8 books set in cemeteries

There’s something eerie yet somewhat peaceful about cemeteries, and the untold tales of those resting there for eternity. And if you’re a taphophile – someone who takes an interest in cemeteries, funerals, tombstones, or memory of past lives – you’ll agree with me. I’ve always enjoyed books set in cemeteries so I’ve compiled a list for like-minded readers.


8 Books Set in Cemeteries


  1. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is a fantasy novel for children about a young boy who escapes the night his family is murdered in their home. He wanders up the street and eventually into a graveyard. The ghosts in the graveyard discuss his predicament and agree to raise the young boy as their own. That’s how the life of Nobody Owens (Bod for short) begins. The Graveyard Book has won a tonne of awards, including the Newbery Medal and Carnegie Medal.
  2. Pet Sematary by Stephen King is a horror novel known to many readers. A horror story that only Stephen King could write, it’s about a young family and an ancient Indian burial ground. It’s also been made into a film. No more needs to be said.
  3. Pure by Andrew Miller is an historical fiction novel set amidst Les Innocents, the oldest cemetery in Paris. In 1875, the cemetery has been closed to burials for 5 years because it’s overflowing with 2 million corpses and emitting a foul stench.
    Jean-Baptiste Baratte is employed by the Minister to demolish the cemetery and relocate the human remains outside the city of Paris. We witness his struggle with the dark task of disturbing the final resting place of thousands of Parisian occupants. The descriptions of the cemetery and surrounds (including church, charnel houses and graveyards) were deeply evocative of this grisly yet soulful place.
  4. Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier is an historical fiction novel set in Edwardian London between January 1901 to May 1910 with many of the scenes taking place in Highgate cemetery. Told from the perspective of different characters, the novel covers the journey of two girls from different families.
    The chapters are narrated in the first person by several of the main characters (including my favourite character, the gravedigger’s son). It includes themes of mourning, mourning etiquette, class and the suffragette movement.


    While I enjoyed reading the above, I have plenty more in this genre to look forward to, including:

  5. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, is set in and around Highgate Cemetery and is a novel / ghost story about twin sisters, love and identity, secrets and sisterhood.
  6. Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold has been on my TBR pile forever. It’s a non fiction look at London’s dead through the lens of archaeology, architecture and anecdotes. London is filled with the remains of previous eras – pagan, Roman, medieval and Victorian and I look forward to learning more as soon as I can get to it.
  7. The Restorer by Amanda Stevens is a paranormal novel about Amelia Gray – a cemetery restorer who sees ghosts – and is the first of six in the Graveyard Queen series.
  8. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is a new release historical fiction novel about Abraham Lincoln and his grief at the death of his son. It is said that Lincoln was so grief-stricken over the loss of his beloved son, he visited the family crypt several times to hold his body. Lincoln in the Bardo takes place in a single night.

    I hope you’ve enjoyed this collection of books set in cemeteries. What have you read or hope to read in the future?

Glorious Gift Books

annualExceptional children’s gift books for Christmas this year include Annual, edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Gecko Press). It’s a treasure book in the vein of an old-style yearly annual, here packaged in the highest quality hardback form as a sumptuous possible Christmas present and absorbing holiday read.

The editors have excelled in their commissioned works, which range from short stories to non-fiction, poems, comics, art pieces, a song with sheet music included (Always on Your Phone) and activities such as a board game called Naked Grandmother and This is not a bottle – instructions on how to make a minaret, a spaceship or a hound with a bottle.

Contributors include Bernard Beckett, Barbara Else and Steve Braunias who has written a satire about various celebrities turning up to work at your house. Lorde and Taylor Swift turn up to wash the dishes but not much work actually takes place.

classicClassic Nursery Rhymes (Bloomsbury) is for younger children and showcases exquisite artwork by Dorothy M. Wheeler, who illustrated Enid Blyton’s books. Each nursery rhyme is generously illustrated with a full-page colour picture inside an elaborately sketched black and white border, which spills over to surround the printed rhyme on the opposite page.

There are too many favourite rhymes to name but they include Hickory, Dickory Dock and Jack and Jill as well as lesser-known gems such as A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go and Cock-A-Doodle-Doo. Little Jack Horner is ideal to read for Christmas.

The sheet music is provided for a number of the rhymes such as Polly Put the Kettle On and Baa, Baa! Black Sheep.

Studies show that children who know nursery rhymes have a higher success rate in early literacy. Mem Fox has also been sharing this belief: ‘If a borrowed story book or nursery-rhyme book becomes favourite, do your utmost to purchase it for your child. Children who have lived in book-filled homes prior to going to school are known to be scholastically advantaged for the rest of their lives. And children who have memorised eight nursery rhymes by the age of three, so I have been told, are always the best readers by the age of eight.’ (quote from Mem Fox’s website)

oddThere is a foreword in Classic Nursery Rhymes by Chris Riddell, who has also been busy illustrating a reissue of Neil Gaiman’s interpretation of a Norse myth, Odd and the Frost Giants (Bloomsbury). This is a very classy publication, extravagantly produced with illustrations throughout, touches of silver ink and cut-away icicles on the front cover. It is sophisticated, creative writing for older primary or gifted younger readers.

It is always worth exposing young readers to folktales, whether in original or reinterpreted form. Here a Viking boy with the unusual name of Odd suffers a terrible injury to his foot and encounters beasts in the woods that are actually Norse gods. As well as the often-argumentative male gods we also meet that most lovely and capable goddess, Freya.

