Great Expectations – 2012 and Australian non-fiction

It’s only Tuesday, but it’s been a good week so far for Australian non-fiction and for those of us looking to get our hands on some great new books to read.

First off, the shortlist for the 2012 Indie Awards has been announced and it has highlight four of Australia’s best non-fiction books released in the last year, just in case you missed reading them. The Indie Awards recognise independent booksellers’ favourite Australian authors from the past 12 months in the fiction, non-fiction and children’s categories, with a special award for debut fiction. The category winners will be chosen by panels of readers and independent booksellers, and independent booksellers then vote on the ‘Book of the Year’ with the winners announced on 10 March at the Leading Edge Books conference.

Last year’s Book of the Year winner was Boomerang bestseller The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do. His adaptation for children, The Little Refugee (co-written with Suzanne Do), is nominated in this year’s Children’s category. You can see a full list on our blog, but here are the four non-fiction books picked out as  some of the best reads in the genre in 2011, and all are well worth picking up for your reading pleasure.

  • Worse Things Happen at Sea by William McInnes & Sarah Watt. This memoir is a charming, hilarious and touching tribute to family and everyday life, celebrating the simple things that make up the normal life of a family in the suburbs;  raising children, renovations that never end and the trials and joys of daily life and dog obedience classes.
  • Notebooks by Betty Churcher. Betty, who was recently on ABC’s “Hidden Treasures” presenting obscure and amazing items from National Gallery of Australia, has penned and sketched this gloriously illustrated book guide to her most beloved artworks.  Betty is justly famous for her knack for making art accessible and fascinating and this book, revealing the secrets in masterpieces such as those by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer and Cezanne, will captivate art novices and lovers alike.
  • After Words: Post Prime Ministerial Speeches by Paul Keating. Love him or hate him, there’s no doubting that Keating has a memorable way with words (his insults, for example, have their own website). This book of speeches are all his work and range over a huge range of topics from international relations to the role of the monarchy, to the current direction and future of Australian politics, economics and society, leaving the reader in no doubt that Keating is still a man with plenty to say and a stirring way of saying it.
  • A Private Life by Michael Kirby. Michael Kirby is a very public figure, known for his work as a judge, academic and former Justice of the High Court. This book offers a look at his private life, the challenges he faced both growing up as and coming out as gay and the convictions and relationships that have kept him going throughout his career and personal life. Kirby’s writing is warm and humourous and this memoir explores and entertains without navel-gazing.

If the highlighting of four of the best non-fiction books wasn’t reason enough to look forward to hitting the bookstores, a new annual prize promises to reward excellence in Australian science writing and make it easier to access. NewSouth Publishing has established a prize for the best short non-fiction piece on science written for a general audience; the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing.  Named in honour of Australia’s first Nobel Laureates William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg, and supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund, all winning entries will be included in an anthology (The Best Australian Science Writing 2012) which will be published late in 2012.

Scientific books can get a bad rap for being impenetrable but, as any regular readers will know, there is plenty of wonderfully written, surprising and inspiring scientific writing out there. While this isn’t the first book that NewSouth have into this area (they published The Best Australian Science Writing 2011 in November last year) the establishment of an annual prize shows an ongoing commitment to the accessible in Australian Science writing that can only be a great thing for those of us who love to curl up with a good book that educates as it fascinates.

2012 has barely started, but I’m confident that it’s going to be a year with some seriously enjoyable Australian non-fiction to get into. What are you looking forward to getting your hands on?

From A to the Z list – celeb autobiographies

I read a lot of non-fiction but, I have to admit, I’ve love to occasionally dip into low down and salacious celebrity gossip. I don’t usually bother with gossip magazines but go straight for the concentrated form and hit their  autobiographies.

And the best bit is, you never run out of reading material. A complete lack of anything to say has never stopped them. Miley Cyrus started work on her autobiography at the age of 15, Katie Price (aka page 3 model Jordan) has managed to cobble together the material for three separate autobiographies by the age of 32. Titled Being Jordan, Jordan: A Whole New World, and Jordan: Pushed to the Limit, you can only assume that last title describes the process of trying to come up with more content on a life already so well-chronicled.

Eager not to be left out, her ex-beau Peter Andre then managed to squeeze out his offering, All About Us, hopefully imbued with more originality than you would expect of a man who decided to call his child Junior. You might not expect Peter Andre to be the type to pick up a pen (or, lets be honest here, a crayon and a ghostwriter) but the most unlikely people suddenly demonstrate interest in scrawling an autobiography if given a chance – after all, how many other activities both allows you total control of your image and a chance to make money?

A total lack of public interest has never stopped them; Alec Baldwin’s A Promise to Ourselves was  published on 22 October and sold just 12 copies within that month, according to the  UK Telegraph. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll find the bargain bin full of the worst examples of celebrities writing into the void. A complete lack of truth is no roadblock. You might remember the fuss when James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which sold two million copies in the US after it was recommended by Oprah Winfrey, turned out not so much to be a memoir about Frey’s battle with alcohol and drugs but a big pile of porkie pies carefully seasoned with lies to be deliciously edible. (A note from Frey will be included in future editions: “I embellished many details about my past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the great purpose of the book.”)

In fact, a lack of truth can be the chief selling point. Dustin Diamond’s “Behind the Bell” was a wonderfully lurid but slightly unbelievable litany sex (and drug) scandals; Dustin claims to have had sex with more than 2,000 women, most of whom he picked up at Disneyland, and that the entire “SBTB” era was pretty much one giant pick-up joint and everyone was invited except Mr. Belding (no, really).

We’re no in danger of running out of celebrities desperate to get their own version of events out there and some of them have given us the most terribly titled books out there, including Tori Spelling — sTori Telling and R Kelly’s Soula Coaster: The Diary of Me. The jury is still out on whether David Hasselhoff’s Don’t Hassle The Hoff is the worst title of all time or just manages to squeeze over the line into so bad it’s actually good.

If you don’t have time (or value your own brain too much) to read every celebrity memoir out there you can take in the very worst of their excesses at “Celebrity Autobiography”, when a cast of comics present excerpts from celebrity memoirs at the Sydney Opera House at the end of this month. From the sublime to the ridiculous, from the banal to the most insanely boastful, from Sylvester Stallone’s pecs to how the lascivious details of  how Tiger likes to set up his holes in one, it’s all here.

Just how entertaining can celebrity autobiographies be? Well, this show sold out for three years in New York City so it’s clearly doing better than poor Alec Baldwin’s memoirs. (Just in case you hadn’t guessed, this one is not suited to kids, so leave the littlies at home if you plan to go and see it.)

Mid-month round-up – the strange edition

Strange World – John Long’s Hung Like an Argentine Duck

The truth is stranger than fiction and Dr John Long has (literally) dug up some of the weirdest evidence and facts from the evolution of sex for this book; he’s the discoverer of the Gogo Fish, a 380-million-year-old fossilised armoured shark-like fish replete with a perfectly preserved embryo which provides the first evidence we have of sexual behaviour in the prehistoric past. In this book, which he describes as a journey back to the origins of sexual intimacy, he explores the questions of why organisms started using sex to reproduce and how the act – and the equipment – has adapted and evolved over time and across species.

With a cast of homosexual penguins, lesbian ostriches, necrophiliac snakes and fellating fruitbats, this book is hilarious, horrifying and fascinating – often all on the same page. Jared Diamond, (author of another favourite of mine; Guns, Germs, and Steel) described it as “a compromise between a book that you should carry hidden inside an opaque bag, and a sober respectable scientific treatise, a deliciously written account of the evolution of sex, in all of its bizarre manifestations.”

(And, for those of you are wondering where the book’s title comes from, the duck in question is an Argentine lake duck and boasts an organ nearly half a metre in length – fully the same length as its body.

Strange times – Stephen King’s 11.22.63

What if you could go back in time, but only to the same point again and again? Would you choose to just visit, or could you live there? Would you lie low and live simply or use your knowledge of the future for fortune and fame? Or would you want to change the course of history itself?

In 11.22.63 Stephen King weaves nonfiction with fiction when he sends his protagonist, Jake Epping, down a “rabbithole” in time from the twenty-first century to 1958 and to a moment when the whole world changed – JFK’s assassination in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963.  Stephen King is known for his horror but his true strength isn’t in his ability to shock and scare but his ability to crawl inside his characters’ heads and present them, warts and all, to the reader.

11.22.63 isn’t the story of JFK’s death but rather Jake Epping’s chance at a different life and his struggle with reconciling what he knows with what he wants. It’s a gripping read and one long in the making; Stephen King tried to write this book at the beginning of his career but was defeated by the sheer amount of research it required. Having devoured it over Christmas (leading to more than a few entreaties to “put down that book and answer me”), I can tell you that it is well worth the wait.

Strange places – Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London

“My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (as the Filth to everybody else). One night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluable, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. Now I’m a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden . . . and there’s something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair. The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it’s falling to me to bring order out of chaos – or die trying.”

This book was recommended by a friend who (knowing my weaknesses well) described it as a cross between Terry Pratchett and a detective novel. That’s a pretty big billing and one that the book easily lived up to. Aaronovitch blends the real world worries of a young mixed-race working  policeman with a touch of magic to create a fast-paced and funny story that manages to be irreverent and touching.  It’s not just my friends recommending him; he was shortlisted for the Galaxy New Writer of the Year award in 2011 and his books have been favourably compared to the Dresden Files and Jasper Fforde. I have the follow-up, Moon Over Soho, downloaded to my e-reader already and I’m looking forward to making the time to read it.

The joy of books… and ebooks.

After a long and very enjoyable holiday break spent devouring both ebooks and paper books, I’m coming into 2012 refreshed and well-read. I’m finding demolishing books even easier than normal, as now I can take a stack of them with me wherever I go on my tiny red (well, pink) Sony Ereader.

I’ve had the e-reader for over a month now and I still love it, although I will admit the gloss has come off and I’m now comparing the pro’s and con’s of the two reading formats. While I’m enjoying reading from a screen I don’t see myself giving up on printed books completely.

It’s not all virtual hearts and eflowers. For example, buying ebooks while overseas is often difficult due to DRM issues and taking the ereader out with me on a pool, beach or boat trip is an impossibility due to the combination of water, sand and my own ham-handedness.

That said, the joy of carrying 12 – 12! – books with me in a tiny light package no bigger than a novella is undiminished, as is my partner’s happiness at not being harassed every time I run out of reading material on long plane flights. Thanks to the ease of picking up where I left off without needing to carry a big book, I’m defaulting to catching up on reading instead of picking at my phone while out and about and there is no doubt I am getting a lot more read.

It’s a trade off either way, and I can see uses for both. I don’t see a situation coming soon where I will definitively choose one or the other as I can see too many advantages for both formats. I love my ereader, it’s true, but I’m not giving up on paperbacks just yet. Curling up on shaded deckchair with the latest Marian Keyes, unworried about  sand, splashes or spilling my cocktail, is a holiday luxury that I’m completely unwilling to give up.

While the paper versus e-books debate is long from over, here is a bookish adventure in stop motion film that will make even the most ardent ebook lover admire the paperback format once again. Earlier in the year, a husband and wife team decided to re-organise their bookshelf and – in their own words – it got a bit out of hand, leading to a wonderfully playful video. After making that short film, they decided to take it to the next level and came up with this amazing piece.

Filmed after hours in a Toronto bookstore, this video is the product of over 25 volunteers who spent many nights moving, stacking, and animating the books. Whatever your thoughts on ebooks versus dead tree books, there’s no denying that this is a truly beautiful tribute to books and to the book stores that sell them.

Here’s hoping this year brings plenty of books worthy of this level of devotion to you, whether you are reading on a screen or off the page. Happy new year to you all, and I look forward to sharing my finds and about yours in 2012.

And to all a good night (whatever you’re celebratin’)

‘Tis the night before Christmas here in Europe and all through the house everyone is stirring in a desperate effort to get closer to the fireplace. It’s really, really cold, especially for those of us who have acclimatised to the Southern Hemisphere and are now being called wusses by all our Northern Hemisphere friends and family.

It’s the morning of Christmas for all of you in Australia and I suspect – I certainly hope – you are all a good deal warmer than me. Most of you are probably still in bed (funny how getting up at 5am to open presents seems less reasonable as you get older) and this message will reach you at some stage over a few lazy days spent relaxing and doing whatever you most enjoy in this lull at the end of 2011.

The business of the year is near wrapped up; the last of 2011’s books have been released, the bookshops are taking a well-deserved break and Possum Magic has topped the Boomerang Annual Advent Poll as our readers’ favourite Australian Children’s Book. Soon my email will be over-flowing again with announcements from publishers about 2012’s shiny new books but right now, with most businesses taking a few days off, it’s peaceful and – like the Christmas eve house in the poem – my inbox isn’t stirring.

I’d like to mark the occasion of this unusual and welcome time of peace and goodwill even if, like many others, I don’t celebrate Christmas in the traditional Christian sense. Whether it’s a holiday for Horus, Mithra, Bacchus or Dionysus, whether it’s the Festival of Lights or the winter or summer solstice or just a couple of well-deserved days off work with your nearest and dearest, I hope you enjoy it.

Damien Kelly, a Northern Irish writer (who just released a Christmas-themed set of horror and suspense short stories this year called The Christmas Gifts, with plenty of ghoulish and creepy festive fare) blogs over at has this greeting for everyone, and it’s so perfect for the occasion that I just have to share.

Because you’re great, it bears relatin’
Happy What-You’re-Celebratin’
From me to you, it’s worth restatin’
Happy What-You’re-Celebratin’
Raise a glass, invite your mate in
Whether or not the date’s worth ratin’
Take a break from What-You’re-Hatin’
Happy What-You’re-Celebratin’.

Have a wonderful few days, whatever you are celebrating. I wish you a fantastic new year, filled with great releases from all your favourite authors, discoveries of awesome new authors and books and, of course, plenty of cash to pay for them all. A happy holidays to you all.

E-reader, I married one

So, after over a year of dithering and over-thinking and hestitating and general procrastination, I am finally the owner of an e-reader.

It was an early – very early – Christmas gift from my partner who realised that if he were to wait until December 25th to give it to me, he would once again be assisting me in lugging approximately 40kgs in books around the globe and getting cross-examined repeatedly by customs officials who don’t  believe anyone can read that much and there must be drugs in there somewhere. They always stop people carrying weighty-looking bags with straining straps and unusual pointy bits. Go figure.

