Twofold/Threefold Reasons Why I Adore JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildThere are innumerable reasons to love JK Rowling, not least because she penned the beloved Harry Potter series through which she eternally, ever so slightly, changed the world.

But the reason I love Rowling is twofold. Note one of these reasons isn’t, as you’d expect, the fact that she made our dreams of another Harry Potter instalment come true with the announcement of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Although that’s a perfectly good reason to make it threefold.

It’s twofold because while I love and admire her imaginative writing immeasurably, I love it even more in partnership with her groundedness. She might be worth more than Queen Elizabeth these days, but she appears pretty pragmatic about how much she values what she has and how different things could have been.

‘Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life’ is a quote widely attributed to Rowling and that I can only assume she said. Preceding that sentence was also reportedly ‘I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.’

That is, she was once a struggling, everywoman writer trying to make ends meet. Compounding that, she was a single mother. (It’s hard enough to find time to write and to cobble together some sort of a writing-based income at any stage, but to do so while managing sole parenting and with the burden of knowing it’s not just your life and food provision you’re responsible for…Yikes. The mere thought of it is terrifying.)

She also hasn’t for a moment forgotten that or the countless rejection letters she received before Bloomsbury took a chance on her manuscript. So, you know, hats off to her.

I’ve also enjoyed her pwning people on the internet who say highly in appropriate things. BuzzFeed and Mashable helpfully collated lists so I didn’t lose hours scouring Rowling’s social media feed. Some of my faves include how she said:

  • if she weren’t a writer, she’d like to be an otter weigher (because there’s apparently a job that entails doing that)
  • that contrary to what people think of her, celebrity has actually changed her a bit—she doesn’t cut her own hair any more
  • that she completely supports LGBT rights and that the Harry Potter universe does/would too
  • how even she was shocked by how hot the actor who played Neville Longbottom turned out
  • how despite others’ claims she is, she doesn’t consider herself a ‘world leader’. At least not beyond the worlds in her head: ‘In the real world I can barely lead my dog.’
  • how even she battles with her home printer: ‘Of all devices known to humankind, the desktop printer is the most evil. I am close to breaking point.’ And how she added: ‘I now feel the need to say (in case he sees this at work) “Neil, I haven’t broken your printer.”’
  • what we’ve all been thinking about Murdoch and then some: ‘I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.’

Robert GalbraithI’ve also got to say I have a huge amount of respect for efforts to release a book under a different name (Robert Galbraith)—I feel like it was almost a test to see if her work could successfully make its way in the world without the now-inevitable fanfare and hype. Because the pressure to succeed after such a breakout success is, well, unrivalled.

The only book that has sold more copies than Rowlings’ is Fifty Shades of Grey. And no one’s claiming that was good writing. Ergo, while there’s a bunch of pressure for EL James to pen a follow-up bestseller, no one would be expecting it to some sort of well-written, world-expanding masterpiece.

So while I’m undeniably excited about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s impending release (hurry up, July), I’m also really just chuffed we get to hear more from Rowling herself, both in this forthcoming text and via social media. She seems like the kind of person whose work you’d admire but who you’d also—as arguably naff as it sounds—respect.

Review: The Naked Vegan

The Naked VeganIf the cover for Maz Valcorza’s The Naked Vegan doesn’t make you pluck the book from the shelf and cook something, nothing will. That and the knowledge that the author grew from being a child who ate Spam out of the can to someone who eats vegan wholefoods. Even with a detour of being a nursing-qualified pharmaceutical rep who lived a hard-drinking, hard-smoking party lifestyle.

Valcorza’s shift toward veganism and generally healthy living kicked off after a chance encounter with yoga based on the idea it might improve her co-ordination and tone her butt. She so fell in love with yoga that she studied to become a yoga teacher, during which she was particularly struck by the yogic principle of ahimsa, which advocates non-violence or non-harm. Obvs that philosophy extended to animals.

Having gone vegan but being starved of choice by the then limited vegan offerings available, Valcorza was buying up the vegan junk food versions of the foods she knew. She figuring there must be better ways to live vegan. And that she might be the one to help find some of them.

She heard about raw food and started experimenting, posting recipes on her blog. Her foray into the area was so successful she went on to found Sadhana Kitchen, Sydney’s first organic, raw-food café. Pronounced sah-da-nah, the name translates ‘one’s conscious practice’, and it essentially relates to your daily ritual. The idea is that you do good in this daily ritual stuff by consciously making ethical decisions, which includes ethical eating decisions.

By extension for Valcorza, conscious practice also involved leaving behind a job with a pharmaceutical company advocating throwing drugs at health issues that could probably be first addressed through healthy food. The irony is that since going vegan, she’s been so healthy she hasn’t so far needed any kind of the kind of medicine she used to peddle.

The takeaway of The Naked Vegan specifically and Valcorza’s story as a whole is if she can completely change her life and manage this vegan stuff, anyone can. Especially when you consider her Filipino heritage is one that was based heavily on meat. (The veganised roast pig incident in her introduction is, though thoughtful and well-meaning, nonetheless quite confounding.) Still, the book’s cover makes a good start on the anyone-can approach because it’s decadent and aesthetically appealing enough to lure even the most cynical eater in.

The book (which handily also falls into the #ByAustralianBuyAustralian category—that is, it’s buy an Australian and you can buy it from your local Australian bookstore) contains a glossary to explain the terms and—surprising to me, at least—it’s up front. I’m not going to lie. Vegan cookbooks that require glossaries make me nervous and invariably go in the too-hard pile. I’m a terrible cook, I live on my own and so have no one to prompt me to prepare food, and I lead an insanely busy lifestyle. When I see ingredients that I have to google or scale some distant mountain to locate a herb grown only in the kind of conditions that support a hardy but benevolent goat, I’m out.

But then I flipped from the glossary to the sesame and nori crackers. And then the bagels. And the zucchini crackers and the felafel plate with beetroot dip and zucchini hummus. And later the spaghetti and beet balls, and the mushroom, spinach, and caramelised onion quiche. And then the strawberry donuts, the bananarama cupcakes, the orange and poppyseed cake, the apple and strawberry crumble pie with rhubarb and ginger coulis. Oh, and the choc-raspberry cheesecake featured on the cover. You get the point.

So while I’ll qualify this review with saying I’d probably be a little more likely to visit Sadhana Kitchen and purchase the kind of incredible treats this recipe book features (I will and I do), I will say the recipes and accompanying images appear delicious. It’s also high time I stopped relying I’m my limited range of vegan recipes and branched out to try something new. With 140 recipes, The Naked Vegan would definitely be an excellent resource for doing that.

Many thanks to Murdoch Books for sending me the review copy.

Review: The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver

The Beekeeper's Problem SolverSubsequent to my The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver post of a few days previous, I discovered the book is actually part of a handy problem-solver series. So I ordered its companion book, The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver. Because in addition to bombarding my social media feed with about a billion pics of chickens, I intersperse some of those posts with images of bees.

I’m vegan, so keeping bees is an incomprehensibly weird thing to do, but I do so for environmental and bee-health reasons. As much as possible, I leave the honey for the bees (it is, after all, actually their food). And really, I’m less beekeeping and more providing fully serviced urban accommodation for three hives—or approximately 150,000—European honey bees.

Regardless, I am perpetually on the hunt for bee-related knowledge—both in terms of learning about bees’ make-up and their behaviour, but also understanding and analysing our treatment of them. Suffice to say I’ve just about single-handedly supported the bee-themed book industry with the amount of bee books I’ve purchased in recent years.

This book, by James E Tew, spans issues relating to bee biology to the beekeeping equipment itself. Its nine chapters include Beekeeping Basics (a logical place to start), Biology and the Behaviour of the Colony, Managing and Manipulating Hives, Diseases and Pests of Honey Bees, and Pollen and Pollination.

While it covers the most common issues, the book acknowledges that there is much about bees and beekeeping that remains a mystery to even experienced beekeepers. That’s something to which I can testify: I have a mere three years and three hives’ worth of beekeeping experience under my belt, but some days I feel like I know less than before I began.

The Chicken Keeper's Problem SolverBut dare I say, the content The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver covers is—as far as my rookie beekeeping experience goes—balanced and evenly spread.

The issues/questions it features are useful and, though each entry is brief, they are substantial enough to give you a solid foundation and send you off in the right direction to research the issue more deeply.

Case in point: It covers troublesome Nosema Apis and Nosema Ceranae—parasite-led diseases that I’ve encountered, the latter of which terrifyingly nearly wiped out my first hive.

As with The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver, The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver contains striking images, call-out boxes, and clean, clear layouts with concise, easily digestible questions and answers.

So thumbs up to this book too, and please do let me know if you stumble across other useful ones in the series. Say, for example, a problem-solving book outlining how to write a thesis painlessly…

Review: The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver

Chicken Keeper's Problem SolverEven a cursory examination of my social media hints at the fact I adopt ex-battery hens. Which means I’m constantly on the lookout for information on how to best care for them.

That’s both in terms of providing them with the best quality of life, heading off potential illnesses and issues, and giving them the best medical support if and when they fall ill.

A friend and fellow writer and editor Clare found Chris Graham’s The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver recently. She sent me one of those random awesome texts you get where it’s a picture of a book you might be interested in.

Obvs I completely was, so I promptly ordered a copy of it.

(As a side note, I discovered Graham has a 500-issue version entitled Wisdom for Hen Keepers: 500 Tips for Keeping Chickens if you’re after a slightly more robust version. Given that it talks about showing and breeding chickens, it’s the antithesis of what I need, but I’m flagging it here just in case it’s of interest to anyone else.)

Identifying and explaining 100 of the most common chicken problems, The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver book is a fantastic reference, and its communication design is to be applauded.

Divided into 10 sections that include Food and Water, Housing, Parasites, Health Issues, and Behavioural Problems, with roughly 10 questions in each, the book is logical, functional, and designed to be scanned quickly.

Wisdom for Hen KeepersEach question is posed as you would think of it: My hens have gone off their regular feed; My hens seem bored; One of my hens has a swollen, hard lower neck; I can’t catch my chickens. They’re all for real, including the latter one, with which I have had personal experience.

Squeaker, one of the current battery hens I look after, is absolutely tiny and arrived with nary a feather on her. But she’s also the Speedy Gonzalez of chickens, which is probably what helped her survive to date. She’s had me running around my backyard with Benny Hill music playing in my head.

Thankfully, she’s a little more trusting of me now and applies her speed mostly to moments when she’s trying to scoot in the door to snarfoo some of the dog’s food.

Anyway, each of the questions is summarised and then explained in greater depth. All are in lay terms and all are accompanied by strong images, call-out boxes with handy hints, and—as I discovered on a second read—fab illustrations that often sit subtly behind or near the text.

So if you are fortunate enough to have chickens in your life—ex-battery hens or other varieties alike—I’d suggest this book is a handy go-to troubleshooter.

It’s written for the northern hemisphere, so I’d love to see a southern hemisphere version (*cough* *hint*), but there’s still enough in there to make it suitably applicable here.

It’s definitely one of the books I’ll be recommending slash loaning out slash gifting to other people kept by chickens (because frankly, I think it’s the chickens who are doing the keeping, not so much us).

Review: Love Quinoa

Love QuinoaThere’s an internet meme that does the rounds every so often showing Joaquin (pronounced Wah-keen) Phoenix and quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). It says something along the lines of how they’re both tricky to pronounce, but are awesome and also vegan.

I thought of that meme as soon as I saw Love Quinoa was available for review. Obviously, I put my hand up to roadtest it straight away. (As a side note, it appears to be part of a series—there is, for example, a Love Kale book by the same authors available too.)

Although quinoa’s superfood status has been well and truly heralded, I’ll include some details of its apparent properties here. It contains calcium, magnesium, manganese, vitamins B and E, amino acids, and old favourite fibre. It’s known as a complete protein source—something fairly good and properly exciting for vegans such as me.

Suffice to say, a cookbook about this grain was always going to intrigue me. Containing more than 100 recipes, Love Quinoa isn’t entirely vegan, but it contains enough recipes to make it worth vegans’ while (and, truthfully, most of the recipes could easily be veganised).

It’s another quality Murdoch publication, which of course means it’s the kind of book Murdoch produces incredibly well. The images are salivation-inducing and the book design stellar. A colour-coded key that demonstrates which recipes are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, etc. makes discerning as easy as a quick glance.

The book also includes details of quinoa’s history and why it’s good for you (read: me). Think as a more ideal and versatile option than rice, that it makes hearty fillers for soups and stews, and that it helps with muscle recovery after sport.

Love KaleThe book actually has five authors—I can’t remember the last book I read that had so many, or at least not one that wasn’t an academic journal.

Lead author Karen S Burns-Booth is a writer and food stylist who lives between the UK and France. She’s joined by London-based recipe writer Jassy Davis, food blogger Carolyn Cope, and two vegan writers, Kristina Sloggett and Jackie Sobon.

So the book contains a range of recipes that reflect the authors’ diverse experience and interests, along with variations to mix up the core recipes to suit specific tastes.

There are sweet breakfast recipes: Toasted Coconut and Quinoa Breakfast Pudding; Vanilla Cardamom Quinoa Granola; and Quinoa Waffles. There are savoury main meal ones: Vegetable Paella-Style Quinoa; Risotto-Style Quinoa with Caramelized Onions and Mushrooms; Quinoa Couscous with Blood Oranges and Burrata; and Roasted Winter Vegetable, Quinoa, and Wild Rice Salad.

Then there are desserts such as: Apple Crumble with Quinoa Topping; and Iced Orange, Semolina, and Quinoa Layer Cake. Suffice to say, the latter in particular went straight to the top of my must-try list.

I would have loved Love Quinoa to be a wholly vegan publication, but that’s a personal preference and I understand Murdoch and the authors were going for the widest, investment-recouping audience. Regardless, I’d recommend Love Quinoa be an addition to the recipe book collections of vegans and others alike.

Review: Carol

CarolWith Cate Blanchett playing the lead character that gives the film its name, Carol needs no introduction. The film realisation of The Price of Salt (or Carol), it charts the tale of two women who fall in love in 1950s New York.

One of the women, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), is in the process of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who loves her deeply but is wounded his love is not returned.

The other, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is young and politely deflecting the advances of would-be suitors as she tries to find her way out of a dead-end job working in a department store doll department and into her dream photography job.

The opening credits are set against the pattern of a street grate—it looks not dissimilar to a gilded cage. It then cuts to an interrupted date between the two women to which we eventually return as the film comes almost full circle and then slightly beyond.

I liked this film but I didn’t love it, but for reasons that are difficult to explain. Blanchett is, as ever, exquisitely effective in her role. Mara is brilliant too, although I found myself fairly frustrated with her character—she’s rather two-dimensional and I needed more from her to truly invest in the tale. What a strange girl you are, flung from outer space, Carol tells Therese at one stage, and I found myself agreeing, albeit perhaps for not quite the same complimentary manner.

Not helping that was the fact that I have an enormous soft spot for Chandler. Known for being the actor everyone adores but whose name no one quite remembers. (My friend and co-reviewer Lise tipped me off that she was sold on coming along because of the actor even before the film started. I said ‘who?’ and she said I’d know once he appeared on screen. The moment he did, I knew who and what she was talking about.)

Chandler was exceptional as Coach Eric Taylor in Friday Night Lights and, as I found out from Wikipedia, even in such roles I loved as the head bomb guy in Grey’s Anatomy. You know, the one who helps Meredith out when she puts her hand on live ammunition in a body and, well, I won’t tell you how it ends, but suffice to say I love Chandler all the more now realising he was that guy.

All of which is a rather long way of saying it was rather difficult to root for Carol’s and Therese’s love to triumph when Chandler was the guy who would ultimately lose out.

The film is fairly chaste, but shoulder touches take on significance, and there are an incredible lot of cars scenes and wistful looks out windows, which, once you notice, you can’t unnotice.