YA, NA and MG Fiction Defined With Recommendations

Most readers will be familiar with the genre of books referred to as YA, but what about NA and MG?

Young Adult (YA)Eleanor & Park
YA fiction generally contains novels written for readers aged in their teens, or more specifically between the ages of 13 and 20. The stories feature teenage protagonists and often explore themes of identity and coming-of-age. Having said that, YA novels can be from any genre, science fiction, contemporary, fantasy, romance, paranormal etc. Some popular YA novels include the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games series, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Middle Grade (MG)
MG novels are generally written for readers aged between 8-12 years, with main characters less than 13 years of age. Themes can include: school, parents, relationship with siblings and friends, being good or misbehaving. Just like every genre, some MG books can have an underlying message (e.g. be kind to animals).

Some examples of popular MG novels include: Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

New Adult (NA)A Court of Thorns and Roses
NA fiction is a relatively new genre in publishing, and in my opinion grew from the popularity of adult audiences reading and enjoying YA novels (Twilight and The Fault in Our Stars). The genre is situated between YA and adult fiction and protagonists are generally between 18-30 years of age. Themes include leaving home, starting university, choosing a career, sex and sexuality.

Some popular NA novels include: Slammed by Colleen Hoover (called CoHo by her fans), The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternA Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas and The Elephant Tree by R.D. Ronald.

On my TBR ListInheritance
I have a number of books on my to-be-read pile from the genres mentioned above, including: Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, Matilda by Roald Dahl, Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition by Jacob Grimm, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes and 100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson. What’s on your list?

Whether you enjoy MG, YA or NA fiction, the most important thing is that you don’t allow yourself to become pigeon-holed. Enjoy your reading, keep an open mind and explore new authors. You never know where your next favourite book might come from.

Neil Gaiman Live

CoralineIt was exciting to see Neil Gaiman live at the City Recital Hall in Sydney on the weekend. It was a satellite event of the Sydney Writers’ Festival (surely one of the world’s best writers’ festivals). As Jemma Birrell, Artistic Director, mentioned in her introduction, Neil has over 2 million twitter followers so no wonder it was packed, with standing-only tickets sold as well.

Neil obviously enjoys reading from his works and speaking to his Sydney fans. He also sang with FourPlay, an Australian electric string quartet. They started with the Dr Who theme music; appropriate because Neil wrote two episodes of this cult series. He read from Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, an anthology that will be published 3rd February.

Neil reminisced about a presentation in the past where he could choose whoever else he wanted with him on the panel. His wish-list included his wife, Amanda Palmer – extraordinary singer-performer formerly from The Dresden Dolls (who he couldn’t stop mentioning during the evening) – and Ben Folds (one of my favourite singer/songwriter/pianists – and who Kate Miller-Heidke – composer of John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s  The Rabbits opera) has toured with. The panel planned to get together beforehand over a meal but Ben Folds suggested writing 8 songs in 8 hours instead. Neil explained, ‘If you don’t know Ben Folds, that’s all you need to know’. They ended up writing 6 songs in 14 hours and Neil sang us his song about Joan of Arc.Ocean at end of Lane

Neil is well known for Sandman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Graveyard Bookwhich he revealed was based on his experience of living in a tall building with his young son who he would take to the nearby graveyard to play. His son would ride around the graves looking completely at home.

Wolves in the WallsI’ve been a fan of Neil’s graphic novels for YA and children for quite awhile. I’m always talking about Wolves in the Walls, illustrated by Neil’s extraordinary collaborator, Dave McKean. This is a fascinating picture book about Lucy, who hears wolves in the wall but her parents don’t believe her. The frames around the panels hint at what’s hiding. Some of Neil’s other books illustrated by Dave McKean are dark, intricate, imaginative works of art: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, Signal to Noise and Mirrormask. I treasure my copies.

Many people will know about Coraline, the girl who finds new, sinister parents in another part of her house. Coraline has appeared as a graphic novel, illustrated by P. Craig Russell, a novel, and a movie.

Neil wrote Odd and the Frost Giants and Fortunately, the Milk, illustrated by Chris Riddell for children, and his picture books for young children are Chu’s Day and Chu’s First Day at School, illustrated by Adam Rex. Fortunately the Milk

I haven’t yet seen the recent Hansel & Gretel and The Sleeper and the Spindle, illustrated by Chris Riddell. Hopefully they’re up to standard.

One of my all-time favourite movies is Stardust, based on Neil’s graphic novel. He has many other works published as well.

Thanks to the Sydney Writers’ Festival for this amazing event.Stardust

 

The Neil Gaiman Dilemma

The MilkI’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s stuff since I discovered The Sandman back in the 1990s, while I was working in a comic book store. Although I haven’t read everything he’s written, I’ve read a lot of it. I was ridiculously excited when it was first announced that he was going to write an episode of Doctor Who and I quickly jumped online to buy tickets when he was speaking at the Athenaeum Theatre back in 2011. I think it’s fair to say that I’m a bit of a Neil Gaiman fan. So how do I deal with the fact that I didn’t care for Fortunately, The Milk…?

I wanted to like it. I wanted to like it, so much — as I always want to like what Gaiman writes. But it just didn’t work for me — at least not on the level of The Graveyard Book (see: “Gaiman’s Graveyard Book”) or Chu’s Days (see: “Neil Gaiman’s sneezy picture book”), both of which I adored. Fortunately, The Milk… was kinda cute. But I also found it predictable in its somewhat forced unpredictableness (if that makes any sense).

