Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

A review of this newly released novel

The Watch is an intensely emotional portrayal of war that will get underneath your skin. This recent release by Indian-born New York-based author Joydeep Bhattacharya has made me think more than any other book I’ve read recently. The interesting thing about this intense novel is how it grew on me more the further I got into it, slowly turning me from sceptic to convert.

The tension that carries the reader through The Watch is set up in the first chapter, which is told through the eyes of a young Afghani girl come to bury her brother’s body. The Antigone in this tale, this determined girl, whose brother has recently died during an attack on a remote US military outpost, finds herself sitting outside the army base at a stalemate with the soldiers inside. She claims she just wants to give her brother a proper burial, but they have orders to send the body to the capital to be paraded by the government as a propaganda tool. Where this story really gets interesting is when you realise that neither you the reader, nor the soldiers in the base know whether the girl is a terrorist sent as a suicide bomber, or just a grieving sister.

This importance of this first chapter is not immediately obvious, and I have to say, I found it hard to get into, and even the second chapter was heavy going for someone who isn’t used to reading about combat. I’m not generally a fan of military books, and it took me a while to get past the harsh but no doubt realistic talk of the US troops. But each chapter is narrated by a different character, and the third chapter is narrated by the more sympathetic team medic. From this point the stories start to tie together, the perspectives of each character interweaves interestingly. We start to get an insight into the different characters, why they’re there, their fears and histories, basically what brought them to this painfully harsh posting in the desert, surrounded by hostile insurgents and citizens alike.

In the meantime, the landscape sets a stark background for the drama as it unfolds, an alien land of dust storms and looming mountains. The presence of this unknown woman, and the strength of her conviction affects the soldiers in a way even the death of their friends in the fire-fight didn’t. It makes them question the very nature of the war they’re fighting, and we see this through the way even hardened soldiers start to question the decisions of their superiors when it comes to their treatment of the girl. Joydeep uses flash backs and dream sequences to let us look into the psyche of these men, and what we see is often as much a challenge to the state of US culture and the socio-economic concerns facing young men back home as it is of the war they are fighting.

For me, the impact of this book was heightened by the fact I finished it while half-watching the ANZAC day parade last week. The parallels between watching past servicemen and reading about the inner turmoil of soldiers in the present day made me pause. I think that because this war in Afghanistan has divided people so thoroughly it’s particularly interesting to read a book that doesn't glamorise or validate war, but does give an insight into the motivations of the men who have been sent to fight it. There can be no doubt that the extreme physical and emotional conditions of war affect people in a dramatic way. This book allowed me to contemplate this side of war in a way that I wouldn’t normally, seeing the soldiers as men with different motivations and backgrounds, just as diverse as those who have fought in every war. I recommend this novel wholeheartedly as serious food for thought.

 Lex Hirst

Friday, 27 April 2012

A Brief Chat With Paul D. Carter

Last night Paul D. Carter was awarded the 31st The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Prize for his manuscript Eleven Seasons.
Paul dropped into the shop on his way to media interviews and Barbara had a chat with him…

With the window display, copies already at the counter and customers coming in asking for the book written by the man they heard on the radio this morning, Paul was a little overcome with his first visit to a bookshop since winning the award. One of our customers, Paul’s first sale, beat him in the shyness stakes though, being too shy to come and meet him.

The life of the book’s main character, Jason Dalton, is influenced by his love of AFL football and while that may be off-putting for some, Sophie Cunningham, one of the Vogel judges, commented last night that the three judges had no real interest in AFL but Paul’s writing and narrative skill takes over.

Being a staunch St Kilda supporter, I asked him why he decided to use AFL as the background for his novel when it could divide readers. Paul said he got the idea from Don DeLillio’s Underworld where the background to the story is a baseball match and where the characters actions and reactions are heavily influenced by baseball. I think, though, that Paul’s writing and this book have much more in common with Craig Silvey and his novel Jasper Jones because, despite being an AFL tragic and recognizing the names, I’m also completely pulled into the story of Jason.

I asked him, knowing that there were 150 entries in the 2012 The Australian/Vogel Prize was there anyone who had suggested he enter. Paul admitted that he first entered the Vogel when he was 20 years old and has always secretly harboured the desire to win.

Paul teaches at a co-ed school in Melbourne’s western suburbs and I wondered if his students had read the book. He said that they hadn’t read drafts but they were aware he was writing a novel.  I’m sure, that by next week, there will be a lot of his students buying Eleven Seasons to get brownie points!

