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?

Books with the word ‘Girl’ in the title

In the last two months, I’ve read three books with the word girl in the title. In December I read Gone Girl, in January I read The Girl on the Train and I just finished reading The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan. I started to wonder if this was a recent trend in book titles, but when looking back over books I’ve read in previous years, I discovered plenty of books with the word girl in the title.

Just for fun, I’ve decided to list them here in the order they were read:

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
A young girl is lost in the woods after stepping off the nature trail while walking with her family. She listens to her walkman for comfort and her favourite baseball player, Tom Gordon.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larssonmillennium trilogy Stieg Larsson book covers
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo burst onto the book scene several years ago, and readers couldn’t get enough of the Millennium Trilogy. Lisbeth Salander – genius hacker with a photographic memory, extremely poor social skills and a mysterious past – is an unforgettable character. Together with Blomkvist, they investigate a disappearance.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
This time Blomkvist helps Lisbeth Salander who finds herself in trouble. Knowing the author has passed away in 2004, certainly increased interest in the series.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Stieg LarssonWild Girl Kate Forsyth
The final in the series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is about ‘the trial’ and I found it the least enjoyable of an otherwise exciting and gripping trilogy.

The Wild Girl
by Kate Forsyth
This is the story of Dortchen Wild, a young girl growing up in the medieval town of Hessen-Cassel in Germany. Dortchen lives next door to the Grimm family; the brothers being famous for their collections of fairytales. It is a little known historical fact that Dortchen told the brothers almost 25% of their stories, this is her story told by Australian author Kate Forsyth.

Cemetery Girl
by David J. Bell
Caitlin is found dirty and dishevelled 4 years after she goes missing and her parents struggle to find out where she’s been all that time.

just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth
just_a_girl is about fourteen year-old Layla, provocative, daring, reckless and a tease. Set in the Blue Mountains, this is a book for mature readers (in my opinion).Girl on the Train Hawkins

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Blockbuster novel that needs no introduction, also now a major motion picture starring Ben Affleck.

The Girl on the Train
 by Paula Hawkins
The Girl on the Train is gaining popularity and is a cracking read with flawed characters. Rachel catches the same train to London each day and enjoys looking at the houses and sometimes imagining the lives of those who live there. One day she sees something that will change her life forever (and it’s not a murder).

The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan
I finished this recently and adored it. If you like the writing style of Australian author Kate Morton then you’ll love The Girl in the Photograph. An historical fiction novel told in the the past and present, this is a haunting and atmospheric mystery.The Girl in the Photograph Kate Riordan cover

The Girl on Legare Street by Karen White is on my TBR pile, and almost qualifies, while I’ve given an honourable mention to Kiss the Girls by James Patterson.

So, how many of the titles above have you read? Do you have any books to add to the list? What have I missed?

Christmas haul containing 4 classic novels

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe book cover clothboundAs I pack away my Christmas tree for another year, I took stock today of my Christmas haul of books. I’m planning on reading more classics in 2015 and was fortunate enough to receive a few beautiful clothbound editions for Christmas. I hope you too were lucky enough to receive a book or two at Christmas time, here’s what I received (in alphabetical order by author surname):

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Somehow I didn’t read Robinson Crusoe as a young adult, and it’s one of those books that is always referred to in passing. As I approach my 40s, I thought it was time to pick up Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and this clothbound classic edition will make a wonderful addition to my bookshelf.

Frankenstein by Mary ShelleyFrankenstein Mary Shelley clothbound classic cover
I’ve read a few horror novels in my time as well as many science fiction books, but I’ve never read the classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I love the story behind the book, in that Shelley wrote Frankenstein almost 100 years ago in 1817 at just 19 years of age. I’m really looking forward to reading this clothbound edition of Frankenstein this year (love the hearts on the cover) and discovering for myself the gothic and romantic elements within.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck was an American author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and is known for writing Grapes of Wrath (awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1940), Of Mice And Men, and East of Eden, and I haven’t read any of them.Pearl John Steinbeck book cover

For some reason I find this author intimidating so I’ve decided to read The Pearl (a novella of less than 100 pages) as a gentle introduction to his writing. Have you read any Steinbeck? What do you recommend?