But my opinions of Fortunately, The Milk… are irrelevant. After all, I’m sure Gaiman doesn’t care. And it’s not as if my opinion will have any bearing on whether other people purchase it and like it. What’s important here is how my opinion of Fortunately, The Milk… affects ME! 😉 Does it nullify my Neil Gaiman fan status? Should I now avoid future Gaiman books on the off chance I don’t care for them?

After the initial shock of my reaction to Fortunately, The Milk…, I did eventually calm down and try to look at things with reason. After thinking about it a little, I realised that this has happened before.

I LOVED the episode that Gaiman wrote for Series 6 of Doctor Who, “The Doctor’s Wife” (See: “Gaiman and the Doctor“). I loved it so much that I immediately started hoping he would write another. And he did. For Series 7 he wrote “Nightmare in Silver”. I was so excited. I expected  to love it. Instead, I was massively underwhelmed. For a while there I thought that Gaiman maybe only had one good Doctor Who story in him. But then I read 11 Doctors, 11 Stories, the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary story collection. In it was Gaiman’s “Nothing O’Clock”… and it was brilliant!

Ocean at the end of the laneSo, having reminded myself of this incident, I decided not to give up on Neil Gaiman as a writer — and, more importantly, on myself as a Gaiman fan. I picked up my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which had been sitting on my must-read-soon pile for way too long, and I read it. And I loved it!

[insert sigh of relief]

The story was small and personal, dealing with one man’s memories of a forgotten childhood incident, and yet it was also on a grand scale —mythic and epic. The characterisation was believable, the setting tangible and the memories vivid. I felt like I was there. I was immersed in this literary ocean. I am so pleased that I read it.

So, folks, what did I learn from all of this? If one of my favourite authors occasionally produces something that I don’t particularly like, it doesn’t mean that all this other writing is suddenly negated. Ergo… I should never dismiss any author just because I didn’t care for one piece of his/her writing. What if Fortunately, The Milk… had been my first experience of Gaiman’s writing? What if I had never picked up another Gaiman book? How much poorer would my literary landscape have been.

Catch ya later,  George

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If you are a Neil Gaiman fan, give this one a go

9781409128052Review – Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

I loved Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale, a cross between Kate Morton and The Shadow in the Wind. I had no idea what to expect from her next book but a ghost story was not on my list of possibilities. Not that his is a ‘ghost’ story. Yes there is a tad of the supernatural but more in the subtle, mythological way Neil Gaiman does so well.

As a boy William Bellman kills a rook with a stone. Years later William has built a successful life. Business is good but tragedy snatches away his family. Bellman makes a strange pact with a mysterious man in black and all seems to be right again but some things can never be forgotten or forgiven.

Setterfield intersperses the text with myths, legends and facts about rooks; black birds often mistaken as ravens or crows which only adds to the mystery. Bellman isn’t haunted or stalked by the mysterious Mr Black. In fact it is the opposite. Bellman’s problem is he doesn’t remember. As each tragedy in his life gets more personal he throws himself more into his work. Distracting himself. Making himself forget. Until he almost forgets about life at all. The only thing that can help him remember is Death itself. But death is not only the cause of Bellman’s tragic moments in life it is also part of his business success and his wealth is built upon it.

Diane Setterfield reaffirms her immense gift as a classic storyteller and while I think labelling this a ghost story is a bit misleading  it might also lead a few more people to discover how good this author is. If you are a Neil Gaiman fan, give this one a go.

Buy the book here…

Neil Gaiman’s sneezy picture book

My youngest daughter just got given a copy of Neil Gaiman’s new picture book, Chu’s Day, for her birthday. I loved it so much, that I had to write about it immediately.

Chu's Day

Neil Gaiman is no stranger to books in which text and graphics combine to tell a story. After all, he made his name writing comics and graphic novels such a Sandman and Books of Magic. And he’s gone on to write illustrated children’s books such as The Dangerous Alphabet (illustrated by Gris Grimly) and the wonderful The Wolves in the Walls (illustrated by Dave McKean). But I think this must be his first book for much younger kids (please shout me down and correct me in the comments section, if I’m wrong about this).

Chu’s Day is a story about a little panda with a big sneeze. And it is a charming book. It is cute; it is clever; it is simple; and is utterly delightful.

Gaimen’s text is superb with its play on words and sounds. Chu’s Day sounds like Tuesday, but also alludes to the sound of a sneeze — Aaaachooooooooo! But just as Gaiman knows well how to use words, he also knows how to not use them. So many picture books are overly wordy, with the text and pictures telling the reader exactly the same thing. Not so with this book. Gaiman holds back, allowing the pictures to add to the story — to show the reader things that are not said. Nowhere does the text actually describe the outcome of Chu’s big sneeze — that is all done with the illustrations. This allows preschoolers to discover important elements of the story for themselves (without having to have all the revelations read to them).

And the illustrations by Adam Rex are BEAUTIFUL! There is so much to look at on every page. The detail, particularly in the library and the circus, is glorious. You could ignore the words and just stare at these pictures for ages.

I’m being very effusive about this book, but it is everything a good young children’s picture book should be — engaging text; gorgeous illustrations; and a touch of wit to keep the parents amused.

Catch ya later,  George

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Gaiman’s Graveyard Book

In December last year I went to see Neil Gaiman speaking at the Athenaeum Theatre in a double-bill with Tom Stoppard (see “Stoppard and Gaiman, with a dash of Palmer”). In the week leading up to the event, I realised that I had not read any Gaiman since Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? at the end of 2010 (see “Comic Book Adventures”). A whole year without any Gaiman? This had to be rectified!