Thursday, 19 April 2012

A Morning With Elliot Perlman

This morning Shearer's very happily played host to one of our favourite Australian authors, Elliot Perlman.  

Having recently found out that Elliot Perlman's The Street Sweeper has made onto the Miles Franklin Longlist, we were poised to ask him all about how he had got to this most recent significant point in his career. And we certainly weren't disappointed. Elliot is a natural speaker who left the audience feeling like they'd had a real insight into this talented local author's perspective on life. Over the space of an hour and a half he regaled us all with a multitude of entertaining stories that spanned from his original motivation for becoming a writer through to some rather interesting key research moments, all conducted in the name of business.

One of these, for his 2003 Miles Franklin Shortlisted novel Seven Types of Ambiguity, culminated in Elliot becoming possibly the only man in history to demand that his payment for a room in a brothel show up on his credit card for tax purposes. As was pointed out by an audience member this morning, Elliot is a great observer of people, which you can see in the astute rendering of his characters. Even as a solicitor, he quipped, he was always watching the body language of his clients as they left his office, looking for representations of their disappointment or otherwise. And despite knowing he couldn't bill for this time.

So when Elliot was living in New York writing Seven Types of Ambiguity it became obvious to both him and his girlfriend of the time that he was going to have to interview some prostitutes, to get a real insight into their thought patterns and the reasoning behind their unusual work choice. After being pestered by his girlfriend to 'go and visit some whores already' Elliot got past his initial awkwardness and found a brothel with women willing to tell their tales, only to find that the only space available for individual interviews was in one of the working bedrooms. And that to use one you had to pay for one. After weighing it up, Elliot called his accountant to check on the viability of writing off an hour in a brothel as work expenses on tax. 'As long as it comes up on your credit card' was the answer, and so Elliot found himself in the unusual situation of having both his girlfriend and accountant sanction his spending of money in a brothel. For interview purposes only of course.

Although people's focus has very naturally been on the success of The Street Sweeper recently, the conversation this morning swung towards Elliot's backlist of titles, which are varied and definitely worth getting into, for those of you who have only recently discovered his work. The well-researched and deeply moving Seven Types of Ambiguity mentioned above blew so many people away, from critics to judges to members of our own staff, with everyone pulling something different out of this multi-layered work. Our own Barbara managed to surprise Elliot by skipping over the prostitutes, corruption, empty marriages and gambling to ask him about what was to her the most significantly moving scene, in which a mother takes away her daughter's night-light, leaving the child haunted by the fear she's done something to upset her mother and bring on this punishment.

The conversation then swung to discuss what inspired Elliot to become an author, something which dates back to his disdain for the Enid Blyton-esque books his sister loved, but he felt just 'weren't my business'. What did he care for 'English children going up and then down trees and drinking lemonade'? It took instead the illicit lure of the books beside his mother's bed, which were reserved for her teaching and hence out of bounds, to capture Elliot's interest. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, about the Soviet concentration camp system, succeeded where The Famous Five couldn't, and Elliot never looked back. Elliot talked about how books were an escape for him as a child at a time when his parent's divorce and his moving school meant he was particularly lonely saying, 'If I can give the kind of comfort to one person that I got from books, I'll be content'.

Elliot still believes that the 19th century was one of the historical peaks of literature, a period of writing including authors like Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and George Eliot that he says really shaped his view on literature. But he also mentioned that as a student in the 80s, he was strongly affected by Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, of which he kept he kept three copies, one for each parent's house and one well-thumbed one in the glove box of his car, all bought at independent bookstores, of course.

It was a great morning for all involved, so make sure you don't miss Elliot next time he swings by for a chat, which he's promised will be sooner rather than later. Click here to read about when Elliot visited us to talk about The Street Sweeper in October last year.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Orange Prize for Fiction 2012: The Shortlist

The Orange Prize for Fiction is the UK's only annual book award for fiction written by a woman. This year's shortlist is an impressive mixture of established favourites  (Anne Enright, Cynthia Ozick and Ann Patchett) and new writers including Esi Edugyan whose Half  Blood Blues was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The list's diveristy also extends across the age, nationality, genre and voice of each writer with perhaps the strongest commmonality amongst them being the promise of a good read in each of their works.