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The plot in Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray is known by many and I especially loved the portrayal in the recent TV Show Penny Dreadful. Just being aware of the premise of the book is no longer enough and I thought it was about time I read this classic for myself. It’ll be my first time reading any material by Oscar Wilde (I’m sure quotes don’t count) and I’m hoping The Picture of Dorian Gray lives up to the hype.Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde book cover

Have you read any of the classics above? Did you receive or give any books during the festive period? I gave a family member a copy of The Menzies Era by John Howard and another family member a handful of books by James Patterson.

Happy Reading in 2015.

Getting published? Not a fantasy says Harper Voyager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mid-month round-up – the Hungry edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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…

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.

 

 

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?)

Pop Star Authors

Authors are a bit like pop musicians. No, really… they are more alike than you might first think. Both tread that fine line between art and making money. Good books and good music are often never released because they are not commercial enough. Just as authors are often at the mercy of large publishers, musicians are often at the mercy of large record companies. (Hmm… are they still called record companies even though its now mostly downloads and CDs?) And the promotional steamroller drives sales in both industries.

As time marches on, writers are becoming more like pop musicians. In this day and age writers need to become personalities. They need to get out there and promote their books. They need to promote themselves. The image of the writer is becoming as important as the books they write.

Jack Heath (author of The Lab) sold his first book at the age of 18. His youth certainly helped the sale of his books. That’s not to say he doesn’t write really good books — he does. But selling books requires more than the ability to write good books. Health’s youthful image made for good promotion. Now, six years down the track, Heath still manages to maintain his image. Check out his YouTube channel to see how he promotes himself, more than his books. And his website still makes reference to his youthful start in the industry…

“He started writing his first novel, The Lab, at age 13, and earned a publishing contract for it at 18.”

Publicists have had a field day with JK Rowling’s image of the struggling single mum who hit it big. And Stieg Larsson has shown how dying prior to the publication of a trilogy can enhance an author’s image.

The simple fact that authors need promotional photos is a testament to the importance of image. Author Shirley Marr even blogged about her author photo shoot, which resulted in some very glam, fashion-model images.

Shirley Marr, author of Fury. Photograph by Red Images Fine Photography.

Or has image always been friend to the author? Certainly Ian Flemming’s past as a Naval Intelligence Officer probably helped to promote his Bond books. And the glamour image of Jackie Collins hasn’t hurt her career.

Pop stars are forever in the public eye — image often eclipsing the music. Lady Gaga springs to mind. Of course, pop stars can also use their fame to become authors. Look at Madonna — pop icon and children’s author. Hilary Duff has also gotten in on the literary act with a novel titled Elixir. And did you know that Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, used to be a pop singer and songwriter? He even released an album called Angels & Demons — that’s right, the same title as one of his books.

If only we could turn things around and see some authors cross over into pop music careers. I have this image of Stephen King doing a cover version of Werewolves of London or Bad Moon Rising. 🙂

Oh wait, King’s already in a rock band. True! He’s a member of The Rock Bottom Remainders, a band made up of published authors. Don’t believe me? Check out this clip…

Tune in next time for more pop music.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll sing at you! And believe me, you don’t want that.

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Running The Zombie Gauntlet. Jumping The Zombie Moat (AKA Why I Don’t Read Stephen King)

On WritingI don’t read Stephen King. Not out of some high-literary disdain for someone who’s written so much and sells so well to the general Joes. Not because he’s not a good writer. But precisely because he is.

King has proved himself time and again throughout his 50-something books that he can create an intensely believable world, grip you, and then terrify your pants off. Me? I’m easily pants-off terrified.

