s and several prize possessions – a copy of Michael Ende’s Neverending Story (with the original illustrations and changes of ink colour) and all of the original Game of Thrones series including a signed hardcover. And on it goes. The obvious answer is not to lend any books to your partner but when you are in the throes of passion, it’s near-impossible not to share your enthusiasm for the books you love with the person you love.

I estimate there are about 5 copies of Small Gods out there with my name on them, and the same amount of Good Omens, the book that I use as a litmus-test for prospective dates for whether we will get on or not. It was, in fact the first ever present that I bought my current partner. And how is that going? Well, he loved the book. And we’re getting married next year, so he’s clearly pretty fond of me too. Hopefully these are the final copies of these books I will purchase.

But if not, at least I am back on speaking terms with some of the others so I can finally pick up about 4 copies of each, should I want to.

So, after the break-up, how do you get the books back?

Heavy reading and holiday flings

Next time I go away on holiday, I need to remember to give my brain a bit of a break too. Despite packing four books in my luggage for a week-long trip, last week I found myself prowling the wilds of Tropical North Queensland looking for something to read.  I love to read on vacation, but my masochistic insistence that I will use the time to catch up on big books always ends up with me rebelling.

This happens whenever I go away. I convince myself that I am going to spend my time reading big worthy books; I will come home knowing how to speak a new language, debating the intricacies and nuances of the Middle Eastern political situation and understanding how the US electoral system actually works (why it does it seem to take them about a year to get through their elections?). Instead by day two I am skulking around revolving book-stands in tourist shops, looking for light reading relief in the form of trashy novels, and settling for magazines like Cosmo and Cleo if I can’t find books. It’s especially annoying – and expensive – when I realise I could have just grabbed some light reading off the shelf at home before I left in the first place.

And every time I end up stuck in a tiny shop somewhere in the jungle or at the beach, I swear that I will remember this fruitless search for frothy fiction and just bring some next time. I usually get through a few books on holiday, partly as I am a fast reader but mainly as I am terrified of flying. I need the distraction of being engrossed in text to distract myself from my conviction that gravity is going to look up, notice the small metal box hurtling through the air on tiny wings and say, “You! Don’t be ridiculous. Get down from there!” But plowing my way through dense text is the last thing I want to do when I have gone into holiday mode or when I am trying to ignore funny clunking sounds from the engines.

And the thing is, when I finally put down the weighty tomes and try something different, I often end up enjoying a read far more edifying and mentally challenging than the big book I have carted along. I think the joy of holiday reading is that you end up taking a chance on books you normally wouldn’t look at. This time I devoured Water For Elephants, which is an excellent novel that I would normally pass by in a shop, as well as a few less memorable but none-the-less enjoying reads. I have had some disasters – I refer you to my decision to read Twilight and some of the Anita Blake series – but grabbing some holiday reading has introduced me to several new authors, including Robin Hobb and Bill Bryson, who are now  firm favourites.

What do you think? Do you read heavy books on your holidays or do you cut to the chase and make sure your holiday reading is going to be as enjoyable as the trip? Am I the only person out there who ends up casting my reading list aside and enjoying a holiday fling every time?

 

Sideshows and carnival barkers

In a week where we couldn’t escape a fairytale wedding, where Obama referred to media as “carnival barkers” , where on the night that Osama bin Laden death was announced Channel 9’s A Current Affair led with the Logie’s fashion; in a week where – in short – it feels like the everwhere I have turned I’ve been looking at the treatment of news and politics in the media, I’ve found some fitting reading when I’m not avidly watching the news.

I’ve been reading Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow, on the games that both journalists and politicians play in the media – selective quoting, creative editing, dissembling, decoying, and scheduling stories to suit the audience’s interests (or to hopefully slide below radar completely). Lindsay Tanner isn’t a dispassionate observer, he’s the former federal minister for finance and ALP member for Melbourne, who resigned in 2010. He argues that the creation of appearances is now far more important for leading politicians than is the generation of outcomes. Sideshow is not the back-stabbing memoir  some had hoped for but an analysis of how politics and the media interact in Australia. Tanner’s book is a thought-provoking look at how the relentless courting of controversy and PR can lead to the dumbing-down on the reportage we receive.

It’s particularly relevant to me in a week where I have been glued to the TV screen, or had it constantly playing in the back-ground, for one reason or another. My media binge started, harmlessly enough, with the Royal Wedding, which I ended up watching it on a hotel telly, surrounded by a large and fascinated crowd. This might not have been so notable if it hadn’t been for the fact that the crowd were meant to be at another wedding themselves; they were all guests of a wedding being held there and had sloped off to watch the Royal Nuptials, presumably leaving their own fairytale bride and groom to reflect ruefully on their choice of date.

Less frothy but still entertaining was President Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Faced with a chance to speak seriously to the assembled glitterati of the USA’s political media, he spent most of the time making jokes about being forced to pull out his birth certificate and them enthusiastically took the opportunity to mock Fox and Donald Trump (who had tried a bit of media manipulation himself earlier in the week and whose stoney embarrassment at being called out is, frankly, a joy to watch).

Not frothy at all was the next announcement from President Obama; that Osama bin Laden was dead (and not, Fox 40, the other way round) which is still unfolding and looks likely to dominate the media for some time yet. Three very different stories, and total TV, internet and Twitter saturation for all of them.  Did the Royal Wedding really need three days? Did Channel 9 really think that the Logie’s frocks were our first concern? Probably not. Does Tanner offer a solution? Unfortunately not. I suspect he doesn’t have the answers. But hearing some of the questions – and the studies and the past experiences – phrased neatly and wryly in his book is at least a good place to start thinking about it.

 

No Fantasy please – we’re women.

Winter is coming, and Ginia Bellafante thinks that the ladies won‘t like it.

The Winter in question is HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martins political fantasy epic, Game of Thrones and Ginia, the New York Times reviewer who saw the screening in advance, is less than impressed. She feels that the TV show is an overblown over-sexed extravaganza whose budget could have been better devoted to keeping Mad Men on air. In this land of “dwarves and loincloths” there are too many characters, she thinks, perhaps the show should warn people who can’t count cards to go back to watching Sex and the City re-runs?

The show does have a lot of characters but then, so do the books. I like to read a bit of fantasy, and I am a fan of Game of Thrones and the series it is part of. And I know plenty of other people – male and female – who‘d agree with me. When I worked as manager of a games and bookstore in Ireland for two years, one of the most common questions was, “Do you know when the next George R R Martin  is coming out?” That question came up so many times, from all genders, that we joked that we should just stick a sign up behind the till saying, “No, Book Four is not out yet. Direct complaints to Mr Martin, please.”

While there are many criticisms you can throw around about the books – including an impassioned plea to Martin to just release book five already – there is no denying that they have many fans of both genders. Bellafante is clearly not a fan, which is fair enough, but she assumed that what held true for her applies to everyone with a uterus. Women, she stated, simply weren‘t going to like it – not because it was badly-cast, or poorly scripted, or just plain boring – but because it is fantasy.

“While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”

Now, I’m not a Hobbit fan nor in a book club, but I am better placed than Ms Bellafante to judge Martin’s writing, and fantasy generally, by the simple virtue of actually having read some. I wasn‘t aware that having boy parts was a prerequisite to enjoying the genre and I didn’t find the books particularly patronising, but Ginia’s belief that women don’t enjoy epics is getting right up my nose.

Bellafante’s dismissal of fantasy as “boy fiction“ led to lots of heated responses, some vitriolic and other more thoughtful, so much so that she weighed back in a few days later, trying to pour oil on troubled waters with a piece entitled, “Pull Up and Throne and Let’s Talk”. This probably didn’t come out as well as she hoped. Ginia started by explaining, “I write from a perspective that is my own, not one that seeks to represent a big tent of varying opinion.” Which is fair enough, even her previous piece included an offhand blanket statement about half the darn planet.

And then she continued, “As I wrote in the review, I realize that there are women who love fantasy, but I don’t know any and that is the truth: I don’t know any. At the same time, I am sure that there are fantasy fans out there who may not know a single person who worships at the altar of quietly hewn domestic novels or celebrates the films of Nicole Holofcener or is engrossed by reruns of “House.””

So, not only does Ginia believe that she doesn’t know a single woman out there who likes to read fantasy, but also that these exotic female fantasy fans (who she has never met) may well conglomerate in groups, trading sorcery and sword novels and refusing to read or watch outside their tiny circle of knowledge. Roaming their homes in chain-mail bikinis, purchasing “Hot Dwarves Monthly” and throwing axes at the TV to activate the extended and expanded Directors edition of Lord of the Rings.

Not just, you know, reading good books and enjoying them, regardless of their reproductive organs.

To which all I can say is, Ginia, the problem here is clearly not Game of Thrones or the fantasy genre. It’s that you need to meet more women.

The men behind the myths – Scott Bennett on Pozières: The Anzac Story

In 2003 Scott Bennett visited the Great War battlefields in France and Belgium to retrace the steps of his great-uncles, who had fought there. What he found led him to examine and question the Anzac legend, the battle of Pozières and the stories of his own family’s heroes. In Pozières – The Anzac Story he draws on the letters and diaries of the men fought at Pozières to tell their story, shedding light on the people behind the official history and the legends that grew up around them.

Pozières is a very moving book – how did you find the process of researching it? Did it affect you?

Reading the handwritten letters of parents who had lost sons at Pozières always moved me.  Now I have children, I can only imagine the grief that consumed them. There are still sections of the book that, despite reading numerous times, still affect me. At a military cemetery on the Somme one Australian had written in a Visitor’s Book– ‘Please never again’ – just three simple words that sum up the reality of war.

This book was prompted by interest in your own family who had fought at Pozières – how have they reacted to the book?

My mother’s family was like so many of the families of soldiers in the first world war, who grew up believing, and being told, that their son, brother, father, uncle, grandfather or great uncle was a hero.  Maybe, because I am more removed, I have been surprised by my mother’s sensitivity to what I discovered and have written about her uncle, Ernie Lee, even though it almost 100 years ago.  He enlisted as a 14 year old and while being portrayed a courageous young soldier, was actually charged with threatening to shoot his corporal.  She does not see the purpose of revealing the darker elements of his past and to be honest, I’m not sure whether I would have had the courage to expose his past if my grandmother was still alive.

The Anzac legend is something you talk about a lot. How did you feel when you first realised that you would be writing a book that saw it and the Australian soldiers from a different perspective?

One of the issues that prompted me to write the book was I felt many portrayals of the Anzacs were one-dimensional – the typical rugged, square jawed young man from the bush, relishing the chance to charge into battle.  When you read the soldiers first-hand account of what it was really like and how the soldiers really felt, you realise that there was so much more diversity. I was keen to present a more rounded and textured view of the Anzacs – to me that was much more interesting.

Your background is in management – has writing always been a passion of yours? Did you always plan to publish this story?

It was not so much that writing was a passion, but the challenge of being able to distil something complex into a clear and persuasive story.  I have to do this on a regular basis in my work life, and when I started to research Pozières and discovered the many challenges and issues that the Anzacs faced I was intrigued to find the real story. It really started as a hobby.  In 2003, I finished my MBA studies and suddenly had all this spare time. After reading dozens of books on the Somme, and visiting Pozières and being deeply moved by it, I thought that writing a book on it would be a challenge. My goal was to complete a manuscript that I was satisfied with – getting it published was always a bonus.

What do you hope readers will take from Pozières?

I hope that readers develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of war and this particular battle, an appreciation of the many challenging and sometimes impossible issues that officers and commanders (of all nationalities) grappled with, as well as the broad range of (and less mythical) experiences of the soldiers on the front line.

Rundown reading

If you’re yearning for some great non-fiction, check out Boomerang’s latest promotion. We’re giving away a pack of new releases, including Kay Saunder’s Notorious Australian Women, a thrilling compendium of female derring-do replete with First Fleeters, courtesans, rebels and revolutionaries. If you’re looking for something more contemporary you can check out Hotel Kerobokan, the inside story of Bali’s most notorious jail.  Or you can find out exactly what makes for a Happy Economist. (The answer to that one isn’t, surprisingly enough, more money. We were surprised too.)

To be in with shot, complete the entry form on the Boomerang giveaway page before 5pm on Friday the 15th and you could be flicking through some great non-fiction before the month is out.

If you are wondering if you really have a chance of winning, you at least have one fewer competitor to worry about; I won’t be entering the competition or reading any non-fiction soon. I’m off the big brain books – no new non-fiction for me this week. This doesn’t mean that I have given up on my area of choice, or decided to quit the pop-psychology for Lent. I am not sidestepping into reading only novels or flirting with reviewing Paranormal Romance, I’m just not interested right now in reading anything that challenges my brain, be that fiction or non-fiction alike.

The reason for both the recent radio silence on this blog and the sudden non-interest in new books is pretty simple – I am, as we say in Ireland, as sick a small hospital. I have some sort of coldy-fluey-sinusey-evildeathbug thing that has turned my brain to mush and my body into an immobile sack of aches. If I was a horse, they would have shot me. I’m as sick as a dog and about as appealing generally as Shane McGowan’s teeth. I am a complaint wrapped in a misery inside an influenza, and all of them baying for more Lemsip and something to read that doesn’t require more than one brain cell to appreciate.

You get the picture.

I’m ill.