Orange Prize for Fiction Shortlist:
Esi Edugyan (Canadian)  Half Blood Blues (2nd novel)

 Anne Enright (Irish) The Forgotten Waltz (5th novel)

 Georgina Harding (British) Painter of Silence (3rd novel)

Madeline Miller (American) The Song of Achilles (1st novel)

 Cynthia Ozick (American) Foreign Bodies (7th novel)

Ann Patchett (American) State of Wonder (6th novel)

Friday, 13 April 2012

A Chat With Andy Griffiths

Just Doomed is the Andy Griffiths’ and Terry Denton’s eighth book in the Just series. Griffith’s’ books have sold over 3 million copies worldwide, have featured on the New York Times bestseller lists, and have won over 30 Australian children’s choice awards. To mark the occasion of the publication of Just Doomed, I phoned him up for a chat.

Since being introduced to Terry Denton by a publisher back in 1997, the pair have published 24 children’s books together. It has been a productive and inspiring creative relationship. Just Tricking was their first collaboration in 1997 but overtime their collaborative working relationship has changed.

‘It used to be, particularly with the Just series, that I would do about 80% and Terry 20%. I’d write the words and then send it to Terry and he would draw all over my words and any empty space he could find’, said Griffiths.

But The Bad Book really began to change things and how we worked. The Bad Book, followed by The Cat on the Mat is Flat and the Cow Kapow, were much more about both of us creatively collaborating from the start. This continued with The Very Bad Book and The Body Parts Book when I discovered that Terry could draw quite medical drawings. But it wasn’t until, as part of the writing Just Doomed, that I asked if Terry could draw me a tree house. He drew the most elaborate and beautifully idiosyncratic tree house that it deserved its own book.’ This became The 13 Storey Tree House, published last year.

The Just series works on a number of different levels. The books are all short stories, or lists or diary entries that feature the same characters. There’s craziness and grossness and laugh out loud stupidity throughout and nothing ever gets too dark and emotional – other than the character Andy’s long running crush on Lisa Mackney.

‘Andy is a tragic romantic’, the real Andy Griffiths says. ‘And his unrequited love is based on my real crush on the real Lisa Mackney when we were at school’, he said. Confused yet?

‘When I wrote Just Tricking’, Andy says, ‘I never thought it would take off in the way it did, so I wrote the characters with all my old childhood friends names, the streets are the ones I used to live on. The teachers are named and based on my real teachers.’ Has he had any complaints from the now much older Lisa, Danny and the rest?

‘Well, once Just Tricking took off, I had a problem. Some people weren’t happy that their real names were used but others were fine about it and some I had embedded so deeply into the story that I couldn’t change them – like Danny and Lisa.’ Luckily, the real Lisa Mackney is quite happy to be featured in Griffiths’ books and they are good friends again. Danny Pickett has always remained a friend and is, according to Griffiths, ‘absolutely idiotic’ as Andy in the books describes him. ‘He is a great friend. Always up for anything. Always smiling.’

Some of the inspiration for the Just series comes from observing children and seeing how they interact with the world around them. ‘There’s a story about a trip to a museum in Just Doomed, Griffiths explains. ‘I happened to see these boys at a museum and they were really not paying attention to anything the guide was saying. They were just doing their own thing and enjoying themselves. They weren’t really learning anything but were having a good time and I thought, that’s what Danny and Andy would be doing at the museum.’

Museum Guide:
Hi, I’m Chris your museum guide. If there is anything you want to know please ask me? 
Student 1: Have you got a girlfriend?
 Student 2: Do you like cheese?
 Student 3: Were you embarrassed when you pooped in your nappy when you were a baby?

And for those fans of Griffith’s re-writing of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Just Macbeth, there’s more Shakespeare in Just Doomed. This time, Griffiths does a re-working of Romeo and Juliet. Just Macbeth, Griffiths parody of Macbeth, was very successful both as a touring play for the Bell Shakespeare Company and as a book.

‘Five years ago, the Bell Shakespeare Company rang me and asked if I’d like to work on a re-working of Shakespeare as they were trying to get younger children into their shows’, he said. During the writing of the play and the book, Griffiths re-discovered Shakespeare as an entertainer.

‘When I hit Shakespeare in secondary school it was so foreign and I realised that [by re-writing Shakespeare] I could introduce kids to the world of Shakespeare’s stage craft, his words and the idea of performance’, he said.  ‘Once I began looking I found all sorts of parallels with the Just world – unrequited love, friendships, parents’.

Romeo and Juliet features in diary form in Just Doomed and Griffiths has just finished writing the script adaptation for the Bell Shakespeare Company. ‘It was a lot of fun to do especially after struggling in vain for years with a re-writing of Hamlet. Hamlet was too non-linear and dark.’ The Andy Griffith’s version of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet and Danny, Lisa and Me, will be on stage by 2013. ‘Shakespeare really surprises you with how modern and funny he his,’ Griffiths said. For now though, kids (and adults) will have to get their fix of Shakespearean Griffiths in Just Doomed.