This is it – a Sony Reader Wifi Touch. It’s incredibly light, wonderfully clear to read and allows to me look up Google, Wikipedia and the dictionary when I find a word that doesn’t seem cromulent.

It has a few flaws – the billed “red” colour is a more than a bit pink looking and the cover has nowhere to fit the stylus, for example – but it looks simply dashing in its leather cover and – importantly for someone as hamfistedly impatient as me (whacking the pedestrian crossing button makes the lights change faster, right?) – it is quick as a flash to boot up, close down and turn pages.

I am, it must be said, thoroughly in love. I have loaded it with 20 – 20! – big books and it’s still crying out for many more with less than 4% of the storage card used. I can bring all the books I want to read on this trip instead of limiting myself to what I can swap for in hostels and hotels – there is no need to rely on the vagaries of what other travellors have left behind them, condemning myself to reading the middle books in trilogies and endless amounts of Tom Clancy.

Will it replace paper books for me? Probably not. Much like audiobooks, I find there is a time and a place for both. While I am utterly enamoured of the facility to carry massive epic books without lugging their size and weight (Take that, Stephen King! Have at you, Robin Hobb!) around, it still has a few disadvantages over the good old paperback.

You can’t throw them at the wall. You don’t start interesting conversations with other travellers who are intrigued by the cover of Hung Like an Angentine Duck. I’d be nervy taking it to the beach or into a very humid environment. Having it stolen would be a pain, accidentally getting coffee on it would be a disaster, and I feel oddly restrained from belting the local insect life with it.

But for all that, this lightweight gadget is a great travel companion, amusing me though endless long-haul flights and ensuring that both my partner and I arrive at our destination upright and unmolested by customs. If you’d like to save your back – and your partner’s sanity – this Christmas, I can thoroughly recommend having a look at one. Just remember that the red looks, well, a little bit pink.

Mid-month round-up – the psychopath edition

I think I missed the memo on the season of goodwill. This month my reading has been less about peace and festive feeling to all mankind and more about the horror that can lurks in the minds of men. And women, to be fair.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson started me off. Jon (who also wrote The Men Who Stare At Goats and Them: Adventures with Extremists) returns to his pet subject – that much-debated tipping point where eccentricity becomes genuine madness – this time looking at the nuts and bolts of madness from the business end. How do we define a psychopath and is there any place for them in society? In fact, is being a psychopath a hindrance or an excellent business trait to have? And how can we stay assured of our own normality when we are increasingly being defined by our maddest edges?

The book isn’t a dry treatise but a lively international exploration; jumping from interviews with Scientologists to showdowns with CEOs who display more than a touch of the psychopath themselves; bantering with Tony, a Broadmoor inmate who swears he faked a mental disorder to get a lighter sentence but now can’t get out of there; studying psychopathy with Bob Hare, the psychologist who developed the industry standard Psychopath Test that put Tony behind bars.

It’s a thoughtful-provoking  subject but Jon writes with a sense of humour and an eye for the absurd that makes this book an easy and enjoyable read. The Psychopath Test been out for a while and already devoured and dissected by the media but don’t feel you’ve missed the boat. The good news is that, if you haven’t already read it, the paperback coming out in January will drop the price to an eminently grab-able $18. If you’ll forgive the terrible pun, you’d be mad to miss it.

Set off by the this, I ended up re-reading Crazy Like Us, which examines how differing cultures and societies intrepret madness and specifically how the West’s dominance in many forms of medicine and mainstream culture means it is effectively exporting its own views on madness. Ethan Watters argues that America, as the world leader in generating new mental health treatments and categorising disorders, has started to define mental illness and health both at home and abroad and in doing so has changed the mental illnesses themselves.

Examining everything from how marketing for Paxil sought to actively stigmatise depression in Japan to the “contagiousness of mental illness” (using the hysteria that afflicted thousands of women during the Victorian era as an example), Watters puts forward a fascinating argument that will make you re-examine everything you already think about mental health and mental illness.

This last one isn’t non-fiction, but I couldn’t resist the chance to snap up a Stephen King I had somehow missed (got to love a writer so prolific he can occasionally surprise me with a book I haven’t read yet). Desperation follows the King classic formula – take a diverse group of people, stick them in a creepy spot (in this case, Desperation, Nevada – billed as “not a very nice place to live and an even worse place to die”) and add nothing but trouble and watch as they all go mad.

Complete with some of the usual King characters (Alcoholic writer? Check. Child wise beyond their years? Check.) and a disturbed and disturbing villian (a looming and psychotic cop who prowls “the loneliest road in America” rounding up innocent motorists to imprison and kill) the town of Desperation is set to become the battle ground for Good vs Evil. And Evil seems to be holding all the cards…

It’s a classic King formula  but one that that he uses for a reason – Desperation works. Wonderfully. It’s by turns terrifying and heart-breaking, and will have you cancelling your road-trips for the forseeable future and checking the eyes of any law enforcement you meet for the tell-tale signs of madness. And checking your own while you are at it…

Books to blow their socks off at Christmas

While I’m not a fan of starting the festive season too early I realise you can also go the other way and leave it until far too late. This morning I logged into my mail to find not one but eight messages from retailers advising me that the end… I mean Christmas was nigh and I really need to get proper presents right now or I will end up gifting everyone socks due to lack of other options. Again.

So – with my apologies to those of you who were hoping to get socks for Christmas – here are a few bookish recommendations for those hard to gift people you haven’t found something special for. These books are all recent publications so you don’t need to worry that the recipients have had them on their shelves for the last 5 years or worse, that you already bought it for them last year.

What do you buy the globe-trotting style queen who has everything (but especially has socks more stylish than any you could ever find them)? Normally they can be a bit of a nightmare to find something for but the recently released Holiday Goddess Handbag Guide to Paris, New York, London and Rome might be just be the perfect fit; compact, chic, full of style tips and illustrations, and elegantly presented in red linen. Even if they can’t afford to go traveling right now this is a book to treasure and that cute cover has a practical side; this guide can take a beating in their bag and still be looking stylish when they finally get around to taking it on their sartorial world tour.

For those who would prefer someone else do the traveling for them, motorbike aficionados or lovers of comedy with a serious slant, Billy Connolly’s Route 66 might be just the ticket. Starting in Chicago, Billy takes his trike (a 2011 Boom Lowrider Muscle, if you are wondering) on the ultimate American roadtrip along all 2,488 miles of this iconic road, through the Wild West of Oklahoma and Texas, past the Grand Canyon and deserts of New Mexico and on out to the beaches of the Pacific and Santa Monica. Route 66 is a travelogue and an exploration of American culture and history, all told with Billy’s eye for the absurd and his legendary sense of humour.

If you’d like to keep the gifts a bit closer to home, Underbelly – Razor is set right here in Australia and perfect for the crime fan in your life. Giving them books on murder is always a little off at Christmas but this year you can say that the dirty deeds aren’t gratuitous, they are historical. This  TV tie-in examines the bloody history of the 1920s and ’30s in inner Sydney when, after the New South Wales State Parliament imposed severe penalties for carrying concealed guns, Sydney’s gangs tooks razors as their preferred weapons – chosen for their capacity to inflict disfiguring scars. Underbelly – Razor revolves around the feud of two of Sydney vice queens, brothel madam Tilly Devine and sky grog queen Kate Leigh, and contains enough blood, guts and grisly murders to get readers through even the most saccharine of the Santa season.

And, just in case none of these appeal for your nearest, dearest and most awkward, when all else fails remember that a gift vouchers are an excellent alternative to socks or pot pourri. Unless, of course, that is what they want.

The Constant Reader

When I think of ideal spots to catch up on reading my mind goes straight for the cliché. Convention dictates that most of the reading we do for enjoyment takes place in an over sized and massively comfy chair, preferably in a home library with a fireplace. We could possibly also be enjoying a quick flick while at the beach, or lounging on a sofa, but mainly it’s all about massive chairs and total immersion.

But a quick think about the most recent people I saw reading brings up a distinct paucity of over-stuffed upholstery and a wealth of dedication to reading in less than ideal environments. I see plenty of people reading while in waiting in shops and cafes, or while on transport; on the train, the bus, in the car. (Not if you are driving, please. I don’t care how long those traffic lights take.)

And we all know people – and in fact, may even be the person – who insist on dragging a book to the bathroom for, um, longer stays. There are even books specially for them. I wasn’t a huge fan of this until I stayed in a house where the bathroom was lined with walls of book-cases. On the minus side it meant that even a brief trip to the ladies tended to take at least 20 minutes, on the plus I did get introduced to some great new authors. As Margaret Atwood said in The Atlantic Wire, “Bathroom reading is a certain kind of reading–episodic, but encouraging first thing in the morning. The bathroom is a place where you can go in and pretend to be doing one thing while actually you’re reading. Nobody can interrupt you. Compendiums of this and that are very useful for bathroom reading: small reading packages within a larger book. You wouldn’t want to read War and Peace in there. You’d never come out. They’d probably call the police and get the door broken down.”

I’m less likely to be found in a huge chair myself and far more likely to be found catching up on the sofa while my partner watches the cricket. Reading in bed? All the time, especially when I should be getting up or going to sleep. Reading in cafes at lunch? Sure. Outside on the steps on a sunny day? Sounds lovely, let me get my shades and sunscreen. Reading while walking? Um, maybe not. Wouldn’t you trip over things?

But someone I work with loves to read while walking. And They think my habit of reading in the car is strange – don’t I get motion sick? Shouldn’t I be watching the view? Personally I can’t understand people who read while exercising, on a bike or treadmill or whatever. Whenever I hit the gym I’m too busy trying to stay upright and moving to pay any attentions to plot and I suspect trying to read while running would just result in fraustration and eventual bruising.

The drive to distract your mind and catch up on that book can lead to some pretty interesting choices of locations. One person’s reading chair is another’s heresy:

  • Literally – this lady reads in church and reckons every other organist out there also does.
  • This guy reads when he should be driving the train – I’m not recommending this one (see my point on traffic lights, above) but I can understand the urge to get away from work for a few minutes.
  • This guy has challenged himself to read in the most unusual places he can find.

Me? I can’t stop reading in the car. I’ve had my nose stuck in a book all over the world; when I should have been looking out the window at the Swiss Alps; right through the twisting coastal roads of Monaco; across most of Ontario and Central America. What about you? Where is the weirdest place you find yourself craving to open that book?

King Brown Country gets crowned

While the ARIAs may have got most of the picture coverage (it’s hard to complete with Kylie’s shining smile and perfect bottom) last night was also a big night for non-fiction reading with Russell Skeldon’s King Brown Country being crowned the year’s best nonfiction book at the 56th Walkley Awards Gala Ceremony in Brisbane.

It’s said that everyone has a book in them and each year many Australian journalists put a pen to paper (or, realistically, fingers to the keyboard or iPad) in the attempt to get that book out and published. The Walkley Book Award recognises some truly exceptional Australian nonfiction literature and long-form journalism. After winnowing down the field three titles were shortlisted:

Skelton is a contributing editor to The Age and no stranger to winning awards for his journalism – he has received the prestigious Grant Hattam Quill award for investigative journalism and a United Nations Association Peace award for his reports on Aboriginal disadvantage. King Brown Country is the culmination of a five year’s work and a challenging read that presents Papunya, a Western Desert community known for its achievements in art in the 1970’s and 80’s, as a community in a severe crisis.

King Brown Country, with its unflinching coverage of the horrors of substance abuse in a neglected community, stirred up plenty of controversy and the Walkley’s three shortlisted titles were drawn from a long-list of titles that included some of this year’s most contentious Australian books; John Howard’s infamous “love him or hate him you need to read this” autobiography Lazarus Rising; Barrie Cassidy’s The Party Thieves; Karen Middleton’s harrowing An Unwinnable War on the Australian involvement in Afghanistan.

The books might not be anywhere near as frothy as the Singing Budgie’s dance floor fillers but there are plenty of options for people looking for a lighter read; Michael Gordon’s love song to surfing Bells: The Beach, the Surfers, the Contest; and Hamish McDonald’s fascinating analysis of the personal and professional feud between world’s two richest brothers, Mahabharata in Polyester.

A complete list of all categories and finalists is online at the Walkley Foundation Website and you can see all the long-listed books on the Boomerang Blog. If you’ve been struggling for a gift idea for the non-fiction fan in your life, one of these books might be the perfect thing for them. That, or a carol from Kylie on Christmas Day.

The Smell Of Books – Mythbusters’s Edition

The “smell of books” is an evocative phrase and a contentious subject. Our ebooks’ (or should that be ubooks’) blog was even originally named for it with the first ever blog post taking on the idea directly. Fans of the paper book (or “dead tree”, as it is less kindly known) rhapsodise lyrical about the joy of the feel and distinct smell of older books, and during the week I came across a tumblr image giving what seemed to be a scientific endorsement of that love.

The image is that of a quote, apparently from a book called Perfume: The Guide, which reads:

“Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.”

A quick google revealed that the quote has really got around with over sixteen thousand results from bookshops and book-publishers and book bloggers and more.  It’s a wonderful quote; evoking instant nostalgia for browsing second hand book stores and dawdling in comfy chairs in the library. It sounds, simply, too delicious to actually be true.

Well, there’s the sad bit – it probably isn’t true. Old books don’t always smell of vanilla – as a quick sniff through the more elderly titles on my book shelf told me. Even with my beloved copy of the Never-Ending Story (30 years old, and done in three different shades of ink) I was getting more of a musty damp smell than the urge to lick the page.

I decided to look it up. The quote is indeed from a book called Perfume: The Guide but – according someone who works in the book business – it’s not particularly accurate, and they made their own image (complete with a NSFW word meaning male bull excretion stamped over it, so be warned if you click at work) to refute it.

“Old books don’t smell good. They’re also not made from lignin. They are made from cellulose. The lignin is the sugary glue that holds the cellulose together in the form of wood. When the paper is made, they cook the lignin out of the wood to get cellulose. The lignin is a waste product that’s usually burned in a boiler. It doesn’t make it into your book and doesn’t smell like vanilla. It smells like molasses. This whole thing was pulled from someone’s ass to make you feel good about old books.

Signed, someone in a paper factory.”

