Win a copy of Makeda

To see out the month, I’m pleased to be able to offer one reader a copy of Prue Sober’s Makeda. I reviewed this luxurious book a couple of days ago, and you can read the review here.

To go into the running to win a copy of Makeda, all you need to do is:

1. Leave a comment on this post, or

2. Visit our Facebook page and leave a comment,

…and tell us where you’d most like to travel to, regardless of time or place.

I’ll draw one winner at random on Wednesday 4 April 2012. As usual, you’ll have 4 days to claim your prize or I’ll redraw.

If you’d like to find out more about Prue’s work, you should visit her at www.pruesobers.com


Buy your own copy of Makeda, at the TBYL Store!

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Poor Alice…

As with most books, the first thing I did when I received Carol Marinelli’s Putting Alice Back Together was to flip to the back cover and read the blurb. This is what I found…

“I have a fantastic wardrobe, brilliant friends, massive credit card debt – all the usual stuff. I don’t think about it at all. I’m too busy being normal.”

Mmm, normal. I was hooked. No such thing, is there? I knew I was in for a good story, and Alice had me fascinated…

“Alice is the friend you wish you had. The girl who makes a party more fun, pulls a funny face to make you feel better, drinks wine out of a mug and makes you laugh while you’re crying over an ex. Alice is totally happy, everything is amazing and there is nothing at all to worry about…except, well…”

It became clear fairly early on in this read that not everything was sunshine in Alice’s world. Her inner thoughts and outer life were hopelessly at odds, and despite trying incredibly hard to appear in control, at this stage in her life she seems to be barely coping.

On the face of it Putting Alice Back Together might seem to be straightforward chick lit, and in some ways it is – it’s very character driven, it’s pretty reliant on (very clever) dialogue and includes a level of detail that would have driven my husband a bit batty. But, I must emphasis that this novel is quite bit more than ‘just’ chick lit. It’s quite dark, it’s challenging (Alice’s character is at times very hard to like) and it’s intent is wonderfully honourable.

Carol’s story really is largely about being honest, true to yourself, so to speak. It’s about cutting yourself some slack and living a good life by challenging yourself to be who you really are, and in turn to do what you really want to do. This is a sentiment I can most definetly relate to. Although I did at times find Alice difficult to identify with, by the end of the book I found I was very endeared to her. Her journey was a difficult one, but she rose to the challenge – enjoyable to see as a reader, and I felt very good for her as the story concluded.

I read this book in a weekend, and had trouble putting it down. In someways it was a bit like good TV (I was reminded a bit of Offspring) and it was equally entertaining. Great holiday reading maybe?

Carol was kind enough to let me quiz her on her book and on how she fits writing into her busy family life:

***

How would you describe “Putting Alice Back Together”? Have you found it difficult to categorise?
I do find it difficult to categorise Putting Alice Back Together. I think it is a gritty read, but there are funny parts too.  Dark chick lit maybe?

I was, when I started, expecting something a bit closer to simple entertainment, some romance perhaps, but I got so much more than this from your novel. What do you hope people will get out of your book?
I hope that the reader feels they have been on the journey with Alice – through both the good and bad parts of her life and that they feel proud of her as she emerges. I would love it if it made someone look at where they might be holding themselves back.

Alice as a character is not always likeable. Perhaps justifiably, she judges people harshly and herself most harshly of all. Was it difficult to write a character like Alice?
Alice was very hard to write at times – my friend would read it and say “she can’t say that”, but then she fell in love with Alice too. As you say, Alice was so judgmental and at times downright rude that it held me back. However, in her defense, Alice rarely voiced her horrible thoughts. There is so much prejudice around and I wanted Alice to be a real person, not necessarily a perfect one. I really wanted to see her change.

I know that you’re a busy, writing, working Mum. What are your tips    for maintaining a balance between work and family?
I’m still struggling with that balance!

I think losing the guilt is the main thing. It is so easy to burn out trying to get everything done and then leave nothing in the tank for yourself, yet it is important to pursue your own interests, friendships and goals – the same way we would want our children to.

What do you most like to read? How do you fit reading into your busy days?
I read anything and everything. I love romance, contemporary fiction, biographies, fashion, cooking….. I have the biggest TBR pile in the world. I am loving Marian Keyes Saved By Cake and am making her Lavender and White Chocolate Cheesecake this weekend and I have The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh waiting for me this evening. I always have a ‘real’ book on the go at home and I have my E-Reader in my bag for unexpected times when a reading opportunity arises.

Finally, what’s next for Carol Marinelli?
Well, I am working on revisions at the moment. It’s linked to Putting Alice Back Together, but it’s probably not the characters people will be expecting. Oh, and my friend is reading it and shaking her head and saying “She can’t do that.”

***

You can find out more about the book, the author, and about how to get hold of a copy here…

This book is very entertaining, without being frivolous. I’d recommend it, and I’d trust you’ll get a few good messages out of it, as well as it being a great reading break from the daily grind.