As I looked through my to-be-read pile, I found several Gaiman books, including, to my horror, The Graveyard Book. I had meant to read that book ages ago. At least I now had a good excuse to immediately move it to the top of the pile.

I started reading it the day before the Gaiman/Stoppard event, continued it on the train trip to and from the event, and finished it the day after. It’s a typical Gaiman book — utterly brilliant.

“… one day, there would be a child born who would walk the borderland between the living and the dead.”

A baby boy narrowly escapes when a mysterious man named Jack murders his family. He is adopted by the residents of a graveyard — a ghostly couple becoming his new parents and a vampire named Silas agreeing to be his guardian. Since none of the ghosts are able to leave the graveyard or interact with the physical world, it is Silas’s job to bring food for the boy. His new parents name the boy Nobody, or Bod for short, and he is granted “the Freedom of the Graveyard”, allowing him to see as the ghosts do and to go anywhere within the graveyard regardless of lock and key.

As Bod grows up he has adventures within and outside of the graveyard. But during all that time, the mysterious Jack is searching for him, waiting for his chance to finish the job, waiting for the opportunity to kill Bod.

This books has all the Gaiman trademarks…

An unusual concept as a starting point — the idea of a human child being raised by ghosts and other supernatural creatures.

Fascinating characters. Bod is a believable and likeable child, and we get to see him growing up and learning and developing into a responsible young man. Each and every ghost has his or her own quirks and personality traits, consistent with the eras of death. The murderous Jack is strangely compelling despite being evil. And then you have Silas and his friend, Miss Lupescu. These two are my favourites. The vampire who is never actually referred to as a vampire and the werewolf, who prefers to be called one of the “Hounds of God”.

Mythology. If there is one thing that is so very Gaiman, it’s the fact that his work has such mythic (and epic) qualities. From Sandman to American Gods, from his last Batman story to his Doctor Who episode, his tales and soaked in myth. And here in The Graveyard Book, he presents us with such wonderful mythology — the Hounds of God; the order within the graveyards with their hierarchy, their Ghoul-gates and their secrets; the way the dead and the living dance the Macabray when the winter flowers bloom in the graveyard; and the chilling, ages-old secret society, the Jacks of All Trades, to which the murderous Jack belongs. All of this creates such a wonderfully rich backdrop to the story. I know of no other author who handles this stuff with such skill.

I guess The Graveyard Book is a children’s book, in the same way as Coraline. The protagonist is a child, and the storyline is one that is sure to keep children entertained. But like the best of children’s books, it also has much to offer readers of all ages. There are layers in this novel — layers upon layers — waiting to be discovered. It’s the sort of book that would be good to re-read at different stages of life. I wish this book had been around for me to read as a child. To those who have read it as children, I urge you to keep your copies and re-read them as teenagers, and again as adults. I’m certain you’ll find new things each time.

I have the edition that’s been illustrated by Dave McKean. Evocative and sometimes eerily disturbing, these black and white drawings are a perfect accompaniment to Gaiman’s text. No surprise here, as McKean is a long-time collaborator of Gaiman’s. There is another edition with illustrations by Chris Riddell. I’ve only seen the cover illustration from this edition, which is quite different to McKean’s style. I must get a copy so I can compare.

I’ve just had another glance at my to-be-read pile. I’m very pleased that there are still some Gaiman books in there that I’ve not yet read. I am so looking forward to discovering them.

Catch ya later,  George

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Stoppard and Gaiman, with a dash of Palmer

Last week the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne hosted a rather awesome literary event — Tom Stoppard and Neil Gaiman in back-to-back appearances at the Athenaeum Theatre. I was there! 🙂

Stoppard is well known and well respected for his many plays, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Real Inspector Hound. (When I was at drama school, I was always hoping we’d get to perform The Real Inspector Hound as I had a great desire to play the part of Moon, the second-rate theatre critic. Alas, it didn’t happen. 🙁 ) He’s also done a fair bit of script-writing— Shakespeare in Love, Empire of the Sun and Enigma immediately spring to mind. He has also written one novel, a black comedy called Lord Malquist and Mr Moon, which I’ve not read. In fact, I didn’t even know about it until just before going to the show, when I Wikipedia-ed Mr Stoppard.

He was interviewed by Alison Croggon, a local writer and critic, who did quite a good job… although she did seem a little disconcerted by his ability to answer more than just the question put to him and she referred to her notes a little too often. Stoppard was an interesting speaker, talking about his past, his writing and his relationship with actors and directors. His story of how he came to work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was particularly amusing. Apparently, when Sean Connery was cast, he insisted that the producers hire Stoppard to re-write his dialogue. And then, when Harrison Ford found out about it, he demanded that Stoppard also re-write his dialogue as well.

Fifteen minutes from the end, questions from the audience were taken. This proved to be a mistake, with numerous long-winded questions traversing ground already covered.

Then everyone was herded out of the auditorium. Those who had bought tickets for Neil Gaiman as well, got to remain in the stuffy and fairly small inner foyer. Due to the fact that it was general seating, we all wanted to stay close to the doors to make sure we got good seats. Thankfully, we got a little bit of an impromptu performance while waiting. Gaiman’s wife, singer Amanda Palmer, appeared out of nowhere, climbed up onto the bar and performed “Ukulele Anthem”. This was so cool! I’ve never really taken that much notice of Amanda Palmer before… in fact, I couldn’t name a single song. But after this superb little performance I’m gonna seek out some of her stuff.