But now I had two opinions on the smell of books, neither of which seem particularly unbiased. I did a bit more digging and found a slightly longer and more scientific (and less sweary) explanation in an interview conducted by the Naked Scientist with the Head of Laboratory for Cultural Heritage at the University Library of Slovenia:

“An odour of a book is a complex mixture of odorous volatiles, emitted from different materials from which books are made.  Due to the different materials used to make books throughout history, there is no one characteristic odour of old books.  A professional perfumer has evaluated seventy odorous volatiles emitted from books and described their smells as dusty, musty, mouldy, paper-like or dry.

The pleasant aromatic smell is due to aromatic compounds emitted mainly from papers made from ground wood which are characterised by their yellowish-brown colour.  They emit vanilla-like, sweetly fragrant vanillin, aromatic anisol and benzaldehyde, with fruity almond-like odor.  On the other hand, terpene compounds, deriving from rosin, which is used to make paper more impermeable to inks, contribute to the camphorous, oily and woody smell of books.  A mushroom odour is caused by some other, intensely fragrant aliphatic alcohols.

A typical odour of ‘old book’ is thus determined mixture of fragrant volatiles and is not dominated by any single compound.  Not all books smell the same.”

So, is there a smell of books? Yes, but not just one and not always as pleasant a one as the phrase “smell of books” tries to conjure. Sometimes it’s a touch of vanilla, other times it’s a touch of damp wood. Does this mean I’ll be junking my collection of beloved older books for a smell-free electronic version? Definitely not. I just need to pull them out more often to air – it’s a great excuse to read them anyway. What’s the oldest book on your shelves, and what does it smell of for you?

Mid-month round-up – the larger than life edition

This month I have mainly been reading the biographies of people who have become legends in their own lifetime, through talent, accident or sheer bloody-minded willpower.

Larger than life Shatner Rules by William Shatner

William Shatner is not a man for false – or indeed any – modesty. In fact, William Shatner isn’t a man at all but is, in many ways, the biggest character Bill has ever played. This is not a biography of Bill but the story of how he became William Shatner, a character larger than life and twenty times as confident.

Shatner Rules is his guide to becoming William Shatner, or at least taking on enough of the lessons he has learned to become usefully Shatneresque when you’re in need of a bit of a boost. It’s filled with comedy and glorious hyperbole; its blurb states it will give you “a look at the man, the myth, and the magic that is William Shatner”. It could have been tedious but Shatner carries it off with enough self-depreciation to stay engaging and enjoys poking fun at his over-the-top image (along with his former co-stars, Facebook and most of Canada). The book isn’t a biography but a guide, filled with lessons learned and “rules” to apply to pick up a touch of Shatner’s positivity and magnetism.

It certainly worked in my case. I bought the book as I was heading in for day surgery and needed something entertaining enough to distract from the pain but light enough to be readable when I was off my head on leftover anesthetic. Shatner Rules did the job perfectly and had the bonus effect of making friends with every single person I met that day in the hospital as they all stopped to ask if it was good. Doctors, nurses, co-patients and some bloke on the train – it appears that interest in Shatner is the great uniter.

Look, I’m not saying you could definitely use this book to make friends and attract people while feeling less than stellar but who couldn’t do with a touch of the Shatneresque occasionally?

And twice as loud Life by Keith Richards

The blurb has a scrawl from Keith, written in red: “This is the life. Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten anything.”

It might seem like an unbelievable boast from a man renowned for embodying all the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle. Denis Leary once quipped, “Keith Richards says that kids should not do drugs. Keith, we can’t do any more drugs because you already did them all, alright? There’s none left! We have to wait ’til you die and smoke your ashes!”

And while Keith’s biography backs up that point, with plenty of hair-raising drug busts and close shaves, his memory is as clear and complex as one of his solos. It’s not a love of drugs and hazy excess that comes through – it’s the love of music and the freedom to play it as he chooses. Keith chronicles his love affair with music in all the forms it took; from listening obsessively to the radio as a teenager to slumming it in a squat with struggling start-up band to the Stones and his solo work. Keith’s diaries and letters occasionally do the leg-work in remembering, as do numerous asides from partners in crime over the years, but it’s mainly Keith’s unique voice taking you though his life as he experienced it. And what a life it is.

A legend in the making –  The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

‘I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.’

This one is a bit of a cheat but Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of The Wind is, while not an actual biography, a fictional take on writing up the biography of a legend, according to the author, Patrick Rothfuss.

“In some ways it’s the simplest story possible: it’s the story of a man’s life. It’s the myth of the Hero seen from backstage. It’s about the exploration and revelation of a world, but it’s also about Kvothe’s desire to uncover the truth hidden underneath the stories in his world. The story is a lot of things, I guess. As you can tell, I’m not very good at describing it. I always tell people, “If I could sum it up in 50 words, I wouldn’t have needed to write a whole novel about it.””

I’m glad he did, and even better that he plans a series of novels as Rothfuss is an excellent story-teller. The Name of The Wind is the first book in a trilogy, the Kingkiller Chronicles, and an excellent coming of age story in the fantasy writers such as Robin Hobb.

Who wants books for Christmas?

I always loved getting books for Christmas as a kid (in fact, I once got in trouble for burgling my books out from under the tree to read before the big day) but not every kid instantly embraces the concept of books as gifts. Here is a reaction that you don’t want to get; after opening a whole bunch of toys this three year old comes across a present packed with books and only books.

As you can see, little Michael is not delighted by the books. The books are, in fact, “a poo”.  While it certainly seems the child is less than impressed, his parents (who shot and uploaded the video) wanted to assure viewers that he’s not a budding book-hater but just a small kid over-excited by the day.

“Keep in mind that this was kinda like his first “real” Christmas and he’s only three years old and that he could just about understand and get the concept of the whole gift getting thing. I guess he was  under the perception that you only get “toys” for christmas. To him books are the fun time we spend reading every night before he goes to bed. He really does love books but I’m guessing he was overwhelmed after opening way gifts and I think he felt “tricked” when he opened the books.”

While his reaction was amusing, the family wanted to make sure that he realised that books could be great gifts the next time present season rolled around. The next year they gave him a few more books to unwrap and the reaction was definitely better this time around. “Just to make sure Michael understood that books for Christmas is perfectly OK to get, we wrapped up a few more books from Santa and waited to see how he reacted. To say I wasn’t a little nervous would be a lie but all went well and smooth!”

And, while he may have learned that books make good gifts his family also reminded viewers that the most disappointing gift you can give a small child had yet to make an appearance – clothes. “On a side note, the wife and I realized he has yet to get any clothes from Santa, like socks or a tacky sweater… we decided to not push it and wait till next year. One hurdle at a time!”

Thanks to the Writing Bar blog of the Sydney Writers’ Centre that put me on to this one.

If you want to gift books to kids this year but would like a few tips to avoiding this reaction, head over to the Kids’ Reading Guide 2010-2011 to the Perfect Present hosted on the Boomerang site (it’s in the left side-bar, just under the categories and above the annual Boomerang Books Survey).

You’ll find a thirty page guide packed with some of the best recent books for kids, including recommendations of books for toddlers, an extensive range of picture books and the top picks in for fiction for the various age groups right up until Young Adult. And it’s not just fiction you’ll find; there are Information and Stuff to Do sections with everything from gardening to art to building a robot in there.

Definitely better that a pair of socks any day. If any one is thinking of buying me socks or a jumper with an amusingly deformed reindeer on it this year please be informed that I would much rather instructions to build my own robot. That and my poor plants would probably thank you for sending on a beginner’s guide to gardening, even if that beginner is assumed to be under the age of ten.


Traveling with style

Breaking out the travel guide  is a great way to pass the time plotting and planning your dream vacation until you’re actually there. But many guidebooks either assume that readers are either wealthy beyond belief or willing to walk ten miles to save 20 cents on dinner; it’s all 5 star hotels at one end and sleeping on mud floors at the other. Where are the guides for those of us who like the middle road of boutique hotels and local style secrets and a little luxury at a reasonable price?

That’s where the Holiday Goddess Handbag Guide to Paris, New York, London and Rome comes in – if you are visiting one of those cities, obviously enough. This compact guide contains the combined wisdom of a whole group of holiday goddesses who have been there, done that and  found the 75% off sale while they were there. It started life as the diary of editor Jessica Adams who passed it around to pick up advice from those who make traveling with style their business; Vogue contributors, Lonely Planet writers, novelists and more.

After a year of traveling through handbags in Melbourne, London and Paris, the Holiday Goddess Handbag Guide to Paris, New York, London and Rome was filled with hard-won tips and secrets; where to stay chicly but cheaply in some of the world’s most expensive cities, how to find the best cocktails, the vintage markets, the best local brands. As being full of information it’s a visual treat; packaged in red linen and filled with gorgeous and iconic illustrations. That cute cover has a practical side too; the guide can take a beating in your bag and still look good when you pull it out later.

I caught up with Jessica to ask her a few questions about the book, the cities in it and, of course, handbags.

Q. What was the most surprising tip you received? And the most useful?

A. The most surprising tip we received about travel, was to volunteer at an animal charity (like the RSPCA) because the best house-sitting opportunities involve animal care, and owners feel reassured if their pets are in the hands of women who can prove they’re experienced with cats and dogs. The most useful tip we received about Paris, London, New York and Rome was this – always go in winter – cheap seats, often two-three seats to yourself on the plane and far smaller queues at major attractions.)

Q. The Holiday Goddess reviews Paris, London, New York and Rome – if there were to be Southern Hemisphere edition, what cities do you think would be in the running?

A. I’d personally like to cover every Australian capital city, and also some female traveller favourites, like Byron Bay and the Blue Mountains. I’m sure the other editors would have some fascinating ideas, though, as many of them live from Perth through to Melbourne.

Q. I’m going to have to ask – what sort of handbag do you yearn to put your copy of the guide in, and what other items are indispensable to holiday goddesses?

A. My favourite handbag of all time is a vintage Hermes Kelly. If I find that at a charity shop in London any time soon, I’ll let you know! Holiday Goddess editors find their notepads (paper not computer) indispensable, and illustrator Anna Johnson and I have a lot of them. Scribbling and sketching is the new black!

Q. The book itself is packaged in red linen and contains some amazing illustrations – in this age of the iPad, what made you decide on old world chic and a book?

A. After three years of being exclusively electronic and online, Holiday Goddess editors longed for paper and linen! But we are exploring apps for the iPad too. Holiday Goddess is three years old on November 28th and as so many of the people involved were authors or book editors, we had always secretly hoped it would turn into a book.

The book also has an online aspect at where you can find things to smooth your own travels, from podcasts to printable guides and (my favourite) customisable luggage tags. Jessica Adams is the managing editor of the site which recently celebrated its third birthday. It’s an evolving site that depends on its readers for all its secrets and tips. If you’d like to take a peak through their top picks, or even send in a few suggestions of your own, you can catch the goddesses online at or on Twitter.


Doin’ it for the kids – the Boomerang Annual Survey

It’s that time of year again – time for 2011 Boomerang Books survey, their Christmas advent calendar count-down, and the time when I traditionally reveal my lack of knowledge of Australian literature.

This time it’s kids’ books exposing my ignorance. Boomerang have compiled a list of 85 of the most-loved Aussie Kid’s Books and are looking for responses to help them decide on the most popular kid’s books for a literary countdown from 1 December until Christmas Eve.  Their criteria for working out the popularity is pretty simple – the survey just asks did you read these books yourself or read them to children.

Have you happy memories of reading Australian books as a child or reading these books to your own kids and grand-kids and other assorted ankle-biters? If so, get over to our website and take the survey and you’ll be in the running to pick up $500 worth of books.

It’s a bit embarrassing – I have only caught from from last year’s survey which revealed to me that, out of 120 of Australian authors’ best known titles, I had read not even enough to get a pass rate. I’ve spent a bit of this year catching up on them only to find that this year’s exam will be on kids’ books where my knowledge is still severely lacking. I may not have read so many of these famous Australian kids’ books – I’m not sure why Cuddlepot and Snugglepie are so beloved or why a wombat would keep a diary – but if nothing else this lengthy list of books I have missed will give me something to browse next time I call over to one of my friends with small kids, and hopefully a few ideas for gifts to bring them when I go.

I do at least have an excuse. I grew up in Ireland so many of the books are a mystery to me but I was chuffed to realise that I did recognise a few of the titles, from Shaun Tan’s moving Arrival to Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie BowIn fact, one of the books was a childhood favourite of mine – Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series.  Her beautiful descriptions of the wildlife and landscape of the Snowy Mountains was one of the reasons I ended up (nearly fifteen years after picking up the book in Cork, Ireland) booking a ticket to Australia to see the country for myself.

The moral of the story seems to be that reading Australian kids’ books makes them move to Australia  a few decades on. Something to be careful of when you are sending books to less than beloved nieces and nephews over-seas perhaps. You could send them something from New Zealand perhaps? Close enough to see occasionally, far enough that they don’t call in twice a week.

If you want to take part in deciding Australia’s most popular children’s novels, and possibly win $500 in Boomerang Bucks to spend on the site, you can find the survey here. (If you worried your memory might need a jog, you can review the book cover images here first.) The survey closes at 5pm AEST on Wednesday 30 November 2011.  Get ready to reminisce and click here to enter the competition.

Tempus fugit

You know what I like about books? They don’t keep reminding you how old you are.

Lately it seems that every second article I read is about the anniversary of something that I could swear only happened last week. Empire Magazine online, for example, was kind enough to inform me that it has been ten years since Peter Jackson’s take on Lord of the Rings sent the tricksey hobbitses off trekking through dangerous elf-infested lands and made all my mates debate endless on Aragorn/Legolas or Arwen/Éowyn (or, in some cases, both).

The correct answer is, of course, Aragorn. Totally Aragorn. Elves may look pretty, but you’ll never get your hair-straighteners back off them and the fights for the bathroom in the morning will be murder. And both Arwen and Éowyn seem like a good bet for a night out, provided no one surprises them while they are holding cutlery.

And if that didn’t make me feel old enough, Entertainment Weekly was all over ever feed I read as they had put together a (utterly lovely) reunion photo-shoot of the Princess Bride cast to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of year when we all went, “Mmm. As you wish.”

Twenty five years? Inconceivable. It seems like – well, not yesterday, that would be silly – maybe 15 years since it came out? 18 at a push. Has it really been that long? Robin Wright’s luminous portrait photo says no but Cary Elwes’, sadly, says yes indeed it has. Time flies or, more accurately, flees.