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Who do you think you are?

I’ll admit, at first I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Makeda. A story about the Queen of Sheba? Would it be full of pomp and ceremony, or warfare and bloodshed, of royal protocol or simple fiction?

I’m pleased to say it was none of these, but rather so much more…

“He wanted to applaud her for her cleverness. With peerless skill at court, she had seduced his hidebound courtiers and made them laugh. Now single-handedly, with a feather’s tip, she had soothed his counsellors and brought the rowdy meeting to a seamless head.

…As a public figure, she had not disappointed. The private woman was what intrigued him now.”

Prue Sober’s Makeda is the story of a strong woman, a regal beauty who clearly knows her own mind and the mind of others. She has a firm grasp on the importance of matters of state, and the story itself demonstrates many times over, her skills of negotiation and diplomacy.

Moving beyond royalty, and the main characters of Makeda and Solomon the novel also tells the story of humanity, of the hardships of slavery and of the complexities of nationality and regional ties.

The word that most easily comes to mind when describing Makeda is luxurious – its scenery, its smells, its food:

“All at once, she felt a heady lift and gave herself a warning tap on the shoulder: the atmosphere was intoxicating, the wine, eminently drinkable.

A cold soup of crushed tomatoes and herbs served in shallow cups was followed by veal cooked in butter and sheep’s milk, and a rare dish of whole poached locusts, lightly cooked in a saffron broth. They peeled the shells and ate in companionable silence, watching each other, amused, as the juices ran through their fingers. Over the fatted fowl and venison, they gradually became immersed in conversation.”

And it is not without action, heroism and romance. In short, it is a well rounded, detailed account of an ancient kingdom. I really enjoyed this novel, and I’m sure that the imagery will stay with me for some time.

To find out a little bit more about the book, its characters and its time and place, I had a chat with the author Prue Sobers…

***

Perhaps an obvious question, but why the Queen of Sheba? What was it about this subject that you were so passionate about?
As a non-fiction author, I fell into writing a novel purely by chance. My husband and I sponsor three young Ethiopian boys through World Vision, and in a letter from one of the boy’s mothers, mention was made of an obelisk field in Aksum, an ancient highland city in Ethiopia. Out of curiosity and wanting to know more of the boys’ homeland, in delving further I discovered two stunning facts: during the fascist occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s, Mussolini had looted a priceless sacred obelisk from the very same field and had it raised in Rome to celebrate his fifteenth anniversary in power. Through a connection of reports, I then learned that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with some forty million followers, has a story going back centuries about the Queen of Sheba. A tale is told in a medieval text, the Kebra Nagast, or Glory of Kings, not mentioned in the Old Testament account of the monarchs’ meeting, of how King Solomon seduced his palace guest of six months—Makeda, Queen of Ethiopia—who is identified as the Queen of Sheba. Although beyond the scope of my novel, according to the Kebra Nagast, a son was born of the royal union and he became Ethiopia’s first king. Many Ethiopians believe Makeda was a former ruler of Aksum in the tenth century, BCE, and that a royal bloodline existed between King Solomon and Ethiopia’s emperors.

Interestingly, Emperor Haile Selassie claimed lineage to Solomon last century – as had a line of Ethiopian emperors before him. The monarchy ended in 1974 when Haile Selassie lost power. Anyway—that’s where it all started. In the space of a morning, I had jotted down some ideas, and the tale of the legendary monarchs, Solomon and Makeda—relatively unknown in the West—and the theft of the sacred obelisk by Mussolini, became the focus of my research. The obelisk is featured in the sequel.

What do you hope people will enjoy most about your book, ‘Makeda’?
A number of things perhaps: learning something they didn’t know; maybe to escape for a while in the stuff of dreams, in grand scenes and the dazzling otherness of ancient royal life; the story is set in Jerusalem, but the novel also tells of a journey down the Nile by a small Ethiopian tribe, captured as slaves. Linked to Solomon’s early stance in the novel, concepts are explored here that are relevant to today’s world such as prejudice, tolerance and acceptance. The Arab Spring and the refugee debate are two modern issues that come to mind. And another idea which the novel probes is the difference between virtue and truth.

Above all, I want my readers to become immersed in the feelings of my characters; in sensing the attraction and developing passion between the protagonists, to understand ‘the how’ and ‘the why’ they occur. I don’t relate well to book characters whose minds and personalities leave me not caring for them because lazy writing has meant they are not written in deeply enough: ‘He saw her beauty and fell in love; she looked into his eyes and knew she would always love him.’ Why? I want to know. It’s all about the old adage, show me; don’t just tell me! Give me the evidence.

I also wanted to demonstrate something of Solomon’s wisdom, which is pretty light on in religious texts, through portraying his humanity, and his vulnerability and strengths. By the end of the novel, mostly I hope the reader feels they know and understand the man, as did Makeda; maybe even admire or love him a little.