The Athenaeum staff then sneakily opened the doors while Amanda sung, thus avoiding a crushing surge… well, at least until she finished her song. Thanks to the kindness of friends, who dashed in and secured seats, I had a front row view… right up Mr Gaiman’s nose. 😉

Gaiman was, as always, polished, interesting and utterly brilliant. (Yes, I’ve heard him speak before.) He has this amazing ability to deliver thoughtful, considered answers with an easy, off-the-cuff manner. He was interviewed by Melbourne writer/critic, Clem Bastow, whose style was laid back and conversational and perfectly in tune with Gaiman. It was working really well, until… after fifteen minutes, she announced they would take questions from the audience. [insert gasp of horror] I was fearing a recurrence of what happened with Stoppard, but Gaiman wisely defined for the audience, exactly what a question was, and how it should be delivered with brevity. The definition was greeted with much applause and relief… and it worked! People got to the point and asked short, interesting questions to which Gaiman gave long, interesting answers.

During his talk, Gaiman announced that early next year he would begin writing a sequel to American Gods. This seemed to get a lot of people rather excited. He also talked a bit about what it was like writing an episode of Doctor Who, and he finished up by reading his Australia Day poem (which he had previously read at the Opera House gig he did with his wife).

Since I was reading Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book on the train that day, and I had it in my bag, I thought I’d stand in line and get him to autograph it after the show. But I was in the front row, so I was one of the last to get out of the theatre and by then the line stretched the length of the foyer, out the door and down the street. So I changed my mind… after all, I already have his autograph in other books. 🙂

All up it was a fantastic night. We are very lucky to have the Wheeler Centre here in Melbourne to organise things like this. The only negative thing was the fact that the event had general seating, resulting in long queues and people jostling for seats. Numbered seating would have been a much more civilised option.

I forgot to take my camera with me on the night, but many others were snapping away. Many thanks to Paula McGrath for letting me use her pics on this blog post.

Catch ya later,  George

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Gaiman and the Doctor

Last night, here in Melbourne, Australia, the ABC treated us to one of the most awesome Doctor Who episodes ever — “The Doctor’s Wife”. What made it so awesome? Well…

Excellent characterisation. Subtlety. Witty dialogue. Great acting and excellent direction.

And most importantly — A BRILLIANT SCRIPT

In a nutshell, it is the story of the TARDIS personified as a woman. How’s that for an amazing premise on which to base an episode? Who could possibly come up with a concept so stunningly simple and complex at the same time?

The answer: Neil Gaiman!

Yes, that’s right, THE Neil Gaiman — the writer who gave us the Sandman comics as well as bestselling novels such as American Gods and The Graveyard Book. Although he has dabbled in script writing before, it’s not something that he’s particularly known for. Pity. Because he is rather good at it. Anyway, since Gaiman is mostly known as a novelist, I thought it was a pretty good excuse for me to pen a Doctor Who post for this bookish blog.

Okay… so you may have guessed by now that I am a fan of Gaiman’s writing. And if you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you must know that I am an enormous fan of Doctor Who. So the two of them combining was a big thrill for me. The episode is sitting on my TiVo waiting for a second viewing. And, of course, I’ll get the DVD when it’s released. And if Gaiman happened to write a book about it… I’d buy that too. 🙂 Yes, I’m a sad fanboy.

Television writing often seems to suffer from a lack of attention to detail and plot points being resolved either too neatly or without due logic. The previous week’s episode of Doctor Who, “The Curse of the Black Spot”, is a good case in point. Gaiman’s episode, however, has none of these flaws and is, in many ways, a perfect Doctor Who episode. It is a self-contained episode and yet it adds significantly to the series mythology. It is, at heart, a simple concept, but it is handled with wit, subtlety and a degree of complexity. It is fun, exciting and emotional. Everything you could possibly want.

I think that what this episodes shows, is that a good writer is a good writer no matter the medium he is writing in. Gaiman has proved, over and over again, that he is equally adept at handling comics, short stories, novels and scripts. Long may he write!

I also get the impression that Gaiman must be a fan of the show, as his episode was sprinkled with references to the show’s past — from the sounding of the cloister bell to the junkyard setting which harkens back to the very first episode of the series.

With “The Doctor’s Wife” now over, I am hoping desperately that this will not be Gaiman’s only encounter with the Doctor. I would dearly love to see him write more episodes. I would also very much love to see him take on a Doctor Who novel. Time will tell! And I shall hope.

Catch ya later, George

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The author in front of the camera

Not every author can be as charismatic as Neil Gaiman. When Mr Gaiman talks, everyone listens… especially when he is reading from his own writings. He has a presence and a real sparkle in his voice. He makes it all look so easy. But, of course, it’s not.

Authors are constantly asked to sell their work and to be the public face of their writing — Public appearances, readings, school talks… and even promotional videos. There is a real interest from readers to see the person behind the books they read. But honestly, some authors are better off NOT appearing in the promotional videos for their books.

Go to YouTube and search under “author videos”. You’ll find a fair few videos that fall somewhere between not very good and downright embarrassing. You’ll find a few that range from good to excellent. But the vast majority will simply be rather ordinary. The author may speak well, the author may have something interesting to say — but the author fails to truly engage his/her audience.