There are those who bear their illness well and stoically. They muster up their positive face, grab that glass half full of electrolytes and use the whole being undead thing as a chance to catch up on their reading, clean out their cupboard and learn Spanish, Mandarin and Turkish while they have a few moments to spare.

I am not one of those people. I’m one of the ones who like to fill that half empty glass with a hot toddy and settle in to read an favourite old book. There are times when I want to be stimulated and fascinated by amazing facts, but this is not one of them.

Great hot piles of comfort food and comfort reading, that’s what I am after. I’m rereading all my Terry Pratchett’s and Douglas Adam’s and I feel no guilt whatsoever about all those shiny new titles I could be perusing instead. They’ll wait. Right now, when I feel this low, I love the company of some of my best-loved books. You know, the ones that are so well-thumbed the pages are loose.  I’ve read them so often I barely need to follow the words to know the story.

If anyone wants me, I’ll be curled up with a good book. How about you?

Reliving the Past – Jane Sullivan on Little People

Little People is a historical novel and suspense story, a vivid re-imagining of General Tom Thumb and his troupes 9-month tour of Australia, complete with showbiz rivalry, mysterious secrets and love affairs aplenty. I caught up with its writer, Jane Sullivan, to ask her to peel back the curtains and show us what happens backstage.

Little People is loosely based around real events and people. What attracted you to this?

Reading a biography of a Victorian writer, Ada Cambridge, years ago that mentioned very briefly that the floods of 1870 held up the troupe of the midget General Tom Thumb as they were traveling around Victoria in their touring show. I imagined a little man jumping up and down on the roof of a carriage stuck in a flood, and for some reason the image transfixed me.

When did you realise you had a story to tell?

I knew next to nothing about General Tom Thumb, but slowly I began to read and collect information. The turning point was probably when I realised that their tour of Australia took nine months – which could also be the length of a pregnancy. So I conceived (no pun intended) the idea of a pregnant woman, Mary Ann, as the narrator and heroine of the story and the focus of quite a few mysterious desires.

What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing this book?

I think I probably enjoyed the research most – it was such fun, so exciting to keep “discovering” the little people in different places, and I didn’t have to worry about whether the writing was working. The part of the writing I enjoyed most was the Sideshows in the little peoples’ own voices, it felt like stepping into their shoes.

Did you find researching it easy? What sort of tools did you use?

Not as easy as it would be now: there was no Wikipedia when I started and nothing much on Google. I scoured library data bases and came up with a number of books that mentioned the little people, mostly in the context of their mentor, the great American showman P.T.Barnum. I did a lot of research in the State Library of Victoria and made a trip to Canberra to the National Library to read an account of the world tour, including Australia, written by the tour manager, Sylvester Bleeker. (see the Further Reading list at the back of the book for the main books I consulted).

The wedding of General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren

Another really helpful thing was the microfiche copies in the State Library of 1870 newspapers and journals in Australia that reported on and reviewed the little peoples’ shows. Here I discovered that they were mobbed by crowds everywhere they went; and that Commodore Nutt was the crowd favourite, considered a great comedian, while Tom Thumb was a bit of a pompous has-been by then. That, I was sure, would have made him really cross and rekindled old rivalries.

Despite all the information about the little people, it was hard to tell what they were really like: they seemed always to have been putting on a performance. But this freed me up to use my imagination and construct fictional characters who seemed consistent with the real historical people.

What tips would you give to writers considering writing novels with a firm base in historical events or real people?

Research the characters and the events and the period for a while until you have a real feel for it and you’re bursting to start writing. Then write. Then go back to your research and check all those little details you need to know. Then write again. And so on. If you do too much research, you never start writing. If you write too much for too long, you get too far away from your material.

Don’t worry if it starts taking off in ways you didn’t anticipate – it’s fiction, you can make things up! Just make sure it’s believable and consistent for your reader.

How did friends and family react when you told them what you were writing about?

I had very mixed reactions. Some people were thrilled and delighted by the idea of a story about a troupe of little people touring Australia. But a few people honestly couldn’t see at all why I was attracted to it. I hope those people change their minds when they read the book! I’d like readers to think of this book as like watching a show – the curtains sweep open, the performers appear. I’d like everyone to be caught up in the show and laugh and cry and get fearful until the curtain closes again and we can all go home singing the tunes.

Jane Sullivan has worked as a reporter, feature writer and editor. She won the inaugural Australian Human Rights Award for journalism. She writes a Saturday column, ‘Turning Pages’ for The Age. Little People is Jane’s second novel, published by Scribe Publications and shortlisted in the CAL Scribe Fiction Prize.

Greek Seamen and bruised egos

Up until recently if someone wanted to tell you your writing sucked, it took them effort. They had to either go to all the effort of writing a letter, finding out your address, buying a stamp and posting their scathing missive on your finely crafted magnum opus, or manage to get published themselves somewhere that did book reviews.

It was, frankly, so much effort that most people didn’t bother to go to town on bad reads, instead consigning the book to the smallest room of the house where it could supplement for toilet paper in emergencies.

You wish, guys.

Now all readers have to do is hop online and they can get to carving up the writer’s darling in a few keystrokes and clicks. And if the proud but curious author has a google alert set up to notify them, the bad review could be making the way to the author’s home – into their room and right on to the very screen they used to write the book – in a matter of moments. It can less time to shred an author’s ego than it does to make a cup of tea. For aspiring e-book authors there is a particularly cruel rub in knowing that – should the review get to right blog  and be funny enough to be shared – the unkind review may in fact get more readers than your e-book.

So, how should you react to criticism? Probably not like self-published author of The Greek Seaman, Jacqueline Howett, who – on receiving what was a reasonably kind review from someone who had struggled with her book’s grammar – completely lost the plot. She started by accusing the blogger, BigAl of BigAl’s Books and Pals, of being unfair and slandering her writing ability (“Maybe its just my style and being English is what you don’t get”). She then posted positive reviews she had received elsewhere in his comments and insisted he read another version of her e-book.

When this didn’t get the desired effect of having the review removed and a full-scale apology from the blogger for having the temerity to mention her bad grammar and phrasing (for example, he said, he found the sentence “Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.” a little difficult to read, presumably because it’s not actually in English), she moved into insults that didn’t really do her any favours on the whole “I write English good” front.

“Also in the new copy you did not have to click at all to get to the next page on Kindle, so thats how I now he never downloaded the clean copy. Well what should I expect of anyone associated to Big ALs snake pit and rat hole. You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom. Lots of luck to authors who come here and slip in that!”

You’ll need to read the comments to get the full sense of the discussion (and, having seen read the writer’s blog and comments, I’m think the AL’s comments on her bad grammar and phrasing are, if anything, put nicely) but there’s little doubt that Jacqueline Howett has successfully alienated every single reader of that blog – and all those who read it after the link went viral – with her horrendous behaviour.

And it’s not just epublished authors. Laurell K. Hamilton, of Anita Blake, Vampire Snogger Hunter fame, made it a family affair when she started copping criticism for a series that seemed to be going off-track into the realms of constant pornography and alienating many former fans. When people left negative reviews of her book, Incubus Dreams, on her website’s guestbook, she and her husband leapt online to defend Lauren’s writing with an ardeur* that was too strong to obey the laws of mere grammar (Laurell showed up herself to demonstrate that she did not know the difference between “loose” and “lose”) and then deleted the guestbook.

While deleting the guestbook and disconnecting the internet is an option, the simple fact is that writers can now read dissections of their work with more ease than ever before. A fairly conventional piece of advice given to authors is that they should never respond to reviews and in some cases, don’t even bother to read them at all. As William Faulkner sniffily explains, “The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.”

Should they be lacking the ego and resolve to avoid reading, writers are going to have to either become used to criticism or treat it with the break-taking lack of concern that composer Max Reger mastered over a hundred years ago when he wrote to back a critic, “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!”

 

* Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.

 

Yesterday, all my critics seemed so far away

Up until recently if someone wanted to tell you your writing sucked, it took them effort. They had to either go to all the effort of writing a letter, finding out your address, buying a stamp and posting their scathing missive on your finely crafted magnum opus, or manage to get published themselves somewhere that did book reviews.

It was, frankly, so much effort that most people didn’t bother to go to town on bad reads, instead consigning the book to the smallest room of the house where it could supplement for toilet paper in emergencies.

Now all readers have to do is hop online and they can get to carving up the writer’s darling in a few keystrokes and clicks. And if the proud but curious author has a google alert set up to notify them, the bad review could be making the way to the author’s home – into their room and right on to the very screen they used to write the book – in a matter of moments. It can less time to shred an author’s ego than it does to make a cup of tea.

For aspiring e-book authors there is a particularly cruel rub in knowing that – should the review get to right blog  and be funny enough to be shared – the unkind review may in fact get more readers than your e-book.

So, how should you react to criticism? Probably not like self-published author of The Greek Seaman, Jacqueline Howett who, who – on receiving what was a reasonably kind review on a blog from someone who had struggled with her book’s grammar – completely lost the plot. She started by accusing the blogger, BigAl of BigAl’s Books and Pals, of being unfair and slandering her writing ability (“Maybe its just my style and being English is what you don’t get,”) then posted positive reviews she had received elsewhere in his comments and insisted he read another version of her e-book.

When this didn’t get the desired effect of having the review removed and a full-scale apology from the blogger for having the temerity to mention her bad grammar and phrasing (for example, he said, he found the sentence “Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.” a little difficult to read, presumably because it’s not actually in English), she moved into insults that didn’t really do her any favours on the whole “I write English good” front.

Also in the new copy you did not have to click at all to get to the next page on Kindle, so thats how I now he never downloaded the clean copy. Well what should I expect of anyone associated to Big ALs snake pit and rat hole. You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom. Lots of luck to authors who come here and slip in that!”

http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/greek-seaman-jacqueline-howett.html

You’ll need to read the comments to get the full sense of the discussion (and, having seen read the writer’s blog and comments, I’m think the AL’s comments on her bad grammar and phrasing are, if anything, put nicely) but there’s little doubt that Jacqueline Howett has successfully alienated every single reader of that blog – and all those who read it after the link went viral – with her horrendous behaviour.

And it’s not just epublished authors. Laurell K. Hamilton, of Anita Blake, Vampire Snogger Hunter fame, made it a family affair when she started copping criticism for a series that seemed to be going off-track and alienating many former fans. When people left negative reviews of her book, Incubus Dreams, on her website’s guestbook, she and her husband leapt online to defend the books and Lauren’s writing with an ardeur* that was too strong to obey the laws of mere grammar (Laurell showed up herself to demonstrate that she did not know the difference between “loose” and “lose”) and then deleted the guestbook.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=ardeur

While deleting the guestbook is an option, the simple fact is that writers can now read dissections of their work with more ease than ever before. A fairly conventional piece of advice given to authors is that they should never respond to reviews and in some cases, don’t even bother to read them at all. As William Faulkner sniffily explains, The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.

Should they be lacking the ego and resolve to avoid reading, writers are going to have to either become used to criticism or treat it with the break-taking lack of concern that composer Max Reger mastered when he wrote to a critic, “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!”

Virtual flirtations with good intentions

Today I’m all about e-books.

Yes, I know we have Joel at the Smell of Books for that.  In fact I highly recommend that, if you are looking for and educated opinion and some facts, you go read his blog. Joel can provide an informed opinion on all things e-published whereas me writing on ebooks is like Kyle Sandilands writing about emotional empathy or Gillian McKeith giving serious scientific advice on food and nuitrition.

At near 1,200 pages, it's easy to see why I'm hoping they bring this out as an ebook soon.

But the darn things keep cropping up on me, tempting me. While I have confessed to being an ebook luddite (for reasons ranging from the fact that the sight of a full bookshelf makes me happy to the sad reality that sometimes I really like to have the option of throwing a really terrible book off the wall) having played with a Kindle a little over the weekend, I am becoming more tempted by the day. I don’t see myself ever giving up real books completely, I can just see the benefit of being able to take 20 books on holidays without having to carry their weight in your rucksack.

I feel guilty in considering neglecting my beloved paperbacks for their hot new digital friend  but I’m certainly not alone in it. Earlier this year, Amazon revealed that 115 Kindle eBooks were sold for every 100 paperbacks sold in January.  And, in a year where Borders and Angus and Robertson were going broke, Amazon reported record quarterly sales of $13 billion the last quarter, up 36% compared to previous year. They have their own awards. The New York Times now has a dedicated eBook Bestseller List. I’m considering grabbing a Kindle, with 8 million sold in the last year, I’m far from alone.

Ebooks are everywhere and, just maybe, that’s not such a bad thing. They are making some good things easier to do. For example, the ebook format allows for acts of altruism that would be near impossible on the convention physical books scale. One example of this is the fast release of Fault Lines, an ebook of nature stories by Australian writers put together to raise money for the Red Cross’s relief efforts in Japan and New Zealand following the devastating earthquakes. From conception to contribution to implementation, it took less about a week and a half. It’s near impossible to imagine a reaction that fast from conventional printing.

The whole thing has been organised by Matt Granfield, in a fraction of the time you would expect, with the aim of raising money for the Red Cross’s efforts in Japan and New Zealand. Fault Lines is a ebook collection of new writing by some of Australia’s most popular authors and bloggers, including two of my favourites – the intrepidly-travelling Peter Moore and the world’s most satirical Masterchef fan Ben Pobjie.