How did you research this novel?
At my desk, I was researching two books at once, Makeda and its sequel—so I studied multiple sources, beginning with the Kebra Nagast and the Old Testament of The Bible which inspired the Makeda/Solomon story, plus a number of historical and archaeological non-fiction texts; and as well I used the State Library and the Internet, of course.

But I knew if I were to treat the novels seriously, I had to research on the ground as well, so travelled to Ethiopia, including Aksum, where Makeda ostensibly ruled in the tenth century, BCE. It was fascinating to visit ancient ruins, some of which claimed connection to the Queen of Sheba, and to be accorded access to wondrous medieval books guarded by priests in rural sanctums. Through a deacon friend, I was also granted an audience with the Nebrud of Aksum, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in that city, and naturally—I met the Ethiopian people.

How did you find them?
In a word, inspiring! Some 80 per cent of the population are subsistence farmers, many living from harvest to harvest in harsh environments. But they are amazingly resilient. Ethiopians are earnest and spiritual and remain stoic in the face of what fate and climate dish up to them. They grin as they grapple with everyday life. And the youth have a great hunger for learning and improving their lot. The kids want pens, you know, not sweets, when you stop in their towns and villages.

And the landscape? What were your first impressions?
The greenness of the countryside. It was just after the rains, so I guess it shouldn’t have been so surprising, but I hadn’t expected the lushness. Apart from its ancient history, Ethiopia’s highland beauty rivals the best in the world. That means on a tourist level there’s lots to see and do in the mountains, and in a string of highland cities there’s a trove of ancient tombs and cultural relics. There are wonderful religious festivals where priests carry large fringed, gorgeously embroidered umbrellas.

I was entertained in people’s homes in cities, in round roofed huts, or tukuls, in the country, I ate with them, drank their wonderful coffee, talked food, crop growing and water wells, walked to the breathtaking Blue Nile Falls, a source of the Nile, explored mountains and underground mausoleums and learned how to correctly pronounce words. So ‘Betam ameseginalehu, Ethiopia!’ Thank you very much; I had an extraordinary time.

In the past, your focus has been on non-fiction . . . how did you find the transition from non-fiction to fictional work?
Mmm, that’s a great question! Exciting, absorbing, frustrating, challenging; looking back, a steep learning curve and unexpectedly fraught with more drafts than I care to remember. One of the most significant things non-fiction taught me was the importance of thorough research, and although this approach helped my novel writing, at the same time I had to curb a propensity for detail—to find shorter, sharper ways to make a point; to learn to leave stuff out, like extraneous paragraphs or clauses, and so allow the reader’s imagination to make connections. Importantly, I learned to leave the text alone for a while, then revisit it with fresh eyes. When you do that, words, phrases or scenes that were formerly special, even imperative to you and which may have weighed the writing down, become easier to cull; time away allows you to be ruthless and a better critic of your work.

When you’ve got a minute—what do you like to read?
A book I might hear or read about; something I might see here on That Book You Like, Mandi! An eclectic mix of genres, really. My recent leisure reading, such as it is, has focussed on novels, probably because there’s so much to read for research and fiction offers escape. But there’s a double reward because you can check what other novelists are doing and perhaps learn from them. Different authors have given me light-bulb moments in this way.

For example?
John Fowles of The French Lieutenant’s Woman fame: apart from offering three different possible endings to that novel, he presented an alternative ending to his novel, The Magus a decade after it was first published. I thought that was a marvellous idea: that fiction can be twisted and bent and perhaps turned in the opposite direction simply on a writer’s whim and then republished for new enjoyment. What confidence that reflected; what wonderful audacity. Other writer’s who have broadened my scope—Margaret Atwood, Chin-Ning Chu, Hilary Mantel—all for different reasons.

Whom do you admire as a writer?
Mantel, Atwood, as mentioned. I like Lionel Shriver.

All women?
Currently, it seems. I enjoyed early Grisham, some George Orwell, although I find him bleak at times. I hated 1984. I admire Alexander Pope, the sixteenth century poet. He translated Homer’s Iliad from the Greek. Have you ever read any of Homer’s verbatim translation? It’s not an easy read. But we owe our appreciation of Homer to the likes of Pope and perhaps other translators. Pope was a genius. He turned the words into English poetry of great eloquence and beauty.

What next for Prue Sobers?
Right now I’m trying to balance the requirements of online social networking to promote Makeda and Ethiopia with getting on with my sequel. Blogging, Facebook and Twitter saps a lot of time and energy; it’s not easy to do all when there’s so much introspection needed for plotting a novel and constructing dialogue. But hey, I’m in there, giving it my best shot!

***

I’m pleased to be able to offer one reader a copy of Prue’s Makeda this month.

All you need to do is:

1. Leave a comment on this post, or

2. Visit our Facebook page and leave a comment,

…and tell us where you’d most like to travel to, regardless of time or place.