I tried to cheer myself up by listening to the radio, only to be reminded that it was 20 years since Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and grunge crashed its way onto my walkman and that both my teen spirit and my walkman are long in the past.

Books are that bit kinder about letting the years slide by. The Princess Bride was released in 1973 but it’s easy enough to pick up the book and forget that it’s heading for forty years of age. You can read and re-read and not be reminded that when first you read it you had braces on your teeth and now you have a brace on your back.

Lord of the Rings is positively spritely about the fact that it is heading for sixty while still topping the best-seller and best-loved lists and wearing the weight of being definitive while still being widely enjoyed. Harry Potter did grow up a bit but doesn’t keep reminding you that he’s gotten fifteen years older, unlike Daniel Radcliffe who grew up extremely quickly and confrontingly. (Equus, anyone?)

Books are kind when they wrap you in memories. While movies feel dated, and music often reminds you of who you were dating (and what were you thinking?), much-loved books are like a re-union with a friend. Full of happy memories made fresh again and not rubbing in the years that have past because, like you, while their pages have been turned a bit and the cover has been bashed a little, they’re still the same thing you always loved on the inside.

And now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to catch up with some old friends on my bookcase.

’tis the season to post… already?

Ah, Boomerang Books. I like the books and love the bloggers (well, obviously) but it may be some time before I forgive them for the subject matter of their last panic-inducting newsletter.

As they so helpfully reminded me, in massive type, Christmas is only 9 weeks away!

Nine weeks. Wow. Where did the year go? I’ve been a bit busy lately, I know, but it feels like I turned my back for a few minutes to catch up on reading and now I’ve been ambushed by Santa and a whole pile of people I need to find presents for. Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere is sneaky and even more so when you are used to a Northern one. My brain interprets all the spring sunshine as a permanent and balmy August (which is our best month in Ireland) and then it’s suddenly ARGH MISTLETOE AND MULLED WINE WHERE DID THAT COME FROM OH HELP I NEED TO BUY PRESENTS.

It might seem Boomerang was getting in there rather early but I appreciate lots of advance warning. My worries about presents are, as always, compounded by the Christmas post issue and the fact that many of my friends and relations live overseas – either you get organised and send them early or you can send them for several million dollars closer to the date. I’m not joking – I recently mailed a copy of Greg Page’s Now and Then to a friend in the States by cheap mail and discovered it managed to make it across the pond in a spritely 4 months.

This friend lives in a city, by the way, not in a cave in the Rockies guarded by bears. I ended up flying to New York a few months later and suspect that I passed the book in transit, possible as it was being pulled across the Pacific on a paddle-boat powered by arthritic tortoises.

Nine weeks. Argh. What if the postal tortoises need a break?

Anyway, for those of you who also tend to be less than prepared for these things, I have some good news; Boomerang have made finding gifts that bit easier by putting together some lists of suggested books. Looking for something for the gourmande in your life? Check out the selection of cooking, food & drink books. I’m holding out for James Halliday Australian Wine Companion 2012 or, even better, someone to come around and cook all of Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals for me.

Looking for something for the teenager in your life? Have a look through the recommended young adult fiction. Need something for the most active person you know? Try browsing the sports books; Kokoda Wallaby is well worth a read if you’re enjoying the rugby but don’t want to dwell on last weekend too much or Cadel Evans’s biography is excellent if you’d like to avoid the rugger altogether.

Here are links to all Boomerang Books’ suggested gifts, happy browsing. Just remember to get them in the post nice and early!

Mid-month round up – the war edition.

It’s the middle of October and my bookself doth overfloweth with far too many excellent recent releases which all seem to tie back into conflict. If you are looking for a non-fiction read this month, here’s are some recommendations; from a war-correspondent looking for work-life-romance balance in Kabul, to a woman who mobilised a nation for peace, to John Birmingham deciding to be very unpleasant to most of the planet. Enjoy.

The surreal one – The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker

If you’ve ever wondered what war reporters do to wind down in the evening and who the hell they find to date, this is the book for you. Kim Barker started  as a new war reporter in Afghanistan in 2003, when the war there was a side story to Iraq and her pieces were constantly side-lined by other bigger, better, more glamorous wars. While she learnt over the next few years (very slowly, and occasionally through hilarious errors) to navigate Afghan culture and a world often without electricity the stories grew from a forgotten war to what would become the front line of the so-called war on terror.

While she was learning the ropes, Kim dined with warlords and war reporters, managed to self-sabotage every romantic interest she met, dealt with an amorous Pakistani former prime minister, and got far too tangled up in the complicated and neurotic love lives of other ex-pats. As the conflict gradually escalates, Kim chronicles the reality of a job that involves dealing with danger and deprivation on a daily basis and how you gradually became acclimatised and maybe even addicted to a life on the edge of conflict.

If you are looking for an in-depth political analysis of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this is not the book you are looking for. But if you’re interested in how war correspondents and peace-keepers work and, more importantly, live and love in a war-torn land, Taliban Shuffle is a fascinating, funny and often surreal look at the reality of life as interloper in a growing war zone.

The uplifting one – Mighty Be Their Powers by Leymah Gbowee.

This is not a traditional war story. It is about an army of women in white standing up when no one else would—unafraid, because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us…. You have not heard it before, because it is an African woman’s story, and our stories are rarely told.”

Leymah Gbowee wanted to be a doctor but when civil war erupted in Liberia, the conflict tore apart her life and dreams. Years of  fighting destroyed her country and claimed the lives of relatives and friends. Gbowee survived the civil wars but became a young mother, trapped in an abusive relationship, without the resources to free or even sometimes feed herself.

Mighty Be Their Powers tells how she changed her own destiny and the destiny of her nation. An impoverished mother of 4, she trained as a trauma counsellor, working among girls and women raped by militiamen and those militiamen themselves. In 2003 she mobilised women from across Liberia’s highly-polarised ethnic and religious divides into a peaceful protest calling for an end to Liberia’s brutal 14-year civil war. Her book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War is both the story of those protests, which led to Gbowee being awarded a Nobel Peace laureate, and of her own struggles with the price that her activism demanded of her personal life and her family.

The not quite non-fiction one  –  Without Warning by John Birmingham

So my last recommendation is not non-fiction but an alternate history that blends reality with sci-fi to pretty much put the entire world in peril. John Birmingham is not, by his own admission, a very nice man when it comes to the world he builds for his characters or what happens to them once they are there.

“I do terrible things to characters. I try my best to build them up, give them lovable quirks, amusing back stories, make it so you just want to be their friends and know you’ll miss them when the last page is read. Then I shoot them in the throat, or crash the plane into the ground at 1000kmh, or break up their marriages, or … well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but yeah.”

His most recent series opens in 2003, just before the Gulf War starts, with the disappearance of almost everyone in the USA.  Birmingham was inspired to write it after hearing someone say the world would be a better place if the United States disappeared, and – while you can make up your own mind on that one – this page-turner presents a vivid and terrifying picture of one way events could unfold in the USA simply ceased to be.

Navigating the next book maze (sci-fi and fantasy edition)

Regular readers will know about my slightly unnerving love of a good spreadsheet about books but even more thrilling than seeing all that data is seeing that vast amounts of information presented really well. And when that data is a fantastic compilation of recommendations on what to read based on complex choices that you can actually make, well… I’m not going to stop frothing in glee anytime soon.

You had me at "Don't Panic".

It all started when NPR decided to make a list 100 science fiction and fantasy books of all time, as compiled by its listeners and readers. NPR (National Public Radio) is a US news organisation that also collates independent radio stations. Its plentiful selection of thoroughly diverting best-seller and reading lists are a collaboration by listeners and the American Booksellers Association, who compile their lists from 500 independent bookstores in the USA.

They asked their audience to nominate titles for a top-100 list of the best science fiction and fantasy ever written. The response was good — almost 5,000 people posted to the site with thousands more offering suggestions on Facebook. NPR put together an expert panel to narrow the list to a manageable field of a few hundred titles and then threw this list open to the polls again. What they ended up with was a Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy reads.

All very well, but science fiction fans at SFsignal thought they could go one better. Taking the massive list and analysing it, they designed a flowchart guide that enables you to browse through the recommended books by making choices – are you in the mood for fantasy or sci-fi (or both!), would you like to read books from the past or the future, are you in the mood for politics or philosophy etc, and you navigate your way to your next great read.

It’s pretty immense (have a look at the full-size version here). According to the designer it is the largest flowchart they have ever seen attempted.

“There are (obviously) 100 end points and over 325 decision points. For people with lower resolution monitors, netbooks, or tablets, this 3800 x 2300 image is going to a scroll-fest. But it’s totally worth it.”

After spending about 20 happy minutes scrolling and exploring, I agree, both with the comments on sheer size and it being worth it. They’ve since released an easy-to-navigate interactive version which has both eaten up the tiny amount of spare time not taken by the Rugby World Cup and ensured that Boomerang Books are going to enjoying most of my pay-cheque for the foreseeable future. Read, navigate and enjoy – just don’t blame me if your book collection is exponentially bigger by the end of the day.

Rugby Reading

I have a confession: I have not been reading as much as normal. I have been taking time out and cheating on my stack of unread books.

And the reason is simple – the Rugby World Cup. Between the games and talking about the games, my spare time has been taken up in debates on whether the Wallabies or the Irish have a better chance against the Springboks (I’m undecided) and whether New Zealand still has a good shot at the finals.

Luckily my partner, while being a proud Aussie himself and supporting the Wallabies, has been pretty patient with my relentless cheering of my home country, Ireland, although things did get somewhat tense at the game where the two countries played each other. He has been happy to watch the games with me, read the coverage and occasionally answer my questions at 1am when something really interesting occurs to me about the All Black’s strategy and generally indulge me in the massive time sink that has been the Cup so far.

At least I get to watch the matches at reasonable hours. I am the envy of my friends back home, who are 11 hours behind and have to haul their sleep-deprived carcasses from bed to the TV at 5am and 7am, keeping cheering to a minimum in case they wake the rest of the house. It’s hard to muster up the energy to hurl abuse at the ref when you’d normally be curled up in bed, dreaming of Cian Healy on his best form.

Rugby is a great game to watch but there are also plenty of books out there worth reading about it. One of the most high profile is Invictus, a dramatic retelling of the 1995 World Cup, when embattled South Africa President Nelson Mandela enlisted the rugby team to win both the cup and the hearts and minds of a country divided by apartheid.

While Invictus is one of the best known rugby books (and is certainly a great read) it’s often more concerned with politics than play, and is only one of a great many books inspired by the games and the greats (and not so greats) that have taken to the field over the years. If you have a yen to examine the Wallabies a bit more closely, you could read Greg Growden’s recently released Inside the Wallabies (am I the only person visualising the inside of a pouch?) which takes on over 100 years of play.

Slightly older but well worth a browse is Two Mighty Tribes (by commentator Gordon Bray and Spiro Zavos) which looks at 100 years of rugby matches between Australia and New Zealand. If you are still wondering what all the fuss is about, you could try Zavos’s How to Watch the Rugby World Cup instead. Plenty of time to cram that one in by Sunday, for Australia’s game against the South African Springboks.

I will be pouring over Wales’ form in the form of flicking through The Priceless Gift by Steve Lewis, an analysis of the Welsh captains who have led their team to victory and defeat since 1881, and if that turns out to be too positive for liking I may pick up Seeing Red by Alun Carter which is guaranteed to contain some dirt.  Carter was a long-time backroom man with the Wales team and catalogues both the games and political plays he saw in his 12 years working for the WRU, providing an insight into their recent form during their 2005 and 2008 Grand Slam victories.

And I would be remiss, as an Irishwoman but specifically one from Cork, if I didn’t recommend Alan English’s Stand Up and Fight – the story of a grey day in 1978 when Munster, an unrated provincial side, beat the All Blacks. The game has long since become a legend in the Irish rugby terms (the book states that more than 100,000 people claim to have seen Munster beat the All Blacks in Limerick, even though the ground could only hold 12,000) and tells the tale of the day when some of the Irish played a game far better than anyone could have dreamed they had in them.

That’s something to keep me reading – and dreaming – until Ireland vs Wales on Saturday. And good luck to the Wallabies against the Boks on Sunday. May we see you again in the finals.

A Book

November is sneaking up again and with it my usual yearly urge to throw my free time away and take a trip on the good ship NaNoWriMo.

National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo to its friends – takes place every November and has a simple approach to getting your much-procrastinated novel actually written. For the month of November participants abandon overtime, the internet, their hobbies, their social life and occasionally their families with the aim of writing a 50,000 words by the time the clock hits 23:59.59 on November 30th. It doesn’t have to be great, it doesn’t have to meticulously researched or grammatically perfect. It just has to be 50,000 words.

The first NaNoWriMo took place in 1999 in the San Francisco when 21 friends decided to challenge each other to write a novel in a month and in 2000 they had 140 participants. The idea took off, perhaps a little too fast for the organisers. In 2001 they anticipated 150 participants to visit their rough and ready website and email group. Five thousand showed up. They realised that, to quote my favourite bit of  Jaws, they were going to need a bigger boat.

Once they got the infrastructure sorted the idea just kept getting bigger. In 2010, they had over 200,000 participants, with 30,000 of them crossing the 50K finish line by the deadline. That’s a lot of aspiring novelists and a lot of hastily-written words. With NaNo, the only thing that matters in your output and by the organisers’ own admission, you’ll probably end up sacrificing form to do so.

“Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”

I’ve tried Nanowrimo a few times and haven’t yet made it over the finish line. I’ve ended up with 20,000 words of swear-laden chicklit and 15,000 of what may be the worst vampire comedy novella of all time (I realise that’s a small field, but it really is a very bad book). I had considered it to be about as gung-ho as you could get as an (unpaid) writer, but then I found an article over on WetAsphalt that makes a book in a month look positively sleepy.

For those of you for whom NaNoWriMo isn’t hardcore enough, you can make like Michael Moorcock and write a book in three days. Moorcock started out writing badly-paid sword-and-sorcery action-adventure and, faced with the necessity of fast writing as he was living on piece-work pay-cheques, he came up with a writing method that allowed him to pump out a book every three to ten days or so including tips on plot devices, and characterization. My favourite tip is on designing a pulp hero that keeps the plot moving briskly:

“The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can’t have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, ‘What? Dragons? Demons? You’ve got to be joking!’ The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don’t want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you’ve got to have somebody around who’ll act as a sort of chorus.”