Here’s an example. Eoin Colfer. He’s an author who has had enormous success, particularly with his Artemis Fowl books. His stories are loved the world over. But this video for his book, Airman, is rather ordinary…

But… take the same author, direct him a little, add some visuals and music, and do a bit of editing. Suddenly you have something that’s a little more interesting…

I thought that little bit of humour in the last few seconds of the video was a really nice touch. Humour is a powerful way for a speaker to get the attention of his listeners. Here’s a rather brilliant example of an author video that uses humour. Libba Bray talks about her YA novel, Going Bovine, while dressed as a cow. Very entertaining!

Of course, humour is not going to work for every author and every book. So what do you do when you’re promoting a book in which all adults fall victim to a terrible disease that turns them into zombies? Well, in this video, as Charlie Higson tells you about his YA novel The Enemy, he gradually succumbs to the disease. Well acted, nicely directed, with some good make-up effects, this production is a benchmark for author videos.

So, does anyone out there have any author videos they would like to share? Something brilliant? Something tragic? Leave a comment.

And tune in next time for one more post about videos. Come one, you know you love them!

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll post a video of myself telling you why you should follow me on Twitter.

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Comic Book Adventures

Once upon a time… there was a young man who, upon graduating from University, embarked upon casual employment in a comic book store. He only worked there for a short time, but during that time his eyes were opened to new worlds and endless possibilities. Most importantly, he came to realise that comic books were not just for kids and that superheroes were just the tip of the graphic iceberg.

For those of you who haven’t worked it out yet… that young man was me. ☺

I was never really into comics as a kid. I remember reading the occasional Archie comic and I had a few Aterix comic books, but that was about it. Once I discovered that reading could be fun (around about mid-primary age) I tended to stick to books rather than comics. And as I grew up, I, like so many other misguided souls, looked down my nose at comic books as being ‘kids’ stuff’.

So now, I am eternally grateful for having had that brief time in the comic book store. Working there, surrounded by hundreds of comics, I was eventually enticed into flicking through some titles. It was the first time in years that I had read any comic books. It didn’t start off too well. I read a couple of dire superhero titles and was pretty much ready to give up on it all, when the store manager handed me the first of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman collections, Preludes and Nocturnes, assuring me that I would like it. It was complex and grown-up and mythic on a grand scale. It had depth and emotion and enormous imagination. It was beautifully written and stunningly illustrated. It was everything I expected it not to be. Like it? I loved it! Not only did I read it, but I eventually ended up buying all the Sandman collections.

From there I moved on to other titles including the Sandman spin-off, Death, Hellblazer (adapted for the silver screen as Constantine), Black Orchid, Books of Magic and the monumental cross-title epic, The Children’s Crusade.

And when I realised that not all superhero comics were the same, I even ventured into these more traditional comic book realms — starting with JM DeMatteis’s Superman: Speeding Bullets. This story re-wrote Superman mythology, asking the simple question… What if the capsule from Krypton, with baby Kal-El inside, landed not in Kansas, to be discovered by Mr and Mrs Kent; but on the outskirts of Gotham City, to be discovered by Dr and Mrs Wayne? Cool stuff!

In fact, my most recent comic book experience was of the superhero genre — Neil Gaiman’s What Ever Happened to the Caped Crusader?. It is the story of the many deaths and re-births of Batman. As with Sandman, it’s big and bold and mythic. Perhaps not one of Gaiman’s best, but still an entertaining and intriguing read.

These days, comic books are often referred to as graphic novels — a term that seems intent on dispelling the comic-books-are-just-for-kids misrepresentation. But whatever you call them, please, please, please, do not dismiss them. If you’ve never read one, I implore you to have a go. They are as diverse as any other form of literature (and yes, I do believe them to be Literature, as well as Art) and if you look around, you are bound to find something that appeals.

Tune in next time for a post about rejection.

Catch ya later, George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll attempt to leap a tall stack of comics in a single bound. ☺

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Some book covers

You can’t judge a book by its cover. A very true statement. Many good books have crap covers and many crap books have good covers. But people do often judge books by their covers… or, at least, they make their reading choices based on covers. Unfair? Yes! But a fact of marketing. A book’s cover can affect sales. Today, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite book covers.

Clive Baker’s The Thief of Always, a children’s horror novel, has gone through quite a number of different covers over the years. Here are a few examples:

But it is this cover, that I like the best. It’s eerie, it’s intriguing and it captures the feel of the novel.

The Jelindel Chronicles, a series of YA fantasy novels by Paul Collins, have all had good covers, but for me the stand out cover was the final one. Cathy Larsen created this beautifully stylish cover for Wardragon.

Author Neil Gaiman has had a long association with artist David McKean, who has illustrated and designed the covers of many of Gaiman’s comics. McKean illustrated and designed this cover for Gaiman’s collection, Angels & Visitations.

Covers are often designed using stock photographs and illustrations, rather than being specially commissioned illustrations. One of my favourites in this vein, is this cover for Iain Lawrence’s children’s novel, Lord of the Nutcracker Men.

Interestingly, there was another version of this cover, where the photo of the toy soldier is larger and more prominent. I prefer the version with the smaller soldier. There was also another, more cluttered cover, which lacks the impact of the simpler cover.

I also really like this one for Caiseal Mór’s YA fantasy, The Harp at Midnight.

Let’s return to the specially illustrated cover. Here’s the cover for Andy Mulligan’s YA novel, Trash, illustrated by Richard Collingridge. I love the way the title is actually formed out of trash. Have a look at Collingridge’s website to see more of his fantastic artwork.

Christopher Pike has written lots of YA horror novels, and Paul Davies has illustrated many of them. This is my favourite, for the novel Master of Murder, which also happens to be my favourite of the novels (mind you, I’ve only ever read three of Pike’s novels).