I’ll draw one winner at random on Wednesday 4 April 2012. As usual, you’ll have 4 days to claim your prize or I’ll redraw.

If you’d like to find out more about Prue’s work, you should visit her at www.pruesobers.com


Buy your own copy of Makeda, at the TBYL Store!

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Sign up for TBYL Book Club here…

Imagination at play

Yesterday, I was thrilled to be able to share my love of a good event with my kids.

On a perfect day (not too hot, not too cold) Evan and Oscar and I hopped on a train and meandered into the city for the Children’s Book Festival 2012, held by The Wheeler Centre and the State Library of Victoria (a.k.a ‘The Big Library’).

Greeted by the sounds of the Goss Community Choir, we started our day off by having a little stroll around the lawns to see what was on offer. The vibe was fantastic, lots of people, kids of all ages and everyone keen to hear, see and experience some wonderful kid’s reading.

Oscar stopped off and listened to a couple of stories at the 1001 Nights Tent. It never wears off really does it? The little flutter of joy when watching your kids really enjoy a story – he was enthralled…

After a couple of stories, it was time to go and meet some baby animals. I’d had a tip-off that there was a very cute piglet at the petting zoo and so we happily lined up for a few minutes to check him out…

After the farm, it was time for a wander up Little Lonsdale Street, and who should find but Spot the Dog! Oscar was over the moon, he heard a story, got a hug, and even managed a high five from his favourite spotty dog.

I’m not quite sure what it is about Fire Trucks, but they are always a hit! Both the boys had a great time checking out the truck, with its gauges and hoses and buttons and levers. Oscar was impressed, as he had a chance to sit in the cabin of the big red fire engine, he looked quite at home really.

Then it was on to something a bit more bookish. We went for a bit of a look at The Big Library. The Experimedia room was incredible fun…toys, books, tents and music. We were very fortunate to hear from the lovely Hazel Edwards, who was celebrating Hippopotamus’s 30th birthday! It was quite special to share this with the boys…they didn’t realise as they sat transfixed, that I used to do the same thing when these books were read to me at school. Quite special. It was also very interesting to hear a bit about the behind the scenes of some of Hazel’s favourite picture books.

We’d almost run out of puff, but we couldn’t miss out on just one more experience – the chance to hear from Andy Griffiths. Just around the corner at the Wheeler Centre, we joined a room full of other eager fans to giggle, gasp and gaffaw at the very irreveralant, always funny Andy. Evan and I shared many a laugh, and enjoyed having a chat about the talk and Andy’s books on the way home.

The festival kicked on until 4pm, but we three had had our fill, and it was time to head home. The kids chatted all the way home, and had a ball telling Dad all about the Big Library and the fire trucks, the ducks, the rabbits and the fabulous stories.

These days are what memories are made of…

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Taking stock of my reading pile

Of late, I have been very, very lucky, to have been given the chance to read a whole bunch of new novels, some of them even a bit earlier than the general public (I love a pre-release). It’s a bit of dream come true for me, I’ll admit, and I often find myself looking wistfully at my varied and growing reading pile.

I thought you might be interested in a little sneak peak at what I’m reading at the moment…

***

Firstly, there’s Makeda, by Prue Sobers. This is technically on my ‘have read’ pile now as I’ve actually just finished this luscious novel and its story of the beautiful and spirited Makeda, the Queen of Sheba. I was also lucky enough to have a chance to chat to Prue herself, to find out a little more about this meticulously constructed adventure. I’m looking forward to posting my review and author-interview this coming week. You can pick up your own copy of Makeda here…

Next, is my re-read of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. I stayed up far too late the other night reading this moving, humorous, and nostalgic novel.

As you know, from my review last week, it’s one my absolute favourites, and this read-through has been nothing less the fantastic.

We’re about to start our chat about this book over at the TBYL Book Club, this coming Monday.

The book I’ve been reading this weekend is a saucy little book called Putting Alice Back Together, by Carol Marinelli. It’s just been released this month by Mira and it’s quite compelling. Alice is a challenging character, not always likeable, but always identifiable.  This is a story of coping, of romance, and about what it is to ask the Universe to just cut you a break. I’m really enjoying it, and am looking forward to chatting with Carol next week. If this book sounds like your cup of tea, you might like to enter this great competition being run now by Harlequin.

Next on the list is Jodi Picoult’s newest novel, Lone Wolf (Allen and Unwin). Believe it or not, this will be my first Picoult read, and I’m looking forward to it. This novel sounds intriguing, and pretty dark: “Edward Warren, twenty-four, has been living in Thailand for five years, a prodigal son who left his family after an irreparable fight with his father, Luke. But he gets a frantic phone call: his dad lies comatose, gravely injured in the same accident that has also injured his younger sister Cara.” From what I know of Picoult, this novel sounds like it will be to her usual form, and I can’t wait to take a look.