There’s enough information in the article to get you up to speed (bad pun, I know) on Moorcock’s method and it is a fascinating – if utterly terrifying – look at what it takes to be truly prolific.

Moorcock isn’t the only writer out there who makes NaNo’s goals look a little soft. Stephen King, for example, was forced to invent his pseudonym Richard Bachman to satisfy his urge to release more novels after his publishing company urged him to calm down his schedule (he likened it to a wife who didn’t want to put out sending her husband to a prostitute to satisfy his urges). He was so gripped by the urge to write he even managed to make the experience of writing under a pen name into another book – The Dark Half.

And it’s not just horror and fantasy – Barbara Cartland wrote a mind-boggling 723 romance novels. In 1983 she wrote 23 novels, and holds the Guiness World Record for the most novels written in a single year.

South African writer Mary Faulkner wrote 904 books under six separate pen names and holds the Guinness Book of World Records title of history’s most prolific novelist. Enid Blyton churned out over 600 books – with lashings and lashings of ginger beer no doubt. Alexandre Dumas, the French author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, wrote 277.

It’s almost enough to make you think that 50,000 words in a month is a bit of a holiday. Ask me how I feel again in mid-November. Anyone up for joining me on the NaNoWriMo boat?

Killing me softly – fluffy bunnies and character deaths

I’ve always been a softy when it comes to literary characters and, in hindsight, taking both Black Beauty and Watership Down on the holiday may have been a bad move. For books about bunnies and ponies, they both have surprisingly high body-counts. My family had hoped to enjoy a quiet week away with the seven-year-old me occupied by ponies and rabbits, instead they got a week of hysterics as key fluffy characters died and then had to listen to my musings on mortality over every meal. Not really the holiday they had hoped for.

It’s not just fluffy characters I mourn; when it comes to books I’m a full-on optimist with a massive sentimental streak. I find it hard to say a final goodbye to favoured characters, hoping for final reprieves and unlikely escapes long after the point where it becomes obvious that they are due to get the chop. I’m capable of holding out hope even if they have been declared long since dead and unlikely to come back (unless as a zombie). When it comes to losing characters, I’m far better at “au revoir” than just saying a straight goodbye.

Which is odd as this sentimentality doesn’t apply to other art forms. I find it annoying when movies are unwilling to follow through on threats, sparing everyone and wrenching the plot to ensure that everyone walks away in the end. (If you are going to have a move called The Expendables, expend someone). I’m more than happy to see characters killed in full and glorious techicolour. So why is it so difficult for me, and many other readers, to deal with the death of literary characters?

It’s not just readers that finds the death of literary characters difficult. J.K. Rowling had sketched out the deaths in the Harry Potter series years before she started to write the scenes and cried as she wrote some of them. She made herself follow through for the sake of the continuing story, despite pleas from friends, family, her fans and other writers (John Irving and Stephen King famously begged her not to kill Harry Potter in the final book of the series).

“Otherwise what would you do? You would just write very fluffy, cozy books,” she said. “You know, suddenly I [would be] halfway through ‘Goblet of Fire’ and suddenly everyone would just have a really great life and … the plot would go AWOL.” Rowling also pointed out that King and Irving were not in a good position to ask for characters to be spared, with their own high literary body counts. “When fans accuse me of sadism, which doesn’t happen that often, I feel I’m toughening them up to go on and read John and Stephen’s books,” she said. “It’s a cruel literary world out there.”

Not all writers feel so conflicted – or so moderate – in their dispensing of death. You don’t get much crueler than George R R Martin, whose pen scythes it’s way through supporting and main characters alike. But Martin has always been a tough cookie when it comes to killing characters, as he reveals in one interview where he says that Gandalf should have stayed dead:

“I do think that if you’re bringing a character back, that a character has gone through death, that’s a transformative experience. Much as I admire Tolkien, I once again always felt like Gandalf should have stayed dead. That was such an incredible sequence in Fellowship of the Ring when he faces the Balrog on the Khazad-dûm and he falls into the gulf, and his last words are, “Fly, you fools.”

What power that had, how that grabbed me. And then he comes back as Gandalf the White, and if anything he’s sort of improved. I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead.”

And it’s not just the deaths of human characters that reader can find hard to deal with. When Stephen King had a character kick a dog to death in his novel Dead Zone he received more letters of complaint than ever before.”You want to be nice and say ‘I’m sorry you didn’t like that,’ but I’m thinking to myself number one, he was a dog not a person, and number two, the dog wasn’t even real.” I’m not the only one with a sympathetic streak for ponies, puppies and all things fluffy; readers can clearly emotionally invest in anything and everything in a book. So why would a writer choose to kill off characters, and choose to do so with seemingly reckless abandon?

John Birmingham, who’s most recent offering opens with the death of 300 million and goes from there, is unapologetic. After being told he was a “nasty author“, he agreed wholeheartedly.

“I am, I really am. I do terrible things to characters. I try my best to build them up, give them lovable quirks, amusing back stories, make it so you just want to be their friends and know you’ll miss them when the last page is read. Then I shoot them in the throat, or crash the plane into the ground at 1000kmh, or break up their marriages, or … well, I don’t want to give away any After America spoilers, but yeah.

Is that such a bad thing though? When you write books full of explodey goodness, I think you’re shortselling the reader if some of those explosions don’t kill off the odd character. Even a favourite character. One of the great joys of reading a story or watching a movie where you’ve bonded with a character who is in great peril is not being quite sure whether they’re going to survive to the end… Nobody really likes to lose a favourite, but losing them every now and then is what makes having them in the first place so precious. And that can be so of both high culture and low.

When Norman Mailer was asked about the cruelty with which he treated his characters in The Naked and the Dead he replied with a brief lesson he learned about characters from reading Tolstoy. “Compassion is of value and enriches our life only when compassion is severe, which is to say when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum of us as human beings is probably a little more good than awful. In any case, good or bad, it reminds us that life is like a gladiators’ arena for the soul and so we can feel strengthened by those who endure, and feel awe and pity for those who do not.”

Which is, I guess, a reasonable way of saying that characters should serve the story and sometimes that story includes pain and mortality.

But I’d still still prefer if we could let the fluffy ones live.



Imma let you finish – the Top 100 books of all time

Booklovers, trivia gatherers and spreadsheet aficionados, rejoice, it’s that time of year again. The Guardian has released its annual report on the Top 100 books of all time and spreadsheets of all the glorious data that went into the making of that list.

The data comes from Nielsen Bookscan who are the world’s largest book tracking service, collecting transaction data directly from tills and dispatch systems of all major book retailers and consolidating all that delicious data into a neat spreasheet for your perusal. There are some issues with it; by best “of all time” they mean since 1998 when Nielsen started recording that data. (That’s 14 years of sales or long enough to finally get Celine Dion’s wretched Heart Will Go On, which was the first number one of the new year in 1998, out of your head.)

And the list consists of books sold in the UK only, so perhaps we can lie to ourselves and say that in Australia Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer don’t make up all of the Top 10. Whatever about the issues with the records being British and only dating back 14 years, it’s still a fascinating read. Did you know that Twilight made £10 million in the UK alone? Or that Delia Smith outsold Jamie Oliver to the tune of 140,000 books, but that Dr Atkins managed to outsell both?

They also offer a breakdown of the non-fiction sold in the same time, both the hardback and paperback lists. Looking over them, I am tempted to write a cookbook. Jamie’s various offering have netted him a very pleasant £13.5 million from his hardback sales alone. That said, I would probably have to learn not just how to write about food, but how to cook it properly. Perhaps I could employ a chef to cook and I could write about it? Gordon Ramsey reportedly makes $7.5 million a year, I could hire him for a few months to transcribe his cookery and still be quids in after to the tune of over 10 million sterling, even allow for all the swearing breaks he’d need.

If you are looking for food in the non-fiction paperbacks, you’ll find it in Elizabeth Gilbert’s navel (along with the rest of Eat, Pray, Love) or on the Dukan Diet. Are these the best books of all time? Care to do a Kanye and tell the world what books they missed?

Title Author Volume Value
1 Jamie’s 30-minute Meals Oliver, Jamie 874,546 £11,297,761.32
2 Guinness World Records 2011 421,372 £4,028,921.96
3 Kitchen:Recipes from the Heart of the Home Lawson, Nigella 312,846 £4,166,929.64
4 Fry Chronicles,The:A Memoir Fry, Stephen 273,379 £2,906,898.71
5 Journey,A Blair, Tony 261,858 £3,563,737.86
6 Life and Laughing:My Story McIntyre, Michael 235,987 £2,466,064.41
7 Devil Rides Out,The O’Grady, Paul 210,796 £2,178,470.92
8 Simples Life,A:The Life and Times of Aleksandr Orlov Orlov, Aleksandr 208,536 £1,314,312.84
9 What You See Is What You Get:My Autobiography Sugar, Alan 194,379 £2,043,636.06
10 Jamie Does Oliver, Jamie 181,495 £2,294,563.97
Title Author Volume Value
1 Eat, Pray, Love:One Woman’s Search for Everything Gilbert, Elizabeth 316,083 £1,780,869.34
2 My Shit Life So Far Boyle, Frankie 172,440 £931,006.06
3 Nurse on Call:The True Story of a 1950s District Nurse Cotterill, Edith 112,636 £521,013.99
4 Driven to Distraction Clarkson, Jeremy 100,327 £563,908.31
5 Operation Mincemeat:The True Spy Story Macintyre, Ben 96,922 £552,539.38
6 How Could She? Fowley, Dana 93,686 £415,624.59
7 Eden Project:The Guide Books, Eden 89,964 £449,802.25
8 Dukan Diet,The Dukan, Pierre 79,857 £658,769.21
9 Bad Science Goldacre, Ben 77,508 £491,597.84
10 Greatest Show on Earth,The:The Evidence for Evolution Dawkins, Richard 77,301 £477,648.60

Going postal at Australia Post – D&D style

While I love the convenience of browsing through and ordering my books online I’m not always delighted that it places my books in the fickle hands of the Australian postal system.

Australia Post and I have this love-hate relationship; they love to make me hate them. Previously they had just engaged in low-level irritant stuff. Failing to leave the first notice card for items was a favourite trick of theirs, meaning I got no heads-up my item was at the post office until a stern final notice informing me my package would be shot at dawn the next day if I couldn’t rescue it before then. Occasionally no notices were given to me at all so the stuff would wing its way back to the senders (Aus Post particularly like this method for stuff that comes from overseas) and the sender would then berate me for not bothering to pick it up.

The postie’s favourite is to leave a card that says “We called today but you weren’t home” on days when I am actually home.  This excuse holds even less water than you might think; my “home-office” (this is a fancy way of saying small computer desk, chair and whatever space is free of books) is right next to the intercom. As a seasoned procrastinator who is always on the look-out for any excuse to take a break, even the lightest brush off that bell will have me skipping merrily down to the door shouting “Distraction! Huzzah!” and inviting the postie in to help me open the item and maybe look at lolcats for a few hours.

Australia Post and I had, I thought, carved out an agreement that this was the way things were. They failed to ring, I stormed in the door of their offices at 4.55pm just when they wanted to close up for the evening. They inconvenienced me, I inconvenienced them. Turnabout is fair play.

But no, they’ve elevated things. I received a very polite email this week from Boomerang informing me that my address – the same address that has not given me a squeak of trouble over the last two years – has returned my parcel to them, marked “Check address”. My apartment had apparently ceased to exist and they wanted to know where they send my items on to.

D&D 3rd ed inspired this post.

Now, my apartment exists. I’m positive of this. So was the postie until last week but something has obviously changed. I have come up with the theory that the Australia Post office rolls a dice (a D6, for those of you wondering) and then uses the following information to add a modifier to the result, deciding the fate of my packages. The modifiers are;

  • +3 – I don’t care about the item,
  • +2 – it was free with something and I wasn’t expecting/don’t want it,
  • +1 – and when I get it, I’ll need to do some work related to what’s in it.
  • -1 – It’s a gift for someone,
  • -2 – and their birthday is imminent,
  • -3 – and I missed their last birthday
  • -4 – and that person is my mother.
  • -5 – It’s the final book in a trilogy and/or a brand new release I have been frothing over for months (hello, Dance with Dragons)
  • -7 – It’s a book I wrote for.

How does this system work? Well, they roll the dice and add that modifier and see where my item actually ends up. With a possible score of nine to minus-six, here’s what will happen to my long-awaited post.

  • On a 6 to 9 my parcel is delivered super-early by the friendliest postie in Australia just after I have spent two days bitching about them, meaning I feel vaguely shame-faced for a week after for my meanness.

    4th ed, for the modern people.
  • On a 4-6 my item arrives on time and they fail to ring the bell.
  • On a 3, it arrives but ends up in the depot 2 miles away instead of the one a few hundred metres up the road.
  • On a 2, it arrives straight after I have navigated the online complaints system of the supplier and spent ten minutes filling in forms to report the non-delivery so I then have to mail and apologise to the supplier.
  • On a 1 or 0, it vanishes into the ether for a month, joining my lost socks, house keys and all the copies of my receipts come tax-time.
  • On -1, it ends up being signed for in a suburb forty miles out named nothing like where I live and they then try to blame me for this (yes, this has actually happened).

Now, I had never run into score under -1  before, probably because this is the first time I have written for publication in a book and earned a modifier of minus 7. My address, the same one that has allowed countless creditors to send me bills for the last few years, has vanished into thin air. What, do I suddenly live at number 12, Grimmauld Place? What are Boomerang to do, employ owls or house elves?

Answers on a postcard, please – no wait, my address doesn’t exist. Answers in the comments!


This post has been partly inspired by my many adventures with modifiers in D&D 3rd ed, but mainly by the fact that yelling at Australia Post isn’t going to make my book come any faster. According to them, that is. I may try anyway.

Always the reader, never the author?

If you are one of the many bibliophiles who has penned your own manuscript but despaired of ever seeing it in print, there’s no time like the present to try! Writing Australia, the new national body committed to promoting writing and literature around the country, have announced the launch of their Unpublished Manuscript Award which comes with a whopping $10,000 for you and another $2,000 allocated for you to spend on guidance from a writing mentor of your choice.