‘I remember growing up with really special books and that’s what I want to give kids. I want them to read my books and say ‘that was great’ and then run off to get a second one,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to teach them anything other than quite simply, reading. I want all kids to be able to read to a good level so they can live their lives as best they can,’ Griffiths said. He is an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) for this very reason.

‘Resources are so limited in remote Aboriginal communities. Often these kids are speaking four or five languages at home and they don’t meet English until they go to school. They don’t have books until school so their literacy is incredibly limited and limiting. If you can’t read you can’t understand documents that effect your life, or the labels on medicine bottles or have a choice about whether you stay in the community or not. The ILF is in on the ground floor working community by community. It is incredibly significant work,’ he said.

Out of his workshops with Aboriginal children has come the book The Naked Boy and the Crocodile. The thirteen stories included in the book tell tales of playing with friends, riding motorbikes, picking berries, hunting for emu eggs and wild pigs, terrifying turkeys and angry mamus. All proceeds from sales of the book go back to the ILF.

This feeds directly into one of Griffiths’ overriding philosophies – ‘words are to be played with and not to be feared’. I have to ask him whether he finds a perverse pleasure in having his Bumosaurus series reach the New York Times bestsellers lists and therefore having the word ‘butt’ (Americans don’t understand the word ‘bum’) published in that august newspaper.

‘Of course’, he says. ‘What was even better though was I went to the USA on a book tour with Zombie Butts from Uranus. It was hilarious, we’d be in some great big Barnes & Noble bookstore for an event and the announcement would come over the loudspeaker ‘if you are here for the Zombie Butts from Uranus event…’ and everyone in the store would just fall apart. It was great.’

With the publication of 13th Storey Treehouse last year, it felt as though Denton and Griffiths’ creative partnership had really taken a major creative leap forward.

‘That’s quite true,’ Griffiths says. ‘Once we had the tree house we began to play with ideas of who and what would live in it’, he said. ‘Kids are always writing to me asking about how Terry and I work together and so we thought it might be a fun idea to create an imaginary tree house where Andy and Terry draw and write together while cooking up experiments in the basement and avoiding the sharks in the swimming pool’, he said.

The 13 Storey Tree House
contains all the elements of the Just books but with an overarching story. ‘Kids love a narrative and we wanted to capture that energy from the Just books as well,’ he said.

The 26 Storey Tree House is out in September and The 39 Storey Tree House is out next year. Dizzying heights of silliness will be reached but until then, we have Just Doomed, a laugh out loud and crazy passion-filled book for lovers and laughers all.

You can find out more than you ever wanted to know about Andy Griffiths on his website here:

And Terry Denton here:

And the Indigenous Literacy Foundation here:


Miles Franklin Longlist 2012

We’ve been very excited since the announcement of the Miles Franklin Longlist for this year, for a couple of very good reasons. Firstly, because we’re delighted that some of our favourites from last year have found their way onto the list. And secondly, because while the Miles Franklin has been criticised in recent years for its lack of female authors, this year’s longlist includes 7 fantastic female writers, as part of a truly diverse group of interesting Australian books that everyone can get stuck into! Here are a few of our favourites that made the list.

Having Kate Grenville come in to the shop last year to talk about her coming-of-age novel, Sarah Thornbill,  was one of our 2011 event highlights. Kate is passionate about Australian storytelling, particularly when it comes to personal stories. Her renowned 2005 novel, The Secret River, was shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin and the Man Booker Prize so we’re excited to see if this latest Grenville novel makes the short list. Sarah Thornbill continues the story of the Thornbill family in Grenville’s compelling style that interweaves historical fact and fiction seamlessly. The release of this third book in the Hawkesbury River trilogy has been described as an historical event in Australian literature, so if you haven’t emersed yourself in any of Grenville’s classic Australian novels yet, right now is the perfect time to do it.

Sarah Thornbill isn’t the only final book in a classic Australian trilogy to make it on to the Miles Franklin longlist this year, with the Frank Moorhouse’s final long anticipated final book in the Edith trilogy, Cold Light, also making the list. This final episode in Frank’s trilogy about the League of Nations is stunning and we’re very glad it made the list. Edith Campbell Berry is a personal favourite character among some of the Shearer’s staff, for her plucky take on life. Those of you with long memories may remember the controversy that surrounded the rejection of the first of the Edith books from the Miles Franklin in 1994. Grand Days was excluded from the award because it wasn’t deemed sufficiently Australian, but the second in the series, Dark Palace won the award in 2001, so we’re very interested to see how this final novel goes as the awards start to roll in.