A book that I started to read last month, but had to put down to skip to a couple of other titles, is The Forgotten Land, by Keith Mcardle.

I really must get back to this, because I was having a ball. It’s all kinds of action, military, sci-fi and time-travel to boot.

I can’t wait to get back to find out what happens to Sergeant Steve Golburn and his patrol in this other worldly adventure.

One of the most recent books that I’ve received is Mary Bennet, by Jennifer Paynter (Penguin). I don’t know a lot about this book yet, except to say that it’s a retelling of the classic Pride and Prejudice: “Mary Bennet has been long overshadowed by the beauty and charm of her older sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, and by the forwardness and cheek of her younger sisters, Kitty and Lydia. From her post in the wings of the Bennet family, Mary now watches as Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy – and Mr Wickham – glide into her sisters’ lives. While she can view these three gentlemen quite dispassionately (and, as it turns out, accurately), can she be equally clear-sighted when she finally falls in love herself?” I’m thinking this might make a good book club book…

Lastly, is a brand new book for the reading pile, one that I picked up from the post office this morning. It’s Kyo Maclear’s A Thousand Tiny Truths (Pan Macmillan) and I’m bracing myself for a troubling but ultimately hopeful tale.

It would seem that this story has a bit of everything, adultery, questions of race and heritage, and an investigation into what it is to be cared for, and to care for others.  Due to be released in April, I’ll be reviewing this shortly.

***

As you can see, it’s a big reading pile, and a stunning one. Is it any wonder that I take a little look at it each time I walk by? Maybe this’ll give you a few reading ideas? And if all else fails, don’t forget next month’s TBYL Book Club book, Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany – I’d love for you to join us. You can pick up a copy here if you want to join in (I hope you do!)

What are you reading at the moment? Any of these tickle your fancy?

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Little shocks: Mateship with Birds

Last year,  I was a bit horrified when I realised how little Australian literature I had read. Of all the many, many books I’d read since I could, only a handful of them had been by Australian authors. As such, part of my mission to ‘read differently’ came to encompass the deliberate selection of Australian work. As a result, I’ve discovered some incredible pieces by Sonya Hartnett, Gillian Mears and Tim Winton, to name just a few.

My most recent discovery has been Carrie Tiffany, and her new novel Mateship with Birds (Pan Macmillan):

“On the outskirts of an Australian country town in the 1950s, a lonely farmer trains his binoculars on a family of kookaburras that roost in a tree near his house. Harry observes the kookaburras through a year of feast, famine, birth, death, war, romance and song. As Harry watches the birds, his next door neighbour has her own set of binoculars trained on him. Ardent, hard-working Betty has escaped to the country with her two fatherless children. Betty is pleased that her son, Michael, wants to spend time with the gentle farmer next door. But when Harry decides to teach Michael about the opposite sex, perilous boundaries are crossed.

Mateship with Birds is a novel about young lust and mature love. It is a hymn to the rhythm of country life – to vicious birds, virginal cows, adored dogs and ill-used sheep. On one small farm in a vast, ancient landscape, a collection of misfits question the nature of what a family can be.”

Part field notes, part journal and part narrative, this fascinating novel is one of the most interesting reads I’ve had so far this year.

Carrie’s writing style is unique, and incredibly readable. It is clipped, to the point and interestingly, written in the present tense. These characteristics give the story an immediacy and an intimacy. On more than one occasion I was reminded of field observations, of animal husbandry or fittingly, of bird-watching notes such as those put on paper by Harry himself.

There is the most intense sense of watching, of both being watched and of observing others. At all times, I felt that I was privy to the inner lives of these fascinating characters. It took no time at all until I had started to move with the very distinct rhythm of this narrative, and to smile, wonder and cringe along with it’s protagonists:

“Shopping after work, Betty falls in the rain. Her heels slide out from under her on the wet timbers of the verandah in front of Oestler’s Fruit and Veg. She goes down heavy, face first; puts her tooth through her lip, bleeds a lot of orange sticky blood over her uniform…”

The story is primarily about Betty, her children Michael and Little Hazel, and their quiet neighbour Harry. These are the characters you want to know, they are endearing and each have compelling stories to tell. Then there are the secondary characters, such as Harry’s ex-wife and the despicable Mue. We’re given little information about these associate figures, but they undoubtably have a dark and severe effect on the protagonists of the story. It is through Mue that most of the deepest shocks of this story are delivered.

It is beautifully Australian, rural and reminiscent. The importance of the everyday, and of our immersion in and connection with nature are key themes.

Although there is a definite quietness about this story, it is at the same time quite shocking. This novel is filled with lust, little shocks of sex that jump out at you and then pass as quickly as they arrived. Often, they’re recollections of experiences of sexual function, curiosity, deviation, rather than the act itself. The sex-scenes that are included (there are a couple) are gritty, and real, and breath-taking.