The award is intended to aid in the development of an unpublished manuscript and is the brainchild of new national literature organisation, Writing Australia. Writing Australia is a new body, formed in January 2011 from the Writers’ Centres in SA, TAS, NSW, VIC and the ACT, with the aim of taking the best programs of each of the five state writers’ centres across state borders to benefit writers throughout Australia. One of its first projects is to take a number of established writers out on the road to give workshops on a variety of elements of writing craft, and it also expects to launch a biennial national writers’ gathering and a writers’ residency network in the near future, as well as providing business advice and online workshops.

One of their first acts is to launch the Unpublished Manuscript Award, which will see the winner walk away with $10,000 plus a $2,000 mentorship. The mentors available are

  • Valerie Parv, best-selling romance and nonfiction author whose books have sold over twenty-six million copies internationally. Her recent work includes Heart & Craft, a ‘how-to’ book on romance writing.
  • Mark Macleod, Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University, and former Children’s Publishing Director at Random House Australia. He has won the CBCA Lady Cutler Award and the Australian Publishers Association Pixie O’Harris Award for distinguished services to children’s literature.
  • Peter Bishop, Creative Director of Varuna (the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains) from 1994 to 2010 where countless Australian novels, memoirs, and books of poetry or short stories were refined. Peter is an advocate for national writing and, through the LongLines program, has regularly travelled around Australia talking to writers.

The award is for an unpublished work of adult literary or genre fiction and is open to any writer in Australia. You have until Thursday 13 October 2011 to enter via the online entry form on Writing Australia’s website.

Worried your writing isn’t up to scratch yet or needs a stern lookover before you submit? Beth Lewis at “Have Pen – Will Edit” may be able to help. She has – very generously and somewhat insanely – offered to give aspiring authors an honest, affordable, and informed critique for free. Beth has worked in the publishing industry as an editor and publisher for three years and has 1st class degree in Publishing for Oxford Brookes University, and is looking to gain a higher industry profile and more specific editorial experience.  She works on both fiction and non-fiction and can turn her hand (should that be pen?) to everything from commissioning to art direction, product release and marketing. You can see more on her generous (and insane, did I mention the insane) offer here at her blog. She has not said how long she is willing to do this for but – as she is likely to be inundated by hopeful writers – so first in, best dressed!

If you had something shorter in mind, the Age Short Story Competition is accepting entries for short stories of up to 3,000 words. There are monetary awards as well as the pride of seeing your work published in Life and Style magazine and at; $3000 for the first prize winner (and at a buck a word, that’s a rate that many freelance writers will envy I can tell you) ; 2nd prize, $2000; 3rd prize, $1000. Winners will be announced in December. For submission guidelines and more details, check here. (Stories for children are not eligible for this competition.)

The closing date is on September 23 and they specify entry closes at 5pm sharp. As someone who has raced a deadline to submit articles at 11:59:59pm way too many times on exactly on the day it was due, this amuses me. The phrase “as punctual as a writer” has not yet entered common use, and with good reason. But with all these deadlines coming up, maybe it’s time to push your pen into a higher gear and go all out?

The clock is ticking – get submitting!

Pass the soap, it’s romance time

Tall, dark and handsome is out of date, according to some of  Britain’s best-known romantic writers. 58 romantic novelists were interviewed to find out what they thought made the perfect man and they believe that today’s romance reader wants someone who is loyal, honest, kind – and able to wield a bar of soap.

The Festival of Romance, a literary festival held dedicated to romantic fiction, interviewed the writers to find out what they considered to be the ideal qualities  for a a perfect romantic male lead. The writers have struck tall, dark and rich off the must-have list, with wealth and bedroom skills taking second place to being a man of good morals and good heart.

And, apparently, a bar of soap.

The perfect man, according to the survey, must be loyal (91%) and honest (89%). But that won’t do him much good if he’s not a fan of frequent showers; personal hygiene  came in in third place with 88% of respondents saying it was a must-have. Perhaps this explains the fascination with the scene where Mr Darcy jumps into the lake. Good hygiene is next to kindness (86%), a sense of humour (86%), and intelligence (85%), with being a man of principles (81%) rounding out the must-have list.

(For those of you wondering where being great in bed came in, it was considered desirable but not essential at 62%, along with good looks(60%). So hot stuff Casanovas need not apply.)

I’ve been amusing myself by imagining what would happen if you moved outside the romance genre and reverse the gender. You’ll have a hard-time finding books that bill themselves as straight-forward romance for men, but plenty of books that are seen as more “boy-ish”, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy*, lay the love plots on pretty thick. The noble quest that gets the girl is always a winner of a storyline and most epics are incomplete without a smidgen of sexual tension – think Aragorn and Arwen,  Captain Kirk and, well, everyone – even Arthur Dent and Fenchurch.

So if the men of romance have gone all squeaky clean and ultra moral, do this mean that the perfect woman (or hot alien type  if you are Captain Kirk) has been similarly scaled down? Are we swapping exotic love interests for the clone next door? Will there be less women on the cover in space suits of a bikini-ish persuasion or shall we just expect to see sci-fi going straight for the shower for some titillation? (Star Trek and that T’Pol decontamination scene, I’m looking at you.)

Or what about the ideal female romantic interest for readers of fantasy? If we’re less worried about stunning good looks, social status and monetary wealth, does this mean we can downscale from the traditional female love interest being a princess, high priestess or absurdly hot goddess? Do the ladies of fantasy still need to have great big tracts of land and a libidinous bent, or is a kind heart and good shower after a hard day orc-slaying deemed sufficient?

If you’ve got opinions, the Festival of Romance has opened the polls to ask readers what they think makes the perfect man. The poll closes at midnight on 19th September 2011 and the results will be posted up shortly after.


* Just a quick note, I’m not saying that girls don’t read sci-fi/fantasy but that I have noticed that sci-fi/fantasy are often assumed to be of interest predominately to men. I enjoy reading many fantasy and sci-fi novels as do lots of women I know. I know men who love reading romances. If you’re reading outside the traditional reading list divides, more power to you. There’s plenty of great books out there in all shapes and genres.

Spring-cleaning those shelves

Spring is here and it’s time to spring-clean my flat!

I was hoping that by placing an exclamation mark after that sentence it would makes the task seem more appealing. It doesn’t. Things I would prefer to do to cleaning include  reading all the spin-offs of Who Moved My Cheese (they have to, at least, be better than the original), beating myself over the head with my copy of Kim and Aggie’s Cleaning Bible (thanks Mum),  and whining about needing to clean my place in front of complete strangers on the internet.

I love having a tidy house, but I am not one of nature’s cleaners. Some people are and, if you find one of those people, you should befriend and then imprison or (preferably) marry them. I had a mate in college who found tidying to be a great way to relax; if you left him in a filthy room you would come back later to discover it sparkling clean with him all zenned out  in the corner. (I was more likely to find the least filthy spot and perch there with a book to distract me from the squalor. He was a far more popular guest than I was.)

One of the reasons I’m not looking forward to spring-cleaning is that my book collection which has taken over every flat surface in the house. The kitchen table, bedside locker, bedroom floor and bathroom cabinets are all adorned with various tomes. And I can’t just go around and grab them all to stow them where they should be – my bookshelves, as always, runneth over. I’ve started playing games of book tetris to get the darned things on to the shelves; if I put a row of books at the back, and another on the front, and then perhaps I can perch more on top without them falling over…

One major disadvantage of this system is that taking a book from the shelves is a task fraught with doubt (“where the hell did I put it?”), trepidation (“please don’t fall, please don’t fall”) and often physical injury as attempts to retrieve a tiny trade paperback results in multiple hardback manuals raining down around on your head.

Another is that dusting is impossible; the shelves quake and roll like an angry Thunder God when any attempt is made to disturb the status quo. Fearing a book landslide, I have taken to storing my books on the kitchen table and grousing horrendously when we have to do move the books as we are doing something completely inappropriate with table, like eating at it.

Something will have to be done.

One possible answer, as raised by me, is more bookshelves, but my long-suffering partner (who also enjoys a good read, just not in such large quantities) has pointed out that in order to do this we will need more apartment and the neighbours, thusfar, have been unwilling to donate their balcony or allow us to knock a hole through the wall and borrow some of their living room.

I have tried asking friends to come over and take a few but they unaccountably just want to borrow one or two as opposed to the enormous sack of the darn things I keep trying to give them. One friend is sulking as I gifted them with three 1,000 page books to read when they already busy most evenings and another has started roaring, “NO!” preemptively when I start mention this great book they could borrow. I tried sending a couple of books to people overseas but discovered that postage costs more to the States than the cover price.

There’s certainly plenty of place for the books I no longer want to read – Vinnie’s, the Salvation Army and a few hospitals are just down the road. They’d happily take a bag or ten off me and I would be able to see my shelves again. It just means that I have to face the horrible, horrible truth.

It’s time to spring-clean the flat.


The images are all from the blog of the wonderful Hyperbole and a Half, whose recently announced book I am hugely looking forward to getting my grubby little paws on, if only to reassure myself that there is someone out there who dreads cleaning as much as I do.

Beer Me Up – drinking my way on your bookshelf

When I was a young girl I wanted to be a writer and write books about ponies.

Well, I wanted to be my version of a writer. Which involved penning best-selling books for an hour or two a day before wandering off to enjoy my house located on a horse stud and puppy rescue centre. My house was also somehow no more than 10 mins from both a beach and the middle of some major international city – I think I had vague plans that I would be able to fly my own helicopter from my patio to the city centre when I needed to get milk. Flying ponies may also have been involved. They usually were with my fantasies.

When I was in college I wanted to be a writer and drink beer.

This version of writing  involved working on the next great American novel in my garret by day, and drinking beer with lots of artistic friends by night. Ponies were still involved – after all, I had to leave the garret and the pub to get some fresh air occasionally. I think I planned to use horses as my major form of transport all the time until someone revealed that you could, in fact, get demerits on your license for horse-riding while drunk. (He had actually managed it. The police apparently didn’t accept his defense that the horse knew exactly where it was going.)

Now I am (technically) an adult I still want to be a writer. I’ve accepted that it involves a lot less money and a lot more work than I had originally presumed, and the odds on it ever paying for a helicopter is pretty slim, but it will occasionally shout me a round in the pub. I might not be a novelist with titles on the New York Times bestseller list but I get paid to write features and articles. I have seen my work  published under my name in magazines, national newspapers and online.

But – while I know now that features suit me better and novel-writing is not my forté – I have always wanted to see my name on a book. So I’m delighted to announce that my writing has finally made it on to the bookshelves, if only as a chapter of a travel guide. If you flick to page 42 of the Ultimate Beer Guide, you’ll find my name there at the top of my guide to Sydney’s beer, breweries and best days out. It took two months and far too many hangovers to research and write and I am looking forward to seeing if the ATO will accept receipts from pubs as tax-deductible.

The Guide aims to offer beer-loving visitors the low-down wherever they find themselves, covering 33 destinations in Australia and listing 1200 beers and ciders across Australia and New Zealand.  If you’re at a loss for what to get your Dad for Father’s Day and he likes his craft beer, this might be just what you were looking for. Anyone who is as passionate about beer will find plenty of inspiration for new things to try in it, even if that just means discovering a few new breweries close to home. (When I was writing this piece, I found 5 craft breweries I never knew about within 30 minutes of my house. Sydney really has a lot of beer.)

I had a lot of fun writing this piece and I particularly enjoy  the way it combines my dreams; my childhood dreams of seeing my name on a book, and my college dreams of drinking lots of beer.

Well, some of those dreams at least. The flying ponies are pending.

An awesome guide to reviewing awesome things

Have you ever tried to describe a great book and been unable to think of a word for it other than “great”? Want to throw terms like “luminous”, “lyrical” and “magisterial” around, but not actually sure what they mean? Do you find yourself using the word “awesome” to describe everything from fantasy epics to political memoirs to cookery books?

If so, join the club.  While my last post was a peon of praise to non-fiction generally, and Moby Duck in specific, I try not to fill this blog with book reviews, even though I read countless books well deserving of an individual recommendation. This is partly as that’s not what this blog is for but mainly as I write terrible, terrible reviews.

It's, um, awesome. And really, really good. And stuff.It’s a bit embarrassing that – despite loving books and working as a writer – when I am asked to why I am recommending a book, the ensuing explanation  tends to be along the lines of, “You should read this. It’s brilliant. It’s really good, and funny and good. And stuff.”

Or “awesome”. Almost everything is awesome.  Stephen King’s On Writing is awesome. Machine Man by Max Barry is awesome as is anything by John Birmingham. Finding five dollars in a wallet I thought was empty is awesome and so is passion-fruit yoghurt. Everything is awesome.

Sometimes so many things are awesome in a short period that I have come up with a term other than awesome, which is usually “really, really good”. (I tend to wave my hands a lot too while saying this, as though physical gurning can make up for the poverty of my vocabulary.) I know I should branch out but I am intimidated by the idea of using the effusive terms I see on book jackets. Isn’t all writing, by nature, “literary”? Shouldn’t “dazzling” be limited to books with foil covers viewed in bright sunlight and doesn’t “luminous” mean it glows?

Apparently not. According to journalist and critic Janice Harayda (whose blog “One-Minute Book Reviews” normally contains – you guessed it – short book reviews) “luminous” or “lyrical” actually means “not much happens”. “Literary” is the nice way of saying “plotless”, “long -awaited” means late and “continues in the proud tradition of  Tolkien” translates as “this book has a dwarf in it”.

With the help of publishing professionals, writers, editors and other bibliophile malcontents, Janice broke down the language of reviewing in her recent post titled 40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés and Euphemisms Decoded. Some descriptions – such as “accessible” meaning not too many big words – are kind if evasive. Others – “absorbing” apparently means the book makes a good coaster – are not. “Stunning” implies that a major character dies and “definitive” suggests that the book could have really used an editor. There’s enough information and interesting terms there to have you merrily bamboozling your book club or blog for months to come.

Now I just need to find the fancy publishers’ term for “awesome” and I am all set to go.




Rubber Ducky, you’re the one

When people think of engrossing stories with fantastical and multi-layered plots they normally envisage novels but non-fiction can also sweep you far away from the shores you know. If you’ve ever wanted to get lost in a good (non-fiction) book, Moby Duck is non-fiction release that allows you to get as engrossed and lost in the tale as the author did in the researching of it.