The essays and stories range from side-splitting to serious and if, like me, you suspect in your quieter moments that you are not reading as many Australian authors as you should, it provides a great intro to some writers that you might not have come across already. It’s only ten bucks and 100% of the proceeds go straight to charity. You don’t even have to have a book reader to read it, so my books may be safe from the Kindle cohabitation. For now.

 

 

 

 

Tattoos and Text

They say a picture says a thousand words but, for the literary fans who like prove their dedication by getting tattoos devoted to their favourite texts, you better off going with something more quick, pithy and evocative. Check out this link where  Buzzfeed did a feature on the 20 Awesome Literary Tattoos if you’d like to see some examples of saying more with less text . It went viral last week (this is apparently a good thing now, as opposed to requiring hopitalisation and isolation) and contains some really amazingly ornate displays of inked-up ink, such as this tattoo representing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.

Literary tattoos aren’t new but according to one expert in the area, Eva Talmadge, they are taking a while to catch up. When she and Justin Taylor were looking for submissions to “The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide”, a pictorial guide to the emerging subculture of literary tattoos they found that those who got inked were more likely to read it in ink. “There are many personal anecdotes shared in “The Word Made Flesh,” but not a single tattoo’s origin story mentions words first read on a Kindle, iPhone or Nook – at least none we’ve seen yet.”

The tattoos mentioned in both the book and the blog are all by big important names, it must be said. Plenty of Kurt Vonnegut and Shakespeare. There’s an obvious American bias, with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Salinger showing up, and people complaining about the absences of Twain and Hemingway in the comments.

Despite the apparent popularity of Twilight tattoos, they are inexplicably absent from the list – including this one that I hope never sits in front of me on public transport. Just imagine those eyes all the way through your early morning commute.  Looking at you. Sparkling.

I thought he only had eyes for Bella?

Incidentally, the most common Twilight script to get tattooed on to your skin – according to the rigorous empirical research I conducted (and by that I mean googling for images related to Twilight tattoo) – is “and the lion fell in love with the lamb” rendered in various scripts. Here’s hoping that quotes on what seems to be cross-species affection are still as recognisable in 20 years. Also, as someone who raised in a Catholic country, I always associate the lion with St Mark and the lamb with Jesus, and that was where my head went first on seeing the quote. Just sayin’.

So, what book or phrase would inspire you to commit the ink to your skin forever?

Continue reading Tattoos and Text

Going Green for the Day – Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona daoibh

Tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, and we all know what that means.

Well, actually, we don’t. Ask people about the correct way to celebrate the holiday and you’ll probably hear about something that sounds like forty comedians and a troupe of strippers having a riot in a brewery, possibly with the words “beer”, “fiddle-de-dee” and “potatoes” thrown in for good measure. So, in the interest of promoting cross-cultural understanding and not having to hear anyone say “fiddle-de-dee potatoes” at me – a phrase about as Irish as saying Fosters is the Australian for beer, by the way – here’s a quick guide.

Not as fast paced as Shore Thing, but a better read.St Patrick’s Day occurs on March 17th and is the Irish national day. It’s believed to have celebrated by the Irish since the ninth century. The real Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, would probably be somewhat bemused by all this mentioning of green and beer and potatoes. The original colour associated with him was blue and the only written records he left behind him, the Confessio and the Letter to Coroticus, are not filled with either lavish descriptions of tuber-based cuisine nor playing drinking games until 2am.

When he was not driving the snakes out of Ireland – the pleasant way of saying he got rid of the pagans – Patrick was a bit of an old booklover himself who preached piety and learning in equal measure. His influence is partly credited with instilling Ireland with a sense of literacy and learning that encouraged Ireland to become “the isle of saints and scholars”. This is a point of pride for many Irish people – we are, after all, a nation who live in a country where literature and art are exempt from tax so books are GST free – and some have gone so far as to claim we are responsible for keeping libraries and literature alive through the dark ages.

So clever, and modest too!Thomas Cahill’s modestly named, “How The Irish Saved Civilization” describes how Irish monks and scribes copied and preserved the manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, maintaining the records of Western civilization while Europe was being overrun during the dark ages. He argues they preserved Western culture and allowed it to be reintroduced to the continent when the barbarians finally got bored and buggered off.  So if you are looking for an Irish activity to do on St Patrick’s Day, you could do worse than read a good book.

Quieter activities like reading might suit an Australian take on the day better – St Patrick’s Day isn’t a public holiday over here, so celebrations are usually held on the Sunday closest to it. But make sure you don’t miss out completely because – speaking as an Irishwoman who has done the day in many places – Australia usually throws a great bash. In Sydney, for example, their St Patrick’s Day Parade has passed its thirtieth year and ends with one hell of a party in Hyde Park. Celebrations have been going on in Sydney for as long as there have been Irish here. The first recorded party was in 1810, when a dinner was organised for the convicts under the employ of the governor of the city.

It might have started with a dinner, but it got bigger – and noisier – fast. In 1895, Sydney’s archbishop Cardinal Moran, an Irishman himself, banned the parade because of the “tendency of marchers to gravitate to the pubs afterwards”.  History doesn’t record whether this stopped them going to the pub altogether, or whether with nothing to distract them they just went there earlier in the day. But to the pub all Patrick’s Day celebrations will doubtless go, so be ready to put down your book and have a pint with friends at some stage because the other thing that the day is definately about is community and socialising.

While you are there, please remember that it’s never Patty’s day (that’s a hamburger) or St Pat’s, and that if your beer is green that probably means it has gone off. If you want to celebrate St Patrick’s Day exactly like the Irish, here’s how to do it. Wear a bit of emerald green, have a drink with your friends and a sing-along in the pub. That’s about it.

And, as we say in Irish, Lá ‘le Pádraig sona daoibh go léir – a happy St Patrick’s day to you all.

 

Going Green for the Day – Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona daoibh

Tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, and we all know what that means.

Well, actually, we don’t. Ask people about the correct way to celebrate the holiday and you’ll probably hear about something that sounds like a riot in a brewery, possibly with the words “beer”, “fiddle-de-dee” and “potatoes” thrown in for good measure. So, in the interest of promoting cross-cultural understanding and not having to hear anyone say fiddle-de-dee potatoes at me – a phrase as Irish as saying Fosters is the Australian for beer, by the way, here’s a quick guide.

St Patrick’s Day is March 17th is the Irish national day believed to have celebrated by the Irish since the ninth centuries. The real Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, would probably be somewhat bemused by all this mentioning of beer and potatoes. The only written records he left behind him were two texts, the Confessio and the Letter to Coroticus, neither of which are known for their description of nights on the lash.

When he was not driving the snakes out of Ireland – the pleasant way of saying he got rid of the pagans – Patrick was a bit of an old booklover himself. His influence is partly credited with instilling Ireland with a sense of literacy and learning that encouraged Ireland to become “the isle of saints and scholars”. This is a point of pride for many Irish people – we are, after all, a nation who live in a country where literature and art are exempt from tax so books are GST free – and some have gone so far as to claim we are responsible for keeping libraries and literature alive through the dark ages.

Thomas Cahill’s modestly named, “How The Irish Saved Civilization” describes how Irish monks and scribes copied and preserved the manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, maintaining the records of Western civilization while Europe was being overrun during the dark ages. He argues they preserved Western culture and allowed it to be reintroduced to the continent when the barbarians finally got bored and buggered off. So if you are looking for an Irish activity to do on St Patrick’s Day, you could do worse than read a good book.

http://www.boomerangbooks.com.au/Real-St-Patrick/James-McCormack-CM/book_9781856076074.htm

Quieter activities like reading might suit an Australian take on the day better – St Patrick’s Day isn’t a public holiday over here, so celebrations are usually held on the Sunday closest to it. But make sure you don’t miss out completely because – speaking as an Irishwoman who has done the day in many places – Australia usually throws a great bash. In Sydney, for example, their St Patrick’s Day Parade has passed its thirtieth year and ends with one hell of a party in Hyde Park. Celebrations have been going on in Sydney for as long as there have been Irish here. The first recorded party was in 1810, when a dinner was organised for the convicts under the employ of the governor of the city.

It might have started with a dinner, but it got bigger. A lot bigger. In 1895, Sydney’s archbishop Cardinal Moran, an Irishman himself, banned the parade because of the “tendency of marchers to gravitate to the pubs afterwards”. History doesn’t record whether this stopped them going to the pub altogether, or whether with nothing to distract them they just went there earlier in the day. But to the pub all Patrick’s Day celebrations will doubtless go, so be ready to put down your book and have a pint with friends at some stage.

While you are there, please remember that it’s never Patty’s day (that’s a hamburger) and that ordering an Irish Car Bomb is a) something most irish people have never heard of, b) a terrible thing to do perfectly good beer and c) a phrase that would get you punched in Ireland for the sheer offensiveness of it.

So, if you want to celebrate St Patrick’s Day like the Irish, here’s how to do it. Wear a bit of green, have a drink with your friends and a sing-along in the pub. That’s about it.

And, as we say in Irish, Lá Fhéile Pádraig shona daoibh – happy St patrick’s day to you all.

http://www.boomerangbooks.com.au/How-the-Irish-Saved-Civilisation/Thomas-Cahill/book_9780385418492.htm

http://www.boomerangbooks.com.au/Yeats-is-Dead/Joseph-OConnor/book_9780099422341.htm

The Sky is Falling! Future Babble, fatalism and why we want to hear bad news

“Most of the prophets of the past millennium were more concerned with scansion than accuracy. You know, ‘And thee Worlde Unto An Ende Shall Come, in tumpty-tumpty-tumpty One.’ Or Two, or Three, or whatever. There aren’t many good rhymes for Six, so it’s probably a good year to be in.”
Aziraphale, in Good Omens* by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

If I’m somewhat skeptical of prophecies of doom and gloom these days, it’s because I got it all out of my system when I was younger. At some point in my early teens, some eejit introduced me to the prophecies of Nostradamus ensuring that I would my last few years of childhood plagued by nightmares and terrified that the world was about to end.

The prophecy that particularly obsessed me read; “The year 1999 and seventh month, from the sky will come the great king of terror” giving me two major worries; would the world end in 1999 and, if so, would it at least have the grace to do it after my birthday which was early in the month? Surely by July, they meant mid-to-late July, right?

Worrying about the future comes naturally to me, as least as it pertains to me personally. In fact, worrying about the future is something humans seem to excel at. From doomsday cults to end-of-time prophets, from massive enviromental failure to Mother Nature throwing a terminal stroppy fit, we’re all ready to listen whenever Chicken Licken tells us that the sky is falling, again.

Dan Gardner’s Future Babble – Why Expert Predictions Are Wrong And Why We Believe Them Anyway is an analysis of this, and of why humans seem to long to hear the worst. He argues that finding the glass not just half-full but possibly poisonous is a useful survival trait, which may go some way toward explaining Nostradamus’s enduring popularity, and how we are  more likely to give credibility to experts who get it almost always wrong than the quieter ones who occasionally get it right. And by occasionally, he means about half the time if they are lucky – Gardner pulls no punches in his condemnation of our practise of trusting expert opinions on the future.

“Let’s face it: experts are about as accurate as dart-throwing monkeys. And yet, every day, we ask them to predict everything from the weather to the likelihood of a terrorist attack. Future Babble is the first book to examine this phenomenon, demonstrating why our brains yearn for certainty about the future, why we are attracted to those who predict it confidently, and why it’s so easy for us to ignore the trail of outrageously wrong forecasts.”

And while many books on the future make the reader feel the end is nigh, Gardner explores cognitive psychology, political science, and behavioral economics to come up with an optimistic outlook; the future is always uncertain but – despite what the experts often say – the end is not always near.

It’s long gone 1999, and we’re all still here. Actually, a small bit of fact-checking now seems to suggest that the great king of terror could have been Ricky Martin, whose brain-meltingly catchy Livin’ la Vida Loca dominated the airwaves to claim the number one spot in mid-July. Just sayin’.

* On a side note, Good Omens is a fantastic book. I highly recommend it if you are a fan of comedic writing especially if you – or someone you need a gift for – is a fan of Pratchett, Gaiman or Douglas Adams.

Celebrating female writers on International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day and to celebrate we are asking who is your favourite female author and what women writers recently rocked your socks?

I may write about non-fiction these days, but my early years were filled with fiction written by women. This is not because I felt strongly about reading female authors but because once someone placed a copy of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty in my tiny hands I became utterly obsessed with books about ponies. Between pestering my folk’s to buy me anything by Christine Pullein-Thompson and rampaging through the library looking for all things equine, if it had a horse in it, I tracked it down and read it with a dedication that was sadly missing from my devotion to schoolwork.

My first favourite writer was an Australian woman who wrote poetry and passion about horses and the Australian bush – Elyne Mitchell of the Silver Brumby series fame. Long before I could pronounce it, I yearned to see the slopes of Mount Kosciusko and its silver gums and herds of brumbies. (In fact, I’m not sure I can pronounce it. Cos-kus-zio? Cosk-usque-yo? Can I just call it the Big K?)

In college, I learned to love a bit of Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood and Ruth Park and spent more time digesting non-fiction – Naomi Klein take on consumerism and the media in her book’s No Logo and Shock Doctrine, Susan Faludi on feminism and how gender expectations affect both sexes. It wasn’t all heavy reading and high literature – I frequently sought some light relief with Robin Hobb who I’ve been reading for over a decade now and I still think writes some of the best character-driven fantasy out there.