I was extremely lucky to be able to have a chat with Carrie Tiffany just after I’d read her book, and from our chat, I gained a sense for how she approached the writing of this novel…

***

Can you tell me a little about the book, in your own words?
That’s actually a pretty tricky question…I don’t really want to do a summary of the plot, because I don’t think the plot is really that important for me as a writer. To me, it’s more that the book is really about the nature of families, about the bonds that link people together and in this case, that family extends to a kind of odd group of people in the little township of Cohuna on the Murray River. It also extends to include families of birds, families of cows, or evan the relationship that a farmer might have with his dog – all of these kinds of relationships are interesting to me.

I noticed a real link between humans and nature, Harry observes his birds the same way as Betty observes her children. Is this deliberate? 
Yes. I work an agricultural, environmental science kind of area, and I do a lot of work in land care, but working on bureaucratic reports where I come up against this language that we use to describe our environment, it’s very scientific, and it really worries me because I think it fails the environment in some ways. I think there’s something ultimately very subjective about human beings in the landscape and our response to the landscape, and I don’t think there is any other way to come at it apart from from your feeling. To try and deny them and stand behind scientific method, really concerns me because I think that the emotional, instinctual response is really important – I don’t want to see that go. I think increasingly it does seem to be that we don’t use the terms that we used to and that’s one of the reasons that I set the book in the Fiftys. I’d been reading a lot of these nature writers, like Alex Chisholm who wrote the first Mateship with Birds and was really interested in the type of language they used in that time. They’d unashamedly talk about a bird as having gender; “She’s a pretty little Honey-eater” and they’d talk about it in a very subjective way, a very romantic way. It seemed to me that that was something that added to the relationship between people and nature, rather than diminished it.

One of the things that I absolutely loved about the book was the bird-watching theme. You mention ‘What Bird is That’ by Neville Cayley as part of the story – a book which I used to read for hours with my Pop. Is bird-watching something that you’ve always been interested in, or is it something that you researched particularly for this book?
Well I do have a family of Kookaburras that live out the back of my house and I do listen to them, and observe them with binoculars and I take down notes about what was happening in the family, but I also did a lot of research. I read these old editions of this wonderful publication that Birds Australia put out. It was called ‘The Emu’ and in fact Alex Chisholm was one of its the editors. People used to just write in with some of their observations and stories, so a lot of the observations and stories of what’s happening to the Kookaburras in Mateship with Birds are taken from these old editions of the ‘The Emu’. They’re not magical or fantastical, they’re grounded in reality, and I this is really important to me, I like that it’s got a factual basis.

I don’t have a lot of knowledge, I’m a bit of a bird-watcher but more in a “Wow, isn’t that magnificent” sort of way rather than a really technical kind of way.

You have an interesting history, you’re pretty locationally and vocationally diverse… how has this informed the story, if at all?
Well, I wasn’t actually born in Australia, I was born in the UK and I moved to Perth with my parents when I was about six. I do think that there is something very important about coming to a new country and gosh, you couldn’t come to somewhere more different than from the UK to Perth. As a child, you’re quite young and impressionable and I think was always trying to pair what I was seeing with somewhere else, and to try and make sense of it, to try and describe it. When I was younger, I remember when we first got here, being astounded by how much space there was compared to in England. We lived on this little housing estate and we had this little sand block and there was a nature strip out the front. I was really astounded by this straggly nature strip, that this new country had so much space in it that everyone had a nature strip.

As a child, I would stand on this nature strip and look up and down the street, and I developed this fanciful notion that these strips probably led somewhere. That if you followed them, they’d take you to the bush. I always had this interest in going to the bush and in fact in my early twenties I worked as a park ranger. I still maintain that interest in the bush through what I do now.

The story itself if very interestingly constructed. It’s pacing, rhythm is strong and seemingly deliberate. It uses short, clipped sentences and the use of present tense (and occassionally future tense) is very effective. Was this deliberate, or did the novel just kind of evolve this way?
That’s a really difficult question – some of those kinds of decisions are quite subconscious, although I’m sure there are some stylistic similarities between the sentences in this book and the sentences in my first book, and perhaps also in some short stories and things that I’ve had published.  I really like a ‘clean’ sentence and in some ways I’m not a big fan of adjectives and adverbs, I like strong, plan language. I suppose I’m influenced very much by the sorts of things that I read as well, so I’m aiming for a kind of purity, in a sentence that feels kind of true yet is simple. I am a very slow writer, and I do spend an enormous amount of time on a sentence. They might read like I wrote them very fast, like I kind of threw them off, I don’t know…but that’s really not the case. A lot of time, work and efforts goes into making them so simple.

One of the aims of my writing is really to kind of parsimony with language, so that you tell the story as simply as possible whilst leaving a lot of room in there for the reader. That’s what I like to read – I like reading when there’s a lot of space for me to make up my own mind about what is happening. I like the work to hint at something, but not tell me everything – so I think that’s what I am trying to do. I like there to be a lot of space for people to interpret the book in many different sorts of ways because I think that that is one of the amazing things about reading. It’s such a creative thing to do.