Finally, I’d like to mention Kerri Valkova’s Ditmar award-winning cover for Richard Harland’s weird humorous horror novel, The Black Crusade. Yes, okay, I’m slightly biased as I happen to be married to Kerri… but I still think this is an awesome cover. I love its graphic, cartoony quality. I live in hope that one day Kerri will get to illustrate one of my book covers.

Do you have a favourite book cover? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

And tune in next time for series book covers.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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The Worst Mothers in Literature [cont.]

Now before anyone goes banging on the blog door and screaming: “Your choices aren’t literature!”, what I really mean is The Worst Mothers in Fiction. But ‘Fiction’ makes it sound less real, and the interesting thing I find about women portrayed in these books, particularly, is that the characteristics of these evil or amoral mothers must in some way reflect our real fears – otherwise we wouldn’t respond to these books the way we do, right?

When I was 12 or 13, I chose a book from my mum’s bookshelf that I had been too ‘chicken’ to pick up before, mainly for the ’70s black covers and the innocent wide-eyed beings surrounded by ghostly mists. Flowers in the Attic was my first venture into Virginia Andrews’ crazy, messed-up world of dysfunctional families and I was totally hooked. Corinne Dollanganger is my second pick for Worst Mother – a sparkling, blonde, blue-eyed beauty who is the ‘perfect’ maternal figure for her four Dollanganger children to worship. That is, until Daddy dies and the money from the million-dollar mansion is gone. Rather than consider working or asking friends for help, Corinne hotfoots it back to her parent’s multi-million dollar estate with kidlets in tow, a place she vowed never to return to after her own father kicked her out years before. What appears to have turned her desperate mind to returning to the estate is a letter confirming that Corinne’s father is sick doesn’t have much longer to live. It is only when he dies, that Corinne will receive the inheritance due to her, provided that she doesn’t have any offspring with the man that caused the family feud all those years ago. Of course, Corinne has had four children to this man, so she decides to hide the children in the attic with the help of her incredibly strict mother (the children’s maternal grandmother) and wait for her father to die before they can come out of hiding. Days turn into months, months turn into years, and the ‘Flowers’ in the attic lie wilting and eventually forgotten by their own mother, who has been seduced by the promise of money and the return to the prestigious family fold. Flowers in the Attic haunted me for many years to come, particularly the vision of the children eating the powdered donuts laced with arsenic. It’s why I can’t eat cinnamon donuts to this day.

My third and final award for Worst Mother in literature goes to a character in Neil Gaiman’s fantasy, Coraline. Namely, Coraline’s Other Mother, whom Coraline meets upon discovery of a door that leads to a parallel version of her home and family. Coraline’s real mother and father are terribly busy with household chores and other work, and don’t really pay as much attention to Coraline as Coraline would like, so the Other Mother with her awesome ‘Breakfast for Dinner’ meals and amazing gifts and general showering of affection on Coraline is a welcome distraction. Until Coraline is tired and wants to go back to her real home…that’s when things start to get a little bit sinister. “But this IS your real home,” says the Other Mother. Because everything IS better there, provided Coraline is happy to have buttons sewn in place of her own eyes…

Uggh. Too creepy.

We all love to hate on mothers in literature, it seems! I’m sure there is at least one well-known book out there, however, where the father is the evil-doer. And I intend to find it!

Short stories

I love short stories! I love reading them and I love writing them. So I’m going to take a couple of posts to blather on about them.

I adore the way a short story can force a writer to cut through the waffle and get straight to the core of the plot. With a novel you have umpteen thousand words to create your world, set the scene, introduce your characters and slowly unravel your plot. But not so with the short story, because… well… it’s short.  🙂

I’ve read a lot of short stories over the years and there are a few writers who really stand out for me as masters of the form. Neil Gaiman, for instance. Yes, I know, he’s best known for his novels and comics, but it is as a short story writer that I believe he truly excels. “Murder Mysteries”, a story about the angel Raguel, who was “the Vengeance of the Lord”, is one that comes to mind. But my absolute favourite is “Nicholas Was…” — a Christmas story with a difference, that is exactly 100 words long.

“Nicholas Was…
older than sin, and his beard could grow no whiter. He wanted to die.”

If you’re able to locate a copy, I’d highly recommend checking out Gaiman’s collection, Smoke and Mirrors.

The late, great Sir Peter Ustinov is probably best remembered as an actor, but he was also a masterful writer of short stories. Loaded with wit, compassion, interesting characters and an incredible depth of knowledge, his stories are a joy to read. “Add a Dash of Pity” (the title story from his collection Add a Dash of Pity) is my favourite of his stories, and here’s my favourite sentence from it:

“He looked at her as though seeing her for the first time, and kissed her as if they were not yet married.”

Short and ScaryAs a writer, one of the things that I love about short stories is that I’m able to dip in to many subjects and many genres. Just look at my three most recently published short stories.

“Trees”, published in Short and Scary, edited by Karen Tayleur, is a YA horror about two teens in a forest of vengeful trees.

“Feather-light”, published in Belong, edited by Russell B Farr, is a fantasy about a straight guy who falls for a gay angel who has been exiled from exile.

“Future Dreaming”, published in Under the Weather: Stories about climate change, edited by Tony Bradman, is a kids’ story about climate change and how the actions of individuals can influence the future.