Recent releases by women hogging the best spots on my bookshelf include Mira’s Grants Feed, a tale of politics and media in the post-zombie apocalypse world with a suitably savvy and complex female protagonist,  and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a study of neurosexism – the idea that hard-wired differences in the brains of the sexes accounts for the gender status quo –  which is particularly appropriate for the day that is in it.

Not that the day was conceived as a recent idea in the battle against sexist pseudo-science – originally called International Working Women’s Day, it has Eastern European and socialist origins and was first observed in 1911 in Germany. Demonstrations for International Women’s Day in Russia were the first stage of the Russian Revolution of 1917. While the day has changed since its inception, the original political and human rights theme still runs strong, and political and social awareness of the struggles of women worldwide are highlighted, with reasons for cheer celebrated. In 1977 the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.

And for those of you wondering, there is also an International Men’s Day on November 19, with a focus on men’s and boy’s health, improving gender relations, promoting gender equality, and highlighting positive male role models.  On the internet there is also an unofficial consensus that March 14th is Steak and Other Nice Thing we won’t name here Day, but I have never seen why both genders can’t enjoy that. I can even put on a great vegan chilli for the non-steak eaters out there.

Happy International Women’s Day, and happy reading!

Beating The Odds – Nichola Garvey’s journey from interview to book release

When UTS student Nichola Garvey walked up the driveway of one of Australia’s most controversial businessmen, she was starting the path to her first book. It was meant to be a simple course assignment but her biography of Alan Tripp became a story that simply demanded to be told. Her book, Beating the Odds, is released today and I caught up with her to find out more.

You started writing this book as part of your degree in Creative Writing – when did you know you had a bigger story on your hands?

Every week we would bring our writing to class for our tutor and peers to critique. I had only written half a chapter but when the class had finished reading my work the teacher looked up at me and said, “Have you got a publisher?” If I didn’t know already, I knew then that the story was a winner.

How did this book come about?

I would catch up with my writing mentor every 2-3 months or so. Usually I’d give him something to read prior to our meeting and that would provide the basis of our discussion. This day I gave him a chapter from the book and when I arrived he said to me, “This is strong stuff. Can I send it to my publisher, HarperCollins?” HarperCollins came back the very next day and asked to read more of the book. I gave them another chapter. Six weeks later I had a book deal.

What bit was the most fun to research and write?

It was fun interviewing people with different views on the same topic. For instance the police had a different angle to the Costigan Commission which was different again to the SP bookies. I found that by researching and presenting the different viewpoints the story delivered more depth and complexity which made for far more interesting writing…and reading!

You’ve described Alan as meticulous in record-keeping including his own media clippings; was that a big help with the biography?

All information that has been filed away over the years is a big help when writing biographies.  While the newspaper clippings were good, because they tell the facts, they don’t give you the emotion behind the story and funnily enough this is what fades first in people’s memories too. The biggest help in collating the information was being able to talk to many people and in this way I was able to fill in the gaps.

What was the biggest challenge in putting this together?

Deciding how to write the book in terms of process was the biggest challenge. I’d never written something of this length before and it was daunting. Some people plan all the chapters first and then randomly populate the chapters – I tried this but it didn’t work, I kept over-explaining myself. So, I had to start at the start and systematically work my way through Alan’s life from beginning to end.

What advice would you give to other would-be biographers?

Don’t be too academic and factual. The best biographies I’ve read are written like stories, complete with characters, a story line and suspense.

Beating the Odds is the biography of Alan Tripp, Australia’s most convicted and celebrated starting-price bookmaker. The prime target of gaming and vice squads around the country in the 1980s, his punting clientele included Prime Minister Bob Hawke, media baron Kerry Packer, gangsters Lewis Moran and Alphonse Gangitano, and underworld figure Mick Gatto as well as many leading trainers and jockeys of the day. Tripp’s life  was a roller-coaster of high-stakes gambling, with the dual threats of bankruptcy and prison never far behind. Yet he would eventually sell his businesses for hundreds of millions of dollars. This book tells his story.

The Consumer Manifesto – Bruce Philps on writing (Part 2)

In writing Consumer Republic, Bruce Philps set out to present retailers and customers with a manifesto for change, couched in the form of a great read. No small goal. Here, in the second part of my interview with him, he talks about getting his book out there, including advice to aspiring specialist writers looking to pen their thoughts on their field.

What was the biggest challenge in putting this book together?

The usual challenges were there, of course: finding time and a place to write, organizing my thesis, researching, all of the things that go with non-fiction writing. But there were also two unique challenges in this book. One was that I was catching a very specific moment in history, and I had no idea where the zeitgeist might go by the time I was finished. It was a gamble that the finished product would be seen as relevant. And, as I mention in the Author’s Notes, the research material was coming at me like patio furniture in a hurricane. It was like what I imagine being a journalist is like, except that I have no such training.

The other challenge was more about fear than about the process, but it bears mentioning: This book attempts to be reasonable about a very big and freighted issue. Reasonableness isn’t very fashionable these days. People can too easily love their simple black hat-white hat narratives, love someone to blame, love to wallow in fear and anger. Heated rhetoric sometimes feels as if it’s replacing critical thought. Meanwhile, here’s “Consumer Republic” saying, “Well, this mess was kind of our fault, too. And in any case, fault-finding is a waste of time. Because this is a free market economy, the only change there can be is change that begins with consumer demand.” I was afraid I was going to have to get Naomi Klein to start my car for a while, there.

So far, I’m happy to report, this fear seems unfounded. People seem very open to the idea that they have the power to turn things around and are excited by that.

You worked in marketing for years before deciding to write about it. What advice would you give to other would-be professionals looking at writing about their field?

There are a couple of ways to answer this question. The first is for the more common situation in which a practicing professional wants to write about what she does as a form of self-marketing. To her I would say, treat your book as your platform, not as your product. For a book to help your career or even just to be a business, you have to leverage it into public speaking and consulting work, and you have to be your own best, most tireless promoter. Examples of people who have done this are countless, but I think that Sall Hogshead’s “Fascinate” or Gary Vaynerchuk’s “Crush It” are great current cases in point.  They may do better with their books than most writers of this kind will do, but I can assure you that the books in both cases were pillars of bigger, longer term personal branding strategies.

My situation wasn’t exactly like that, though, and that leads to the second answer. Although I will continue to consult, I left the company I founded before this book came out, and in some respects left the industry itself. “Consumer Republic” wasn’t meant as a business book, but as a book for consumers and a manifesto; there was no ‘business model’.

To someone who wants to do this, my advice is a little different. Yes, you are still going to be your own brand manager as any writer today is, but you’re also going to have to let go of what you were, at least while you’re writing. You’re going to have to be a writer, not a consultant who writes, with all that implies. I spent a lot of time on my own, and I spent a lot of time doubting myself, two things that were not characteristic of my business career or my lifestyle, but very much are characteristic of being an author. I also had to be willing to fail, utterly. That, again, isn’t a sustainable business strategy, but it’s the only way to go into a project like this. And, with that, I had to realize that I wasn’t a CEO anymore, I was a helpless little bunny with a book to write. I relied on an editor, a very smart woman who marked my work like a schoolteacher and without whom the book wouldn’t have been possible. Likewise, an agent, and likewise a publicist, and so on. You have to learn trust and dependency and humility all over again, and if fortune favours you with mentors, embrace the opportunity tightly.

What would you like to write next?

I’ve had another project in development since a couple of months before “Consumer Republic” was released here, another book about consumerism that reimagines it as a pop culture phenomenon. I won’t say more, but even at the conceptual stage, it was great fun to gnaw on. Since “Consumer Republic” has come out, though, it’s had a great deal of media attention and interest and attracted enough fresh questions that I’d love to be ‘forced’ to write a sequel. Hey, a guy can dream.

Consumer Republic will be released on March 28th, but you can pre-order now from Boomerang. You can also check out his blog at “Brand Cowboy”.

Shopping to Save the World – Consumer Republic by Bruce Philp

Bruce Philps wants shoppers to realise something: we hold all the power.

His book, Consumer Republic, argues that – far from being us being powerless passive consumers constantly buffeted by slick marketing – the brands that corporations spend millions to develop and maintain makes them accountable. Expensive to create and more public than anything else a corporation has or does, a brand is an enormously valuable and fragile asset to them. And we consumers have the power to make it worthless with just a few clicks and key-strokes.

Brands, says Philp, are the leverage the average consumer has with which to make a company behave itself. And he should know. Describing himself as a “advocate for brands”, he works as a marketing strategist to some of the world’s biggest brands, helping them create brands that are both profitable and sustainable. (“Profitable is easy, sustainable isn’t.”) His previously-published book, Orange Code, explains how the championing of consumers led to ING Direct’s revolutionary rise in the banking industry.

I caught up with Bruce to ask him a few questions about his book. Here, in the first part of my interview with him, he talks about the big Australian brands, the Aussie approach to consumerism and how to react to attacks on your own personal brand.

In Consumer Republic, you discuss – and contrast – European and American attitudes to branding and consumerism. How about the Australians?

Comparative data like the material I used in the “Europeans” chapter isn’t as easy to come by for Australia, unfortunately, so I can’t give you an empirical answer. But since my pundit license is current, I can share some impressions. My sense of the Australian consumer is that she has more in common with those in my home market of Canada than perhaps anyone else in the world. Both are suspended between the global influence of American brand culture on one side and, on the other, three moderating forces that are more European in character: hereditary Anglo reserve, healthy suspicion of social climbing, and a cultural preference for working to live rather than living to work.

What this produces is a muted version of American consumerism, wherein we still lust for things and often spend more than we ought to, but there is also still some social currency in understatement and a resistance to forced social consensus.  That seems to be the attitude, anyway, to a casual observer. Still in all, it’s worth pointing out that Australians have in the past had among the highest ratios of household debt to disposable income in the world. Whatever the various contributors to that number are, it certainly has to be construed as a warning that perhaps consumerism needs moderation there, too, and that perhaps more of us in the world resemble the pre-2008 American consumer than we’d like to think.

What’s your favourite and least favourite Australian brand?

My favourite Australian brand is that of Australia itself. I am in awe of how clearly it seems to understand its nation-brand, at least to those of us in the rest of the world. It is extremely comfortable with its distinctiveness and with the virtue in that distinctiveness. It’s impressive enough that so many people dream of living there despite the fact that apparently everything in nature wants to kill you (I owe this characterization to my daughter whose heart has been stolen by an Australian man). But I also think it’s an admirable model for branding of any kind. If I had to choose a more typical consumer brand, I’d have to say that I greatly admire Billabong. It’s achieved global brand status in a tough product category, and seems to be staying on top of its game.

As for a least favourite, I don’t think I have one. But forced again to answer, I might choose Foster’s in its global brand guise. In export markets, this brand’s advertising has often made some pretty ham-fisted use of its Australian heritage, doing neither it nor Australia’s brand any favours at all.

How do you react when people diss your brand on social media – slag off your book or blog? In this age of “personal branding”, do you think we need to vigilant or get over ourselves?

The best way for anybody to approach the social media space is the way public relations people have always approached the world: Decide on your reaction by first assessing the credibility of the attacker. As has always been true, there are times when it’s best not to rise to the bait because the dissers are either hopelessly unreasonable and shrill, or they are lonely voices in the social media wilderness.

Often, though, if a criticism is well reasoned and legitimate, you can accomplish a lot by engaging with the critic. For one thing, it’s amazing how things can suddenly get very polite when something like this turns from a speech into a public conversation. For another, any brand that lives online – and we all do – has to bear in mind that everything that’s said about it becomes part of the internet’s canon. Too much criticism, unanswered, becomes what people will find in the future when they Google you, so to speak. Engagement is, in the crudest terms, a way to make sure that the good scraps of information about you floating around out there in cyberspace outweigh the bad.

So, yes, I’m vigilant (technology like Google Alerts makes this very easy), but I try not to get too paranoid about it. I try to respond to every serious blog comment and every Twitter mention, and will for as long as it’s practical.

Consumer Republic will be released on March 28th, but you can pre-order now from Boomerang. We’ll be posting the rest of the interview, including Bruce’s advice to aspiring specialist writers looking to pen their thoughts on their field, on Friday.

Cooking up a storm – what books do you want read about?

Looking through the top non-fiction books of 2010, I can see that many of them are in areas that I never really get into – cookery, food, gardening, home-making and crafts.

Look, there is a reason for this. My skills don’t lie in these areas, even if I often enjoy their output. I love to eat but my cookery can best be described as spontaneous, where spontaneous is a euphemistic way of saying, “too lazy to follow recipes”. I don’t have all the necessary blenders, creamers and accoutrements that many books assume you have clogging up the kitchen. I live in a small flat, I have limited space, and most of that goes to books.

I also never remember to buy all the ingredients, so end up substituting and feeding my guests improvisations that ranges from the sublimes to the “screw this, let’s order some takeaway from the Thai place up the road”. Seeking to rectify this, a friend has just kindly sent me some Nigella’s as a gift. I’m picking up some new recipes, but also a far larger waistline. Nigella must have a metabolism that runs like a badly-serviced Hummer. Mine, sadly, is more economical, getting several gallons of flab from one cupcake.