But, like Suffragette and The Danish Girl, Carol is an important film. Though imperfect, it is an important tale to be telling and forms part of a larger movement and conversation we need to have.

Review: The Danish Girl

The Danish GirlLike many others, I have mixed feelings about The Danish Girl. On the one hand, I am heartened that such an important but overlooked tale is finally being represented thoughtfully on film. On the other, I am troubled by both the cis gender casting and the film’s execution that doesn’t quite fulfil ambition.

Lili Elbe (whose surname was derived from the river and who is played by Eddie Redmayne) was a Danish transgender woman and one of the first to undergo gender-confirming surgery.

She transitioned from landscape painter Einar from Veijle (pronounced Vi-la), the latter being a Danish town that is reportedly incredibly beautiful.

Elbe’s autobiography Man to Woman was published in 1933 and that, along with David Ebershoff’s fictionalised account of Elbe’s life, The Danish Girl, forms the basis for this film of the latter’s same name.

Coincidentally, Ebershoff is an author I keep stumbling across but never quite managing to read. His third novel, The 19th Wife, which is about polygamy and 19th wife Ann Eliza Young, who exposed the truth of it.

Bizarrely, I couldn’t remember the number of the wife of the title and the ‘the’ and the ‘th’ of the number make it difficult to search in bookstores’ databases. It took me an age to find the book after hearing about it and being, by the time I went to search for it, rather sketchy on the details.

As a side note, the internets tell me Ebershoff also worked at Random House for 20 years, including being its vice president and executive editor. So he’s, you know, reasonably experienced and respected in the industry and that’s even more reason why I need to get round to reading some of his books.

But I digress enormously.

The Danish Girl tells the story of Elbe and his wife, Gerda Gottlieb.

The couple met at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where they were studying to be painters.

The film portrays Gottlieb as a dedicated wife deeply in love with her husband. Other versions say she was a lesbian and suggest hers and Einar’s marriage was one of convenience, even if it also involved a great deal of care.

Regardless, Alicia Vikander, who plays her, puts in an absolutely steller performance. I knew I would come away from the film with a healthy respect for Redmayne performance, but it was Vikander’s that truly impressed me.

Either way, as the story goes, Elbe started wearing women’s clothes after posing for Gottlieb when one of her models cancelled. It unlocked what had always been repressed: outwardly Einar appeared a man, but inwardly he—she—was a woman. Elbe is introduced throughout the film as Einar’s sister.

What follows is a rocky path to gender confirmation that incorporates experimental surgeries and that spans locationsThe 19th Wife in Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden.

The Danish Girl is exquisite to look at it, as if the film itself is a painting, but I felt it lacked depth beyond its pretty façade. We never seem to the heart of what it means to be a transgender person and to grapple with not just your own emotions but societal expectations.

The film seems to get stuck on portraying what we already know or think we know, fetishising clothing and feminine eye fluttering and hand gestures instead.

Coincidentally, I saw The Danish Girl with a Danish friend, so it was fascinating to hear her perspective. For starters, the locations puzzled her somewhat. Apparently Veijle wasn’t Veijle, which isn’t hilly but flat. For reasons we can’t fathom, the film’s scenes looked like they were shot more in a place akin to Norway.

Also slightly disconcerting was that the film wasn’t subtitled. Instead, the characters were English-speaking and English-accented. Not what you’d expect of a film about Danes. Still, the accent would have been admittedly difficult to master and distracting if it were even slightly off, so understandable to not be.

It’s hard to know whether to recommend The Danish Girl as a film (and as noted above, I’ve yet to read Ebershoff’s book version of it or even Elbe’s own). I enjoyed it enough to warrant saying yes. As in, it’s enjoyable and fascinating and thought-provoking if you’re new to the topic and don’t want to think too hard about it.

But I also know the film doesn’t go far enough to show true understanding of the issues with which transgender people grapple and it is, when you even slightly scratch its surface, rather lacking.

So instead I’ll hedge and say it’s an important first step. There’ll come a time when, hopefully soon, we won’t rely on casting a cis gender person in a transgender role in order to get audiences in. And there’ll come a time, hopefully sooner, that we’ll start to tell some more robust stories about and for people who are transgender.

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars BlueprintsIt’s hard to find a blog’s worth of words to say what I can really say in one sentence: Star Wars: The Force Awakens lives up to the heady hype and breathless anticipation.

I mean really, I’m pretty sure today we’ve heard the collective happy exhalation slash fist pumping of Star Wars fans the world over. I’ve yet to hear one say the film didn’t live up to their expectations.

Of course, it’s easy to say now I always had faith in JJ Abrams’ ability to execute an on-song film, but I did. He obvs has a strong track record, the Star Trek reboots being the most recent, but he is also a master at drawing out the key narrative elements and enhancing them.

Which is exactly what he did here. Balanced with just the right amount of action meets heartstring-tugging meets fantasy meets comedy, this Star Wars iteration impresses. Its look and feel is accurate. More importantly, its tone feels right.

In a nod to episodes past as well as a clever way to link the past and the present, TIE fighters, X-wings, the Millennium Falcon, and the Deathstar return in various forms (I for one have spent plenty of time poring over their blueprints). As do some of the most beloved characters.

FramesBut the film is carried by a cast of next-generation relative newbies—arguably in George Lucas’ tradition, but still much more than I’d expected, if I’m honest, but hats off to it.

These newbies include a modern droid that is Wall-E-like in nature, but mostly endearing rather than abundantly annoying. Is it just me, or did anyone else find Wall-E annoying? And BB-8 was cute, but only in small doses. I felt it was overdone in early scenes, but the rest of the film reigned it in.

There was, of course, also a resourceful junk scavenger named Rey, who upends stereotypes about which jobs women are or aren’t good at. In fact, she executes my favourite joke of the film—‘No, no, no. The one I’m pointing to.’—which is one about asking her male co-protagonist to hand her a spanner.

In fact, there was a fair amount of role reversal in this iteration. The women are strong and centre stage and less sexualised—more so than in the past. There’s Rey, of course, but Leia too, and no gold bikini in sight. There’s also a brilliant, bespectacled, oracle-like woman Maz (Lupita Nyong’o), whose opening words to Han Solo were: ‘Where’s my boyfriend?’ It turns out she’s a fan of the Wookie. She’s so incredibly compelling she just about steals the show.

Everyone is wearing masks in this film—some literally, others metaphorical. Peeling them off to reveal truths is at the film’s core. And, as a Star Wars fan who is also a Harry Potter fan, I have to point out what’s probably already been pointed out a bunch of times by now: Was it me, or were the new Darth Vader-ish and Supreme Leader Snoke rather Snape- and Voldemort-looking? And Rey very Keira Knightley meets Natalie Portman? Inadvertent or not, to me the resemblances were uncanny. (Then again, maybe I’ve spent too much time obsessing over Lucas’ every decision.)

Star TrekI don’t want to give to much away about the film, but I will say it’s a crowdpleaser—sentimental but not soppy, and a return to Star Wars form. Forgive me for admitting I actually cried at one stage when the Resistance fighters appeared.

‘This is so not how I thought this day was going to go,’ Han Solo says in one scene, as things go pear-shaped. But I’d prefer to recast this: This film so didn’t go how I expected it to. And for that, and the fact that Jar Jar Binks remains banished, I am entirely thankful.

Review: Suffragette

SuffragettesCurrent cultural debates around feminism revolve around:

  • whether it’s a dirty word
  • shifting perceptions of and reclaiming it (thanks to the help of some universally liked women like Emma Watson) as something positive.

Which makes the release of Suffragette, the historical fiction-based film about the suffragette movement, incredibly prescient and timely. The term used then might have been suffragette instead of feminism, but this is a debate that is long-running and perennially important.

As someone who’s always identified as a feminist (I successfully petitioned to get female bin girls and female altar servers back in my local municipality), there was no question I would review this film. And while I don’t know what I expected of Suffragette, but I have to admit it wasn’t the realisation that I don’t know my suffragette history as well as you’d think I would.

It’s London, 1912, and the suffragette movement is gathering momentum. The voiceover contains excerpts of politicians and other powerful men debating the pros and cons of giving women the vote. Protagonist Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a 24-year-old laundry worker, is largely oblivious to this.

She was born in the laundry and was strapped to her mother’s back as an infant. Her poorly paid, poorly educated mother was forced to return to work as quickly as possible. Maud started working for the laundry part time when she was seven years old and full time when she was 12. Repeating the little-opportunity cycle, she now has a child of her own.

Maud doesn’t identify as a suffragette—in fact, she denies it multiple times throughout the film. But trapped and dreaming of a better life, she gradually she finds herself drawn in, and eventually contributing, to the movement out of necessity.

Suffragette is the story of one group of women’s experiences of the suffragette movement. Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) looms large in the psyche, making brief cameos at key moments, but this film drills down to the personal. Maud, with her blistered hands, poor pay, exhausting hours, and lecherous boss is an everywoman with which we can identify.

She’s supported and encouraged by a cast of incredible actors, including Helena Bonham Carter, who plays a chemist who was never allowed to become a doctor. One police officer describes her character as ‘educated with scruples’, which makes her particularly dangerous.

‘It’s deeds, not words, that’ll get us the vote’ is one of many memorable phrases this film contains. ‘You want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable’ and ‘They don’t want to be lawbreakers, they want to be lawmakers’ are other phrases bandied about as the women participate in national campaign of civil disobedience.

My StoryI spent a vast portion of this film wondering what I would have done had I been alive during this time—I’m the beneficiary of these women’s courage, but I wonder how courageous I would have been. I came away with a whole new level of respect for their bravery. And an appreciation for the filmmakers who saw this film as warranting being told, which all too rarely happens with ‘women’s stories’.

There was much impromptu and impassioned murmuring as the film credits rolled. Or, more specifically, a list detailing when and where women’s rights began to be recognised.

For example, after years of suffragette action, women over 30 and of a certain character in the UK were finally allowed to vote as of 1918. It took until 1928 for the rest of the women in the UK to be allowed to. And it took until 1925 for the UK to recognise a mother’s right to her child.

Australia was comparatively forward: women received the vote in 1902.

We sat right until the end of the credits, marvelling, talking, maybe even shedding a surreptitious tear or two. It was during this time that my co-reviewer noticed two women leaving the cinema wearing suffragette hats. Something tells me they contributed to the original suffragette movement and the film held special significance for them.

In light of this, and in light of the fact I’ve realised I don’t know as much about suffragette history and homage as I probably should, I’ve decided my Christmas present to me is going to be suffragette-themed books. I’ll be starting with The Suffragettes: The Fight for Votes for Women and the simply titled Suffragette. If you can recommend any others—particularly seminal texts—I’m all ears.

Review: Spectre

SpectreThere was some benefit to not knowing a new James Bond film was coming out: I managed to bypass all of the anxious anticipation and skip straight to the enjoyment of trundling along to the theatre to view it.

Well, view it after an interminable 30—yes, 30—minutes of largely sponsor-related and poorly considered ads. One ad in particular incensed me: bottled water, a product so wholly environmentally unfriendly it should almost be illegal.

But then I reminded myself that the Bond films are if nothing else about impractical and unattainable things.

I’ve never read any of Ian Fleming’s books, but I’ve long wished I had. Bond is the kind of hero slash anti-hero I like: suave, dapper, capable, well-travelled, able to function wholly using his skill, charm, and wit.

Especially in these most recent films, with Daniel Craig’s Bond both on the outer with the establishment and being broken physically and emotionally. It makes him a far more relatable, realistic (if that’s possible for someone who survives so many insane scenarios), and sympathetic character.

In Spectre, Bond has gone rogue, pursuing leads even he isn’t sure about. But he’s a man on a mission and nothing—not even ‘smart blood’ that tracks his location—is about to prevent him from fulfilling the mission.

But bureaucracy is interfering, first in the form of his boss, M, and second in the form of his boss’ boss, an arrogant up-and-comer with the home secretary’s ear. The latter has written a report that the 00 program is obsolete and a lone agent in the field cannot compete with Big Brother-ilk technology.

Bond hasn’t helped his or the 00 program’s case. The film’s opening sequence involves him at the heart of an unsanctioned international incident that plays out in front of thousands of witnesses during Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. (‘The dead are alive’ the screen reads ominously before we cut to the festival in full swing.)

Especially so when he is cavalier when M tells him he’s now in the extremely difficult position of having to explain 007’s actions. You’re right, Bond tells M. You’re about to have a very difficult day.

I love this grittier Bond. The one who’s a little less shiny and a little more aware of his own mortality. What I’m unclear on is whether that’s the doing of the filmmakers or Fleming.

One of the central complaints about the Bond character is perennially young (or at least becoming more of a silver fox) and untouched by the realities of life, and his flings increasingly younger and more beautiful than the previous ones.

This Bond is finally starting to feel his age and his mortality. And though the woman he ends up with in the film is implausibly young (and, if I may say so, not really his type), he has a brief dalliance with one who is closer to his age and style.

But really, love stories aside, Spectre contains enough intrigue and adventure to entertain. Craig has reportedly said he’s unsure if he’s going to reprise the role and that Bond, at his core, is pretty much a misogynist.

I’ll be disappointed if Spectre is the last time we’ll see Craig as Bond, but I like too that he’s not so caught up in the Bond ego that he can’t see the character has flaws.

Either way, having not known about this film until it was out, I’ll likely be pleasantly surprised if or when Craig does reprise the role.

Review: The Program

It's Not About The BikeThere are few stories more abjectly fascinating than those surrounding Lance Armstrong’s triumph over a cancer he was given infinitesimally small chance of surviving and his subsequent seven Tour de France (AKA Tour de Lance) victories.

Consequently, there are few stories more assumptions-shattering than the revelation that Armstrong had, in fact, been using drugs to aid his wins all along.

The Program, so named to describe the doping program Armstrong (played convincingly by Ben Foster) and his teammates followed, answers the questions we’ve been wondering for years: How did he do it? And how did he manage to get away with it for so long?

The film’s opening scene features a solitary cyclist climbing a mountain. The only sounds we hear are the wind, the rider’s breath, and the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead. It is, presumably, Armstrong out in front of the peloton in the Tour de France. Or it’s simply an arresting visual of a rider alone with their thoughts, battling the elements as they work to ascend a mountain.

The Tour de France features 180 riders, 20 stages, and just one—highly prized—yellow jersey. Armstrong won the event a record seven times, and he did so after overcoming a debilitating cancer no one should have overcome. It’s unsurprising his wins took on mythic proportions in our minds.

Armstrong would likely have remained a legendary figure had it not been for sports writer David Walsh (played by Chris O’Dowd). He was the only journalist who doubted Armstrong’s triumphant physical makeover (Armstrong was built for one-day cycling events, not three-week tours that involved mountainous range) and the only person to doggedly work to uncover the doping truth.

‘He’s a man transformed,’ Walsh says at one point. ‘He recovered from cancer and turned into bloody Superman.’

And: ‘I have no interest in going up a mountain to watch chemists compete.’

To be fair, Armstrong decided to dope because everyone else was already doing it. I know, I know, that doesn’t make it even remotely alright. And yes, the ‘if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?’ example springs to mind. Armstrong wasn’t and isn’t a sheep. He’s a ruthless competitor who knew what he was doing.

But as one friend and avid cyclist said to me when the news of Armstrong’s doping finally broke, he might have been taking performance-enhancing drugs, but he still consistently beat a field of guys who were likely also doping. Was he simply levelling the playing field?

I don’t know. With Armstrong’s story, we’re knee deep in murky ethics. And consciences weighing heavy.

‘I just told them what they wanted to hear,’ he tells his future wife after he delivers an inspiring speech about beating cancer. Which is arguably true. We wanted to believe in Armstrong’s story just as much as he wanted us to believe it.