Two films dominated the sleepovers of my youth. One was Child’s Play (the original, although I’m aware there are more tenuously linked, money-milking, spin-off sequels than in even the current Saw series). The second film was Stephen King’s It, and I am now pathologically afraid of clowns (which I’d previously thought to be friendly critters) and stormwater rains.

All the other kids seemed to revel in being scared witless. Me? I considered—consider—it a form of torture. I am an ashamed but incurable scaredy cat with a vivid and uncontrollable imagination.

CarrieI’ve steered clear of scary books and movies every since those sleepovers where wussing out would have seen me tumble down the schoolyard social order. The exception has been Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth, but I was fooled because it was sold to me as a zombie romance that was written by a fellow wuss. I thought it was about zombies giving up their quest for brains and falling in love. I thought I was in safe, scaredy-cat hands.

I am almost too embarrassed to admit that I have to run the zombie gauntlet back from the bathroom in the middle of the night and jump the zombie moat which occupies the one-metre perimeter around my bed (The jumping on the bed went down a treat with my now ex-boyfriend, I can tell you).

The point of this long-winded background is to explain why I’d, until recently, never read King’s On Writing. I figured it would scare the bejeepers out of me, and I need to cure my irrational, zombie-gauntlet-running, bed-moat-jumping fears, not acquire new ones.

But I picked On Writing up this week, a time when I was feeling flattest about my own (lack of) talent and dim career prospects—can anyone truly make a decent living out of this difficult craft? The book’s been a revelation. I don’t for a moment consider myself in the league of this bestselling master crafter, but what King conveys through his book is that bestselling author or emerging one, we’re all facing the same struggles.

The TommyknockersA memoir of his own writing journey (just writing that sounds naff, but sorry, I’m sticking with it), On Writing outlines King’s career and inspirations and influences. How the seeds of ideas were shaped into hits like Carrie, The Tommyknockers, or The Shining. On Writing is a stellar read—King writes so well it makes me wish I could read his other work.

The books mirrors many (in fact, most) of my own experiences, from the first stories shamelessly borrowed from what he was reading at the time to the volume of rejection letters to the first taste of success to the flow-on effects of a little success—once you’ve ‘proved’ yourself through a few quality publications, it’s amazing how other publications, which had previously rebuffed you, are willing to take you on. There isn’t, King explains, a magical writing process, and there’s a lot of hard slog, refinement, more slog, perseverance, and a bit of luck.

I ate up this touchstone of a book and dog-eared almost every second page because I wanted to remember and refer back to the many, many gems of wisdom, inspiration, and encouragement contained within them (Please spare me the anti-dog-earing emails—I dog-ear books I love; it’s a compliment; it’s my thing).

ItOn Writing is perhaps a book for aspiring writers, and for emerging and mid-career ones too. I’m not in the realm of King and am unlikely to ever be there, both because I don’t have his talent and I’m completely terrified of anything scary like a zombie. But I am heartened that when you strip away the number of books published and the vast readership he has, our writing processes and experiences are similar. That ideas comes from anywhere and everywhere and fit together Tetris-like and surprising when they don’t at first appear to fit at all. That writing is as much about taking words out, keeping the words left in simple.

I might not be able to read his other books, but I will often revisit or simply dip into this dog-eared and now completely revered one. King fan or not, I recommend you do too.

Who will be your Valentine? The Romance Top 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, where is that gift-wrapped pony?

Rejection

“Thank you for your submission. We regret to inform you that it does not suit our current needs.”

These words, or similar, are common in the life of a writer. Okay, I’m sure that there are writers out there who no longer get such notes. I’m willing to guess, for instance, that it’s been a very long time since Stephen King has had anything rejected by a publisher. But for those of us who are not household names with a string of best sellers to our credit, rejection is still a daily threat — A pendulum with a razor-sharp blade, swinging above our heads, waiting to suddenly drop.