Reading about food makes me want to eat it – I’m getting peckish just writing this. I’m going to avoid baking and dessert books on the general principle that prevention is far better than needing to spend an extra five hours a weeks on the treadmill. But the cookbooks that I avert my eyes from are incredibly popular with many of Boomerang readers – cooking, wine and food guides take up 60 places in the top 1,000, with most of those in the top 300.

As for my gardening? I’ve blogged already about my black thumbs (the Venus Fly-Trap ate about 10 flies and then sadly passed away over winter for those of you wondering). I do enjoy growing veggies and the odd flower, but I’m missing the bits of brains that makes a morning spent gardening anything but a chore.  (Also, I am very bad at identifying the difference between weeds and, say, strawberry plants. So I avoid areas where this might be an issue. Especially when they are someone else’s strawberries.)

Can’t cook, can’t garden, been known to injure myself with knitting needles and glue my own fingers together while crafting. It’s safe to say that, while I might be able to provide a reasonable beginner’s guides to home and craft things (especially for those of you who enjoy reading about disasters), I’m not the right person to claim to be an authority on these popular fields.

What do you think? Does Boomerang need a cookery or gardening or crafting blogger, or perhaps one crafty person who could combine all those things into one blog? What would you like to see non-fiction blogs about?

What would you write about?

One of 2010's biggest hits, books from the "4 Ingredients" appeared 4 times in our top 100.

Top 10 books on Food (Boomerang sales in 2010)

  1. Our Family Table
  2. MasterChef Australia: The Cookbook (Volume 2)
  3. 4 Ingredients: Fast, Fresh and Healthy
  4. Fast Fresh Simple
  5. MasterChef Australia: The Cookbook (Volume 1)
  6. Dukan Diet, The
  7. AWW Slow Cooking
  8. Jamie’s 30-minute Meals
  9. Crunch Time Cookbook: 100 Knockout Recipes for Rapid Weight Loss
  10. Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery

Who will be your Valentine? The Romance Top 10

I don’t normally do the Valentine’s thing, so it was a bit of a surprise when the doorbell rang this morning. Whatever could it be?

On seeing the large lump in the postie’s hands it became obvious it wasn’t a huge bundle of flowers or a carefully gift-wrapped pony (a girl can hope) but my latest delivery of books from Boomerang. Despite the day that’s in it, the contents of my package weren’t very lovey-dovey. If I had fancied something a little more romantic though, I would have had some excellent guidance. According to the list of the Boomerang Top 1,000 books in 2010 that I recently got my paws on, many of you have been dipping your noses into books of love, lust and just perhaps a little period drama. The most sold Romance novels by Boomerang in 2010 were:

  1. Master Player, The
  2. Stormy Greek Marriage
  3. Country Midwife, Christmas Bride
  4. Quarterback Daddy / Valentine Bride
  5. Mavericks Virgin Mistress / Unbridled, The: Mills & Boon Desire
  6. Australian Boss: Diamond Ring
  7. Going Down Hard / Once A Rebel
  8. Charade / Imminent Affair
  9. Wedding At King’s Convenience
  10. From Russia, with Love / Scent of a Woman

I can’t link to most as they are sadly no longer available (romance books have a faster turn-over than Warnie’s dates) but just look at that list.  I’m fascinated by the descriptions – for example the intriguing Quarterback Daddy/Valentine Bride combo.  The second book in the pair, Valentine Bride tells the story of beautiful Irina who enters into a green card marriage so she won’t have to return to her war-torn homeland.

I’ve been known to enjoy a romantic interlude occasionally but sadly Irina’s story will no longer ring true for me, as will no book that uses the “marriage as a quick and easy way to get a visa” plot. As someone who has actually gone this route, I can tell you that partner visas are neither quick nor easy. My green card resulted from beating the Department of Immigration around the head with approximately 3 kilos of legal statements and affadavits until they cried Uncle.

How do I love thee? Here is the 300 pages of forms, certified documents, statutory declarations and accompanying appendices. Oh, and a huge processing fee.

It must be love. I have the paperwork to prove it, if not the gift-wrapped pony.

My package included Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth, a dissection of modern stereotypes of female beauty and the societal and personal obsession with that beauty, and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, which explores meat-eating and the ethics of it. Nothing says romance like examining theories of consuming and shaping human and animal flesh. Mmm hmm.

On a slightly lighter, or at least more comedic note, there is Last Chance to See; Douglas Adams’s journey across the world in search of its most endangered creatures (hence the title), and On Writing by Stephen King, which I have finally decided to upgrade from my e-version to a real book as it is just that brilliant.

So, not exactly a package spilling forth with romance and all things torrid and bodice-ripping. But, as I got it on Valentine’s Day, I’ve decided that makes it official. Boomerang Books, I will be your Valentine!

Now, where is that gift-wrapped pony?

Going Postal Giveaway

In January 2009, Englishman Nathan Millward found himself in Sydney and in an unenviable situation; a great girlfriend in Australia and no Australian visa.

I have no small amount of sympathy for him, having faced almost exactly the same thing myself a few years ago. With a promising relationship starting, and my visa ending, it seemed like the worst luck in the world to have met a wonderful Australian bloke at exactly the same time as Immigration were counting down the days to my departure. Luckily I found a way to swing a reprieve and stay working in Sydney to give the relationship a fighting chance.

Nathan Millward and his girlfriend Mandy had no such luck, and he decided to make the best of a bad lot and take the road less travelled. Literally. Instead of hopping on the plane he elected to try to ride home, from Sydney to London, overland. On a motorbike –  a decommissioned Australia Post bike called Dot, to be precise. With just two days to prepare in Sydney, he set out to drive his little red bike from Sydney to Darwin, with the aim of continuing on through Indonesia, Thailand and then through to Pakistan and the Middle East into Europe.

Two days preparation. That meant he had to apply for visas and the dreaded carnet internacional (a passport for his bike, effectively) while on the road. If it all went belly up, or if his bike went belly down and took him along, Nathan couldn’t claim it back on his insurance as insurance companies wouldn’t cover him in several of the areas he was travelling to. With a milk crate stuck on the front containing his worldly goods, far less vaccinations than recommended and a helmet signed by Kevin Rudd, he was off to travel the world at sixty-five kilometres an hour. Oh, on a bike that he didn’t have time to get looked over by a mechanic.

I can assure you, finding a job to take a punt on you is a much easier option and I’m happy that I managed to avoid Nathan’s round the world trip. The Australian and I currently doing the prep on our Irish-Australian wedding, so I personally think that extra visa was the best move I ever made. But I have to admit, riding a motorbike around the world – or at least around Australia – has a certain ring to it. Wonder if I can get my Australian on the back?

Want to read Going Postal? Boomerang is giving it away (thanks to HarperCollins) as part of a non-fiction pack prize also Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv and Inside Story by Peter Lloyd (thanks to Allen and Unwin).  Entries close tomorrow – Wednesday 9 February at 5pm Australian Eastern Time – so get your name by clicking through here to the competition and do it fast!

(Please note that you must be either a Boomerang Books Member or a fan of the Boomerang Books Facebook Page to be eligible to win. Both of which are things easier to achieve than getting an Australian visa or riding across the world on a bike.)

Simply the best – our top 25 non-fiction books

Ever wondered what other Boomerang fans are reading? Wonder no more. I recently got my hands on the data of the Boomerang books top sales for 2011, an impressively massive spreadsheet of what people have been buying with their hard-earned cash. It’s an excellent snap-shot of what Australians, and specifically Boomerang readers (Boomers? Boomies?), were browsing in 2010.

The big winner is, of course, Eat Pray Love. I’ve heard it described as Eat, Pray, Vom, or Barf, Barf, Barf (with an amazingly funny movie review here) but with three of the places in the top 100 held by various editions of her book, Elizabeth Gilbert probably isn’t losing any sleep over what her various detractors have to say.

In fact, self-absorption seems to be the order of the year. Looking through the first four books, it’s all biographies or memoirs. If you want the Australian audience hanging on your every word, you should play hard, party hard, get into politics or be a bit of a comedian. (Doing all the above but completely forgetting what you got up to due to the truly vast level of drugs taken at the time only works if you are Keith Richards.)

Talented but troubled AFL star, Ben Cousins:, released the most read Australian biography of the year. Coming after him was John Howard’s Lazarus Rising. Love him, hate him or just want to find out what goes on in that shiny bald head of his, his biography was the third best selling of the year, followed by Anh Do’s excellent The Happiest Refugee.

Just after that came an awful lot of cookbooks and Keith (who, going on his cadaverous appearance, could probably do with buying a few). Want to see the list?

Boomerang Books Non-Fiction Top 25

  1. Eat, Pray, Love Gilbert, Elizabeth
  2. Ben Cousins: My Life Story Cousins, Ben
  3. Lazarus Rising Howard, John
  4. Happiest Refugee, The: A Memoir    Do, Anh
  5. MasterChef Australia: The Cookbook Volume 2
  6. Life: Keith Richards Richards, Keith
  7. 4 Ingredients: Fast, Fresh and Healthy
  8. Fast Fresh Simple    Hay, Donna
  9. MasterChef Australia: The Cookbook Volume 1
  10. Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage     Gilbert, Elizabeth
  11. True Spirit: The Aussie Girl Who Took on the World     Watson, Jessica
  12. Dukan Diet, The     Dukan, Pierre
  13. Brain That Changes Itself, The     Doidge, Norman
  14. Underbelly: The Golden Mile    Silvester, John & Rule, Andrew
  15. Food of India, The: A Journey for Food Lovers
  16. Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Enter If You Dare!: Bk. 7
  17. AWW Slow Cooking Australian,     Women’s Weekly
  18. Fry Chronicles, The: A Memoir        Fry, Stephen
  19. Standing My Ground      Hayden, Matthew
  20. Simpler Time, A: A Memoir of Love, Laughter, Loss and Billycarts     FitzSimons, Peter
  21. How to Make Gravy     Kelly, Paul
  22. Jamie’s 30-minute Meals     Oliver, Jamie
  23. Crunch Time Cookbook: 100 Knockout Recipes for Rapid Weight Loss     Bridges, Michelle
  24. Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery     Fulton, Margaret
  25. Slow Cooker:Easy and Delicious Recipes for All Seasons  Sally Wise

So that’s the top non-fiction top reads of last year, but here’s a few other fun facts on Boomerang books sold in 2010.

  • The only astrology book to appear in the top thousand is Dadhichi Toth’s Pisces 2011. So, even if beleaguered astrologists are being lambasted as charlatans by scientists everywhere, at least they can point at one bit of verifiable data – that people born under the sign of Pisces are more likely to buy astrology books.
  • Most popular places to travel, going on the volume of guide books sold, are Europe, Vietnam, the USA and Bali.
  • The most popular phrasebook is French.
  • The most popular places to read travelogues about, on the other hand, are Tuscany, Australia, with three of the top 4 (From Here to There: A Father and Son Roadtrip from Melbourne to London, Is That Thing Diesel?: One Man, One Bike and the First Lap Around Australia and Bill Bryson’s Down Under) taking the honours for the lucky country.
  • Richard Dawkins and Dr Karl dominate the popular science field, making skeptics the order of the day. Superfreakonomics in all it’s various forms, is vastly more popular than every other type of economics and lots of people are willing to pay quite a lot of cash to find out what Rhonda Byrne’s Secret and Power are. (They should ask Dr Karl and Richard Dawkins. The answers would be amusing.)

Anything else you would like to know?

Hacking, biting and just a touch of throbbing – The Boomerang Top 10

As someone who always has to contain my urge to snoop through other people’s bookshelves when I’m left unattended, one of the things that always fascinates me while on the Boomerang site is the “what’s happening?” bar on the right of the screen. This little column tells you what other browsers are looking up and it’s frequently a diverting read. I find myself wandering away from the books I planned to look at to check out complete stranger’s selections. I’ve ended up browsing – and buying – everything from cookery books to financial planning to heady period romances.

It’s the internet equivalent of going out to get milk and coming back with three pounds of seafood, a lampshade, four bath bombs and a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

The thing is, while it’s a lot of fun, this is just a snap-shot of what a few other browsers are looking at. Some of you may remember my delight when Nielsen Bookscan, the world’s largest book tracking service, released data on their book-sales over the last ten years allowing spreadsheet-loving bibliophiles the chance to compare their reading with the rest of the worlds.

I got more than a little excited about this (you can find my delighted frothing here) but this information related to book sales in the UK only and I found myself lamenting the lack of Australian data. Would we be similar or vastly different? Would we read more or less non-fiction? Could anyone explain the enduring popularity of Gillian McKeith? What were other Boomerang readers are reading overall?

Well, wonder no more, because I have in my overexcited little hands (well, my hard drive) the Boomerang data for 2010. It’s going to take more than one blog – so much spreadsheet! so much graph! – but here’s a quick and dirty look at what the average Boomerang reader was browsing through in 2010.

It was the year of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Steig Larsson’s trilogy taking up spaces 1, 2 and 4. The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner pipped in at number 3, preventing Lisbeth Salander from making off with the gold, silver and bronze.

And, unlike the UK where the first non-fiction showed up at number 20, Aussies had non-fiction come in strong in the top 10. Eat, Pray, Love took fifth place and Julie Goodwin’s Our Family Table came in just after it (this was also the most sold Australian book of the year – you can read our interview with Julie on the process of writing it here).