And there were arguably some benefits to his profile and success, however false. He raised millions of dollars for cancer research. He inspired people experiencing cancer to fight to live.

I’m not condoning what Armstrong did. Like everyone else, I got teary when he stood up on the podium time and again. And I felt foolish and frustrated I’d been duped.

I’d even read and loved his two ghost-written memoirs, It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life and Every Second Counts, rabbiting on about how incredible it was he’d beat the odds and how hard he’d worked for his victories.

So I was particularly annoyed they turned out to be if not entirely false, then at least playing loose with facts. It’s well-documented—and slightly bemusing—that people shifted those titles from the non-fiction to fiction sections in bookshops.

Even though Armstrong’s actions were wholly wrong, The Program gives us the most insightful and nuanced examination of Armstrong and his motivations to date.

That’s not to say the film’s perfect. Plenty is skimmed over, not least Armstrong’s battle with cancer and his marriages and relationships. Seriously, the audience kind of chuckled in surprise at how the film cut from Armstrong asking a woman in a hallway if she liked Italian food to—literally—them emerging from a church married. We never saw her again and at one stage his three children, who had not been mentioned or appeared prior to that, joined him on the podium.

But that’s also a sign the film stayed true to its intent: depicting the doping program Armstrong and his teammates underwent in order to win.

Based on detailed legal documents and reports surrounding his exposure and the stripping of his titles, The Program is the closest thing we’ve got to date about how the doping was carried out. It’s fictional and Armstrong obviously hasn’t condoned it, but I’d like to think the film offers the rest of us some insight into the hows and the whys. It’s certainly closer to the truth than Armstrong’s two books. For those reasons, I’d recommend we watch it.

Review: Shelter

ShelterPhotographer and stylist Kara Rosenlund spent a year traversing Australia, towing her trusty vintage caravan to homes to photograph based on word-of-mouth recommendations.

The result is Shelter, an exquisite coffee table keepsake with a whole heap of heart.

Shelter wasn’t the book Rosenlund was supposed to write. She had a contract to create another book altogether about vintage caravans (she was into these caravans long before they were cool). But a wrong turn in rural Australia put paid to that: Rosenlund spotted a dilapidated house and was curious about its history, its residents, and how it came to be in the rundown state it was.

By the time she’d found her way home, she was convinced the book she needed to produce was about how Australians live. And she managed to convince her publisher of that too.

I’m generalising, but I think that those of us addicted to Pinterest (I’ll wholly admit I’m included in that group) tend to pin images of houses and apartments from other regions in the world. My own feed is full of New York, Swedish, and other all-white, architecturally designed spaces styled to within an inch of their lives.

Shelter departs from this aesthetic, showcasing real, lived-in homes and their broader, contextualising landscapes. They’re not homes that would necessarily appear in house and garden magazines, but I mean this as a compliment. They’re the homes we haven’t known about and for which images aren’t readily available to pin.

They also depart from the stereotypical ‘outback’ Australian imagery we’re used to seeing. For too long, it’s felt as though our landscape and our lifestyles had to occupy a truly urban or quintessentially outback identity.

Nor did Rosenlund, despite her background, ever style the spaces. She captured them as they were and the book is better for it. Unlike those Pinterest images I tend to pin, which are comparatively sterile or at least impossible to actually live in lest you muck up the aesthetics straight up, you get an unmediated sense of how people live.

As someone who rather fancies becoming a hermit (Seriously, I said that was what I wanted to be when I grew up as early as Year 2. Suffice to say, it didn’t wash well with the teacher I told and I sensed quickly it wasn’t an appropriate thing to say), this book speaks to me.

The bespoke homes, be they made from an old tram or shipping containers or simply an old cottage built from gathered materials, and surrounded by nature, seem absolutely heavenly. Some are lived in full time, while others provide humble getaways. Still others seemed like short-term shelters that have come to be long-term homes.

As a photographer and stylist, Rosenlund has an eye for creating and capturing composition and detail that is almost unrivalled. Her images are textured, detail-rich artworks in and of themselves. The book is wholly hers too. She put together the images and words for it, with the text containing brief tales of how she found the building’s owners.

To encounter Rosenlund (as I did when I attended one of her book launches recently) is to realise how warm she is. She writes in the introduction that she wasn’t sure how she was going to convince people to let her inside their homes. I’d argue that was never going to be the issue—I doubt anyone ever says no to her—and that finding the properties was more likely the challenge. Australia is, after all, a vast continent and the kinds of homes she was keen to photograph were not clustered together in easily accessible urban locations.

That’s evidenced in the continuing theme in the book that many of the homeowners who ended up in the book rarely go into town, have the internet, or check email. Regardless, through persistence and the occasional old-fashioned asking at the local pub, Rosenlund managed to track these people down.

From there, she often found herself often staying overnight and spending time with the homeowners—a far more personal and in-depth approach than most styling and book production practices entail. She writes in the introduction that she would come away from the experience ‘happy, and topped up with human spirit’.

That’s kind of how I feel encountering Shelter. It’s a tribute to lives lived deeply and a brief peek into, and inspiration for, those of us who’ve been seeking out inspiration for new and fulfilling ways to live.

Review: Mockingjay 2 Film

The Hunger GamesI had the ‘I should have re-watched the last film before seeing this film’ feeling about a minute in to Mockingjay 2, the final film instalment of The Hunger Games trilogy. (The last book of which has, confusingly, filmicly been split into two to make the trilogy a kind of quadrilogy.) For I couldn’t remember where the last film had finished and this one, logically, picked up shortly after where the other one left off.

My guess, based on the neck brace and bruising Katniss has in the opening moments and the damage she has to her vocal cords, is related to Peeta’s lunging at her to choke her to death. I vaguely think that’s the cliffhanger the previous film finished on (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). Even if I don’t remember exact details, what I can immediately tell is that things are extremely bleak—for everyone.

Katniss, of course, is completely traumatised from her experiences in not one but two hunger games and the horrors that have occurred beyond it. Compounding that is that Peeta, her in-game and post-game rock, seems to have been brainwashed slash lost his mind.

For his part, as Peeta continues to be shackled to a hospital bed for security reasons, he finds out his family hasn’t come to visit him because they didn’t survive the Capitol’s District 12 bombardment.

Meanwhile everyone around them is reeling from the ongoing war against antagonist Snow and tense about what is yet to come. Which is, clearly, going to be war-to-end-all-wars bad.

The culmination of the trilogy’s build-up, Part 2 is desolate in an appropriate sort of way. Perhaps more so given the bleakness surrounding us in the world. The Paris attacks took place just days prior to its release, but there’s also been (and continues to be) the relentless run-up of violence and war in places such as Syria, Beirut, and more. I’ll not deny there were moments in the film, such as when planes overhead and launched bombs that killed children, that I thought this was a little too close to reality right now.

Which is apt given that author Suzanne Collins’ aim is not to sugarcoat or lionise war or people’s actions during war. The Hunger Games’ point is that this is the stuff of horror and even good people are confronted with difficult, no-win decisions. Katniss is the protagonist, but she’s far from perfect or even likeable at times, and she grapples with her choices and her complicity in the violence. Peeta becomes unrecognisable as he loses all that makes him him. And no one around them—on their side or against them—can entirely be trusted.

As a side note, there are a lot of hospital scenes in this film, warranted by the sheer amount of violence being inflicted on the characters. I respect the realism, or the near-realism, of it all. Because no one gets through physically or emotionally unscathed.

I have to confess I thought the final book lost the plot a bit (the first two had been utterly outstanding). Or maybe I lost the plot. I don’t know. What I do know is I didn’t understand the pods and their aftermath as they were explained in the book. And I didn’t understand how it all hung together as Katniss and co. worked their way towards the city.

Seeing this aspect of the books realised on screen was what I was most looking forward to with Mockingjay 2. It didn’t disappoint. In fact, it was truly terrifying and gut-wrenching. And claustrophobic. As someone more than a little afraid of enclosed spaces, there was an extended sequence that left me so tense for so long I considered leaving the theatre until it had passed.

The film, like the books, made me pause at the stellarly insightful phrases—too numerous here to list or even remember, but that on their own could be grand statements summarising the tale’s messages. For example, Coin at one stage says that there is no sacrifice too great to make. ‘It just goes around and around…I am done being a piece in his game,’ Katniss says of Snow, that regardless of which side they’re on, they’re all Snow’s slaves and he’s the only one who ever wins.

There were better remarks than those. I just can’t recall them right now because my in-the-dark note-taking was on fleek, which is to say it really wasn’t. I’m sure I pencilled down some wisdom-filled gems, but they’re lost in illegible handwriting or, worse, illegible handwriting written over the top of other illegible handwriting. I really need to learn how to write clearly in the dark. And in a straight line.

Some reviewers have claimed the film starts slow, but I have to admit I didn’t find it that way at all. I’d argue Mockingjay 2 is pensive, not slow, as it tries to avoid drowning the books’ sombre messages in pyrotechnics and 3-D show.

If nothing else, the film, more so than the books, cemented for me that it was right for Katniss to end up with Peeta. (I wasn’t convinced reading the books and thought it was still all up in the air.) And despite the film’s required darkness, it still fit in some trademark black humour, including when we hear: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 76th Hunger Games.’

Essentially, I’m giving this rendition of beloved books a thumbs up. I’d like nothing more now than to curl up and re-read the trilogy to compare notes on what was included, what was skipped or altered, and to tackle those scenes with the pods now I have a clear visual representation of what they are and how they played out.

Review: Fun Home

Fun HomeI bought Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home tragicomic some years ago despite not really having considered myself a graphic novel reader.

My purchasing decision came off the back of some glowing recommendations from people whose reading opinions I completely value. But then, as so often happens, the book got relegated to the books-I’ll-get-to-one-day shelf of good intentions.

I picked it up recently after a personally devastating few months that left me unable to tackle anything too arduous. After all, an image-led book with minimal but exquisite writing with subject matter about someone whose life was slightly more pear-shaped than my own seemed the fitting choice.

So I found myself reading the memoir about Bechdel’s upbringing and coming out. Her father, an emotionally distant obsessive house restorer, funeral home director, and English teacher, features heavily. He was gay in a time when it was wholly unacceptable to be so and the repercussions for the Bechdel family are enormous. The book also examines Bechdel’s realisation she too was gay and her emergence as a gay woman comfortable in her own skin.

Although covering subject matter vastly different from my own experiences, it proved the perfect book for an imperfect time: little enough text to give my racing mind a rest and strong enough images to help me enjoy the story in a not-too-taxing way.

At once sombre and blackly comic and containing richly wrought images I was admittedly too devastated to completely appreciate, Fun Home is unlike any book I’ve previously read.

‘Like many fathers,’ Bechdel writes, ‘mine could occasionally be prevailed upon for a spot of “Airplane”.’ That is, he was in some ways like any father. ‘…but it was impossible to tell if the minotaur lay beyond the next corner…And the constant tension was heightened by the fact that some encounters could be quite pleasant. His bursts of kindness were as incandescent as his tantrums were dark.’

Are You My Mother?Bechdel conveys the minutiae of life in ways that both provide insight and that seem bittersweet: ‘My mother must have bathed me hundreds of times. But it’s my father rinsing me off with the purple metal cup that I remember most clearly.’

Bechdel’s father died when she was 20 under circumstances that looked accidental but most likely involved suicide. This book is as much her attempt to reconcile his death as his life, and especially his emotional absence even when he was physically present.

It’s recently been turned into a Broadway production that is, by all accounts, utterly, transfixingly stellar.

In researching this blog I discovered that Bechdel has written a follow-up graphic novel. Named Are You My Mother?, a nod to the popular children’s book, it explores her relationship with her mother—something that would be complicated with any daughter and mother, but especially so given her mother was an aspiring actor trapped in a marriage to a man who was gay but who couldn’t openly be so.

It seems to fulfil the one part of the Fun Home story I felt was missing: her mother. Suffice to say, I’ll be ordering that one shortly. But this time, it’s unlikely it’ll go on my to-be-read-eventually book pile of good intentions.

(As a side note, Bechdel is widely credited with establishing the gender inequality-determining Bechdel Test, AKA the Bechdel–Wallace Test, with Bechdel preferring her friend Liz Wallace be co-credited for the concept.

Whichever name it’s called, the test involves asking whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. It was apparently intended as ‘a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper’, but has since been adopted more widely. It’s presumably helped change both the number of women included in such works and how they’re portrayed.)

This Changes Everything

This Changes EverythingI’ve been avoiding Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Because the only thing that makes climate change-themed book harder to read than its already difficultly depressing subject matter is a climate change-themed book that’s the thickness of a brick.

Seriously, Klein has written War & Peace.

Coupled with the fact that her writing is fairly dense and, well, there is an impossibly long list of books I’d rather read before I got to it.

But I also know it’s a must-read book. The modern Silent Spring, if you like. So I cheated. I watched Klein’s just-released documentary by the same name.

‘Can I be honest with you?’ Klein asks in the opening moments of the film, because saying that she’s always looked away from climate change-related subject matter (and yes, I was like, what a relief it’s not just me). That’s because it’s too difficult, too overwhelming, too despair-inducing. Until she couldn’t look away any more.

But then she asks: What if the problem isn’t climate change? What if the problem is the stories we’re telling ourselves about it?

Her thesis, which is presumably the same across the film I’ve seen and the book I’ve been avoiding reading, is that if we change the stories we’re telling ourselves we’ll change the climate change outcome.

Silent SpringThat makes This Changes Everything difficult to watch, but arguably less difficult than I’d expected. But perhaps I’ve come to expect only bleakness with climate change subject matter and anything that offers an iota of hope is a pleasant surprise.

The hard-to-watch parts of the film include Klein traveling to Fort McMurray (AKA Fort Money), which is ground zero for tar sand oil extraction and is something of an environmental horror show.

They also include following the court case of a Canadian community and traditional landowners having to fight to even access the land to inspect the environmental damage that’s been inflicted.

But she also features people persevering in tackling contamination and a business empowering people to learn how to install their own solar power.

The latter are important reminders that it isn’t entirely hopeless. As one of the film interviewees says: ‘You have to keep going no matter what.’

The documentary sufficiently piqued my interest to make me pluck the book version from the shelf. I’ll confess I haven’t yet cracked the spine, but given that I’m housesitting and have it as the only book I’ve brought with me, I’m one step closer to reading it.

And who knows, maybe it’ll be like the film: less difficult to read and more full of hope-encouraging surprises than I would expect.

Review: Owning It

Owning ItIt seems weird to be writing a review of a book I haven’t yet entirely read, but I have a feeling I’ll be reading this book, and writing reviews about it, for some time to come.

Owning It: A Creative’s Guide to Copyright, Contracts, and the Law is the legal book I’ve been looking for for sometime (I’d also really love a tax equivalent, hint hint).

Independently published by Tess McCabe of Creative Women’s Circle fame (yet another reason to love and support it) and written by experience lawyer Sharon Givoni, Owning It is the kind of book I would put together had I the expertise and the skills to convey in lay terms that expertise to those of us who most need it and can often least afford it: creatives.

As in, the people who are often asked to work for free or who rarely get paid what we’re worth.

As the book’s opening pages note, a 2013 report estimated the creative sector is (unlike the agricultural and manufacturing sectors and despite what the government stripping funding out of the creative industries would tell us) on the rise. Out of the $90-ish billion of Australia’s turnover, the creative industries apparently generated around half.

Yet another 2013 survey showed almost 80% of respondents working in the creative industries earnt below the average Australian income, and more than half of those respondents cobbled together their incomes from multiple sources.

So yep, Owning It is a well-timed, much-needed resource.

The book is designed to empower creatives to protect their brands and intellectual property (IP). It includes information about starting and growing your creative business, enforcing your rights, using social media, working with lawyers, resolving disputes, and even achieving positive legal outcomes.