But the thing to remember here is that writers like Stephen King and JK Rowling did, once upon a time, before they struck it BIG, get a rejection letter or two. JK even discussed her rejections with Oprah.

A young Paul Jennings took his first rejection very personally. In Paul Jennings: A Biogrpahy, by Matthew Ricketson, he is quoted as saying:

“I wrote my first story when I was sixteen and it was turned down by the Women’s Weekly. I felt so rejected I didn’t write anything else until I was forty.”

Different writers will undoubtedly have different experiences with rejection. Some writers deal with it well… like water off a duck’s back. They pick themselves up and try again. Others not so well. You hear the stories of some writers who take rejection personally and who question their ability every time a piece of work is not wanted. But they deal with it, they move on, however torturously, and continue writing. And then there are those people who get one rejection and never write again… writers who could have been, but never were, perhaps never meant to be.

I think there are two important things to remember about rejection. Firstly, that it is not personal. It is the piece of writing that is being rejected, not the writer. Secondly, it is just the opinion of one publisher/editor. A piece can be rejected for any number of reasons other than the quality of the writing. It may not be what an editor is looking for at that time. It may be too similar to something else that has already been accepted. It may be a simple case of the wrong story to the wrong publisher at the wrong time.

But it can be a hard slog. I understand that. I had many years of rejections before I finally made my very first sale — an article about Melbourne’s Regent Theatre for a CBD magazine called Melbourne Agenda in 1994. And it was another few years of rejections before I had my first book — Life, Death and Detention in 1999. I get a lot fewer rejections these days (‘cause me righting has gotten gooderer) but I still do get them. Every time I send something off, I do so with a little bit of anxiety. Every time I send a piece of writing out into the world, away from the safety of my computer, I feel the threat of possible rejection.

Not that the threat of rejection is necessarily a bad thing. It certainly keeps me on my toes. It forces me to not be complacent about my writing. Most of all, it makes me even more determined to try harder and make the next sale. As far as I’m concerned, dealing with rejection is just part of being a writer.

Tune in next time for a post I haven’t even thought about yet. 🙂

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or I’ll make a list of every rejection I’ve ever had.

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Weddings and wonderings and oh my poor head

It’s all about testing the boundaries of sanity chez moi this week. I am taking time out from my copies of Crazy Like Us (non-fiction; on globalisation issues and mental health) and Stephen King’s Under The Dome (fiction; bad stuff happens and people go crazy). I’m researching another topic commonly associated with breakdowns in mental health – weddings.

No, this isn’t for the sheer fun of it. Yes, I am actually having one. I have not gone completely insane. I haven’t put the wedding carriage before the plumed white horses with fetching sparkly corsages and just started organising one in the assumption that the groom will turn up on the day.

(Incidentally, is this why all the weddings photos in magazines etc show lone brides standing alone, looking wistful and posing in the light, assumedly in the hope of luring a groom? Is the correct procedure for females looking to meet a life mate to shove on a fluffy white meringue and pose somewhere dramatically, like an albino Bird of Paradise doing a mating dance?)

Someone has asked me to marry them and I would like to, so I said yes. I am not doing a Miss Havisham and planning on stalking through my gothic mansion in a torn wedding dress for all eternity, not least because my apartment in Sydney has an abundance of light and stainless steel decor and Gothicising it would require a good deal more effort than just getting out there and finding another groom.  Although possibly less effort than organising a wedding.

I have a bit of a dearth of wedding books on my shelves. I have tried looking for some online but can’t really tell the difference between the various titles. They’ve all gone for that trick of naming themselves something definitive and simple. Which is all very clever and meta-marketing and all that until you realise that you’ve ended up with 9 books called “Wedding”, 7 books called “Weddings” and another 25 or so called “Your Wedding” or “My First Wedding” or something equally non-helpful in describing the information actually in the book in question. Seriously, go count them. I’ll wait.