Wimpy kids proved popular, as did Jodi Picoult. Proving that there is no end to the surprises that peaking on other people’s reading can bring you, in eight place was a book I have never heard of; Master Player by Emma Darcy, where handsome tycoon and television baron Maximilian Hart whisks innocent beauty Chloe away from the paparazzi with the aim of getting her into his (probably emperor sized, possibly throbbing) bed.

This is sadly no longer in print – romance novels turn over faster than celeb perfumes – but you can get a copy of her latest book, the intriguingly titled Ruthless Billionaire, Forbidden Baby. Please, please do send me a review if you have read them, I’m now fascinated and Boomerang doesn’t provide a blurb – perhaps it couldn’t take all those handsome billionaires throbbing and pulsating all over the place.

Anyway, without further ado, or further musings on how exactly one would throb a billionaire, here’s the list.

Boomerang Books Top 10 in 2010

  1. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,The: Millennium Trilogy – Larsson, Stieghttp://www.boomerangbooks.com.au/Our-Family-Table/Julie-Goodwin/book_9781741669688.htm
  2. Girl Who Played with Fire,The: Millennium Trilogy – Larsson, Stieg
  3. Short Second Life of Bree Tanner,The: An Eclipse Novella – Meyer, Stephenie
  4. Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest,The: Millennium Trilogy – Larsson, Stieg
  5. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything – Gilbert, Elizabeth
  6. Our Family Table – Goodwin, Julie
  7. House Rules – Picoult, Jodi
  8. Master Player,The: Sexy S. – Darcy, Emma
  9. Ugly Truth,The: Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Kinney, Jeff
  10. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Kinney, Jeff.

Jane McCredie on Making Girls and Boys

In 2007, when a 12-year-old child successfully applied for hormonal treatment to prevent their female puberty because they wanted to live as a boy, it got Australian writer Jane McCredie wondering, what is it that makes us a boy or a girl? From cradle to grave, our perceived gender has a fundamental affect on what we choose, how we live, and how we think about the world and how the world sees us. But are sex and gender really that simple a matter?

The belief that differences between the sexes are fixed or “hard-wired” in the brain has been labeled “neurosexism” and it’s a concept I am seeing crop up more often. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender was one of my most interesting reads of 2010 dealing extensively with the pseudo-science around sex.  The word neurosexism is up for nomination as the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year 2010.

Evolutionary psychologists, trans-gendered people, children playing with trucks and dolls, hormone specialists – they all have different stories to tell about what makes us girls and boys and Jane’s book, Making Girls and Boys, interlaces those stories to look at sex, gender and identity, both in the labs and on the streets. I caught up with her to ask a few questions.

Why did you decide to write Making Girls and Boys, and why now?

In 2007, a 12-year-old child successfully applied to the Family Court to have hormonal treatment to prevent female puberty because, despite being born anatomically female, he wanted to live as a boy. In the wake of the case, I wrote a feature for a doctors’ magazine about what clinicians call gender identity disorder — it could also be called transsexualism — and particularly its manifestation in childhood. I was surprised to discover in the course of my research how early transsexual feelings appear, generally in toddlerhood. If a three-year-old child could have an absolute conviction they belonged to the other sex, I found myself wondering, what did that say about how all of us come to know which sex we belong to and what meaning that has in our lives?

So, when the publishers approached me shortly afterwards to ask if I was interested in writing a popular science book and did I have any ideas, that was the first thing that came to mind.

Neurosexism has been in the news a lot, including being nominated for the Macquarie Dictionary word of the year. Why do you think this topic is now attracting attention?

It’s definitely relevant. Science tends to look for, and exaggerate, differences rather than similarities between whatever groups it is studying. The new technologies of neuroimaging are giving us an unprecedented ability to look inside living brains, but I think too much is often read into some fairly inconclusive results, leading to claims about “female brains” and “male brains” that can be pretty hard to substantiate.

Gender is an interesting and contentious subject. How did people react when you told them what you were writing about?

Most people are fascinated. We all have to go through the process of becoming men or women — or, in some cases, not quite either or a bit of both. So it’s relevant to everybody. There have been some very successful books based on the premise that men and women are irreconcilably different, that we come from different planets or some such rubbish. Simplistic ideas like that can be seductive, but I think most people know that we human beings are a lot more complex and we don’t really fit into boxes very well. I think people are hungry for more complex, more nuanced information about men and women.

What was the most interesting part of researching  Making Boys and Girls?

I think the most interesting thing for me was probably the personal stories. I feel very grateful to the people who shared their various experiences of gender with me. Often, these were very different experiences from my own and it took a lot of courage for some of these people to go public. But it was also fascinating talking to the scientists and reading the research and seeing what the science really has to tell us beyond a lot of the myths that get created in an area like this.

While you are experienced in writing, did you find that writing a full-length non-fiction book for a general audience brought any specific challenges? What is the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

Writing any book is a hard, hard slog. Something I found difficult in the beginning was working out how to put myself into the book. I realised early that I couldn’t write a dispassionate, removed account of this topic as though it had no relevance for my own life. It probably would have helped if somebody had told me at the beginning just to relax and just let the personal material become part of the story when that seemed the natural thing to do.

Any advice for non-fiction/science writers looking at a topic and thinking, “I could write a book on that?”

Just do it. By all means try to get a publishing contract first as I was lucky enough to do. But the only way to write is… to just sit down and write.

Jane launches Making Girls and Boys on Thursday February  10th in Sydney, at Ariel Books (42-44 Oxford Street, Paddington). If you would like to attend, the launch is at 7:30pm – please RSVP to [email protected] or (02)93324581.

A Life in Words – Jay Kristoff on Getting Published

One day in Melbourne three years ago, Jay Kristoff decided to write a down a scene that was niggling him. Three years later, he’s about to become a published author. His first book, Stormdancer, which he describes as being set in a feudal steampunk Japan to a Rage Against the Machine soundtrack, is currently in a bid-counterbid shootout between two of the big American publishing houses.

You can expect to see it on the shelves in 2012,  and Jay – in between doing more writing and grinning a lot  – is taking notes on the process and happy to share them with other writers. His blog, Literary Giant (he is 6’7), details his adventures in getting stories from his brain to your bookshelf and has some invaluable advice to offer – including stats, graphs, links and a lot of laughs – in his own inimitable, irreverent and occasionally over-18’s kinda way. I caught up with him this week to get the story so far and some advice for aspiring writers.

Why did you decide to write and when did you start?

I decided to write because I wanted to do something constructive with my free time. I used to spend it playing video games and had sweet FA to show for it.

I started three years ago: I had a scene in my head, so I scribbled it down. Over eighteen months, it became my first novel. It was a half-arsed way to begin, and the book is flawed, but I wrote some scenes that made me realize I wasn’t Vogon-poetry awful. I loved the sense of purpose that writing gave me so I decided to do it “properly” with my next book.

What books inspire you?

Neuromancer, The Windup Girl, Across the Nightingale Floor, AKIRA. (Yes, I read comics. Call the Lit Police.) Which kinda makes it sound like Stormdancer is cyberpunk/dystopian, and it isn’t. But there are traces of the aesthetic and philosophy in there, and hey, look, two words that make me sound like an utter tosser…

What was the best and worst bit about writing? When you are not writing, do you sit in a beret in a garret drinking absinthe or what?

Best bits: When I write something good enough to make my wife cry. The woman didn’t even cry when ET died. So if she cries over my stuff, it must be the opposite of suck.

Worst bit: Rejection. Sending out something you love and watching it get curb-stomped, or worse, ignored. It happens to anyone trying to break into the industry. Repeatedly. But it never stops sucking.

When I’m not writing, I’m being a nerd (more so) or thrilling CG audiences on Guitar Hero (no, that is NOT the same as being a nerd). I did drink absinthe once, but it just made me want to go to the toilet.

You pitched to agents first – why agents instead of publishing houses?

Everything I read said you needed an agent to get published by a “Big House” in America. I figured, if was going to do this, I’d aim high. Having an advocate who knows the industry pitfalls is vital, and my agent (Matt Bialer at SJGA) and his assistant (Lindsay Ribar) are both awesome at what they do.

Plus, I get to begin sentences with the words “My agent…” when I’m trying to impress other tossers in absinthe bars.

What do you think is the main mistake people you can make when trying to get published?

I can’t really speak for anyone else, but I queried too soon. The manuscript was 98% there, but 2% is the difference between a real woman and the dude in “The Crying Game”.

I also made the mistake of sending to my “dream agents” first. That was my “argh” moment – realizing that all those great agents had read a sub-standard query. The only reason I landed one of those dream picks is that my e-query to SJGA got swallowed by the ether, and I re-queried later via snail mail (this time with a decent query letter and that extra 2% polish on the MS).

So yeah, I owe Lady Luck a foot massage.

What are you looking forward to most about seeing your manuscript published?

Just holding it in my hands. It will feel real then. This whole process has taken up so much of my life lately, and there have been so many disappointments. Being offered multiple deals after all those drop-kicks just feels surreal. I’m also getting happy pants thinking about working with an editor, and really making it sing. Stormdancer will be out early-mid 2012. We’re still considering offers, getting down to the business end now.

Any particular tips for aspiring Aussie writers?

It depends on what kind of writer you want to be. If you want to write 2,500 word sentences about a cup of Chamomile or win the Man Booker, I’ve got nothing. But if you want to maybe do this for a living one day, you probably shouldn’t think of yourself as Australian. Just think of yourself as a writer.

Know the market you’re aiming to sell in, know the titles that are selling in it. Don’t write to trends; this year’s Urban Fantasy is tomorrow’s Cyberpunk. Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace. Read Miss Snark, Query Shark and Author!Author! Get onto the AWWC forums. Follow the agent’s submission guidelines. Read my blog. That’s a shameless plug, but my “13 steps to fun and profit(tm)” post is quite relevant. The query letter that scored me representation is also posted there.

Write every day. Every. Single. Day. No exceptions, no excuses.

And for the love of God, no vampires.

The Lure of the Tutu

Get out your ballet shoes and dust off childhood dreams of dancing, ballet is back in fashion.

Black Swan, a psychological horror movie  starring Natalie Portman as a technically talented but passionless ballet performer, is hitting the cinemas on Thursday. The movie has attracted a lot of attention, including picking up a Golden Globe for Portman’s performance and re-ignited a lot of interest in the art of dance. All things ballet are tipped to be “on trend” and “fashion forward” and a whole bunch of other terms that I am unsure of the meaning of but I suspect translate to “will look terrible on you”. So we can look forward to a year of ballet flats, overly severe buns and people who should know better insisting leotards and leg-warmers can look good in night clubs (Madonna, I’m looking at you).

I’m not anti-ballet – I’ve seen more than a few performed and, back in my pre-teen years, I had a truly impressive collection of books on the subject. I’m blaming Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes for starting my childhood mania and but I’m told that Angelina Ballerina is a more likely culprit these days for getting tomboys into tutus.

I harboured dreams that I would one day dance The Nutcracker as opposed to using one to rip the heads off my Barbies. Much like Dawn French, whose autobiography Dear Fatty has a photo of her all leotard-ed up and ready to dance despite clearly having a physique better designed for rugby, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. It took a while for me to accept the fact that they were unlikely to change Swan Lake to Rhino Pond, and that my dancing attentions were better turned to less ethereal pursuits.

(It wasn’t that bad, I also wanted to be a nun on roller skates, jockey, fighter pilot, both the princess and the knight in shining armour, a teacher, vet, writer and artist. I think I may also – after seeing The Last Unicorn – have wanted to be a unicorn as well. So, let’s face it, something had to go.)

For those of you who’d like to stay “on trend” without squeezing yourself into a pink tutu, there’s plenty of ballet reading out there. If you’re not sure you can take a whole book of pirouetting, try Bloomsbury Ballerina, the biography of Lydia Lopokova which links her dancing and wild life with war, revolution and the economic policies of the super-powers via her marriage to John Maynard Keynes. Or read about the fiery Nureyev, “ballet’s first rock star”.

Another excellent ballet biography is the justly celebrated Mao’s Last Dancer, Li Cunxin’s story of his childhood at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy, his subsequent stellar career and his defection from China. (For that additional local “you couldn’t make this up” angle, Li is now a senior manager at one of the biggest stockbroking firms in Australia and was named the 2009 Australian Father of the Year.)

Fancy reading about things further afield, or looking for a gift for someone you suspect already owns every ballet book? Cuban Ballet by Octavio Roca is due to be released later this month, and is a lushly illustrated tome exploring the unique history and spirit of Cuban ballet by focusing on the life and career of Alicia Alonso.

There’s plenty of reading for people inspired by the movie but make sure you don’t pick up the book called The Black Swan. While it is an excellent read, it’s a non-fiction tome on probability, forecasting and random real-life events, with narry a tutu – nor Natalie Portman – to be found.

Still crabby after all these years – Astrology, astronomy and you

If you bought an astrology book for the new year, I hope you kept the receipt. You may not be the sign you think you are.

According to researchers at the Minnesota Planetarium Society the star signs have all been moved. Astrology claims to go back 3,000 years to when Babylonian astronomers first drafted the original Zodiac of constellations along the path of the sun and dividing it 12 sections. Your star sign is based on the position of the sun on their Zodiac on the day that you were born.