Moby-Duck is, to use the very long subtitle on the book-jacket, the true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools, including the author, who went in search of them. In 1992, a container crate of  “Friendly Floatees” bath toys washed off a container ship travelling from Hong Kong to the US, throwing more than 28 thousand bath toys into the ocean. Liberated from the confines of their damaged crates, the little bath toys bobbed to surface, transforming their patch of ocean into the world’s biggest bathtub – perfect for the bobbing rubber ducks.

And so they bobbed their way through the oceans currents before eventually some washed up on the beaches of the USA and Canada. Andso Donovan Hohn, author of Moby Duck, decided he would track them down and tell their story and be home, metaphorically, in time for tea and for when his heavily pregnant wife gave birth.

It seems like it should be  very short book with a very long title but curiosity can make Ahabs of us all and Hohn’s quarry – the boggle-eyed yellow rubber duck escaped from the ships – is an elusive target. The story keeps changing. The Floatee toys weren’t made of rubber. Or ducks – only a quarter were the bright yellow bathtub toy so ubiquitous in our bathrooms (the rest were beavers, frogs and turtle). And yellow isn’t a normal colour for duck. And, in addition to wondering where all the bath toys ended up, Donovan finds out more about how they ended up in the container in the first place; where do all these bath toys get made, how are they shipped and what what happens when they end up somewhere other than on your bathroom shelf?

Like Captain Ahab, Donovan Hohn finds himself sailing the breadth of the seas in his search for answers; from exploring life as a hobbyist beachcomber to close quarters with passionate enviromentalists, from the decks of passenger ferries and research vessels to some of the most remote beaches in the world, from penetrating shipping conglomerates to Chinese toy factories. Moby-Duck journies accross the sea and through science and myth in its quest for answers and with every new answer, Hohn finds another question, and comes closer to understanding where his castaway quarry comes from and where it goes.

I’m a dabbler in other types of books but what brings me back repeatedly to non-fiction reading is – when done well – the sheer breadth of subjects it takes on and the passion that it devotes to it. Moby Duck is a great new offering in that tradition; a treasure hunt and an enviromental analysis, an account of one man’s obsession, his life as a new father and how the seas sailed by his rubber ducks – and the processes that brings them to our bathrooms – affects us all.

Moby-Duck The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them

Browsing the bookshelves of the rich and famous

Ever wandered into someone’s home and made a beeline for their bookshelves? I’m betting you have. Few things are as enticing to the bibliophile as unfamiliar shelves – and few things as revealing as the books that people choose to read. Does your host prefer weighty historical reads or hot romance novels? Glossy biographies or modern poetry? War and Peace or Shane Warne’s biography? Or all of these and then more?

I am informed that browsing the inside of their bathroom cabinet is the best window to average person’s psyche. (I did meet someone who converted their bathroom into a library, possibly with the urge of making the contents of their cabinet less appealing. Bookshelves adorned two of the four walls from skirting board to ceiling, making a quick trip to the loo all but impossible as you kept finding things you wanted to read while you were there.)

But skimming through closed cupboards seems both invasive and unlikely to throw up good recommendations for future reads, so I am going with flicking your eye over their book collection as the window to the soul.
I’ve had a good browse through many of my mate’s books but the homes and libraries of the rich and famous have always been out of bounds – until recently when I stumbled across a site called Beautiful Libraries. It compiles pictures of lush and lavish libraries, from open-to-all public libraries and to the collections of corporations to those kept by royalty and the church, as well as those owned by famous actors, entertainers and politicians.

I’m not normally much interested by celebrities but this is fascinating. Who knew that Karl Largerfeld had one of the world’s largest private libraries, with over 60,000 books, mostly on fashion or art, arranged on steel shelves three stories tall in his photo studio apartment in Central Paris? That Nigella Lawson’s appetite for books would be near prolific as her passion for food?

Or that Keith Richards would devote such a glorious space, a massive octagonal chamber lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, to holding his favourite reads? (I did have a good squint, but couldn’t spot his own book in there. Nor could I find a copy of the hilarious and oddly thoughtful What Would Keith Richards Do, presumably as he doesn’t need to check its pages to find out.)

It begs the question – with unlimited time and dedication to build a reading room, what would you do? Surround yourself with steel and white light like Largerfeld or build a cosy den like Christina Ricci? Would a few shelves content you or, like Keith, do you want a huge room walled with books? Fireplace or airy windowsill?

And would you consider shelving up the smallest room, or do you think it would be simpler to just put a lock on the bathroom cabinet?

Melbourne vs everywhere

There’s nothing like getting a new phone or signing up to a new social network to get you thinking about your contact list. Looking over my burgeoning Google+ profile, I realised one thing: I know too many writers. And then I decided to amend that to “I know too many writers from Melbourne”.

And it’s not just showing up in the shiny new depths of Google+. Have a look at that blog-roll at the side of this page – there’s 6 recommended blogs, of which 4 are authors living in Melbourne.

  • Jay Kristoff – Literary Giant – based in Melbourne, his debut novel, Stormdancer (a Japanese Steampunk Fantasy) will be released in 2012. His blog has plenty of helpful information for first time writers from  what to do  on your first phone call to agent (now with sad kitten photo!) to his on-going series of posts on the history of steampunk.
  • Max Barry’s blog – Max is a Melbourne writer whose playful but scientific approach to satire is exemplified by the just-released Machine Man, a book which was written through his site with a page a day being published online. It took on feedback from readers as it grew, from what they liked and didn’t to what cover the book should have,  and it’s a fascinating experiment in writing as well as a damned good book. Buy it. Buy it now.
  • John Birmingham’s Cheeseburger Gothic – John Birmingham is an Australian writer who blips from writing fiction to non-fiction (including one of my favorites, a warts and all history of Sydney called Leviathan) to political and personal rants that amuse while they inform (unless you are Andrew Bolt).  This blog aggregates all his various writing (for the Brisbane Times, the ABC, and others) to one page, which is useful as he writes a lot. He’s not based in Melbourne, but then, he always seems to delight in breaking people’s expectations.
  • Patrick O’Duffy – Author, editor and e-publisher – Patrick is an editor and a writer who lives in Melbourne. His blog has both examples of his own short fiction and tips for writers, including excellent advice on the mechanics and nuances of writing and a large amount of musing about Batman (and often, posts that combine the two).
  • Wait Here For Further Instructions – Cam Rogers – from Cooktown, QLD, but based in Melbourne (seeing a theme here?) Cam can often be found in other places as well – he’s a novelist, a travel journalist and a photographer. His blog veers between serious and heartfelt thoughts on great acts of creativity, connecting with people and writing for a living to hilarious anecdotes that will make you laugh even as you wonder how the hell he is still alive. Often in the same post.
  • Writing Bar – blog of the Sydney Writers’ Centre – not in Melbourne! But also not a writer. None the less, this is a really useful blog for inspiration and information about writing, writing news and occasionally hilarious writing stuff they find on their travel through the web.

Now, I love Melbourne but I suspect I am maligning the creativity of the rest of the country by only have two links from outside of Victoria.  So, anyone have any suggestions for great Australian blogs by authors or about reading and writing that I should absolutely be keeping an eye on?

Please let me know in the comments, either here or on Boomerang’s Facebook* page when this post makes an appearance there.


* Is talking about Google+ on something that will come up on Facebook considered bad form? Like, bringing up your new partner and how great they are when you meet your ex, or talking about your new job in front of your old boss? Actually, if there is anyone out who wants a Google+ invite, feel free to drop me a comment and let me know. Because if I am going to be rude to Facebook, I may as well do it properly.

Plotting for a plane – big bad reads

This time next month I will be winging and training it all over the USA and Canada for two weeks, and with 70 hours of that time to be spent in transit I have one huge worry – what am I going to read?

I’d like to lie and say that I will be tackling big issues and learning Sanskrit and flicking through Hawking‘s Brief History of Time, but my holiday reading is usually selected for two things; is it long enough to get me through a twelve hour flights, and is it distracting enough to stop me worrying obsessively that every tiny change in engine pitch means the plane is about to drop out of the sky during that twelve hours?

Length is obviously needed when you are going to be spending twelve hours straight in a small and uncomfortable seat, so I used to select all my holiday reading by checking out if the book was long enough, and the text densely printed enough, to mean at least ten hours of reading. My old rule of thumb was that if it was under 500 pages I wasn’t interested, and over 800 was the ideal.

The problem is that longer doesn’t always mean better and certainly doesn’t mean engrossing. I used to always go for epics as holiday reading, regardless of how interesting they sounded, and it was the Lord of The Rings that finally cured me of it. I can appreciate the immensity and originality of Tolkien’s work, but I just don’t enjoy his writing style and before the plane was even in the air I was bored. I slogged through what felt like five hundred pages of Bilbo Baggins’s party and by the time the first of the Ringwraiths showed up to kill the hobbits, I was actively cheering them on. I failed to finish the book on that holiday, opting instead to read the inflight magazine and watch Terminator 2. Three times.

Terminator 2 is probably closer to my reading level on a plane than the non-fiction that I normally like to get my teeth into. I’m usually crampled and fretful, and in need of a book that will entertain and engross me rather than educate me. Stephen King is one of my favoured in-flight authors, as is George R. R. Martin, but King clearly wins on the grounds that he releases books more often that once every seven years or so. Sadly, I’m up to date on Stephen’s work and facing seventy hours with no ideas of what to read and the worrying feeling that I may end up watching Terminator 2 yet again.

What’s your preferred read when you’re up in the air or on a long journey? Do you settle in for a long-haul of brain-stimulation or are you all about the brain-candy? And can you recommend anything that will keep me off terrible action flicks?


(And yes, I know, one obvious answer to my issues is an e-book reader but the one I have my eye on has been unavailable in Australia for the last few months. I may pick one up in the USA, if I can find it, but that’s too late to prevent me gnawing my own arm from boredom on the way there. And then how will I be able to carry it?)

Read to me – learning to love audiobooks

Being read was one of my favourite things when I was young but once I was old enough to read for myself (and conceal a torch under my duvet for late night reading binges) it became a past pleasure. Until recently, when a repeated spate of headaches highlighted that I need to give my poor over-reading eyes a rest occasionally. My problem was that I couldn’t think of a leisure activity to do around the house in the evenings that didn’t involve using them.

My eyes may get a break when I sleep but they spend most of my waking hours deciphering text or pictures. Between work and writing I probably spend 10 hours of my day staring at my computer screen and, as two of my favourite leisure activities are when not writing are reading and watching comedy, I probably often rack up closer to half my waking hours with my eyes on a screen of one type or another. I’m aware that knitting or similar is an option some people choose, but these are probably not people who naturally stab themselves with needles. I considered demanding my partner amuse me for 4 hours every evening, but realised he would probably end up stabbing me with the discarded knitting needles.

The doctor recommended less time straining my eyes but I was straining of something that I could do that didn’t involve them one way or another – until I rediscovered being read to in the form of audiobooks. It’s all the joy of a book without needing to stress your vision.

I’m not the only person who occasionally like my books read out, as I then remembered from when I worked for a company that wanted all senior managers to read a certain business book. I was in charge of the office library, and found that I had a far better better odd on persuading time-starved executives to take an audio-book on CD and listen to it on their commute than giving them a hard or soft copy. The  paper copies lingered on the shelves and in peoples’ briefcases, while the audio books were checked out, listened to, and returned in just a few days.

But, despite the obvious popularity of the audiobook in the office, I never got around to trying them out myself. I might have missed out on audiobooks up until recently but plenty of other people had it already figured out although you wouldn’t know it from the press about books. Plenty of articles have been written about the e-book share of books published but audiobooks generate a lot less noise, if you can forgive the terrible pun. 2009 figures in the US showed that e-books held around 3% of the market but audio books were pulling in 10% to 15%. That’s a lot of listening readers.

Many publishers view creating an audiobook as a natural accompaniment to a book release, just like making a e-book available. You can sample some sci-fi with the Sarah Jane Adventures (a Doctor Who spin-off series) read to you by Elisabeth Sladen herself or hear some of the best non-fiction out there, with Malcolm Gladwell reading one of his many books. Stephen Fry will read to you about his own life or Harry Potter‘s, depending on your mood. Whatever mood you are in, you find an audiobook to suit and soothe your ears while giving your eyes some time out.

But most of all, you can do other things while listening to a book. With both my hands and my eyes free, I can use the time to clean or exercise or just go for a walk. Which means I can obey my doctor’s orders and rest my eyes without giving up on my favourite hobby, or ending up being stabbed by a knitting needle.

The best non-fiction of all time?

When lists are compiled of the “Best Books of All Time”, two things tend to happen. The first will be that, despite stating “of all time”, most of the books will be recent releases (for example when the Sydney Morning Herald published a list of the top 100 books of all time, and the Harry Potter and Twilight series took the top two spots). The second is that non-fiction rarely gets a look-in. When people say “book”, they usually mean “novel”.

So I was excited to see that the Guardian were putting together a list of the greatest non-fiction books ever written. Whatever about the paper’s politics, when it comes to books and culture, the Guardian is known for the thought and enthusiasm it brings to reviewing trends and books for their readers. And, even better, they clarified these books should not just be informative but really enjoyable reads, books that win over both hearts and minds. “The list we’ve come up with rewards readability alongside originality, heaps praise on perfect prose and rounds it all off with a dash of cultural significance.” A pretty lofty goal.

But after browsing the list I, like some of the readers, feel they have taken things to the other extreme. Far from being focused on the present, this list is firmly grounded in the distant past. Of their 6 biographies, 3 were written before the twentieth century and none were penned after 1933. Out of twelve recommended philosophy texts only one – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – was released in the twentieth century and that was published in 1962. Their only book on mind is by Sigmund Freud in 1889, and even their science section has nothing after 1988.

The Guardian blog contains a lively discussion, with plenty of people pleading my point that modern scientific books are horribly under-represented. But at least scientific books got a mention, as aficionados of sport, cookery and gardening point out – none of their areas (which make up a good half of the Boomerang Top 25 non-fiction books sold in 2010) even get a look in. Still, one hundred books may sound like a lot but when you try and include everything written under the broad banner of non-fiction you are going to end up with a lot of gaps, as the Guardian admits.

It’s clearly a mug’s game to make any kind of claim for definitiveness but, whatever you make of our list and its (doubtless many) omissions and imperfections, there’s no question that it features a whole heap of truly great books… As you’ve doubtless gathered, this is a very left-leaning, liberal, limey kind of list. But this is the Guardian: what else would you expect?