I appreciate the concept, but frankly it’s a bit like coming across a whole bunch of fiction books called “Story” or a group of politicians all named Lying Narcissist Weasel.

Most of the wedding books I have found seem to veer between the lines of Fluffyknickers The Flower Belle’s Holistic Hippy Wedding Hints or Mrs. Deirdre’s Guide to Wedding for Charming Young Ladies of Taste, Refinement and Chastity, the second of which I am vaguely worried will explode into flames should I put my hands on it.

Ideally I am looking for a title something along the lines of “How to Organise a Nice Day for You and Both Families Without Going Insane, Bankrupt or Both.” Something with helpful reminders like “Your Mum would appreciate an invite” instead of stern obscure prohibitions something along the lines of “Three shall be the bridesmaids thou shalt count, and the number of the bridesmaids shall be three. Four shalt thou not have, neither have thou two…”

Can anyone recommend a tome to read that won’t suggest either hand-woven organic goat beard headpieces for the bridesmaids (“Just add a sprinkle of grass picked on a rain May 1st for the Goddess’s blessings!”) or covering the piano legs with little skirts so it doesn’t over-excite the Gentlemen?

Random literary quotes

Last time it was first sentences. This time, I’m quoting memorable bits from anywhere within a book or short story. These are just the quotes that have come to mind while putting together this post. Given the vagaries of my memory, there are bound to be other bits I should have quoted… but hey… with my memory the way it is, consider yourselves lucky to be getting this!

As with my last post, I’m listing the sources at the end of the post so you can all play guess that quote.

1.

As Yone had predicted, it was deserted — tourism was a thing of the past, along with parliaments and television chat shows, universities and churches, human disorder and human freedom.

2.

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

3.

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

4.

Teddy and Vern slowly became just two more faces in the halls or in 3.30 detention. We nodded and said hi. That was all. It happens. Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant, did you ever notice that?

5.

In the space it took to read the few dozen words, Danny learned two crucial things, vital to learn at any age but so powerful to have at fourteen: that you always had to grant unlimited possibility, and that happy endings were as fleeting as you let them be.

6.

She was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner.

7.

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others

8.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

9.

I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

10.

I’ve been on quite a trip, though I don’t have much to show for it — a book of Rolling Stones’ lyrics, some coins with Arabic writing on them, a headscarf with crocheted fans around the edge. I’ve learned how to say “bread” and “water” in eight different languages and I can swear in Dutch.

11.

Fa’red was not the sort of wizard who muttered arcane spells over foul-smelling cauldrons in dark cellars. Although he was a very inventive man, his ideas far exceeded his ability to carry them out personally. As such, he had learned to delegate work.

12.

‘You asked me once,’ said O’Brien, ‘what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.’

13.

“And as their lips met, everything changed.”

Got a favourite quote? Leave a comment and share.

And tune in next time to find out about Celapene Press.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Here are the books:

1. When the Tripods Came, John Christopher, 1988.

2. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dauglas Adams, 1979.

3. “Add a Dash of Pity”, Peter Ustinov, from Add a Dash of Pity and Other Short Stories, 1958.

4. “The Body”, Stephen King, from Different Seasons, 1982.

5. “The Saltimbanques”, Terry Dowling, from Blackwater Days, 2000.

6. Peter Pan, JM Barrie, 1911.

7. Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945.

8. Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945.

9. “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1843.

10. Sugar Sugar, Carole Wilkinson, 2010.

11. Drangonfang, Paul Collins, 2004.

12. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949.

13. Gamers’ Quest, George Ivanoff, 2009. — Yeah, yeah! I know! Shameless plug. 🙂

USER REVIEW WINNER: Just After Sunset

Just After Sunset by Stephen King
Reviewed by Rad Hall

This collection of short stories by Stephen King does not start off with a bang: ‘Willa’ is a good story, neither too weak nor, however, terrifying.