It demystifies copyright, trade marks, IP, moral rights, image use, design registration, contracts, your rights online, business structures, insurance, and more. It also gives concrete examples of what each one is and how it plays out.

Best, Owning It makes the law seem less scary and more understandable. For instance, it opens with an illustrative example of interpretation: Ask a child if black and white are colours and they’re likely to say yes; scientists not so much. And so it is with the law—it’s open to interpretation.

Owning It’s communication design is to be commended.

Colour coded along the bleed (I think that’s the term), so you can easily determine and flick to the section you need, it logically tackles key, practical questions such as: How is copyright infringed? Can I recreate a work in a different media? What do I do if someone copies my work? How do I trade mark my brand name?

It features Takeaway Tips too, including for writing and blogging, the interwebs and social media, contracts, creative commons, and more. Handily placed infographics help you work out your next steps should you need to take some action. Meanwhile the sidebars include links to useful resources, such as the IP Australia website. (Is now an appropriate time to admit I wasn’t even aware there was an IP Australia website?)

Owning It also contains lots of fantastic quotes, e.g. ‘Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.’ (Mark Twain) and ‘Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.’ (Marie Curie)

Given that I’m only a few chapters in and it’s the kind of book you need to dip in and out of, I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be revisiting Owning It on this blog. In the interim, I heartily recommend it. It’s not cheap (read: in the vicinity of $80), but it’s a worthy investment.

Fever of Animals

Fever of AnimalsI can’t remember if I put my hand up to review Miles Allinson’s Fever of Animals or if it was sent to me because the publisher’s PR team thought it might be up my alley. Either way, I was pleasantly and slightly surprised and confused when it arrived.

The winner of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award, Fever of Animals is a fictional tale of a narrator named (slightly confusingly) Miles who’s trying to determine what happened to Romanian surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu.

Bafdescu disappeared in a forest in 1967. Miles hears about Bafdescu and is intrigued by his mysterious disappearance courtesy of a painting hanging in a Melbourne restaurant.

Still with me?

Let me first say that the premise of this book is intriguing and it undoubtedly hooked me (I would love to know the novel’s creative origins slash backstory). Let me say second that it is exquisitely written—Allinson possesses a lyrical writing skill far above and beyond any I do.

Let me say third that as a non-fiction reader who’ll forgive poor writing as long as the book is plot-driven and actually takes me somewhere, I’m probably not Fever of Animals’ target audience.

I assumed I was about to read a non-fiction book about animal rights ala Eating Animals when I pulled the book from its postal envelope and read the title.

Even having finished it, I still don’t know to what the title refers. If you’ve read it and know what I missed, please let me know. And yes, I feel a little silly—it seems a big thing to have missed.

That’s a three-way way of saying I truly admire the book Allinson’s crafted, but I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it. I was never caught up in the tale as I so often am by other books. Case in point: I’ve recently found myself re-reading excerpts of, and imploring others to pick up, Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary.

I’m still not entirely sure what Fever of Animals was about—that may well be me not being clever enough to discern its points—and my abiding thought both while reading and after finishing its final pages were the ever-dreaded ‘so what?’.

You see, Fever of Animals ruminates on life. It’s quiet and internally focused. Which is great in and of itself. But the book doesn’t really go anywhere—something I struggled with as a time- and brain space-poor reader.

I needed something that would really pull me in, something strong enough to compete with life already demanding huge amounts of my time and attention.

Truth be told, I’m also probably a little too close to the whole ‘lost 20-something wandering around Europe’ trope to be able to view it with any decent perspective.

I’ll never argue a book has to resolve all its plots in neat fashion, but I do like to come away from a book having a sense of something having shifted. Of the character having (forgive the terrible cliché) ‘grown’ or attained some insight into themselves or their circumstances.

Still, there were moments of the novel that wholly impressed me. These include a passage where Miles reflects on flying home to see his dying father: ‘It’s rare, I suppose, that our lives are given such definition, are marked out as clearly as that, so that the part which is over tilts away, and another part—the future, for instance—begins.’

Also, it turns out there’s a (relatively unpronounceable) word for ‘Are you going to keep tickling me in the face in the same spot repeatedly?’

There are these rather memorably bleak passages too:

They say an elephant will stay on its feet for ten days after it’s been shot. They say that some animals can sense a volcano days before it erupts, and that they’d rather kill themselves. In such cases, the water in the bay will teem with drowning snakes.

[smoking]…and I stand with the students there beside the sliding doors, breathing out plumes of toxic smoke towards the rain, like one of those grey patients I remember from the hospital: like someone who feels free to smoke as much as they want now because they are dying from something else.

Despite not being its best reader, I can see why Fever of Animals won the unpublished manuscript award. Allinson is clearly talented and this text would have leapt off the submissions pile.

The book may not be for me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t for others. It also doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be interested in reading what Allinson creates after this, his first novel. I look forward to see what he publishes next.

Peace & Parsnips

Peace & ParsnipsLee Watson’s Peace & Parsnips: Vegan Cooking for Everyone looked so good from the preview cover art and blurb that I went out of my way to see if I could obtain a review copy of it.

I mean, who wouldn’t be sold on the adorable cover with almost-stamped images of pears, broccoli, and what I think are figs?

Once the review copy arrived, I discovered there are pros and cons with the cover design—things I hadn’t noticed in my earlier excitement.

The issues aren’t with the artwork, which I still love, but the format: The book comes with a dust cover that is, for someone like me, something that appears quite finicky and easily damaged.

But what do I know? I’m a terrible cook who can’t be entrusted to have expensively produced books in the vicinity of liquids and solids being smashed together without badness happening. And there’s precedence for having dust covers on cookbooks.

Besides, the glass-half-full slash person-who-can-be-entrusted-with-this-stuff view could be that the thinking behind the dust cover is that it’s removable and therefore ideal to protect the book’s extremities from getting damaged with food splodges and splashes.

But I’m getting ahead of my nitpicking self.

Peace & Parsnips overarching theme is captured by the Dalai Lama quote ‘Approach loving and cooking with reckless abandon’. Which is what it does. For the foundation of vegan cooking, Watson writes in his introduction, is creativity.

Watson’s written this cookbook some five years after converting to veganism from being a hardcore, nose-to-tail carnivore. It means he’s bringing five years’ worth of experience to the fore—enough time for him to have developed expertise in the vegan cooking realm, but not so much that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be a wide-eyed, overwhelmed newbie.

Watson’s argument is that if he can go vegan, anyone can, and here are some recipes to get them started. What we eat reflects who we are, he continues. Also, there’s much, much more to vegan cooking than tofu.

As my introduction intimated, what’s immediately apparent about Peace & Parsnips is its beautiful design and investment in quality. The paper stock, for example, is recycled but organic and expensive in feel rather than dowdy. The images too are gorgeous.

Above all, the book’s useful. For example, there’s a spread tackling food myths that include:

  • meat is the only way to get protein and cow’s milk is the best calcium source
  • we have incisors for a reason
  • it takes cream to make things creamy.

The book also breaks down some of the food groups, outlining, for instance, some of the different types of grains that are great for vegans and tips for how they can be cooked and served. The book also covers fruit, nuts, milks (vegan, of course), and more.

My cookbook wishlist always includes having one colour image for every recipe—I’m such a terrible cook I can’t make what I can’t see the finished product of (and in fact I have a theory that recipes that don’t have full-colour images to accompany them are made far less frequently than ones that do). That would be my one suggestion for improving Peace & Parsnips.

Regardless, the book contains some pretty appetising-sounding recipes that, picture or not, warrant a try:

  • Raw-sli with Grated Apple, Blueberries, & Macadamia Cream
  • Scrambled Tofu with Buckwheat Pancakes & Avocado Butter
  • Sesame & Sweetcorn Pancakes
  • Braised Fennel, Pear & Radish with Toasted Almonds
  • Homemade Vegetable Crisps
  • Open-Top Asparagus & Cashew Cream Pie, with Fig & Apple Compote.

So, dust cover or no, a picture per recipe or no, this cookbook gets my thumbs up.

Review: The Little Book of Letterpress

9780811875073There are few things that excite me more than stumbling across something that has the three following components:

  • a book
  • letterpress themes
  • Chronicle Books the publisher.

The book part is self-explanatory.

The letterpress part—or the old-school form of printing that involves pressing patterns into paper and card via plates—is also self-explanatory provided you know what it is.

(The printing style went out of favour as fandangled digital printing came to the fore, but it’s undergone a resurgence in recent years, arguably dusted off, resurrected, and made cool by hipsters.)

A book about letterpress is something to be admired. Especially when you know it’s been created by the clever minds and hands at Chronicle Books (AKA the San Francisco-based publisher that never fails to both surprise with what it chooses to publish and to enviably nail whatever it chooses to turn its publishing hand to).

The Little Book of Letterpress brings together all three of the above elements in an almost pocket-sized book that charts the history of letterpress and some lust-inducing examples of it in practice.

This book also proves a fantastic resource, not least because, despite being a letterpress lover, I’ve never quite understood how it all came together. For instance, the text blocks are organised in a frame called a chase and locked in position using things called quoins. Clearly Imma going to be bandying those terms about now like I know what I’m talking about.

9781906417697The bulk of the book’s content comprises examples of letterpress work from around the world (AKA letterpress p&rn), which invariably leads you to marvel at how people come up with the designs they have. And how they executed them even after they had.

From alternating scissor-and-button designs to raindrops falling on and around an umbrella to maps to subtle animal-themed cards and swing tags, the book showcases letterpress’ diversity and frankly gorgeous effects. It makes me want to know a lot more about the ins and outs of how letterpress works, including googling the wheres and whens of my nearest letterpress course.

It also contains a handy list of resources and letterpress details for those of us who, after flicking through the book’s pages, are overcome by a sudden desire to print something with letterpress but don’t yet have a letterpress of our own to turn things out on.

All of which makes you wonder how letterpress ever went out of style in the first place. For while I know technology made printing faster, easier, and more efficient, letterpress seems to offer a quality and permanence that nothing has yet superseded. I’m rather relieved it’s been resurrected, even if it’s currently hipster-expensive.

As a side note, I discovered author Charlotte Rivers seems to be an author after my own heart. Her other publications include I Love Stationery. Clearly, that’s going to be my next purchase/perusal…

Review: Print’s Not Dead

Print's Not DeadLike books, magazines hold an immense pull for me. Print magazines, particularly, are something I’ll pore over for hours and keep and display on my bookshelves or coffee tables.

So a coffee table book about magazines holds an elevated appeal. I ordered Ruth Jamieson’s Print’s Not Dead as soon as I heard about it and set about eagerly anticipating its arrival.

With minimal text and maximal examination of the world’s best independent magazines, Print’s Not Dead explains the points that prove its title. That is, that niche, largely ad-free, design-focused, and reader-funded magazines are booming.

This is in large part to their leveraging of the barrier-removing internets and its social media and other faculties. Or, as Jamieson put it: ‘Instead of moaning about the internet moving their cheese, these magazines look for ways to use digital media to their advantage.’

The speed of the internets have also, Jamieson says, fueled and helped fulfill a demand for slower, higher-value products such as print mags. And the producers of these magazines don’t try to beat digital at its own game—they concentrate on what print alone can do to create timeless, keepsake items.

It’s no mistake, then, that these magazines are featured in a coffee table book, AKA the form that arguably best represents that which should be admired and kept.

Some of the incredible magazines featured in the book—a kind of convergence of two of my favourite things—include:

  • Wrap, a biannual magazine that includes news, features and interviews with illustrators, and five pull-out sheets of wrapping paper commissioned specifically for the magazine issue
  • Works That Work uncovers the design stories behind fascinating objects. It’s featured the works of Magnum photographers and World Press Photo winners. So it’s basically extraordinarily beautiful and informative about things you might think about but have no idea how (or the time) to investigate
  • Lalata, which means ‘the can’, and which is literally a magazine in a can—a rethink of what a magazine should look and operate like
  • Another Escape, which came about after co-founders Jody Daunton and Rachel Maria Taylor met and carried out a kind of long-distance relationship. Their weekend-away catch-ups were termed by friends ‘another escape’; their adventures inspired a gorgeous magazine documenting them and other adventures worth having
  • Delayed Gratification aims to be the last to news, instead allowing the dust to settle, the information to be digested, and for research to be conducted in order to provide a richer, fuller picture of an issue. The magazine also uses some incredible infographics. I heart this magazine much.

I’m not sure if Print’s Not Dead will be an annual collation—I’d very much like to see that—or a one-off. Jamieson is active in the industry and is one of the go-to people to discuss the future of print and magazines more widely, so I’d love to see what she predicts coming, or flags what’s worth examining, in coming years.

Even if it’s not an annual publication, it’s a fantastic point-in-time reference. Reading it, I’m reminded that just as digitally rendered books have not swept aside print books, electronic magazines and other media have and will not ushered print magazines aside.

What their future holds, I can’t begin to predict. But I do know they’ll be around and I’ll continue to enjoy them.

Go Set A Watchman

Go Set A WatchmanWhile I won’t deny I’ve been beside myself with anticipation awaiting the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, I’ve simultaneously been terrified about how it might read, for the publishers announced it would be printed in its organic, unedited form.

Go Set A Watchman is, after all, a kind of first draft rejected by publishers that facilitated Lee writing something vastly improved and iconic.

As a writer who also works as an editor, I see both sides of the fence. I am acutely aware of the value of a good edit—even the most talented writer benefits from some precision editing help.

I worry that we’re about to read—and judge her on—a not yet fully polished work. Lee is an undeniably exquisite writer, but the Harry Potter rejection myth arguably carries too much weight in our collective conscience. The book is no doubt good, but I doubt it was rejected in the first place without some feasible reason.

In fact, I’d hazard a guess the book’s less an overlooked gem than a book that’s good, but that led to something better. And without the benefit of an edit, as To Kill A Mockingbird itself had, it’s likely to pale in comparison.

Or worse, be the kind of thing you couldn’t resist reading, but that ever so slightly diminished your love for, and fascination with, the original text. For me, that was the extra the Picnic At Hanging Rock chapter, which that demonstrated finishing with the however infuriating unsolved mystery was a vastly better way to end.

To Kill A MockingbirdBut then, contention about whether the hermited Lee actually gave permission for Go Set A Watchman to be published, I realised I’ve become something like the pedants we’ve all encountered along the way. Everyone’s an expert, it seems, and everyone has an opinion on how a book could or should be better.

The hype around Lee’s book reminds me of the following two takes on the pedant issue. The first, a Buzzfeed in-joke if Jane Austen had received feedback on Pride and Prejudice from a peer in a writing class.

It includes such gems as:

  • I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling Pride and Prejudice.
  • Anyway, good job. I do have a couple of notes to share, in the spirit of constructive criticism.
  • Also, why five sisters? How about just two?
  • Anyway, while this isn’t something I would pick up on my own to read, I still enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Thanks for letting me take a look, and let me know if you need any more help with it.

AdWeek carries the theme with its hypothetical client feedback for famous writers (F Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Heller, and Salman Rushdie are among an esteemed crowd who spent time working in advertising to pay for the privilege of being a poorly paid writer).

The client feedback includes:

  • Great powwow earlier, but the team and I have just a few notes…
  • The title Catch 22 is a little ambiguous. Can we be more direct?
  • Could the characters be a little more working class and in line with our ‘strivers and survivors’ demographic?
  • Let’s rethink the adulterous theme running throughout. It is NOT on brand.
  • …can we add a cat? Everyone loves cats.
  • One last thing: Does it have to be a book?

Picnic at Hanging RockSo when I do manage to crack the spine of this breathily awaited Go Set A Watchman, which I have to admit I don’t think has a particularly great title, I’ll try to remember everyone’s an expert when it’s not their work and to respect Lee’s narrative decisions (including surrounding what I’m hearing is something to do with making Atticus slightly racist).

Regardless of what Go Set A Watchman covers and how it reads, or even why Lee chose that title, even Lee’s first drafts are likely to read vastly better than my best final drafts.