A number of years ago, my wife and I went on a holiday to Egypt. While there, we climbed Mt Sinai and visited St Katherine’s monastery, situated at the foot of the mountain. This visit inspired me to write a science fiction story, called “The Last Monk”, which was published in 2002 in issue 30 of Aurealis – Australian Fantasy & Science Fiction. I’m very happy to say that this magazine, now at issue 42, is still going strong. I invited Stuart Mayne, the current editor, to tell us a little about the mag.

Aurealis is Australia’s most successful science fiction and fantasy (SF) magazine. When the first issue appeared in September 1990 something began that had never been produced before in Australia: a professional mass market SF magazine. Before Aurealis there were hundreds of thousands of avid SF readers in Australia, but the amount of Australian SF they were reading was miniscule. Aurealis has changed that, and launched dozens of new writers, who have become established writers. Now, most of the major publishers in Australia have a local SF list. In addition, the Aurealis Awards for Excellence in Australian Speculative Fiction were established in 1995 and have become the premier SF awards, highly prized by producers and publishers alike.

Aurealis began when Stephen Higgins and Dirk Strasser met in a short story writing class. Stephen and Dirk shared an interest in science fiction and fantasy in the face of a teacher and fellow students who, at best, viewed them with a total lack of comprehension. Then, one evening, sitting, around one said, ‘I’ve always wanted to start a science fiction and fantasy magazine’ to which the other replied, ‘Me too.’ That was the moment when Aurealis was born. This year Aurealis celebrates a record breaking twenty years of continuous publication: a remarkable contribution to the Australian literary landscape.

Aurealis focuses on publishing Australian SF. It provides Australian SF writers with a steady, reliable market and continues to play a defining and pivotal role in the promotion and acceptance of Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror. We have kicked off the careers of many bestselling speculative fiction authors, including Michael Pryor, Shaun Tan and our beloved former Art Director, Trudi Canavan.

Thanks for stopping by, Stuart. To find out more about Aurealis, and to see their submission guidelines, check out their website.

And tune in next time for some more short stories.

Catch ya later,  George

Hello world!

I have been um-ing and ah-ing about blogging for some time now. You know, the usual sort of self-doubting questions most writers indulge in every now and then. Should I do it? Will I have enough things to blog about? Will I have enough time to do it? Will anyone out there actually read it? The part of me that wanted to blog was beginning to win out when this Boomerang Blog opportunity presented itself. I took it as a sign from … um … someone. And so here I am, inflicting my thoughts upon the unsuspecting denizens of cyberspace.

I have a cluttered mind and a cluttered bookshelf, so there’s a high probability of randomness on this blog. But I’ll start off by stating some of my literary likes so that you’ll have at least some idea of what may show up in my posts.

I love picture books. I have two young daughters, so I read a LOT of picture books. And guess what? Picture books aren’t just for kids.

I love science fiction and fantasy and horror (although not the blood and guts, splattery type horror). I quite like vampire fiction… but I feel the need to say that Twilight is not my cup of tea. Edward who?

I write books for kids and teens. I read lots of books aimed at kids and teens. Man, there’s some amazing stuff out there aimed at this market. So I’ll probably write about these sorts of books a fair bit. And I’ll probably write about the process of writing as well.

My favourite Aussie authors include Richard Harland, Carole Wilkinson and Terry Dowling. My favourite o/s authors include Neil Gaiman, Poppy Z Brite and John Christopher. I’ll most likely write about these people and their books at some point.

And now for a list (I like lists). My favourite books from 2009:

Oh, one more thing… I’m a Doctor Who fan. Yes, I know — it’s a tv show, but there are Doctor Who books as well, so you can be guaranteed of at least one Doctor Who post at some stage. So just deal with it!

Right! I think that’s enough for my first post. Tune in next time, when I’ll tell you all about my clutter.

Catch ya later,  George

Sam Downing Reviews: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I was chatting with a friend not long ago about Neil Gaiman’s writing style, and we agreed that his is an authorial voice you either like or you don’t: my friend doesn’t like it, but I do. A lot. Gaiman has a knack of adapting to whatever genre he’s writing in, but his work always has a sense of the very old, the very deep, and the very strange.

I started The Graveyard Book with high expectations, and wasn’t disappointed: Like all the best children’s literature, it’s wildly imaginative, seductively scary, and a sophisticated read for both kids and adults.

Loosely inspired by The Jungle BookThe Graveyard Book  is the story of a baby who escapes from the ruthless killer who’s murdered his parents, and escapes to a very old graveyard. Rechristened Nobody “Bod” Owens, he’s raised by the graveyard’s ghostly  inhabitants and encounters vampires, werewolves, witches and other beasties as he grows up. (The Guardian has a more detailed, though mildly spoilery, synopsis; I recommend going into it without knowing about the plot’s direction.)

It kind of reminded me of Harry Potter, if Harry Potter’s sprawling story was condensed into a single book: The Graveyard Book  has the same magical, captivating and adventurous tone. I felt really sad when I turned the last page, both because of the way the plot wrapped up, and because I’d finished a really great book.

Each chapter advances Bod’s age by around two years and stands alone as a story (more or less), making this a breezy read. If you never read anything of Gaiman’s before, this is a fine entry point.1

Gaiman has proposed writing more books exploring the backstory of the Graveyard universe, but with a darker, more adult tone – a sort of “The Lord Of The Rings, to which The Graveyard Book would have been The Hobbit, in his words. I want to read that book so bad. Right now.

This month’s guest reviewer, Sam Downing, is a twenty-something blogger, young-adult writer and hack journalist from Sydney. Follow him on Twitter and visit his blog here.