‘The Gingerbread Girl’ was better, more thriller than out-and-out horror, but human and captivating.

‘Harvey’s Dream’ was where the collection started getting good. The tale is short. It is simply told, but sublime. We are introduced to everything from Harvey’s wife’s point of view, just everyday mundane things, including Harvey’s appearance at the breakfast table and how he’s beginning to get on her nerves. By the time Harvey starts talking, he felt so familiar it was as though I were there sitting and listening. Not with Harvey’s wife, but as her. And then ‘my’ Harvey keeps talking and I start to want, and then need, for him to stop. But he keeps on going. And when he finishes, I know the phone will ring. And when it does, there’s no startlement on my part, no exclamation, no voiced cry. Just a throat clogging sense of quiet horror realised. Splendid stuff.

‘Rest Stop’ was something of a fantasy. A chance for the protagonist to do take action where likely he (and most people) would rather have merely asked what could have/should have done in hindsight.

‘Stationary Bike’ left me unsatisfied. Though written with great imagery, I couldn’t help feeling that Richard got bullied. Perhaps I simply didn’t empathise with the workers as I should have. I think I might have missed the point of the story entirely 🙂

‘The Things They Left Behind’, ‘Graduation Afternoon’ and ‘The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates’ all had a 9/11 feel to them. The first and third both had a happy almost calming conclusion to them; although both have scenarios that would be just as welcome otherwise, they seem kindly addressed to the post 9/11 American.

The second story though is just your good ol’ apocalypse. Short, simple and smashing. The protagonist’s small description of the damage to her eyes as she watches the bomb blast mildly recalls Eddings’ Torak and his (if memory serves) ‘eye boiled in its socket’ line. Mind you, this tale has a compassionate leaning and I can’t help worrying about our lead post-event.

‘The Cat from Hell’ does not hold a candle to George Fielding Eliot’s similar and horrifying story ‘The Copper Bowl’.

‘Mute’, like ‘Rest Stop’, has an urban paranoia to it but I could not find it engaging.

‘A Very Tight Place’ … reeks. Splendidly written scatological horror at its most eww. Practically guranteed to leave the reader feeling shudderingly unclean.

Now to the jewel in the crown. I thought ‘N.’ was the absolute highlight of the collection. The story of compulsion being all that stopped the fabric of this world from being torn through to let in monsters from another, is such a stunning piece of work. The slow, steady buildup, the descriptions of beauty and those of horror, the burgeoning hysteria, madness and inevitable despair of characters at maintaining that fragile integrity. Amazing.

The entire collection is certainly well worth a read and the better stories make it highly recommended. (3 stars)

A big thanks to all the members who submitted reviews – keep reviewing your favourite books at http://www.boomerangbooks.com.au for your chance to win! For being this month’s winner, Rad Hall has won $50 to spend in Boomerang Bucks.

The Book of Last Resort

Speaking to a particularly ebook-wary friend the other day, I was told the only reason an ebook might be useful is when travelling. Years ago, he said, he travelled with half his pack full of cassette tapes and half with books, then stuffed a few pairs of underpants around them. After he started using an MP3 player he discovered he had a lot more room. Ebooks, he said, might reclaim the other half of his luggage. Presumably with the magic of electronic reading, he can now pack more than just underpants when he goes on holidays. The world sighs in relief.

This conversation got me thinking about book scarcity. When you’re relying on finite paper resources (or finite luggage resources) there are only so many books you can carry. There isn’t much space for the book that you don’t think you’ll read (but you might). Ebook buying, on the other hand, lends itself to this kind of purchase – the book that you really think you might never get around to, but at least you have it just in case. I’ve got many friends that treat their bookshelves like I treat my ebook reader. They’re full of books they’ll probably never get around to reading, but you never know – there may come a time when you really decide to commit to A Brief History of Time, Ulysses or Infinite Jest.