I was fascinated by the little ‘shocks’ of lust, passing comments on urges and sex, but then it’s gone almost as soon as it’s there. Many writers might be tempted to give more detail around the narrative to this, rather than this disciplined, punchy approach. Was this deliberate?
I’m not really sure, it’s not really something I’ve thought about, although I do think that there is something very strange about us, about people’s sexuality in that it’s this thing that we do with our bodies and our minds that’s quite confronting and confounding really, particularly when you think about the rest of our lives which are really quite rational. But this sexual desire, it seems almost in some ways to be a bit aside from language, and it’s very difficult to talk about. I didn’t want overly romanticised sex, whether it’s happening in the animal world or the human world. I wanted to show the similarities between sex in those two worlds and show the animal that’s in human sexuality. I also think the sexualisation in the world is kind of startling at the moment and to me that’s not really about sex, it’s about being sold something. It’s about being sold perfect bodies and people feeling like they should have a lot of sex, a kind of sexual aggression. That sort of stuff is really confounding to me, so I wanted to show something that to me felt truer – something of the sexual lives that these people in this very small community were leading in the 1950s.

How do you find people react to this kind of more explicit imagery?
I remember with the first book The Everyman’s Rules to Scientific Living, there was this terrible newspaper headline in The Australian ‘Lust in the Malley Dust’ I was very surprised, I really didn’t think there was that much sex in that book, and it wasn’t at all gratuitous. Although I don’t think about it as I’m writing, desire is clearly is a big narrative driver in this new book and to me that just seems right. I think in real life, desire is a big narrative drive for all of us, so it’s natural that it’s something that’d I’d write about.

I don’t want people to be offended or upset, but I’m also not going to be coy for the sake of being coy. I actually hate reading those books, when they’re fantastic books and then you get to the point where two characters kiss and then the curtains close and the next chapter starts the next day. I feel really ripped off reading that kind of story,  so I’m not going to do those things myself.

Lastly, you had a lot of success with your last novel “The Everyman’s Rules to Scientific Living”, what do you hope for with this new novel?
Really, the thing for me is the writing, the reason I do it is at the level where I’m actually sitting down and working on my sentences. That’s why I do it. The novel comes out into the world, and people read it and it can be quite lovely to engage on a one-on-one basis with readers and to hear what they think about the book. Quite often they have quite different interpretations or ideas, ideas that I hadn’t even thought of before… and that’s pretty fabulous, when you hear that it has this imaginary life of its own. All the other stuff is really a bit of a circus, it’s a bit of a lottery.

I just very simply hope that people will read it and will find something in it that touches them or makes them think.

***

Mateship with Birds certainly made me think, about new things, about these intriguing characters and about my own family. I’m hoping that some of you will join in and read the book as this month’s TBYL Book Club book, I’d love to hear what you think of it.


Buy your own copy of Mateship with Birds, at the TBYL Store!

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Project No. 1, Tick!

So, I was chatting about The Little Book Adventure, a fantastic program being run by My Little Bookcase (in conjunction with the National Year of Reading).

Yesterday, Oscar and I had a ball getting creative with with our book storage. The idea being to arrange Oscar’s book collection in a way that was easily accessible to him, and enticing – it needed to look great, inviting and therefore encourage him to sit and read as part of his average day.

We did just that…

He can reach them…

He can play…

He knows where to find his favourite books…

And he’s got his own little reading spot, which he loves!

This has been wonderful fun, and it’ll make it all the easier for both Oscar and I to remember to make time for lots and lots of story time.

To find out more about The Little Book Adventure, visit the delightful My Little Bookcase.

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Birds and Bookshelves

There are two really lovely things that I’d like to tell you about today…

Firstly, I’m really excited to announce the novel for April’s TBYL Book Club. It’s a new book from an incredible Australian author, Carrie Tiffany. The book is Mateship with Birds:

“On the outskirts of an Australian country town in the 1950s, a lonely farmer trains his binoculars on a family of kookaburras that roost in a tree near his house. Harry observes the kookaburras through a year of feast, famine, birth, death, war, romance and song. As Harry watches the birds, his next door neighbour has her own set of binoculars trained on him. Ardent, hard-working Betty has escaped to the country with her two fatherless children. Betty is pleased that her son, Michael, wants to spend time with the gentle farmer next door. But when Harry decides to teach Michael about the opposite sex, perilous boundaries are crossed.

Mateship with Birds is a novel about young lust and mature love. It is a hymn to the rhythm of country life – to vicious birds, virginal cows, adored dogs and ill-used sheep. On one small farm in a vast, ancient landscape, a collection of misfits question the nature of what a family can be.”

This is an incredible book and one of my new favourites. It’s a little shocking at times, it’s incredibly moving and beautifully written. I’ll be posting a full review of the novel on Wednesday, and it’ll include an author-interview – I had a chance to chat with Carrie a couple of weeks ago. Keep an eye out if you’d like to know more.