The book’s a precursor to a masterpiece and probably has a lot to offer both as a standalone piece of work and in its greater, other-book context. And it’ll give us more insight into, and a richer understanding of, this incredible author’s writing talent and approach. Inner pedant, be gone.

Review: Flashpoints

FlashpointsGeorge Friedman (AKA New York Times bestselling author of The Next 100 Years) asks three questions in his latest book, Flashpoints:

  • How did Europe achieve global domination, politically, militarily, economically, and intellectually?
  • What was the flaw in Europe that caused it to throw away this domination between 1914 and 1945?
  • Is the period of peace that following 1945 what the future of Europe will look like?

The latter question is the one Friedman ultimately aimed to answer, with the initial two marking the entry points and background to facilitate answering it. He wants to know if Europe’s current peace is permanent or merely an interlude.

In the years spanning 1914 and 1945, approximately 100 million Europeans died from political causes that included war, genocide, and planned starvation. So Friedman tells us in the opening line of Flashpoints.

He and his family experienced some of this first hand and their stories form the throughline to the book, contextualising and punctuating some pivotal historical events. Friedman was born in Hungary in 1949; his parents were born in 1912 and 1914 respectively.

The family, through a harrowing journey, eventually escaped to the US, which is where Friedman has spent most of his life. But his life abroad has, if anything, drawn his European heritage and the what-ifs surrounding his family’s survival into sharp focus. He aims to make sense of the world through his own life experiences.

The European Union was created to ensure ‘peace and prosperity’, he notes, asking what would happen if prosperity were to disappear in some or all European states. ‘If Europe has transcended its history of bloodshed, that is important news,’ he writes. ‘If it has not, that is even more important news.’

And so Friedman explores this notion and attempts to answer his three questions through analysing historical events and border tensions. His argument is that the issues have been stitched over, but remain, simmering below the surface.

Friedman’s father believed Europe hadn’t—and would never—change. It would simply act as if nothing had happened. Until tensions reach their peak, that is, and old rivalries and disputes resurface.

Part memoir, part history lesson and thesis, Flashpoints uses the carefully analysed past to predict the future. Only time will reveal how accurate Friedman’s predictions are. In the interim, his hypotheses make for thought-provoking reading.

Review: The End of Plenty

The End of PlentyNational Geographic writer Joel K Bourne Jr studied something MEGO—short for ‘my eyes glaze over—at university. For agronomy, a combination of soil and plant science, doesn’t exactly inspire intrigue.

Or even understanding of what it is for that matter. (I’ll confess I had no idea what an agronomist was prior to reading this book—I’d have hazily guessed it was something agriculture-related.)

But it’s also proved one of those areas of research whose time has come. With climate change and its effects on food production snowballing, an in-depth understanding of how food is produced and the effects of various chemicals, soil types, and more have on it, is invaluable.

Especially when combined with the ability to convey that information to others. Bourne, who marries his agronomy knowledge with writing prowess, has written The End of Plenty to explore and convey complex issues in engaging, accessible terms.

At its crux, the issue is that we’re fast approaching a point where, through a combination of factors such as climate change and skyrocketing population growth, we won’t be able to produce plentiful enough food to feed everybody.

A four-degree temperature increase, which is highly possible and even likely, would render half the world’s farmland unfarmable. Which means dire things for humanity. (Bourne cites one of his university lecturers’ favourite sayings: there can be no culture without agriculture.)

Currently, farmers produce enough calories to feed nine billion people nutritious, 2700-calorie vegetarian meals. But most of that food is concentrated in first-world nations and doesn’t make it to the people who most need it. That gap is only likely to widen as climate change effects exacerbate.

Agricultural researcher Norman Borlaug famously said (and Bourne quotes him on page 55) that: ‘If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.’

The world is far from a good place now; it’s almost unimaginable how terrible it will be once food shortages kick in vehemently. Which is why The End of Plenty is timely read and one that’s attempting to get us to head off the issues before they come to pass.

This book contains much I hadn’t known. There are, for example, some 50,000 edible plants in the world, but just three—corn, wheat, and rice—directly or indirectly (through livestock feed) make up 90 per cent of the calories we consume. And who’d have guessed Egyptian people ingest more wheat per capita than any other people in the world?

We’re also feeding most of the grain we produce to livestock—a kind of double handling, if you’d like. For it actually takes five times more grain to get the equivalent amount of calories from pork as it does from eating the grain itself. Lots of grain grown also goes not to food but to (the misleadingly named) biofuel production in the form of ethanol.

Frighteningly, a 2013 of 27,000 UK primary children survey showed one in three thought cheese was a vegetable and one in five thought pasta came from animals. Australian students weren’t exempt: a quarter of Year 6 students thought yoghurt grew on trees.

All of which makes me think: blergh, depressing stuff.

Embedded among these facts are some meaty discussions of some of the theories around these issues, the most famous being that of Thomas Malthus. Though his theories of population growth being ruthlessly reigned in by food scarcity are contested by some theorists for various reasons, Malthus outlined a plan that includes the following remarkably common sense steps:

  • cease farmland expansion (especially into rainforests)
  • shift diets away from meat consumption
  • wean cars off biofuels
  • reduce the amount of food wastage.

As in the kind of steps we really should be taking if we want to have any hope of keeping global temperature increases to the wishful two degrees.

We all tend to switch off when it comes to wicked problems—they’re too vast, too overwhelming, and we feel too helpless to have any hope of tackling them. But understanding them and arming ourselves with some key guidance is a first step. Bourne’s The End of Plenty gives us this, and in very readable, digestible terms. Something tells me agronomy is no longer—or soon won’t be—MEGO.


SpacesThere are some nights when it’s bitterly chilly, assignments are looking even less appealing than usual, and all you want to do is curl up with an inspiring book to dream about fabulous spaces in which you’d be completely inspired to write.

Clearly this is one of those chilly, assignment-avoiding nights.

Naturally I’ve gravitated towards Frankie’s two volumes of Spaces—two hefty, larger-than-A4-but-I-don’t-think-quite-A3 (I should know what that measurement is, but obviously don’t) books that double as coffee table centrepieces.

The books feature the illustrious spaces occupied by creative types. You know the kind of spaces styled by the effortlessly and successfully arty people we all aspire to be and the eclectic, gorgeous spaces we aspire work in while creating said art. Because clearly such great spaces attract visits from the elusive creative muse and subsequently help artists bring forth fully formed, polished, genius works of art.

Images lead these books, which are essentially part inspiration, part porn. The stories behind the pictures are interesting too, although it’s times like this flicking through the images magazine-like will suffice.

The featured spaces include those Chris and Kara of AHD Paper Co.—an art deco house that doubles as the space in which the couple creates incredible cards and wrapping paper through collaborations with artists.

The spaces include a house formerly owned and occupied by an artist’s grandmother now turned home and art space. This is a house that gives new meaning to collecting habits, with the walls covered and decorated with vintage crockery and paintings and cross stitch and more.

The spaces also include a house made of reclaimed materials that started off as a cubby for baker Lili’s daughter, but became a space for them both. Nestled on Lili’s parents’ property in improbably lush Tasmania, it’s given her opportunity and freedom to pursue her own interests while just next door to her close-knit family members who offer plenty of support.

There’s also the Daylesford cottagey space that offers the best of both worlds—it’s a home turned (and shared by) business.

All of which have convinced me that if I can set up the perfect workspace, my assignments will write themselves. I suspect this home makeover bent is the ultimate in procrastination—far, far worse than that ‘I just need to wash these dishes, do this load of washing, clean my room…’ that usually plagues me.

Still, inspiring stuff and a reminder that there are some very eclectically cute cottages, homes, cubbies, and workspaces around we’re now privy to peeking inside.


SuperlegumesYou need a solidly designed cover to sell legumes, and that’s exactly what Chrissy Freer’s Superlegumes part cookbook, part guide has. With vividly displayed and shot legumes, it’s the kind of cover worthy of more enticing ingredients that would not only inspire you to pluck the book from the shelves but even buy it.

For, frankly, legumes aren’t a particularly gastroporn-worthy topic. The perception (mine included) is that legumes are bland and take copious amounts of time to prepare. The whole ‘I forgot to soak the legumes overnight’ thing is what most often stops me from attempting to prepare them. Well, that and the fact that I hate cooking. It’s a relatively lethal combination.

I’m vegan, and I’d have thought I’d know more than the average person about legumes, yet this book still taught me plenty, such as the legume family includes green peas and beans, soy beans, and peanuts.

Also that legumes are whole foods (they’re as close to their natural state as possible) and one of nature’s super foods, high in protein, carbohydrates, and fibre, as well as iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium. They’re gluten-free and low GI too and are much cheaper than other food sources that contain similarly important nutrients.

Crucially, legumes are also incredibly environmentally friendly and sustainable—they help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and also fix nitrogen in soils, improving their quality, preparing the soils for subsequent crops, and doing away with the need for environmentally damaging chemicals to achieve the same effect.

Refreshingly, Superlegumes is actually written by someone with some know how. I hadn’t realised cookbook authorship was such a hot-button issue for me until I read the author’s bio on page one. Freer is a nutritionist and writer—not, say, a celebrity chef who thought it a good idea to throw together an ill-informed paleo book for babies—and Superlegumes is her second book (note to self: seek our her first one, Supergrains: Eat Your Way to Great Health).

Freer’s also the nutrition editor for, and freelances for Australian Healthy Food Guide, Belle, Prevention, and Weight Watchers. So she, you know, writes for publications that fundamentally promote health and healthy, sustainable approaches to eating.

SupergrainsSuperlegumes showed me recipes for legumes far more interesting than my usual efforts (including two tables showing how to soak and/or cook each legume type and for how long).

For that’s perhaps the beauty of this book: it encourages a rethink of an invaluable protein and fibre source that’s also good for the environment while simultaneously making it appetising and unscary to attempt to cook with. I’m not sure I would have believed anyone if they said they could make legumes appealing, both aesthetically and tastily, but Freer’s managed it.

Some of the recipes that leapt out at me as must-trys were Chickpea, lemon and silverbeet soup, Oat pancakes with berries, Best baked beans, Quinoa bean burgers with fresh beetroot slaw, Cauliflower crust pizza with white beans, pumpkin and cherry tomatoes.

The book does include some meat-related recipes, and I have to say I’m a bit disappointed about that, especially as Freer herself acknowledges the crazypants amounts of leafy matter required to feed livestock that’s ethically and environmentally inefficient. But I also acknowledge that Freer’s goal is likely to introduce legumes to as wide an audience as possible and its primary target audience isn’t vegans, but omnivores.

Either way, Superlegumes is both a solid resource and a beautifully presented inspiration for a range of audiences—even almost-non-cooking vegan ones such as me. First up for roadtesting now I’m inspired and the weather’s turned wintery: Chickpea, lemon and silverbeet soup.

Thanks to Murdoch Books for the review opportunity.

Courtyard Kitchen

Courtyard KitchenIncreasing numbers of Australians are living in apartments and fewer and fewer of us have yards in which to grow vegies or herbs. Worse, most of us have lost or never known produce-growing know-how.

I comprehensively count myself in the latter group. I never learnt the basics of growing things—soil prep, climate suitability, seasonal produce stuff, and more—and I make growing anything far, far harder than it should be. I also realise buying things like herbs, which can be grown in small spaces, is a giant waste of money.

Released on 1 May (just in time for Mother’s Day), Courtyard Kitchen contains growing tips for herbs and potted fruits, then segue into recipes to use that produce. That is, the kind of fundamentals for people like me.

Written by photographer Natalie Boog, whose experience spans working for various Fairfax publications such as Sunday Life and Spectrum and Pacific Magazines publications including New Idea and Better Homes & Gardens, Courtyard Kitchen of course contains beautiful images.

That’s both beautiful as in the shots but also their styling. They’re the kind of pics that encourage even the blackest thumbs of us to give growing herbs one more go and inspire us to whip up some delicious meals once those herbs have grown.

Containing tips about such things as preparing soil, planting, watering, managing pests and disease, which pots to plant in, and how to go about sterilising bottles and jars for things like pestos, the book contains plenty of information that, while practical and basic, is perfect for those of us needing to start from scratch. (The also layout comes complete with super-cute callout circles with handy hints inside them.)

Primarily a cookbook with some herb-growing tips at the start, Courtyard Kitchen caters mostly to omnivores, but offers a number of vegie options. The recipes are grouped by the herb they most feature. For example, Chocolate Basil Cake and Basil Pizza fall, as the titles suggest, under the Basil section; Rosemary Potato Wedges fall under Rosemary.

The recipes range also from Chili Vegie Tagine to Thyme Dumplings to Celeriac & Potato Soup and Parsley, Chilli & Lemon Spaghetti. All tasty options to experiment with and from which to derive a sense of ‘I grew this, I cooked this’ satisfaction. Not-so-green thumbs up.

Thanks to Murdoch Books for the review opportunity.

These Are The Names

These Are The NamesIt never ceases to amaze me that every so often you come across a cultural product (in this case, a writer) you’ve never heard of, but that’s (who’s) immensely popular and bestselling in another country.

Tommy Wieringa is an award-winning Dutch writer. He’s published many books to critical and award claim, and the book most recently released in Australia, These Are The Names, won Holland’s Libris prize. That’s the Dutch equivalent of the Booker.

That prize hints at the style of book These Are The Names is: challenging; containing characters and storylines that aren’t entirely likeable but that illuminate some key human and cultural lessons. So, an arduous read, but one that’s worthily enlightening.

These Are The Names contains a motley assemblage of characters. Pontus Beg is an ageing policeman chasing the skirts of his cleaning lady and taking stock of his life—past and present. He has not, as the first line of the book tells us, become the wise, calm old man he’d envisaged. One of his feet is perpetually cold. Life and routine and alienation from family have worn him down. His family history is something of a mystery.

Beg lives in a border town on the steppe. It’s unclear which country this steppe occurs in—perhaps deliberately, or perhaps because I’m obtuse and couldn’t figure it out. Regardless, it’s a bleak, harsh town reflected in the landscape.

Concurrent to Beg’s story is that of a group of refugees attempting to cross the border to a better life. Thrown together through tense circumstance, they find themselves on a relentless, wrenching march across the steppe. They are starving, distrustful of each other, unsure if they’re going to survive.

Their and Beg’s worlds collide when the group eventually makes it to the town, at which point Beg’s task is to discover their names, their stories, and to solve a related murder. Which is a difficult task, for they have ‘become people without a history, living only in an immediate present’. They’re also ‘dead people’, one tells Beg. ‘You have no idea how often we fell asleep in the certainty that there would be no tomorrow…You can’t get to us.’

These Are The Names tackles some big themes: religion, family origins, identity, asylum, hope, and despair. It’s an unflinching look at flawed humans, the choices they make, the repercussions of those choices, and whether redemption can be had.

Each character is complex and troubled in their own ways, and the journey immensely difficult, which Wieringa wrings out through exquisite turns of phrase. For example:

A thirst that drowned out all thought, thirst that tempted you with cool ponds, that conjured up the sound of dripping faucets. They wept for rain. Every word they spoke tasted of rusty iron. The child, a boy, pinched the skin on his forearm and pulled. The puckered skin rose up and remained in place, like a crease in a sheet of paper.


The dreams with which each of them had left home had gradually wilted and died off. Their dreams differed in size and weight, and remained alive in some longer than others, but in the end they had almost all disappeared. The sun had pulverised them; the rain had washed them away.

While I can’t say I enjoyed These Are The Names per say, nor can I say it’s the point. As with any Booker-style book, it’s designed to test and incrementally shift our perceptions of the world. Wieringa’s book has haunted me, which is a sign its themes resonate off the page. Most particularly, it’s made me wonder what I would do in desperate circumstances, whether as a refugee or as someone ageing and feeling increasingly obsolete and out of place.