This all leads in to the title of this post. The Book of Last Resort. I think you all know the one. It’s the book that has crossed over from the ‘might never read’ category into a habit you can’t kick. The book that follows you around like a bad smell. You read a chapter in 2008, two chapters in 2009 and a few pages in 2010. It’s long, it’s difficult, it’s not particularly pleasant, but it’s there – mocking you. It’s the book you do take on holidays, but it remains unread while you plough through the Stephen King or Jodi Picoult on the rented house’s bookshelf. But it will always be there, at the bottom of your bag, or somewhere in the alphabetic calamity of your ereader.

My question for this post is to own up to your Book of Last Resort, whether it be electronic or not. What book can’t you quit, and why?

Books with bite

Vampires seem to be the in thing at the moment. Almost everyone is going ga-ga over the Twilight books and there is now a glut of teen vamp fic. Hollywood is, of course, cashing in on this, with numerous pointy teeth films and tv shows gracing our screens. For a bit of a laugh, check out the trailer for I Kissed a Vampire, a musical web series.

DraculaVampire fiction has been around for a long time. The first vampire book I ever read was Stephen King’s Salom’s Lot. It remains one of my favourites. Since then, I’ve read the occasional bit of vamp fic, including the granddaddy of them all, Dracula (which is well worth a read, even if you’re not into vampires). The one that really sticks in my mind, even though I read is about 13 years ago, is Poppy Z Brite’s Lost Souls. She has an interesting take on the vampire mythology. Her vamps are a separate species and breeding with humans results in each successive generation being less vampiric. The oldest vampire in the book can eat or drink nothing but blood, has pointy teeth and can be harmed by sunlight. The youngest is a bit of a goth — sunlight won’t hurt him but prefers to go out at night; his teeth aren’t pointy and although he doesn’t need to drink blood to live, he does come to develop a taste for it. There’s a lot more to it, but I’m working from memory here.

I’ve always thought that what this world really needed was some good vampire books set in Australia, preferable Melbourne (my home city). A number of years ago I read Vampire Cities by d’ettut (yes, d’ettut is the name of the author… pseudonym perhaps?), which was partly set in Australia. I remember thinking it was a weird, arty sort of book and that vampires weren’t actually the focus. It mustn’t have made much of an impression on me as I can remember nothing of the story.

More recently, I read Narrelle M Harris’s The Opposite of Life, which is set in Melbourne. I LOVED this book. It’s got lots of blood, dead bodies and pointy teeth and yet it’s a very atypical vampire story. The heroes are a geeky librarian and a slightly podgy, daggy vampire who wears loud Hawaiian shirts.  The book makes marvellous use of its Melbourne locale and is worth a read for that alone. Harris is writing a sequel… I can’t wait. Check out my review of The Opposite of Life.

Solace & GriefI also recently read Solace & Grief by Foz Meadows. The author calls the book an “urban fantasy” rather than a vampire novel. The main character is a vamp, as is the main villain, but there are other supernatural characters as well. It’s a young adult novel set in Sydney (not as good as Melbourne, but hey, at least it’s in Australia) and it’s got quite a different feel to it from any other vampire book I’ve read. It’s been getting some great reviews and with good reason – it’s a really good read. It is the first book of a trilogy called The Rare. Book 2 is currently in the works… definitely one to look out for.

There are probably other Australian vampire books out there. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never made a point of searching them out. The ones I’ve read were those that I happened across. So if anyone out there has any recommendations, I’m all ears… um… err… teeth?

Tune in next time for another vampire post, this time with the assistance of authors Foz Meadows and Narrelle M Harris.

Catch ya later,  George

Interview with GREIG BECK

Beneath the Dark Ice – pitch it in one sentence.

Taught adventure thriller with scares a plenty!

The best action/thrillers are those with more than just explosions, those that have depth, an engagement with mythology. In Beneath the Dark Ice, you play with legends like the Kraken and Atlantis, and draw on elements of Mayan and Olmec archaeology. Were these things you were interested in prior to writing the novel, or did you simply discover them during the writing process?