Remember, it’s free to join the club, and if you’d like to buy a copy of the book, I’ve got them in The Store for just $19.99.

We’re gearing up for this month’s catch-up to discuss Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Discussions kick off on the 26.3.12 and will run for the week – I hope you’ll join us. Read the review || Buy the Book

Secondly, I’ve been meaning to tell you about a challenge that I’ve taken on, with help from my loyal side-kick Oscar. It’s The Little Book Adventure, by My Little Bookcase (in conjunction with the National Year of Reading).

It’s going to be so much fun! Basically, the adventure is a series of challenges designed to get families to working together, enjoying quality time with each other and sharing their love of reading and books.

This month’s challenge, is to get creative with with your book storage. The idea is to arrange Oscar’s books in a way that he can easily access and enjoy them – they’ll be reachable, interesting and enticing – to encourage him to help himself to reading as a fun part of his day.

I’m half-way through the project, and as soon as I’m finished, I’ll post photos here. You’ll also find other project submissions on the My Little Bookcase Facebook Page.

As you can see, I’ve been lucky enough to start the week off with some lovely things…great ideas, nice announcements, and fantastic reads.

I hope you’ll join in!

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March give-away: Quiet the Mind

Last week, I shared a wonderful little book with you, Matthew Johnstone’s Quiet the Mind…an illustrated guide to meditation. You’ll find the review here…


I’m pleased to be able to offer one reader a copy of Matthew’s Quiet the Mind this month.

All you need to do is:

 
1. Leave a comment on this post, or

2. Visit our Facebook page and leave a comment,

…and tell us what you do to quiet your mind.

I’ll draw one winner at random on Wednesday , 21.3.12. As usual, you’ll have 4 days to claim your prize or I’ll redraw.

I can’t wait to hear some of the ways that you relax, calm yourself, take time out.

If you’d like to find out more about Matthew’s books or other work, you should visit him at www.matthewjohnstone.com.au. He’s book Quiet the Mind is available now from Pan Macmillan.

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Eliminatory in Edinburgh: Young Sherlock Holmes

By the end of last month, I was doing my own head in a bit. I had read a series of very bleak novels in quick succession, namely Of a Boy, Room and We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Without exception, these are stunning stories, well worth the telling, but by the end of my reading of them I was well and truly ready for something a bit lighter. It was high time for some Young Adult fiction, so I picked up Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes  – Fire Store (Pan MacMillan).

Fourth in the series, Fire Storm has been on my reading pile for a month or so. Evan enjoyed reading it over the summer holidays, and has since become completely obsessed with everything Sherlock.

Firstly, it was really special to be able to share a reading experience with Evan. Every time he caught me reading, he’d quiz me on where I was up to, what was happening, what I thought.

And it was a fun book to share. Action-packed, true to the Sherlock franchise, and full to the brim of puzzles to crack and mysteries to solve:

“Sherlock Holmes is at a loss. His friend and her father have disappeared. Their house is empty, as if nobody has ever lived there. His attempts to solve the case take Sherlock to Scotland, and into an even darker mystery – one that involves kidnapping, bodysnatchers and a man who says that he can control the dead.”

Sherlock is believably ‘young’, learning his craft and struggling with an ominous family legacy. His entourage are fascinating and likeable, Matthew ‘Matty’ Arnatt’s street-smarts compliment Sherlock’s sixth sense well, and Rufus Stone provides a reassuring adult presence, and makes the whole adventure that bit more believable. There’s even the obligitory special guest appearance of Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft.

I was drawn into the story early:

“Uncle Sherrinford’s library smelled of old, dry books, mildew, leather binding and pipe tobacco. Sherlock felt the quietness as something almost physical as the door closed behind him…”

I was impressed by the uniqueness of Holme’s investigations and subsequent discoveries:

“On a whim, he crossed over to the narrow window that looked out over the gardens to the back of the house. He couldn’t see anybody, so he was safe from observation. The window was open a crack. He pushed it further open and leaned out. Something was hanging from a piece of twine that had been wrapped around a nail stuck in the wood of the window frame – a package that dangled a couple of feet below the level of the windowsill. It was small enough that it would have been almost invisible from the garden below, unless someone knew exactly what they were looking for.”

Although written for readers 11-years and older, Lane hasn’t dumbed the story down at all. It’s written accessibly but it’s also packed with suspense, thrills and an age-appropriate level of action. Some kids might find some of it a little bit scary, but I suspect that most eleven-year-old boys wont think twice about the more frightening parts of the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed Young Sherlock Holmes  – Fire Store and am looking forward to going back and reading the first three books in the series. Good thing is, Evan was equally impressed so I’ll be able to pass the purchase of the books off as for him, I’ll sneak a read and then add them to his collection. Clever aren’t I?

Which is your favourite manifestation of Sherlock Holmes character?

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