Wieringa will be in the country shortly, but crazy work and life curveballs will prevent me from hearing him speak. My goal is now to track down some podcasts and interviews to learn more about him and his oeuvre.

For although I didn’t know about him prior to Scribe giving me the opportunity to review this book, now that I do, I’ll be seeking Wieringa’s work out.

Film Review: Samba

sambaa4posterThe benefit of reviewing a film later than usual (I could not for the life of me make it to any of the Samba media screenings, so Think Tank Communications provided me with a double pass to see it once the film was out) is that you get to hear what other reviewers think about it.

I have to say, though, while other reviewers’ consensus was that Samba wasn’t as great as they’d hoped, I found it rather great. Put another way: As a follow-up to The Intouchables, it falls a little short. But as a standalone film, it holds its own just fine.

Although Samba isn’t precisely the sequel to The Intouchables, it was weighed down by the weight of sequel-like expectation. This was contributed to by the fact that the writing-directing duo Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache reunited for the film, along with star Omar Sy.

In Samba, Sy stars as protagonist Samba (‘like the dance’), who winningly portrays an illegal alien trying to stay in France at all costs. After 10 years eking out a living in Paris working odd, lowly paid, and entirely insecure jobs (such as a construction worker, dishwasher, window washer, garbage sorter, and security guard), he’s picked up by the authorities on the Tube.

It’s in the lock-up that he encounters Alice, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, a neurotic woman volunteering to help illegal immigrants while on sick leave from her executive job due to burnout.

Both Samba and Alice are in their own ways displaced and trapped. Samba’s willing to do whatever it takes to get working papers; Alice, a refugee from the corporate world, is trying to determine how to reset her life, while concurrently medicating to try to counter her anxiety and stress-related insomnia.

Don’t give them your number, she’s told by the more experienced volunteer. Don’t get personally involved. Of course, Sy’s Samba is warm and affable and Alice can’t help but be drawn to him.

The film is a social dramedy slash cross-cultural romance, with France’s immigration hurdles providing the high-stakes context. For me, the levity of the production was its strength. The Sisyphean existence Samba and his peers are forced to live, grappling daily for short-term gigs all the while sandwiched between worrying about getting caught and the pressure their families back home are placing on them to send money, is bone-wearyingly relentless. As Samba yells during a scene of particularly heightened emotions, even the mailman is freaking him out.

There are some incredibly touching moments in the film—and simple too. A conversation in a service station is one. A post-party group conversation around a table is another. Witty, bittersweet dialogue flows, written brilliantly and delivered with timing and panache that make it insightful and touching. There were also some tension-breaking humorous moments—one of the best involved a conversation about a piece of red paper.

While the Alice character was colder and more two-dimensional than Sy’s Samba, Gainsbourg handled the role decently well and found some ways to if not spark with Sy, then at least humanise her character and make her believable. My greater concern was that the film was ever so slightly too long. But I was still incredibly moved by it.

For for me, the film is part of a larger conversation of poverty-, war-, and desperation-led immigration around the world, and the lack of acceptance people often receive when they arrive in foreign countries. Australia—a country described as having tiny hearts and balls of steel for its treatment of people seeking asylum—is not so dissimilar to the France in which Samba is set. And that’s not something to be proud of.

So, while Samba mightn’t be as successful as The Intouchables, but it nevertheless warrants a watch and its issues warrant wider consideration. I’m breaking with review consensus to say: check it out.

Bees in the City Book Review

Bees in the CityBees in the City: The urban beekeeper’s handbook sold me on both cover design and title. The cover, with its watermarky aesthetics, hints at a modern, professionally designed book that marries content with form (something that’s often missing from beekeeping books, which look like they’ve been run off on a photocopier and patched together in someone’s house). And the title, well, it summed up exactly what I’m doing for environmental and bee-survival reasons: urban beekeeping.

It was disappointing, then, to discover the aesthetics (and its related budget) had been reserved solely for the cover artwork. The insides of the book, which I expected to have if not vibrant images of bees and beekeeping then watermark iterations of them, had only text.

Don’t get me wrong, I love text. But beekeeping is a practical thing and a mesmerisingly beautiful one that should lend itself to creating beautiful books. I also found the book’s opening chapter (or three) a little slow.

I’m not sure why I persevered with it then, but I’m glad I actually did. Bees in the City is a fascinating examination of urban beekeeping—its challenges, its logistics, its successes, and the profound effects beekeeping has not just on the environment, but the beekeepers and people who encounter the bees.

Documenting the urban beekeeping scene in London, and especially what it’s like to be involved in it, this book is the follow-up to the authors’ A World Without Bees. I haven’t read the first book, but it’s one I—we all—should get on to stat.

The book is pragmatic about the rise in interest in beekeeping. For example, introducing millions of bees into urban environments may not be the most responsible thing to do if we don’t also ensure there are enough plants on which the bees can forage.

It also notes that not everyone can—or should—become a beekeeper. Sponsoring hives and donating to organisations that do research into bee survival are just as useful and crucial. An interesting point is that many of us may be suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’ and bees help us reconnect with our environment. All of which is to say there’s plenty of food for thought peppered throughout.

A World Without BeesThe parts that interested me most, though, were the diversity of beekeepers. There were some schools and workplaces that managed to overcome nervousness about stings and potential lawsuits to set up hives on their premises and teach students and employees beekeeping practices.

The effect has been profound, with people appreciating the incredible work and complexity of the bee superorganism and also finding common ground to relate to each other. It’s revitalised schools and offices.

One of my favourite moments of the book involves a school student who went from being the naughtiest in the school to being a model student—all because he found his place working with bees and is something of the school’s resident bee expert now.

My second favourite moment involves people who’ve gone through a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program now learning beekeeping, and the incredible influence it’s had on helping them stay clean. Perhaps there is something in that native deficit disorder thing.

My third involves teaching kids at risk who live in housing projects beekeeping. As an added twist, they put them in teams Apprentice-style and encouraging them to work out how to make a viable byproducts such as lip balm.

I earmarked a lot of pages in the book and I won’t bore you with my fourth, fifth, and more favourite moments. But I will note one of the bee expert quotes contained within it and that has resonated with me long after reading the book’s final page:

The world’s most interesting animal lives in your backyard. What I want to get across, to schoolchildren in particular, is that while watching Sir David Attenborough in the Amazon Basin or Borneo, it’s easy to forget that the creature with the most complicated communication system of all is on your doorstep.

So, while Bees in the City may not have the pictures I’m after, I do still consider it a worthy read.

The Modern Magazine

The Modern MagazinePrint magazines are—contrary to the kind the-sky-is-falling-in predictions that always accompany the arrival of new media—not dead. They’re not even dying. They’re actually undergoing a bit of a vinyl-like renaissance.

Jeremy Leslie has picked up on this phenomenon and penned a solid, gorgeous print book to discuss the magazine industry context and its plays.

Entitled The Modern Magazine: Visual Journalism in the Digital Era, the book is a coffee table tome that pays homage to excellent magazine innovation and design. Organised logically and featuring stellar design itself, it features covers and spreads of some of the best designed, most beloved magazines around. It’s basically porn for magazine lovers’ eyes.

The word ‘magazine’, I learnt from Leslie’s book, is derived from a combination of the Arabic makhzan, meaning storehouse and the French magasin (shop). It also has connotations to magazine as in guns and bullets—that is, the sense that the magazine could explode people’s idea of content etc. through surprise.

As with books, I also found out from Leslie’s book, early magazines were only afforded by the wealthy, but came to become affordable for the masses. Later, the originally purely text-based magazines came to include images—a change that coincided with major 20th century cultural and political shifts. It’s this image-led aesthetic we are now familiar with, and magazines have become rich text and visual records of our times.

As a not-so-closet magazine (and book) lover, I can attest to that. Both timely and often timeless, magazines capture the here and now as well as represent a time capsule of culturally and historically significant events. Leslie documents all this and more.

Leslie’s writing style is brilliant and the information he imparts incredibly readable and salient. But it’s even possible to enjoy this book simply by flicking through its vibrantly designed pages. This is a man who understands communication design.

The Modern Magazine emerged from a blog Leslie writes about magazines and the publishing industry, so he spans multiple platforms and refreshingly doesn’t get caught up in the print-versus-digital dichotomy. New media doesn’t usurp old media, Leslie argues—the relationship and interplay is far more complex than that.

Technology, for example, has improved magazines by facilitating better layout, increased processing power, greater audience reach, and diversification of content in general. For example, Monocle magazine has opened coffee shops and set up a 24-hour radio channel—all of which feed back into, and create new opportunities for, the magazine and brand.

But, Leslie says, shiny, new technology isn’t immediately adopted by magazines—it has to earn its place and be adopted and adapted to suit the magazine rather than being treated as ‘new toy novelty’. Print, it turns out, is a rather robust interface not yet surpassed by superior digital ones.

Nor is Leslie anti-technology, noting, for example, that the newly allowed affordability of software means such wins as it’s easier than ever to produce magazines. We’re subsequently seeing a rise in independently published magazines—meaning things are on the up for magazines in general and innovation is at magazine development primacy.

Which is 500-odd words’ way of saying The Modern Magazine is a fantastic point-in-time examination and prediction of what’s to come in terms of magazines and their publishing and distribution practices and channels. And it offers some handy eye porn candy…

The Stella Prize

Maxine Beneba ClarkeA few days late and a few books read short, I’m getting round to getting my head around the Stella Prize shortlist. There are six books on the list, none of which I’ve read and only three authors I’ve heard of (Maxine Beneba Clarke, Christine Kenneally, and Ellen van Neervan):

If ever there were a reminder of why we need this prize, I’d say it’s that a female writer in Australia isn’t across these authors and books. And yes, I’m planning to familiarise myself with the works just as soon as I can. In fairness, I can say I heard van Neervan read an excerpt at the 2014 Brisbane Writers Festival.

Although I’m a bit rubbish at reading Australian female writers, I am incredibly impressed and grateful the Stella exists to give me (and everyone else) a nudge to rectify the issue. Named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin, and established in 2013 in response to the dearth of female writers named in the Miles Franklin award, ironically, after an all-male shortlist was named.

Some of Australia’s top female writers decided enough was enough and set about forming their own prize to recognise the underrepresented, often overlooked female writers. The subsequently set up prize’s mission is to:

  • recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contributions to literature
  • introduce more readers to books written by women, thereby increasing sales for these books
  • provide role models and emerging female writers—school-aged and beyond
  • reward one writer a $50,000 prize—money that buys that writer some measure of financial independence and time (the undervalued yet necessary commodity for women) to focus on their writing.

The Invisible History of the Human RaceI’m impressed by the thought and extent to which the Stella has extended its reach and effect beyond one writer, one prize. First, it is open to both non-fiction and fiction books and writers. As the Stella website states:

Our judging terms are that the winning book be: excellent, original and engaging. By raising the profile of women writers, and celebrating their achievements, we hope to erode the self-perpetuating cycle of underrepresentation that confronts all women writers—not least non-fiction writers.


In recent years, the boundary between fiction and non-fiction has become more permeable. Indeed, women’s writing is often distinguished by a refusal to fall into categories. We want to celebrate this.

I’m a non-fiction writer whose work spans multiple fields and platforms and defies categorisation, much to my frustration when it comes to rigid (outdated) categorisation-requiring things such as grant applications. So I’m kind of impressed by this egalitarian, progressive approach to recognising and validating writing forms.

Then, in addition to running some school-based programs where writers, educators, and publishers run writing workshops for students (both boys and girls), PD for teachers and librarians, teaching resources, and talks, the organisation also collates the Stella Count.

Heat and LightThrough this, it tracks and compares and contrasts the number of books by men and women reviewed by men and women in major newspapers and literary magazines. No prizes for guessing we’re not yet at gender parity, but without important data to demonstrate this, we’ll never flag, acknowledge, and rectify the issue.

The 2015 prize-winner will be announced in April. Not having read any of the books—yet—I can’t hazard a guess which one will win, or even which one I’d like to win. But I’m looking forward to the announcement nonetheless and adding all the books to my to-be-read list in the meantime. If there’s one I should start with, feel free to let me know.

Shaun the Sheep Film Review

Shaun the SheepI’m a long-time fan of Aardman studios. I owned Wallace & Gromit DVDs, and Chicken Run: Hatching The Movie, an aesthetically rich behind-the-scenes Chicken Run coffee table book detailing the making of the film, remains one of my most treasured possessions.

Suffice to say, I was signing up to preview Shaun the Sheep film just as quick as my fingers would type. I even got up early on a Sunday morning to attend the preview.

So it’s fair to say my expectations for the film were probably high. Unreasonably high. However, Shaun the Sheep was, though fine, just fine. I wanted to like this film. I truly, hand-on-my-heart did. And I did like it plenty (not that the rest of this review will imply). I just really, really wanted a whole heap more.

The film was a big-screen iteration and extension of a Shaun the Sheep cartoon I’ve not seen (I’m afraid I’m not in the demographic of having kids, but my friends who have kids assure me Shaun the Sheep is a perennial hit).

It opens with stylised characteristically Aardman cartoon-driven home video (if you can imagine that—my description is vague because it feels slightly like a ‘something you have to see’ moment) with a farmer (whose name we never know, or that I simply missed—he’s later referred to as Mr X in the film), Shaun the sheep, his sheep mates, and a farm puppy called Bitzer, having a fantastic time. The young, rockstar-style farmer dotes on the animals, they love him in return, and farm life is bucolic and blissful.

It then cuts to years down the track, when everyone’s grown up and worn down by routine. The routine sequence is, incidentally, tops and made me smile, be stoked Aardman was back, and settle back into my seat. Repeating the morning wake-up rituals and daily farm jobs, but with subtle reworkings and speeding up each time, the sequence is masterful.

Long story short, the sheep attempt to shake up the routine and have some fun, which leads to chaos they spend the rest of the film trying to fix. That’s where things should have gotten interesting, but sadly actually didn’t. At least, not in the way I’d hoped. I’d argue the film chose the wrong path. But more about that later. The thing is, though there are pockets of trademark Aardman brilliance, overall the film feels a little slow and formulaic.

9781406357721I was trying to unpack why I liked but didn’t love the film with my friend and co-reviewer. We decided the stakes weren’t high enough, and we weren’t particularly attached to any of the characters, not least the one they were trying to rescue.

We’ve seen this kind of creatures concocting plans to overcome the issues of the human world before, including in Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit. And those two films did it vastly better. There’s also a whole animal catcher storyline in Shaun the Sheep, which I’m sure I’ve seen done much more impressively in one of the Madagascar films…

The film I would have loved to see was a reinvisioning of Animal Farm, which it seems to hint at before diverging. I think it was a missed opportunity and the resulting story was less innovative than we’ve come to expect from Aardman. This is, after all, the team that usually blows our minds with its off-the-wall reimagining of the world.

I’m also unsure if it was just me, but I couldn’t always pick which character Shaun was from the assemblage of co-cast sheep. I’d argue it’s a considerable issue when you can’t discern the protagonist.

But I’m sounding incredibly down on the film, and I truly don’t mean to be. It’s not that Shaun the Sheep isn’t ok. It’s just that Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run are so very, very much better.

There are some fantastic individual moments, including when the sheep fluff their hair vainly, then Shaun gets a terrible haircut from the farmer. Or when the rooster, whose crow marks the morning, tries to stay in shot to steal the limelight. Or when the sheep invade the house, only to have the pigs invade over the top of them. Both involve laugh-out-loud moments as the animals enact their take on human habits.

9781406359664The use of chalk drawing was great. As was a scene in a fancy restaurant. The latter induced quite a few we’ll-pay-that laughs. And, without giving too much away, my favourite parts of the film involved plays on counting sheep.