That’s easy – both! I was brought up on a diet of horror-thrillers and science fiction and was happiest reading or watching shows about (all cultures’) myths and legends. Even today small facts that add colour to our history jump out at me. Did you know they recently found evidence of a 16th century vampire in Venice? Buried with a paving stone jammed in her jaws to stop her coming back from the grave? Or in New Mexico, there is evidence that dinosaurs survived for nearly a million years after they became extinct everywhere else – our real Lost Valley. These little things are still ‘wow’ moments for me and add to a collection of myths and mysteries I keep with me in an ideas book.

But discovery is important as well. The (novel) writing process directs you to creating or obtaining believable details. Your readers wouldn’t let you get away with being lazy in the descriptive or exposition process… and you don’t need to be.  Research has been made easier for today’s author via the internet. It brings so much detail to you from enthusiasts, experts, and other authors, keeping your mind working the possibilities and expanding on your own knowledge.

Bottom line is, I started with a basic knowledge skeleton and once I started digging, I kept uncovering more and more flesh for the bones.

I read somewhere that your writing impulse developed out of your habit of storytelling to your son, Alex – would you say your book’s target audience is restricted to young males?

You could say the creative process started with storytelling to Alex. I’d either make up a story or read him a book, and then halfway through I’d stop and say, “What do you think happens then?” We’d have fun describing all sorts of different endings. Even though Alex is now 11, I wouldn’t let him read Beneath the Dark Ice – way too many scary scenes. I wrote the book for an audience of people who enjoyed adventure thrillers, but also like some terror included. There was no real target demographic in mind.

Who would you say were your biggest influences?

Without doubt Graham Masterton, Stephen King and Dean Koontz. And the classic sci-fi writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne and Pierre Boulle.

What can you tell us about your next release, Return of the Prophet?

You actually caught me in the middle of its final editing. The 2nd book also contains Captain Alex Hunter, and this time he is sent on a mission to the Middle East. A significant radiation spike leads the US government to believe the Iranians are performing subsurface nuclear test detonations. What they find is that they have inadvertently created a miniature black hole. While they try and perfect the technology to continue to create these Dark Events they accidently open a doorway – a portal through which ‘something’ slips through. Alex has to stop the creation of the black holes before they devour the Earth and also confront the thing out in the desert. Just as much fun as the first book, and just as thrilling and frightening!

There have been comparisons made between you and other Pan Macmillan blockbuster action authors, most notably, Matthew Reilly. How do you feel you differentiate yourself from what Matthew, and others, offer in the genre?

I like to think my books are more than just thrillers. Like the other thriller writers, my books are well researched with a high degree of technological realism, but there is also a terror element that I believe gives my readers some good heart stopping scares. The best description I have heard of my style was, Matthew Reilly, with teeth!

If you could rid the world of ONE book, which would it be?

Just one?! It’s a tough question because every book has merit – even if it’s only to serve as an example of how not to do some particular thing. But… if you asked me what book made my brain hurt, well, that would be during my study days. Try reading Valuing the Firm and Strategic Acquisitions without suffering a migraine and wishing for an immediate induced coma!

Last Australian book you read?

Hey, this is no kiss-up, but it was Loathing Lola. It was a lot of fun and I’ve managed to pinch heaps of ideas. Thanks William!

If you could claim any other authors work as your own, whose would it be?

Early Stephen King. What a spread of great ideas that guy had. Whatever he was drinking at the time, i wish i could buy some.

The token filler question: What is the most valuable piece of advice you were never told?

As a writer it would be to read across genres. Though, they tell you to write what you like to read, you should also read beyond just what you’re comfortable reading. You need to experience many different forms of style and type. Some guys just do humour, pathos, fear, anger and rage, etc much better than others.

Last thing – keep a look out for lucky breaks – they do happen!