But a lot can happen in 3,000 years and the moon’s gravity has shifted the Earth by about a month, meaning that the horoscope we read this morning may not be for us. In fact, you may be a whole new sign – Ophiuchus, who are born between November 29 and December 17, and cruely ignored by the Babylonians because they wanted 12 signs per year. How fast do you reckon they can get a book out on that one?

I’m really quite happy about this. I was born early and missed being a sunny bouncy confident Leo. Instead I got landed with Cancer, the clingy kill joy of the zodiac.

In the bin with you, I have a new star sign now!

Yes, we get some nice stuff. Apparently we are protective. The word “nurturing” has been mentioned. It might appear that other stars get all good stuff – confidence (Leo), athleticism (Sagittarius), creativity (Aquarius), the sex appeal (Scorpio). It might appear that Taureans and Arians have cornered the market on determination, so we just get to be clingy. It might appear – say, to moody broody types like Cancers – that the name of our sign is either terminal or venereal.  But apparently, despite a tendency to cynicism and pessimism, Cancer the Crab is just great at nurturing.

We Cancers may be stroppy, snappy, crabby, moody crabs but at least we make good chicken soup for the soul. Or crab and sweetcorn soup, if you’d prefer.

Nurturing. I’m nurturing bitterness at getting such a useless star sign when I should have been a Leo. How about that?

It may be a load of old rubbish whatever way you decide to look at it. Astronomers generally ask that their practices of observing the stars be far removed from astrologers telling us they influence personality, so as far as they are concerned astrology has been rubbish all along.

And the astrologists are eager to get their allegations of garbage in too. According to Salon, professional astrologists believe that the Minnesota Planetarium Society is trying to throw doubt on astrology full stop. “Zodiac” is apparently used differently within each discipline, sort of the same way politicians and HR use words we think we understand in a whole new and interpretive way. (See “restructure”, “budget” and “Un-Australian”.)

A professional astrologer, Matthew Currie has this to say:

The Zodiac, the twelve divisions of the sky made up of the horoscope signs, and the Zodiac, the band of constellations in the sky, are two different things. This is how a lot of skeptics of astrology trick people to convince themselves and others that there’s nothing to astrology. But in reality, we’re talking about two different things.

Well, doesn’t that make it all sound completely sensible. Still, at least I now have an option on another star sign, even if it’s not the one I want. Despite the fact that the zodiac has apparently bumped along, I’m still not a fiery Leo – the darn thing has gone backwards and now, instead of being a moody Cancer, I’m a mercurial Gemini.

Which is totally different, of course.

Spread-sheeting the joy of reading

Spreadsheet-loving bibliophiles, I have a treat for you. Nielsen Bookscan have released a huge chunk of data on their book-sales over the last ten years, allowing us to simultaneously indulge in two of our great loves; the socially acceptable love of non-fiction books and the secretive and strange adoration of spreadsheets.

Nielsen Bookscan is the world’s largest book tracking service, and they collect transaction data directly from the tills of major book retailers. This data covers over 90% of all retail book purchases in the UK from 6,500 retailers, monitoring more than 220,000 titles selling each week. They have given us the spreadsheets which shows book sales since the same time in 1998, their top 100 books for 2010 and a further breakdown into Top 20 by type, including fiction and non-fiction hardback and paperback.  Broken down into individual worksheets, and arranged neatly with publisher, imprint and ISBN information, just waiting to be sorted and analysed and interpreted and turned into graphs.

I’ve gone all tingly just thinking about it.

I’m not the only person out there who loves spreadsheets, surely? My first response when faced with a complex question is usually to open Excel and really get graphing. This is helpful when working out budgets and complicated itineraries, but not so much when trying to decide what pub to go to.

(That said, I have one friend who once answered the question of, “Do you think they fancy me?” by carefully analysing, typing and documenting comments on blog by type and tone, and then sending through a spreadsheet with the carefully tabulated results, so I suspect there may be more number crunchers than we think out there.)

The Top-selling 100 books of all time (well, for the UK and since Nielsen records began in 1998 but that sounds nowhere near as good) can be downloaded here, via the Guardian website.

It is – even for non-number-loving-nerds – an interesting read. The Top 100 contains the usual suspects, with Dan Brown, Harry Potter and sparkling vampires taking up most of the top 10. It’s not until #20 we see the first non-fiction entry, Jeremy Clarkson’s World According to Clarkson.  Bill Bryson’s excellent Short History of Nearly Everything comes just after at #23 with more and more non-fiction poking its way in from there, including lots of cookbooks and also, somewhat depressingly, a lot of diet books.

Perhaps we listened to Delia a little too much.

Broken down into paperback and non-paperback, the non-fiction lists are even more interesting. Paperback stars include Eat, Pray, Love (there’s food again) and lots of scientific explanations, whereas their glamorous hardback cousins include far more cookbooks and biographies, suggesting that we like big glossy pictures of both our food and our celebrities. That or biographies and cookbooks make better gifts than diet books, which appear exclusively and amusingly only on the less weighty paperback list.

Of course, the data here would differ from the Australian data (which I can only dream of receiving a spreadsheet of) but it’s still an interesting snapshot of what we have been reading. If you’d asked me for my guess at the top selling non-fiction book of the last decade, I wouldn’t have guessed Clarkson. Would you? I also wouldn’t have guessed that two diet books would outsell the first cookery book and that Gillian McKeith would be in the top 30.

There is a downside to all this data, I had planned to pick out a cookbook this week but I’m now inundated by information and different titles. If only there were some way to sort all this information – oh wait, there is. To Excel,  and let the graphing begin!

Or I could just ask you all. Any recommendations for a good cookbook for an enthusiastic but imprecise chef who likes to improvise and hates having to follow long tedious lists?

…I’m going to graph it anyway. Just a little. While I am waiting for a response. Honest.

A Life In Words – Saving Money with Cath Armstrong

Now that the excesses of the season are over, we could all do with a little help to get our finances back on track. I caught up with Cath Armstrong to get some expert tips. Cath is the founder of the Cheapskates Club, the c0-author of Debt Free, Cashed Up and Laughing, and her latest book, Saving Money is Easy, is a month by month guide to getting your finances healthy and happy.

Cath took the time out to answer a few questions on writing the book, why she wrote it the way she did and whether she manages to get past bookstores with her wallet still in her pocket…

It’s a great “handbag book”, small enough to carry and with a notes page at the back. When you were designing the book, what did you want to achieve?

Thank you! I want Saving Money is Easy to remind readers that it’s not the one big thing we do that saves us big bucks, but rather the combined effort of the many, many little things we do regularly that really save money.

Breaking saving down to a list of month-by-month ideas of what to save when makes it easy and painless to save, so I wrote the book as a month-by-month list. Readers don’t have to think about it, they can start saving whenever they pick up the book.

The book includes tips and tricks from your Cheapskates Club. Who is the normal “Cheapskate” and how do they feel about being included in your book?

You know, there is no “normal” Cheapskate. Everyone is at a different place in their journey to a debt-free life, and we all have different goals to achieve to reach the end of the journey. The one thing we all have in common though is that we all prefer to give up the stuff that’s not important to us so we can have the things that are. We may be Cheapskates, but we definitely are not cheap.

You can pick Cheapskates in a crowded shopping centre – they are the shoppers with the huge grins on their faces as they go through the checkouts.

Cheapskaters love to spread the word, there’s quite a movement out there, building momentum. Whether it’s on the Cheapskates Club website, having a tip published in our newsletter or being included in Saving Money is Easy, they want everyone to be debt free, cashed up and laughing like they are.

You wrote your last book with a co-author. How did you find the experience of writing this one by yourself?

I had some interesting and occasionally quite heated brain-storming sessions with myself during the planning stages. Really though, it was easier than I thought it would be. I have amazing back-up and support from my husband and three children who didn’t complain too much when dinner didn’t appear or the washing wasn’t done. And a great friend I could call on when I was stuck or needed to be sure an idea made sense to someone other than me. Or to pick the kids up from school if I was on a writing roll.

You’re clearly very passionate about what you write about! What advice would you give someone thinking of writing a “how-to” on something they love?

Find a friend to pick the kids up from school when you’re on a writing roll! Remember to write for a complete beginner – detail, detail, detail in a step-by-step fashion. Read and re-read what you’ve written.

When you love something so much it is habit in your life, it can be hard to write for those who don’t love it quite as much as you do. And of course when you are close to something and have been doing it forever, you need to make sure you don’t skip details. You do things automatically and can often skip vital steps because you do them on auto pilot.

Own up – do you find it difficult to stick to the budget when you walk into a bookshop? What’s the book you have enjoyed most this year?

I love, love, love books which naturally spills over to bookshops. And I have the online bookshops bookmarked on my laptop. They even have their own bookmark folder so I can find them really quickly! I visit at least two bookshops a week and online bookstores just about every day. It’s rare that I leave without at least one book.

Are you sure you want me to choose just one? That’s a really hard question, there are so many.

Right now it has to be From Here to There by Jon Faine. I so admire the fact that he spent six months travelling overland from Australia to Paris with his son in a 4WD and managed to keep his sense of humour.

And A Pressure Cooker Saved My Life by Juanita Phillips, 5 Minute Microwave Bottling (Isabel Webb), the All New Square Foot Gardening (Mel Bartholomew), The Backyard Homestead (Carleen Madigan), Radical Homemakers (Shannon Hayes),  and From my Kitchen to Yours, A Year in a Bottle, Out of the Bottle and Slow Cooker all of which are by Sally Wise.

Can you tell I’m on a bit of a self-sufficiency move at the moment?

Finally, with everyone’s cash low after Christmas, what’s the best shopping advice you can give?

Stick to your list! Do not deviate from that list for one single thing. If it’s not on the list it doesn’t get bought. Treat shopping like army manoeuvres if you have to – get in; get the things on the list and GET OUT!

Jaguars ripped my wrapping

It’s January 4th and I haven’t broken my New Year’s resolutions yet.

Okay, it’s January 4th and the reason that I haven’t broken my resolutions is that I haven’t made any yet. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing when you don’t have a house strewn with leftover food, booze and wrapping paper, and a headache that is only exceeded in size by your brand new and seasonal belly flab.

I’m not a fan of commitments made over the silly season. New Year’s Resolutions made on the stroke of midnight tend to be insane (“I WILL run a marathon this year – no, this month – no, right NOW! Time me!”) or forgotten the next day until someone shows you the scrawled notes on a beer mat that you signed with a pen in your mouth at 11.55pm as you were holding two champagne glasses at the time.

This year, I resolve not to spend most of January trying to decipher my own tipsy mouth-writing. It’s a start.

Other than the usual vague wishes (I want a pony and a trip to the Amazon and a hover car and a machine that turns belly fat into gold) I do have some goals.

For the pedants out there, yes, these are different to resolutions. Well, to me, anyway. A resolution is a statement of intent. A goal is defined aim with a definite conclusion, making it sound more official and achievable. It’s the difference between “I am giving up smoking” and “I will not smoke at all this year”.

Chief amongst them is my plan of spending less time sighing dreamily at travel brochures and more getting through the vast stacks of unread books that now teeter on every surface. It was a bit of a book-y Christmas and – as both the Bloke and I are avid readers, and everyone know a book is a great gift for us – it’s not so much as a case of make space on the bookshelves as build a new set of the darn things.

Unfortunately, while the books we received are on many instructional and informative topics, book-shelf building isn’t on them. I do love to get books for Christmas, they’re not just useful but also an excellent guide to how the gift-giver sees you.

One friend has gifted me a book on writing travel books, another one a book on grammar (yes, yes, I get the hint).  I have three real-life travelogues too, including the hilarious Jaguars Ripped My Flesh by Tim Cahill. These are all inspiring the urge to book a trip through the Amazon but sadly the budget to save up for these trips is lacking.

I do, however, have a copy of Cath Armstrong’s “Saving Money Is Easy”, a month-by-month guide to getting your finances under control. It opens by talking about making resolutions and setting goals to get out of debt and build up your savings, and is a sensible and clearly written guide to making your money go further.

And while she is a fan of money going further, I’m probably not going to South America right now. She is keen on saving for things that make you happy but I suspect in my case she would advocate that instead of trekking to Amazonia and tangle with the jungle there right now, I could just tidy up the balcony and trim back the plants and now-resident wildlife so we could use it again.

With sufficient squinting, and perhaps a touch of the leftover booze, I may even be able to persuade myself that I’m in the Amazon. With a huge stack of books and the goal of getting through them before the year 2012 rocks round, when apparently the Amazon isn’t going to be much fun to visit anyway.

Spoiler Alert

I’m spoiler-proof. I can reread books and rewatch movies and still get caught up in the drama all over again. This is a good thing as I am also incurably nosey. I google movie endings, peek at my presents and occasionally flick ahead in books. To me, this is no big deal but to many people – including my partner – these are acts as deviant as those partaken in by the average NRL player and their dog.

I am aware that some people hate spoilers with the level of passion that Andrew Bolt reserves for the Greens. When Order of the Phoenix book was released in the Harry Potter series, many of my friends filled the internet with pleading not to be told which characted suffered a much pre-publicised death. (Thanks for telling everyone about that in advance, J.K. Way to ruin my internet for a month.) I’m not sure how we were meant to accomplish this. Some sort of collar pin to identify people who had actually finished the book, or perhaps nifty tattoos reading, “Damn you, foul drapery”? Still, we did our best not. Some of the same spoiler-hating friends avoided the internet for weeks in advance of the final book being released to avoid being spoiled.