They have a point. The Guardian is a paper with a rich and long history. It was founded in 1821 so perhaps it’s only natural that they are comfortable looking back several hundred years to find most of their best non-fiction reads (and looking only in the English language as well). But I’d like to see what a reader with a more modern eye considers indispensable to a well-rounded and enjoyable non-fiction Top 100.

I’ll start the ball rolling with a few choice picks of my own:

  • Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel – This book on why history unfolded so differently on different continents ensures you will never look at any society quite the same way again, and Diamond’s prose is as polished as his name suggests.
  • Malcolm Gladwell – Blink – All of Gladwell’s books are well-worth reading as he renders the most scientific and abstract of concepts understandable and fascinating but Blink, a book of “thinking about thinking” is a stand out read in a stellar group.
  • Bill Bryson – At Home / Mother Tongue / A Short History of Nearly Everything – I’m struggling with Bryson, not because I can’t think of any books sufficiently good but because I can’t choose between several of his titles. Is the acerbic focus of Mother Tongue more worthy than the wide-ranging Short History, and is his recent release At Home really that wonderful or is its novelty blinding me to some older, better texts?

What do you think? Should we include some Bryson, some Sedaris or even some Jeremy Clarkson? Or did the Guardian nail your favourite non-fiction reads?

From book to screen – fandom, fanaticism and Game of Thrones

Season one of George R. R. Martin‘s excellent Game of Thrones has just finished and, like most of the fans of the books, I am thrilled with how it was interpreted.

In fact, like many fans of the books, I have been insufferably excited by the whole thing. I keep getting into long hyperbolic conversations with other people who have read the series to debate every twist and turn and boring the bottom off my poor partner, who has never read the series. My enjoyment of the HBO’s adaptation inspired me to reread the entire series of the books (and pre-order my copy of Dance With Dragons, which is out next week) and I can’t wait to see their take on book/season two.  Like Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings the screen version of Game of Thrones has been lauded for its casting and vision, managing not to alienate the loyal readers of the series in its portrayal of Martin’s epic tale.

But unlike the Lord of the Rings adaptation, it’s making some big tweaks to the story. Coming from a recent rereading I can clearly see changes to both some of the characters and the narrative, that I assume HBO have done deliberately to take us to places that the books didn’t. (I won’t spoiler them here, but feel free to ask me about these in the comments or advance your own theories on the changes of direction.)

Any avid reader of the series can see that HBO are not doing a completely faithful adaptation, but very few texts that are transitioned to screen make it there unchanged. Most books need to be altered extensively and most authors – and readers – have to accept that. True Blood author Charlaine Harris was philosophical about the changes that would need to be made when her Southern Vampire series was adapted for the small screen. “I had to hand all control over to Alan Ball. But having said that, I was pretty careful about who I handed it over to. So I really can’t complain about what he’s done and in fact I’m very happy.”

That adaptation – True Blood – made some sweeping changes, with numerous minor characters being fleshed out into starring roles and a complete departure from the books’ versions of events.  This can confuse the hordes of new readers who decide to buy the books, based on what they have seen on TV, Charlaine finds. “It’s delightful from a sales point of view, but they do tend to bring a different expectation. They do have the tendency to see the characters as the actors on television, which was not the original intent. Every now and then there’s the tendency to get the action in the books confused with the series, which is quite different.”

When done well the changes that seasoned script-writers and directors make to books make for excellent viewing. Not all authors react with such equanimity when confronted with change to their works, even when those changes are quite minor. Anne Rice was so loudly dissatisfied with some of the casting for the adaption of her novel, Interview with a Vampire that she took out an advertisement to complain, stating that Cruise “is no more my Vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler.”

After viewing the film, however, she became a convert to the changes that had been made, praising both inserted scenes and Tom’s performance with an enthusiasm that puts even the most avid Game of Thrones fans to shame. “I’m no good at modesty. I like to believe Tom’s Lestat will be remembered the way Olivier’s Hamlet is remembered. Others may play the role some day but no one will ever forget Tom’s version of it.”

Poetry in slow motion

If you pause

at the right time

almost anything

can become profound.

Just ask Sarah.

Normally the words “Sarah Palin” and “book” combined in a sentence is all I need to run screaming from the conversation but a recent e-book release managed to not only intrigue but entertain the hell out of me. I Hope Like Heck: The Selected Poems of Sarah Palin, is what’s called “found poetry” – assembled from the emails of the former Alaskan governor which were released in June.

While many readers of her emails sifted for secrets and (yet more) way to discredit Sarah Palin, one man looked through her emails and saw poetry. Michael Solomon created 50 poems from Palin’s missives by taking whole passages of her idiosyncratic text and reframing them into poems by making changes in spacing and pausing.

The hit ratio wasn’t great, it must be said – more than 24,000 pages of Sarah Palin’s emails were released and only 50 poems were found. And, it must be admitted that Soloman was less interested in leaving a poetic legacy than having some fun, as he makes clear in the forward when he writes, “Verse, like America, yearns to be free. Few twenty-first century poets understand this better than Sarah Palin. Not since Walt Whitman first heard America singing has a writer captured the hopes and dreams of her people so effortlessly—and with so many gerunds.”

The terrifying thing is that Palin’s choppy text becomes poetry all too easily. Here’s one offering – “Where There’s Smoke”.

Nope, I refuse to link to her. Have some Micheal Palin instead.

One of Lyda’s aides stopped me in the hall
To say the building was getting a kick
Out of my ‘burnt toast’ episode this morning
That caused the fire alarms to go off
For 20 minutes
And caused an evacuation.
She thought it was funny
I was cooking breakfast in the capitol
And burnt it.
I assured her
I was not in the building this morning,
I was not cooking breakfast here at any time,
And I did not burn any toast.
She looked at me warily,
I doubt she believed me.

The most amusing thing is that the found poetry method taps into our brain’s expectations of free verse and works it’s evil magic on almost any text, changing the most prosaic thoughts into what reads like a poem. If you put in enough pauses it works on almost anything. Try it.  Here’s Jamie Oliver, talking about onion soup.

There’s something so incredibly humble

about onion soup.

I only ever get to make it in the restaurant

or for myself

as the missus thinks she’s allergic to onions.

(She’s not

because I whiz them up into loads of dishes

without her knowing.)

Or, from the opening paragraph of Twilight:

I was wearing my favorite shirt –
eyelet lace.
I was wearing it as a farewell gesture.
My carry-on item
was a parka.

Or Joyce Kilmer’s “Tree”.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

No, wait, that’s meant to be a real one. But the point stands. Look hard enough and you can find poetry and profound thought anywhere.

Even in a politician’s emails.


There’s something so incredibly humble

about onion soup.

I only ever get to make it in the restaurant

or for myself

as the missus thinks she’s allergic to onions.

(She’s not

because I whiz them up into loads of dishes without her knowing.)

Reading like you write

Do you write like your favourite authors?

Over on Cam Roger’s* website, there’s a comment thread getting going on social groups and networking amongst your friends and someone raised an interesting idea; that we are the sum of a few people that we spend the most time with.

This is an idea popularised by motivational speaker Jim Rohn who argues that if you think about the five people you spend the most time with, you are probably the sum (or more accurately, the average) of those people.  Basically, you are who you know. It’s not a ground-breaking idea – we’ve all heard about the dangers of “getting in with a bad crowd” and seen many books for aspiring writers/artists/rich people that recommend surrounding yourself with successful writers/artists/rich people.

(Although, speaking as the struggling writer type myself, perhaps I should surround myself with rich people instead of writers? After all, my writer friends can come up with their own prose, but perhaps someone rich might be able to spare a few pennies for my writing. I reckon it might be beneficial for artists generally to meet less other starving artists over a bottle of homebrew and go out with more people who can shout them a bowl of soup.)

But it got me thinking – if we gravitate towards the people we want to be like, does this mean that we read the people that we most want to write like? It’s an interesting idea, that our favourite books are not so much guests on our bookshelves but a style guide to our thinking.

What about people with very varied tastes? What if you have some Jane Austen next to your copy of Mama Mia, like many women I know? I have friends who are equally at ease with easy-reading humor such as Freakonomics or wading through the thick prose of Tolkien. I enjoy the acerbic abstract brevity of Chuck Palahnuik every bit as much as the frothy levity of Bill Bryson, and I like to temper my taste in biographies with occasional forays into the fantasy worlds of Robin Hobb and George R. R. Martin.

And believe me, if I could write as well any one of them I would be a very happy – and also pretty rich. What do you think? Would you like to write like your favourite five authors? And would mixing their styles even be possible?


* For those of you thinking that name looks familiar, yes this is the same Cameron Rogers who I interviewed on this blog last year. He’s an Australian author and his blog, Wait Here for Further Instructions, is both a useful site full of information on writing and traveling and a repository of some of the strangest and funniest true stories I have ever heard. Don’t believe me? Read this one on coffin-bashing undertakers, the richest man who ever lived in a shed and the Cooktown cyclone.

Romantic readings for bibliophile brides and grooms

I have never been much of a romantic reader or writer. When my teacher made my class do up our first Valentine’s Day cards, at the age of 8 or so, my offering was “Roses are red, violets are blue, these flowers are dead so I’ll give them to you”.

If you are looking for a love story suggestion, I’m the wrong person to ask. I prefer Macbeth to Romeo and Juliet, and Terminator 2 to Titanic. My complete obliviousness to thoughtful romantic writing had never been a handicap or even something I had thought about up until recently, when friends asked if I had any recommendations for prose that would be suitable for readings at a wedding.

I blanked. Completely. Now, these friends has lots of other friends; smarter, better, more literary friends who don’t neglect the novel in favour of a steady diet of non-fiction, humour and re-reading Game of Thrones. Proper friends, who actually read books nominated for the Miles Franklin award instead of filing them under “after I chortle through Bryson’s “At Home*””. I have no fear that they will be unable to get far better recommendations and I won’t ending trying to scrawl out a short poem for them.

(“Roses are red, violets are blue, you’re getting wed, let’s all go woo hoo” was about as good as I could manage, sadly.)

Literature at weddings as part of the ceremony is something that I’m coming across quite often. Now that it has become less common for wedding readings to be directly from religious text, I’ve heard plenty of variety. Some couples are inspired by Plato, others by Pratchett.  I’ve heard readings from the pages of the Bible and from the pages of the Princess Bride.

Two of my friends took their wedding’s readings from a host of sources, including  poetry by e.e. cummings and  T. S. Eliot (that’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and not an offering from the poems that inspired the musical Cats), an excerpt from Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I had to suppress a smile when the Eco was read out – one of them had loaned me the book a while back and I will never forget the disappointment on their face when I handed it back afterwards saying I found it a bit dull. It was lovely to see a wedding that was a meeting of hearts, minds and bookshelves.

It’s not just readings where the books come in handy – one couple I know gave out copies of The Little Prince in the wedding goodie bags. All this love and all these lovely words on love – and I can’t think of a single decent quotation to throw out there. Can anyone help me out with some romantic words, books and stories that you’d recommend for a reading?

Or am I going to be stuck writing doggerel again?


*At Home was brilliant. I regret nothing.

Not for holiday reading Pt 2 – Deadly Waters and tourist ferries

Some books you shouldn’t read while traveling. Avoid Alive if you plan to fly a lot (especially if, like me, you are packing a few extra pounds on your derriere) or The Beach if you are planning on hiking in Asia. And if you are planning on spending a lot of time on slow moving ferries, I would recommend leaving reading Deadly Waters by Jay Bahadur until you get safely back on land.

I got my hands on an advance copy of Deadly Waters, which explores the modern reality of piracy in Somalia. If, like me, your brain instantly goes to Captain Jack Sparrow amusingly asking where all the rum has gone when someone mentions pirates, you’ll find the reality very different. As of 11 December 2010, Somali pirates are holding at least 35 ships with more than 650 hostages. Pirate income was estimated to be about $238 million in 2010 and the indirect costs of piracy are much higher ($7 to 12 billion) as they also include insurance, naval support, legal proceedings, re-routing of slower ships, and individual protective steps taken by ship-owners.

International organizations, including the International Maritime Organization and the World Food Programme, have expressed concern over recent rises in piracy, which increases shipping costs and often impedes the delivery of food aid shipments. While the pirates usually go for large cargo shipping vessels, being a tourist is no guarantee of protection – in February of this year four Americans were killed aboard their yacht by their captors and a Danish family was captured by pirates. It’s very easy to see why pirates are feared and to see everyone not on your vessel as unequivocally the bad guys.

But in their home country, pirates are seen by some as heroes, protesting the illegal fishing that has decimated Somalia’s coastline for local fishermen and the alleged dumping of toxic waste in their waters. Some pirates refer to themselves as badaadinta badah, or “saviours of the sea”, or in the English “coastguard”. Others see piracy as a career choice – a chance to make good money and enjoy the best that life can offer – and are willing to dice with death and imprisonment in the hope of a big break. Still others see piracy as a viable investment offering high returns if it succeeds and caring nothing that the pirates, young men desperate to earn cash, often run out of food and fuel and die in their small skiffs in the Indian Ocean.

This complexity is the more confusing as there is little indepth coverage of piracy – just sensationalistic coverage when an attempt to hijack a vessel goes right – or very, very wrong. Bahadur travels to Puntland in northeastern Somalia to interview and hopefully gain the trust of the pirates, to find out about their  lives; how they spend their money, how they do business and why they are willing – and indeed eager – to risk their lives in often suicidal missions. It’s a fascinating and occasionally uncomfortable look at the reality of an industry and some areas so destitute that killing and dying at sea are acceptable career risks.

Bahadur breaks down the odds of getting attacked by pirates (about 1 in 550 in the Gulf of Aden), as well as what makes you makes you a good target (slow moving vessels with low decks  are particularly easy to commandeer), as well as talking through defense strategies both for the vessels and the governments and maritime agencies involved.  It’s interesting reading and something I would highly recommend – to anyone who isn’t  planning on spending time sitting on a ferry. As it was, I burnt through far too much of my vacation time glaring suspiciously at the local kids who were fishing from their tinnies.


And as a side note, if you have a yearning for free and review copies like this copy of Deadly Waters by Jay Bahadur, have you considered signing up to the Boomerang Critics’ Club? It’s free and easy – you have nothing to lose but hours curled up in a comfy chair with a free new book.