Interestingly, the film is entirely without dialogue, something I didn’t notice until long after the film. The absence of dialogue demonstrates the Aardman team’s skill in visual storytelling and also makes the film entirely more accessible for people of all ages, literacy levels, and languages.

Even better, there are some fun-looking film tie-in books (see images peppered throughout this blog and click on them to link through to their Boomerang Books pages) I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on.

So, despite my grumping, there was plenty to like. And, while Shaun the Sheep wasn’t a Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. It’s just not quite, as its predecessors did, hitting it out of the park.

Thanks to Think Tank Communications for the preview tix.

High School Reading List Wish List

The Hunger GamesI recently had a fairly robust mutual rant with a friend about how school reading lists desperately need an overhaul. As writers and editors, we’re huge readers. But most of our love for reading was formulated outside, and in spite, of the books we were forced to read at school.

Sure, there were some classics in there, and we’re glad to have read them somewhere along our book-devouring journey. But our point was—and is—school is a crucial time to introduce people to reading. Or turn them off it.

If you manage school reading lists manage the former, readers are going to find their way to all the slightly drier classics in their own time, driven by their voracious and inquisitiveness-piqued reading appetite. Isn’t it better to give them books that get them hooked in the first place?

Plus, those reading lists haven’t been revisited in decades. They’re long overdue for an update. We wouldn’t accept the status quo in other areas such as science if and when new, study-worthy information becomes available.

It’s uncanny timing then, that BuzzFeed came out with a list of 26 contemporary books people suggest should be taught in high school. (That or BuzzFeed is listening in on my conversations. Like Siri.)

Obvs, my friend and I took a keen interest in this list. Shaping up as the first book mentioned is The Book Thief, a book I’ll confess I read, but read late and only for product knowledge. I was working at Borders at the time and people who were largely non-readers seemed to be buying it by the truckload and raving about it vociferously.

Maybe I’m missing something, but though it’s beautifully written, I think it’s pretty slow. Especially at the start. It will remain an eternal mystery to me how non-voracious readers stuck with it long enough to see it through. And in such numbers. Any ideas? Still, the book’s a good suggestion, and a fantastic companion to/comparison text for something like The Diary of Anne Frank.

I Am MalalaNobel Peace Prize-winning Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala is on the list too. It’s an excellent choice because it’s timely and relevant to ongoing efforts to address some of the appalling and continuing efforts to prevent women from obtaining an education around the world.

It’s also an accessible, riveting, relatable read. Malala is both ordinary and extraordinary (as I’ve previously written here in my review). Better yet, it’s written in plain language and grapples with such issues as living overseas as a sort of outsider slash refugee. Much to unpack and relate to there.

The inclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale surprised and delighted me. It’s a dystopian book that I didn’t encounter until I read it as part of my writing course at university, but one that is arguably more relevant than even the time in which it was written. I’ve often thought about revisiting it if or when I have time, as I think there’s plenty I missed reading it the first time.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one I’d forgotten about, but am glad others remembered. I have a cousin and an uncle who have autism. This book enabled me and many others to understand them more than I/we ever had before. I’m almost certain it smoothed my relatives’ paths in the world ever so slightly, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.

The Handmaid's TaleChimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s Half of a Yellow Sun makes an appearance on the list. I still—still!—haven’t gotten around to reading any of her work, although I perpetually plan to. This book’s going to be the first one off the rank just as soon as I get some time after uni’s over. In about a year. Watch this book-reviewing blog space.

The Hunger Games features at #21; Harry Potter at #26. I’d have bet they’d be jostling for #1. I mean, have you read anything YA as prescient and addictive in recent years?! And handily capturing people’s imagination and enhanced by blockbuster Hollywood films to compare with?! Not to mention the fact that once students are hooked, there’s more than one book for them to inhale, i.e. hook them on reading even more?!

The Secret Life of Bees sneaks on to the list too. I’ll not deny I’m a little puzzled. It’s a good book, with plenty in there about life and racism and nature and kindness, but not one I’d think to recommend to high school kids for reasons I can’t quite articulate. It certainly doesn’t do anything To Kill A Mockingbird does, but better.

Half of a Yellow SunI’m not sure what I’d recommend in its place, though. Or what list additions I’d suggest. I’m suffering from the classic blank-mindedness that comes from already being provided with a bunch of answers. Maybe The Fault in our Stars

Is there anything you can think of that the list’s missed?

Footballers’ Favourite Books

Artemis FowlThere’s this bizarre disconnect in my life where my work spans multiple, discrete fields, but the people who know me in a work sense tend to only know me in one field. For I write about social and environmental issues, football (soccer), and the arts and, for reasons both obvious and not, these worlds don’t often overlap.

I don’t, for example, think I have often managed to bring in football here.

Until now.

The Guardian just published a photo gallery of footballers’ favourite books. While some of the footballers’ selections could, without deeper examination, lead to quips about them not reading particularly grown-up books, it’s probably more a reflection of the audience they’re trying to encourage to read. That is, people struggling with literacy issues.

The Guardian article is part of a Premier League Reading Stars Online Challenge facilitated by the National Literacy Trust, an organisation that works to reduce the fact that one in six people in the UK struggle with low literacy. (The figures are likely similar in Australia.)

It does so by such actions as establishing literacy project in some of the UK’s lowest socioeconomic communities. Getting footballers—heroes—on board to encourage literacy is another step (and a powerful one at that, for who else to make reading look aspirational than your football heroes?).

It’s fitting, then, that none of the footballers are standing there touting (and putting people off with) something of the ilk of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. That’s a book I have to admit I’ve never gotten more than a few chapters in on either. Instead, we see a mix of adult and children’s books, most of them mass market and accessible. There were even a few in there that inspired me.

Artemis FowlAston Villa’s Shay Given, for instance, loves Artemis Fowl, a series I’ve read sporadically myself over the years, but never managed to get round to reading in full.

True story: I used to read snippets of Artemis Fowl books while eating my lunch in the stockroom out the back of a bookstore where I used to work. The Artemis Fowl books seemed to be housed near where I sat and, intrigued and also keen to improve my product knowledge, I one day started flicking through and was hooked. I began to look forward to those Artemis-filled escapes.

Arsenal’s Emiliano Martinez’s choice of fellow footballer Sergio Aguero’s biography is a good selection for inspiring people to read—a footballers’ biography is surely a great incentive and entry point to reading if you’re a football fan. So too are the selection of Harry Potters that appear in various footballers’ selections—lose yourself in Rowling’s imaginary world and, if necessary, supplement the books with the films and you’re at least part way on your way.

Former Australian goalkeeper and legend Mark Schwarzer—himself a children’s book author—chose Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. I’d like to know why that Dr Seuss book specifically—I think I’d have nominated the entire suite.

Aguero biographyLiverpool’s Adam Lallana selected The Gruffalo, a book I feel is entirely remiss of me not to have yet read. I actually even have a friend and her young son who regularly perform the tale for family and friends, and I still haven’t managed to encounter the text.

Meanwhile, Swansea City’s Jonjo Shelvey’s went for The Gruffalo’s Child, which prompted me to be, like, there’s a sequel?!

I’ve never actually read Some Dogs Do, which was nominated by QPR’s Joey Barton, but the cover makes me think it’s fun and I should rectify that reading gap, stat. After the Gruffalo books, of course.

Leicester City’s Dean Hammond chose The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book I have to say featured prominently in my early reading years and one I’ve noticed friends my age now having children buying for their own kids.

Finally, Newcastle United’s Siem De Jong and Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters voted for perennial favourite Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG, respectively. As with the Dr Seuss selections, I’m intrigued. If pressed, I’d probably have gone Matilda myself.

The GruffaloAll of which is to say that I’m getting something out of the footballers’-favourite-books campaign, even though I’m not its target. I have some mighty respect for the charity for the work they do and for the footballers for getting on board to promote literacy.

Seriously, if anyone can make reading seem less scary and more cool, it’s them. If it encourages even one person to get some help improving their literacy, it’ll be a win. I’d love to see something similar extended to the A-League and W-League…

Fifty Shades of Grey Film Review

Fifty Shades of GreyWarning: While not overly explicit, this blog does acknowledge the existence of, and briefly discuss, sex. If you’re not keen to read a blog about such things, I suggest you temporarily avert your eyes.

I couldn’t attend the Fifty Shades of Grey preview, so fronted up for the 10am session on the day of the film’s release. I felt slightly dirty doing so, until I discovered the theatre was three quarters full. Seems I wasn’t the only who had the idea.

I’m not sure what weirded me out most about attending that session. That a girl was there watching it with her mother (no, really), the 70-year-old women who were absolutely creasing themselves with laughter towards the end of the film (I’m still kicking myself for not asking them about it once the film was over), or the older gentleman I saw there who gave his wife a playful smack on the bottom on the way out (I’m not going to lie: it repulsed me).

Also, the previews were bemusingly unsubtle and geared towards the largely straight lady audience. That is, hot guys and fairytale romance in the forms of Cinderella and Channing Tatum.

Although I saw the film as soon as I could, I’ve held off on posting my review for a few days, because I’ve been a little unsure my take was wide of the mark compared with most other reviews. You see, I didn’t think the film was terrible. I thought it was relatively fine. Ok. Watchable.

Thankfully, Helen Razer sort of said as much. So I now know I wasn’t the only one who thought that way. A long-time and rabid Fitty Shades hater, she was looking forward to tearing the film apart. Instead she termed it ‘disappointingly tolerable’.

Fifty Shades of Grey is the trilogy, and now film, people love to hate. Especially if they’ve neither read the books nor seen the film. The film itself attracted much debate before anyone had even seen a single trailer.

Which made me wonder if the film would be—is being—assessed fairly. My thinking is it should be assessed in relation to the books on which is it based. And, arguably, the books on which those books are based.

The books were terribly addicitive terrible fan fiction of terribly addictive terrible books. If that’s the measure, then I think the film did a decent job. They turned a sow’s ear of a book into a not-too-terrible film.

For starters, they reigned in the massive corniness, toned down the farcical, unbelievable stuff. These include Christian’s (Jamie Dornan) obsession with having Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) eat, and the annoyingly ridiculously large number of times Anastasia either bites her lip or says (more like a 50-year-old author than a Gen Y) ‘oh my’, or both.

Neither the director nor the actors had a lot to work with, and yet they did a better job of making Anna and Christian believable and relatable than Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson did before them.

I wasn’t familiar with either actor prior to this film so I was neutral on the skills they would or wouldn’t bring to the table. I felt both were less wooden than K-Pat and gave more nuanced performances than the script easily allowed.

The sex scenes were vanilla, yes. But so were the ones in the book. (Did I mention this film should be assessed in relation to the book?) As they would be with an unfolding relationship with a girl taking first forays into sex.

I find that more realistic than if they’d gone from zero to S&M contortions. That’s even before you consider the challenges of portraying sex on screen in a film that still needs to jump through censors’ hoops in order to gain mainstream and worldwide cinema release.

Also worth noting is that although there are plenty of issues with the film (and the books that precede it), it’s not quite the domestic violence symphony hysterical critics are claiming it to be.

For starters, both characters are slightly more believable. Christian is shown to be a little more damaged and a little less BDSM-obsessed two-dimensional. And, as this BuzzFeed article notes, the film went at least part way to giving Anastasia more agency and self-awareness than the books:

Christian famously presents Ana with a contract he wants her to sign that would establish the boundaries of their relationship. Which she won’t sign! She leaves him in the end. So I’m flummoxed […] Why are people fretting over Fifty Shades of Grey more than other movies where couples fall into bed and don’t have these sorts of conversations?

‘I put a spell on you, because you’re mine’ are the lyrics overlaying the opening scenes. We don’t see Grey’s face, reminiscent of a dentist’s ad. He’s exercising, getting ready for work, selecting a grey tie from his vast collection. When we first see Anastasia she looks uncannily similar to, and is even dressed like, Bella from Twilight. This is surely deliberate.

I’m not going to lie. The opening kind of set the tone for what’s an ok-ish film. Or at least a visually arresting one as the limits of the text didn’t limit the cinematography.

There were, of course, some moments even decent acting and cinematography couldn’t save. Anastasia’s fall into Christian’s office was terrible. I don’t know how many takes they did of that, but I find it hard to believe that was the best one. Or rather, I’d hate to have seen the ones that didn’t make the cut.

But there was a lot less emailing or texting than in the books, which was refreshing, because the books got bogged down in them. Or maybe that’s coming in the second book/film…

I got some LOLs from reading around the film, especially from BuzzFeed’s 141 Thoughts I Had While Watching “Fifty Shades of Grey”. I truly think I had the same 141 the author did. And yes, ‘I will launder this item’ is the best line of the film.

So, while I don’t want to get bogged down in the furore surrounding the books and the film (led largely by those who’ve read or watched neither), I will say the film is ok enough to watch. Or, at the very least, read the books and watch the film and draw your own conclusions.

The Ruby Circle

The Ruby CircleIt’s a sign you like a series when you’re willing to try to overlook—albeit to ultimately still be largely infuriated by and not be able to forget—an incredibly annoying error on page one of the latest release.

The series? Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines. The new book? The Ruby Circle. The error? Having Adrian (the male protagonist) wish Sydney (the female protagonist and his wife) a happy anniversary.

‘Anniversary’ is a commonly misused term. It comes from the Latin anniversārius. According to the Macquarie Dictionary, it means the:

  1. yearly recurrence of the date of a past event
  2. celebration of such a date.

So, a yearly celebration. Mead had Adrian wish Sydney a happy one-month anniversary.

I get that Mead might not have understood she was misusing the word. But I don’t get that her editor didn’t. Especially when there was an easy out if Mead was adamant she wanted to use the word even though it was wrong: Sydney—grammatically and punctuationally astute Sydney—could have explained the year-related Latin origins of the word.

Now, legions of tweens will continue to mince anniversary’s meaning. It might seem like a small nitpicky thing to pick up on and something to be relegated to the realm of pet hate, but the incorrect application of anniversary is an annoying, avoidable error nonetheless. Reading it on page one? I was incensed.

The Ruby Circle doesn’t exactly start happily either, which didn’t help my first page-induced harrumphs. ‘Married life wasn’t what I expected’ is the first line. Adrian and Sydney are holed up at Moroi HQ, avoiding the Alchemists, who are outraged about Sydney’s escape from their re-education camp clutches. Oh, and her marriage to a vampire. The couple’s relationship isn’t exactly accepted by the Moroi and Dhampirs either, so it’s a miserable existence all round.

But Mead did manage to make me smile on page 3, where she includes jokes about possible songs Adrian and Sydney could have: ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ is deemed a better option than ‘Tainted Love’.

The Ruby Circle admittedly felt a bit samey as the previous Bloodlines books, but that’s not always a terrible thing. It picks up one month from where the last book left off, so the sameness could arguably be considered consistency.

For those of us (read: me) who’d forgotten how the previous book ended, Jill has been kidnapped and Sydney and co. have no idea who has taken her or why. With no leads to follow combined with Adrian and Sydney being cooped up, the characters are desperate to break out, solve the mystery, vanquish the enemy, and rescue Jill. In the interim, they’re all doing battle with their inner demons and doubts.

So, in all, reasonably compelling storylines. And, despite some of the usual plot holes so large you could drive a metaphorical bus through them (The Olive storyline with its tenuous reasoning? Pah. The fact that Sydney, the character that analyses everything and formulates a plan for every iota of her life sticks her hand in a weird robot dinosaur box with nary a second thought? Please.), I did for the most part enjoy The Ruby Circle.

There are the usual (and appreciated) zingers: ‘Has everyone decided which brave roles they’ll be taking on?’ Ms Terwilliger asks as the group concocts an insane scheme to go find and rescue Jill. ‘I can’t wait to see his nunchucks,’ Eddie says, as he and Sydney go to collect some weapons amid a herd of attack Chihuahuas.