I didn't think they could come up with a cover that embraced the sheer tacky joy of the Eurovision. They proved me wrong.Hell, some of them  avoided the news and the internet to avoid being spoiled on the result of the Eurovision. (When is Australia finally going to get a team in there, by the way? With Azerbaijan and Israel getting their song on in recent years, surely it’s only a matter of time before the EBU expands far enough to let us in.)

I do try to respect my spoiler-hating friends’ wishes and not accidently yell out pivotal plot points three seconds before they happen, or to peer into a future they would rather keep under wraps. But this Christmas is testing that resolve. My present is wrapped and waiting in the living room and I am currently engaged in a mighty struggle with my conscience not to peek at it.

This is not my choice – I would have happily seen it as soon as it was bought and still enjoyed the unwrapping on the day. Not so for my partner, who insists the surprise is part of the fun. Desperate to wrap my gift without me seeing it, last night he locked me out of the bedroom and set to rendering it unspoilable, accompanied by rustling noises, the schwip of Sellotape and no small amount of banging.

Now, for someone as nosey as me, this is a form of torture even if he was clearly doing it for my benefit.  Obviously the only mature response was to grab the last bottle of ginger beer from the fridge and swig it at the door, all the while shouting, “Mmm, yummy cold ginger beer. NONE FOR YOU THIS CHRISTMAS.” in at him.

Let no one say I don’t get into the Christmas spirit

But my partner dislikes spoilers – he wants to get to the ending and find out what happens then, or unwrap the gift and be surprised. My habit of present-peeping is as deranged to him as flicking ahead while reading a book.

Which I also do.

To his books.

When he hasn’t finished them yet.

…maybe he has a point on that one.

So, I’m sitting here trying to ignore the present in the corner. To peep or not to peep? To spoil or leave until the day? What would you do?

Christmas shopping can get wrapped

I finished the hard bit of my Christmas shopping two weeks ago. Or so I thought.

This is down to two things –  a lucky location and books. First, as an Irishwoman, most of my family and friends live in Europe. If you want to send a package from Australia you need to allow for at least a month in transit so Christmas shopping for them tends to start in October or – more often – tends to consist of buying items online and having them shipped within Europe to save on the prohibitive postage.

Second, as it is my firm belief that absolutely everyone loves books in their various guises (may I suggest short story anthologies and graphic novels for the swing voters on this one?) presents from me are likely to be uniformly rectangular, easy to wrap and all bought in the same place in a bulk purchase to save on shipping.  Friends of mine who don’t love books often get a charitable donation made on their behalf instead giving them more of a reason to love books next year.

Smugness, thy name is Booklover.

Well, it’s not just about feeling smug, I genuinely dislike Christmas shopping. Some people thrive on the shopping excesses of the season and to them I say you’re welcome to it. I am not one of nature’s bargain hunters and hate being swirled along in the Brownian motion of massive crowds. Mariah Carey’s Christmas album tends to inspire me more with thoughts of homicide than seasonal cheer. Santa can get stuffed and you know where you can stick your holly.

So, sitting in the living room surrounded by books, books and more books (and also some chocolate so people could nibble as they curled up with a book) I felt quite proud of myself for having the whole thing in hand and avoiding the Christmas crush.

Then I realised I had nothing to wrap the darn things in. Not a scrap of bright paper in the house, and even the sellotape was more of the gaffa tape variety. I seriously considered wrapping the gifts in bin liners and duct tape. (This is not, oddly enought, a method recommended by a book I found on the matter, called “Gifted Wrapping”. I tried looking for a book called “Getting Some Other Bugger To Do It For You Wrapping” but unaccountably failed to find it. Publishers, take note.)

I would have to brave the shops to grab some wrapping paper. As it was a Monday morning, I figured that Sydney CBD would be reasonably quiet so I hopped on a train to pick up some wrapping paper.

My mistake. When the doors opened I was whisked out the doors into a teeming mass of frantic humanity. It was like the apocalypse had arrived and it turned out you needed red and green knickknacks instead of food and water. Carol singers on every corner. Shop doors impassable with people.

The stationary shops were thronged. Trapped in between two prams, three mothers and a panicked looking middle aged man who had “I have forgotten to get my wife a gift” written all over his terrified face, I got my taste of the Christmas spirit when he wheeled around and hit me smack in the face with his bag before trampling over me to get to the till.

Toes crushed and nose bleeding, now that I’m safely home I can see that it’s not all bad. My sore nose is a timely reminder of the importance of getting all aspects of the seasonal shop well out of the way while the shops are still promoting Halloween. And, it must be said, few presents look as lovely as books when wrapped – rectangular and shiny and perfect for a ribbon and a bow. Under the tree, the gifts look fantastic. You can hardly even see the bloodstains.

And for those of you will stockings left to stuff who’d prefer to keep your nose unbroken, consider a voucher. A happy holiday to you all, and may the New Year bring you lots of books from all your favourite authors and new wonderful authors to read.

An enduring complaint – on new publishing methods

While many people are quick to applaud recent changes in publishing, we should remember that not all change is good. The advent of new technologies has, it’s true, made books cheaper and more widely available. But at what cost to books and the people who read them?

New mass-publishing technologies simply encourage too much writing of too little value. I can barely get through my bookshelves as is. Now with all the recent technological advances, there is more information out there than one person could ever hope to read and more appearing daily. And while there more out there, the quality of available reading has decreased. Any idiot who wants to drivel on has been given a free licence too by the easy availability of self-publishing and publishers for hire. Manuscripts are rushed without any attention to the quality of the text, and the sheer mass of new books distracts readers from focusing on more classic texts.

Sound familiar? It should. These are common complaints from the Renaissance era after the invention of the printing press, according Ann Blair, professor of history at Harvard University. Her article, “Information overload – the early years”, describes both the general reaction to the printing press and the coping and optimising mechanisms developed to deal with the sudden surge of text.

She argues that, far from the printing press devaluing words, human history is a long process of learning in exponential increases. We are very good, it appears, at both accumulating information and coming up with innovative new methods for dealing with those accumulations.

She also highlights (perhaps accidentally) that getting your sook on about the stresses and changes imposed by new technologies is something the human race seems to really enjoy. The invention of the printing press brought forth a hundred and something year slew of complaints that people currently advocating ebooks, self-publishing and online media might find wearily familiar. Allegations that it allowed any person to speak, irrespective of whether they are really wise enough to be worth listening too. Charges that publishers are too quick to bow to the whims of the masses and release publications that were “foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive”.

The article highlights that, while accumulating knowledge and methods of dealing with that are ancient traditions of the human race, so too is having a really good whinge about it.

“Complaints about information overload, usually couched in terms of the overabundance of books, have a long history — reaching back to Ecclesiastes 12:12 (“of making books there is no end,”). The ancient moralist Seneca complained that “the abundance of books is distraction” in the 1st century AD. “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” asked Erasmus, the great humanist of the early 16th century.”

More recently we’ve had have Mark Bauerlein penning The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), who believes modern technology is fostering a “brazen disregard of books and reading”. Maggie Jackson  goes even further  with her book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age in suggesting that our culture of constant information which “warns that modern society’s inability to focus heralds an impending Dark Age—an era historically characterized by the decline of a civilization amid abundance and technological advancement.”

Even Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which is combines neuroscience with history and pop-culture in a search for how the internet will shape the thinkers of the future, struggles to say anything really positive about the future of text and reading. It’s all doom and gloom in the future, even if we have all the books that we could ever want to read there and then some.

To advocates of ebooks and online reading and writing, all I can say is that slagging off new technologies has a long and illustrious history and this, too, shall pass. Going on the Renaissance model, you can confidently expect the complaining to die down. In about a century and a half or so.

What To Gift Part 2 – short and sweet presents

Last week I blogged on how to buy gifts for people who think they don’t love to get books for Christmas.

The corrective action suggested was not strapping them to a chair and brain-washing them in the manner of Clockwork Orange but ditching the idea of getting them a big book for Christmas. Some people simply don’t like reading novels; maybe they find it too time-consuming or they just prefer their text a bit punchier.

A collection of short stories can be the perfect gift for people who enjoy dipping into a book on their own terms . The short story and novella formats are too often overlooked when it comes to award time but they can be goldmines of sparking prose and ideas. When you only have 5,000 words to play with to write a story that will grab people, every one of those words has to count.

Not just that, many of short story collections has charitable goals as well literary ones. The Girls Night In series of anthologies, for example, have raised £1 million for the charities War Child and No Strings since 1999. They’ve just released a 10th Anniversary collection of favourite stories from the previous four compilations. With plenty of writers from Australia in there, this is a collection of some of the best chick lit of the last decade in bite sized chunks. Comedic and entertaining, and often through a wine-glass darkly, these stories showcase some truly wicked wit.

Not everyone is ready for such grown-up reading, though. Need a gift for someone who’s more interested in Lego than Manolos? They have also released a series of short stories for children called Kids Night In, which includes bedtime and holiday stories and as well as poems and illustrations. These books are great gifts for families of children as kids of all ages will find something in there to their taste.

If you are looking for something a bit more grown up, you’re in luck this year. Recent release The Pen and the Stethoscope is an amazing anthology written by doctors who are also very accomplished writers. Mixing fiction and non-fiction, it’s a touching and often amusing collection that gives a fascinating insight into the minds of people who deal with life and death decisions on a daily basis. Proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Starlight Foundation.

Another worthy cause with some serious literary weight is the much hyped “Ox-Tales“; a set of four books themed on one of the elements released by Oxfam to raise money and highlight the charity’s work in project areas: agriculture in Earth, water projects in Water, conflict aid in Fire, and climate change in Air. The name of the series may be a bit cheesy but the books themselves are beautifully presented and received a great deal of critical approval on their release. They include contributors such as Zoë Heller, John le Carré and Vikram Seth.

Short stories are ideal for people who like to read but not devour a whole book in one go. Short stories tend to be immediate, engaging; focusing on one incident, one plot, or just a few characters. If readers give these anthologies even the more cursory flick, I can guarantee they will find something that gets their attention. Just try to remember not to dip into them yourself before you wrap or you may find yourself too reluctant to part with them on Christmas day.

What To Gift Part 1 – Converting Non-Booklovers with Batman

I love finding books under my Christmas tree but not everyone agrees. It is the sad fact of Christmas shopping even the most ardent bibliophile is occasionally forced to confront. Despite our extensive research into the best books and our loving efforts at picking out the perfect text, not everyone wants a book. In fact, for some people, a book is closer to the “soap on a rope” end of the gifting spectrum than a soap on a rope.

I know; they are scuppering your plans of ordering every Christmas present online at once and then spending until Christmas laughing at panicking shoppers. Books are also wonderfully easy to wrap – no awkward spiky or squishy bits here. People who don’t appreciate their booktitude are clearly delusional and wrong and should be forced – at gunpoint if necessary – to read until they damned well learn to enjoy it. You are preaching to the choir here, or would be if the choir wasn’t off book-shopping.

But the truth is that some people simply don’t enjoy reading novels and long texts and there is no point continuing to insist on gifting them with books, no matter how awesome, unless they need either kindling or doorstoppers. But if those people are movie fans, do not despair – you may be able to pick them up something that is bookshaped and available in bookstores, if not actually what you might traditionally think of as a book.

You just need to try a fresh approach – gifting a graphic novels. No, you don’t refer to these as comic books and they’re not just for kids. They are cinematic stories, usually with lush visuals, amazing effects and great characters – all the things that you would expect to find in great movie. Many of them have become great movies.  While everyone knows about the superheroes that made the leap to the big screen (Spiderman, Superman and Batman, oh my) you’ll find a lot of the plots of more cerebral movies come straight from the pages of a graphic novel.

Examples that recently made the transition to the big screen include Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Warren Ellis’s RED and Frank Miller’s 300 and Sin City. All “This. Is. CHRISTMAAAAAS!” jokes aside, 300 is stunning book about heroism and sacrifice, reimagining the battle in which 300 Spartan soldiers fought to hold back the entire Persian army. The series won five Eisner Awards, including Best Writer/Artist (Miller), and much like the movie, this is not one for kids. Also not for kids but a definite for the rebels, revolutionaries and Hunter S. Thompson fans in your life is Warren Ellis‘s Transmetropolitan.  (You can read the first issue of the comic here.) It follows the adventures of Spider Jerusalem, chain-smoking and swearing gonzo reporter of the future, as he battles corrupt politicians, general idiocy and society in general. (Some readers may find it a bit too lewd, crude and challenging. As a litmus test, if they find swearing offensive, this might be one best to leave out of their stocking.)

If you are dealing with either a younger reader, you might be better off going straight for the superhero novels – X-Men and Superman and Spidey. While there are many superhero graphic novels out there, you’ll find on reading them they are less “put on pants over tights and FIGHT CRIME” and more interested in what makes their characters tick.

This allows you the dual pleasure of insisting that this is a mature gift and allowing you to liven up Christmas dinner with philosophical discussions on who would win in a fight, Superman or Batman.

And the answer to that one is, of course, Batman. If you’re not clear why, you need to read more graphic novels. I suggest Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and then following up with Alex Ross’s stunningly beautiful Kingdom Come.

You can never have too much Batman. In fact, if anyone wants to buy me something for Christmas that isn’t a book – well, you know where to send any caped crusaders. I just have no idea how you are going to wrap him.