Also, Rose and Dimitri finally make an appearance, which is what we’ve been waiting for all along. Strangely, I’d finally given up hoping and had actually been enjoying the Sydney and Adrian storyline, so I wasn’t as beside myself with excitement as I’d have otherwise been. Still, I’m not complaining. Moar Rose and Dimitri is always welcome.

I’m unsure how many books Mead has planned for the Bloodlines series. The Vampire Academy series was six in total—a number Bloodlines has, with The Ruby Circle, now equalled. While the book’s ending was final-ish, there was plenty there that would facilitate Mead picking up and running with it.

Which is obviously what I’d like her to do. I’m not yet ready to say goodbye to Sydney and Adrian, or Rose and Dimitri, especially if they’re about to start going on adventures together. I’d just like Mead and her editor to check the meanings of the words they employ. Another ‘anniversary’ annoyance and, frankly, I’ll maybe, possibly be out.

The Westing Game

The Westing GameEvery so often I’m reminded that of the sheer volume of good books in the world and the narrowness of my reading vocabulary. Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is one example of a book that had until recently escaped my awareness.

Hugely touted via a recommendation on a podcast I listen to (if I recall correctly, it was one of the co-hosts on the Pop Culture Happy Hour), The Westing Game sounded like a book I was remiss not to have read.

Even more so given it’s apparently a Puffin Modern Classic and a Newbery Medal winner (the book cover tells me so). It’s doubly mystifying, then, how this one escaped my book knowledge periphery.

Raskin, the book’s introduction tells me, was an illustrator before she was an author. The introduction was actually written by the book’s editor and is testament to the long history of knowing someone and giving them a chance that yields a fruitful, long-term relationship.

Raskin wrote The Westing Game for (and dedicated to) Jenny, a person whose identity I don’t know, but who purportedly requested a puzzle book. The Westing Game was the last book Raskin was to write and neither she nor her editor knew what it would be until Raskin had written it.

Raskin’s philosophy was apparently if she knew what was going to happen in a book in advance, she would be too bored to write it. As someone who has a similar writing style, albeit one not nearly as successful, I can appreciate and attest to that. (Even if I can simultaneously concede it’s not the most efficient writing style.)

As with all of the best children’s authors, Raskin didn’t explicitly write for children. It seems she didn’t even know what children’s books were like because she only read adult books. She told her editor she wrote for the child in herself. Her editor disputes this kindly: ‘I think she wrote for the adult in children.’

Either way, her work is exquisite and mind-bending.

‘The sun sets in the west tower (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east,’ is the opening sentence of the book. It offers savvy insight into the off-the-wall elements The Westing Game contains.

Its premise is that an assortment of people—including a dressmaker, a secretary, a doctor, a judge, and a social climber—are first approached to live in Sunset Towers, then find themselves named heirs to be of a murdered millionaire recluse. The fortune will be theirs, they’re told, if they can make sense of the murdered millionaire’s cryptically bamboozling clues.

Raskin’s tale is captivating and her characters finely wrought; the tension in their relationships is intriguingly complex with none of the characters particularly likeable, but aspects of them being recognisable to many of us.

I’ll not deny I couldn’t quite keep any of the characters or clues straight in my mind, partly because Raskin pinballs the narrative all over the place, but mostly because my brain is not good as this stuff. Nonetheless, I enjoy The Westing Game sufficiently to both understand what the fuss was about and to be reasonably encouraged to recommend the book to others.

There are plenty of amusing moments wedged in among the mystery. These include: ‘Why are you standing there like a statue?’ Hoo (the father) shouts at (son) Doug after an explosion. ‘You told everybody to stay where they were,’ Doug replies, to which Hoo shouts: ‘You’re not everybody!’

Then there is the jittery chaos that sees the bomb squad called in several times after two bombings in the building. One call-out turned out to be for suspicious package found to be a dust-filled vacuum cleaner bag.

Another was for a box of chocolates delivered by a husband to his wife: ‘What do you mean, how come?’ he asks incredulously when questioned about his actions and motives. ‘Can’t I send candy to my wife without getting the third degree? I thought you were looking on the thin side, ok?’ he says to his wife. She makes him eat the first piece of chocolate. Just in case.

Raskin won the Newbery Medal for this book in 1979, long before many of us were born. The award’s bestowed on the author of the book deemed the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children for that year.

That The Westing Game is still in print and being discovered and relished by readers is testament to its award-winning worthiness. If you haven’t yet read it, as either an adult or child, I most definitely recommend you get round to doing so.

If Hermione were the Main Character in Harry Potter

Harry PotterWhile this blog post doesn’t contain uncensored swearing or sexual references, it does refer to a website story that does (and a related topic that features some random what-the information). So if you’re easily offended, now might be the time to temporarily click away.

The sweary/sexual innuendo website story in question is BuzzFeed’s If Hermione Were The Main Character in ‘Harry Potter’. Because, frankly, she absolutely should have been. I mean, really. Who among us hasn’t been frustrated that she had to constantly play second fiddle to two friends who, though sweet enough, had nowhere near her smarts or nous?

This post is essentially a feminist reading of the book, with Hermione forced to fight the Patriarchy. But it’s much more genius than that. It enables us to envisage an alternate reality, where we readers see the story as it could and probably should have played out. Plus, there’s plenty of pathos and sass. Often all at once.

First instance as case in point: It shows Hermione’s parents being proud they have a witch for a daughter, then Hermione feeling forced to wipe their memories of her in order to protect them from the Voldemort return-inspired war. Below the images of this harrowing scene is a note below the image saying she shipped them off to Australia ‘where nothing dangerous ever happens’.

BuzzFeed is occasionally criticised for collating content rather than producing original work. In recent times, it’s expanded its repertoire and sophistication by creating works such as this Hermione tale slash meme. It’s bang on subject- and execution-wise for me. I love, love, love it.

In the Harry Potter reworking, Hermione, the girl who ‘literally gives zero f&#ks’ learns such things as the skill of ‘throwing shade’ (she threw some excellent shade over the course of the films and BuzzFeed does well to pick up on and run with it). The reworking also taps into the thing that while reading the books most drove me wild: ‘Without Hermione, The Boy Who Lived would be dead as sh%t’. About 10 times over, to be precise.

The tale says if social media had existed when Harry Potter was released, Hermione may have inspired the #BossWitch hashtag. I’d like to think she’s inspiring it now. (As a side note, BuzzFeed Books has obtained information that the 16 weirdest Harry Potter-related searches include that ‘Draco should never use tampons’. That search alone confounds my mind. If anyone has any suggestions for that search’s purpose, I’d like to know. No, really. It’s puzzling me. I did, however, like that people wondered if the sorting hat was a horcrux. Those who thought of that are super cleverer than me. I mean, imagine if that had come to play out?)

Truly, though, this story touches on some significant and timely cultural tropes about women and feminism. And pervasive, ingrained, often invisible sexism. And how we’re judged and boxed in even when we’re supposed to these days be considered equal. The ‘not all wizards’ and ‘destroy the joint’ references are eminently clever.

I won’t ruin the ending for you, but I will say it offers an alternative to the incredibly unrealistic Hermione and Ron ending JK Rowling gave us that continues to completely, utterly, aneurism-inducingly infuriate me. This ending made me fist-pumpingly proud.

So, although the story is significantly sweary, I’d highly recommend checking it out. It’s an important and insightful and inspiring re-imagining of Rowling’s tale.

Easy Vegan

Easy VeganWinner, winner chicken dinner is not perhaps the most appropriate response for a vegan to make to anything. And especially not in response to reviewing a vegan cookbook. But that’s the phrase that sprang to mind when I cracked open Sue Quinn’s Easy Vegan, which arrived as a review copy from Murdoch Books.

My other response was to get slightly teary, which I admit sounds slightly hyperbolic. But really, if the number of pages I post-it noted to come back to are any indication, Easy Vegan is onto something. (And yes, I’m sorry for the tree I wasted. If I’d known I was going to post-it note practically the entire book, I’d have held off.)

I’ve been vegetarian/vegan for over 25 years—far, far longer than I wasn’t. (Contrary to what this statement implies, being vegan isn’t the first thing I pronounce upon meeting people, but it’s invariably and necessarily revealed any time food enters the picture. Which is a lot given we all eat between three and five meals a day.)

But for people like me who lived this way before it was cool, which it increasingly seems to be, we largely found our ways in the dark. And still are. For in truth, a vegan lifestyle is always one of learning.

With increasing numbers of people adopting vegan lifestyles for health, animal welfare, or environmental reasons (or for the trifecta, as it is for me), I often get asked for recommendations about recipe books, blogs, and more to follow, and where to find general information. I end up sending them to an assortment of places, but none quite perfectly cover it all.

Could I have created the book I’m after? Probably not, for I am a notoriously awful cook. But Easy Vegan is the kind of book I would love to have produced if I’d had the talent and the know-how. It’s also the kind book I’d happily give to me, or to new and aspiring vegans (or ‘pre-vegans’ as I’ve heard the term used with much bemusement).

There are some important reasons why this book is good.

First, Quinn is a journalist and food writer with plenty of experience. She’s good at putting this kind of information together, striking the right balance between informative and appetising. Second, she doesn’t appear to be wholly vegan herself (or at least doesn’t declare it, which may be by design).

This means she’s coming at the lifestyle with fresh eyes, questions about what foundation information does she need to know to start out, and is skilled at conveying complex information in accessible terms. Importantly, she’s not too emotionally invested in the lifestyle to come at it with a preachy earnestness.

The introduction sets the tone, straight up saying that while veganism requires some planning, ‘it isn’t the quantum leap into alien eating territory’ many people think it to be. Veganism isn’t, Quinn writes, about deprivation.

‘How to be vegan’ and ‘How to begin’ follow the introduction. It’s a simple explanation of what veganism is and how to take your first steps into it. Then there are some fantastic illustrations meet infographics that outline the protein content of food and vegan celebrities. I knew many of them, but Brad Pitt? No idea he was vegan.

A shopping list follows that, with some simple definitions of common vegan ingredients. Even better? A flowchart that outlines how to veganise a recipe. That is, how to switch out eggs and dairy. Right about this point of reading the book, I may have gotten a little teary.

This book is brilliantly considered and beautifully designed. Props must go to the designer and editor who truly grasp the importance of communication design. From simple tips to how to make your own vegan milks, cheeses and ice cream (yes, there are such things as these and they are delicious) to pasta to vegetable stock to pastry to smoothies, Easy Vegan outlines how vegans do get to eat and enjoy the ‘usual’ things.

Then it gets into the meal recipes. First up is bircher muesli, something I used to adore and have never quite mastered vegan-style. Suffice to say, this is one of the initial recipes I’ll be roadtesting. Filled sweet potato skins will follow soon after, along with roast vegetable salads and stuffed artichokes and sweet potato ravioli and gnocchi and shepherd’s pie and vegetable crumble…

And vanilla cupcakes. I actually almost texted a friend when I got to reading this page about 11:30pm. Anyone who even peripherally knows me knows I am able to ingest superhuman amounts of cupcakes. But given I’m not a good cook, I always need to rely on someone else to bake them for me. Until now. Quinn’s pistachio cake and crème brulee also look mighty fine.

The book’s size is practical too. Not so large it really doubles as a coffee-table-meets-food-porn book, it’s small enough to, say, carry with you or peruse recipes in bed just before drifting off for the night. Quite simply, it’s a practical cookbook that’s truly designed to be used.

Importantly, it does what I bemoan so few vegan cookbooks do: It pairs every recipe with a full-page, Donna Hay-worthy here’s-what-it-should-look-like image. Additionally, every recipe is relatively simple. By that I mean no recipe contains 50 billion ingredients, 49 billion of which you can’t find in your local supermarket and instead have to scale a Himalayan mountain to glean from some sheer cliff face only frequented by desperate vegans and mountain goats.

Nor do the recipes include and intimidating amount of steps or require enormous cooking prowess. Simply laid out on a page with plenty of white space, the list of ingredients and recipes make even non-cooks like me feel motivated rather than intimidated.

Worth noting is that they’re the kinds of recipes you could happily serve up to pre-vegans without either having to explain the complex list of ingredients (see previous passage about gathering food alongside Himalayan mountain goats) or worrying about someone turning their nose up.

My one criticism of the book is its title. Though making a clear statement of what the book is about, it’s not content-rich enough to easily find. I’ve spent a lot of time working in bookshops throughout my uni times. I can attest that trying to search databases on vague cookbook titles for impatient, passive-aggressive customers who consider you an idiot for not being able to immediately find the book they’re talking about would not be aided by these search terms.

I couldn’t even quickly find it on the Boomerang Books site, and I had the title correct and knew what the cover looked like (something said passive-aggressive customers rarely do). Rather than sort through pages of similarly titled books, I then searched on the author. So if you’re looking for this book, I recommend you search ‘Sue Quinn’.

Still, title aside, I realise I’m gushing about this book. And we all know me to not be a gusher. It is, quite simply, most excellent and the only vegan cookbook I’ve encountered to date that I’d be happy to both use myself and recommend as a day-to-day cookbook. I mean, you know a cookbook’s good if it can excite a non-cook such as me to start planning out the recipes—plural—they are going to prepare. Double thumbs up.

By the book (AKA Infographics are most welcome)

Jack KerouacA well-timed, well-executed infographic is always welcome. An exquisitely designed one you didn’t know anyone needed and don’t know how anyone either dreamt up the idea or went on to execute it can sometimes make your day.

This was the case with the By the book: What age did the greatest authors publish their most famous works? (Props to those friends with most excellent taste who’ve brought this to my social media feed throughout the week.)

As someone who has no spatial awareness, I would neither dream up this infographic nor conceive of information needed to be displayed how and where. (I literally this week told someone painting an artwork for me I wasn’t sure what size the finished product needed to be, but ‘the width of an old fireplace’ might be ok. Goodness knows what size canvas they’ll end up painting based on that befuddling whichamawotsie.)

Thankfully someone did think of it and made it happen, because it’s brilliant and endlessly fascinating.

The site’s premise is impressively simple, inviting us to ‘explore the careers of some of the world’s most successful authors’ by clicking and sorting information by three options:

  • first published book
  • age at breakthrough book
  • number of books published.

9780099518471They’ve included other significant details, such as the year the authors died as well as an explanation of how they sourced and sorted their data.

I read the latter, but my brain doesn’t compute that kind of stuff, so instead I decided to take their word for it and get back to poring over the infographic itself. Suffice to say, they were reasonably rigorous in their sourcing of data.

Besides, the whole thing makes for fascinating observing and reading.

The youngest to publish breakout books are Jack Kerouac and Douglas Adams at 26 and 28, respectively. F Scott Fitzgerald was the round age of 30, while Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte were both 32. Dickens and Bronte surprised me. I thought they were young wunderkinds.

JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer were both 33, something I have mixed emotions about (and not just because Meyer is on the list) because that’s the age I am now. I can’t imagine myself first, writing a book, second, getting it published, and third, having it become a frenzied popular culture item loved and loathed and spoofed in equal measure.

Aldous Huxley, Jane Austen, and Joseph Heller were 39 when they lobbed Brave New World, Pride and Prejudice, and Catch 22 into the readersphere and changed the world ever so slightly forever.

The infographic reminded me writing is a marathon. It requires you to play the long game, if you’ll allow me to mix my sporting metaphors. It also kind of gets you thinking how diminished the world would be without some of these incredible written works.

Catch 22Hearteningly (for me, at least) is that most of these writers didn’t have their breakthrough books until they’d been writing for a good while.

Though most of these authors were published prior to their breakout books, those earlier works were really their apprenticeship as they honed their craft and built their audience.

It’s a stark contrast to acting, which is a young person’s career. At least, it is for women, unless you’re Meryl Streep.

For twee as it may sound, if this infographic reminds me of anything apart from the fact a good infographic can never go astray, it means there’s no time limit for writers specifically, but all industries more generally, and you don’t have to be a writing prodigy to make an impression on the world.