Anna Funder’s gripping first work of fiction, All That I Am, has also made it on to the longlist, which we’re very excited about. Anna’s non-fiction work Stasiland won her acclaim and now it looks like her fiction works are going to do the same! All That I Am is a thrilling tale that is based around a true story, and interweaves the stories of two characters connected to resistance in Nazi Germany. It is a tale about ravery and betrayal that will grip you, and we were lucky enough to have Anna in to talk to us about it last year. We were all captivated by Anna’s reading of two of the passages from this novel, and her discussion about the relationship between fiction and history in fiction writing. All That I Am is not to be missed!

We’re looking forward to seeing what Elliot Perlman has to say about his nomination for The Street Sweeper when he comes in to the shop for his talk next week. Elliot’s eloquent description of the importance of fiction when he came in to speak to us last year had us all hanging on to his every word, so we can’t wait to have him in again! The Street Sweeper was one of our top picks from last year so we’re very glad it made it on to the longlist. If you haven’t given yourself the chance to be swept away by this book yet, get your hands on one now!

Miles Franklin Longlist 2012
Tony Birch, Blood
Steven Carroll, The Spirit of Progress
Mark Dapin, Spirit House
Virginia Duigan, The Precipice
Anna Funder, All That I Am
Kate Grenville, Sarah Thornhill
Gail Jones, Five Bells
Gillian Mears, Foal’s Bread
Alex Miller, Autumn Laing
Frank Moorhouse, Cold Light
Favel Parrett, Past The Shallows
Elliot Perlman, The Street Sweeper
Charlotte Wood, Animal People

To celebrate their nomination, Allen & Unwin are offering the ebooks of Animal People, Autumn Laing and and Foal's Bread for the special price of $19.99 until April 30. You can purchase copies here, on our ebooks store.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

We Chat With Candida Baker

Candida Baker's latest novel, The Wisdom of Women, is a celebration of womanhood and the highs and lows that come with it. We're all aware that women have a special type of wisdom and luckily Candy has taken some time out to answer some questions about why she was drawn to write about it.

Hi Candy, thanks a lot for taking time out to answer our questions! Let's get started.
 Your book The Wisdom of Women  is about women and the journeys they face in their lives.  What journeys in your life led you to write this book?

I am the eldest of five daughters, I've been a step-mum to two girls, and I'm the mother of a daughter - plus I've always had very close friendships with women.  I'd been thinking of writing a book about women for a long time, but wasn't quite sure how to do it.  When people enjoyed my other previous animal anthologies – The Infinite Magic of Horses, The Wonderful World of Dogs and The Amazing Life of Cats, I thought perhaps that same format could be used to tell women’s stories – from childhood onwards.  My journey as a daughter was not easy, my mum was an alcoholic, and I left England to live first in France at the age of 19, and then I moved permanently to Australia when I was 22.  In many ways I have had to learn lessons I should have learned as a child, as an adult.  The thing I noticed with the anthologies is that people really responded to the fact that mainly it was not writers telling their stories, it was just ordinary people with extraordinary things to say – and also how comforting I found it, and how comforting readers find it to realise that they are not along – that someone, somewhere has gone through the same or a similar situation.

Who are the women in your life that have inspired you?

I’ve been inspired by many women.  When I was little my mother was extremely inspirational – she was a costume designer and an artist, and I learned from her that being creative was a wonderful thing to be; from my fabulous Irish grandmother I learned that being eccectric was also a wonderful thing to be, and from my sisters that being unconditionally loving and supportive is the only way to be!  I’ve been lucky to work with some great women – Anne Summers for instance at the Good Weekend magazine, and other many strong and powerful women have passed through my life.  Where I live now there is a certain tribe of women who own horses and animals and are also extremely creative in their lives, and I hope I belong to that tribe!

What were some of the most memorable stories that women shared with you?

There are many wonderful stories in The Wisdom of Women – almost too many to choose from!  I think one that touched me deeply was Zenith Virago’s description of how she became a death celebrant, and how, when her best friend died, she was holding her head when Sylvia’s spirit passed from her body.  There’s everything from a tiny piece a friend of my daughter’s wrote about her mother, to Helen Brown’s funny piece about her great-aunt.  There’s stories of women not being able to conceive, women giving birth, women watching loved ones going through crises...almost everything that could happen to a woman is in the book I think!

Why Wisdom of Women?  Is there a quality in women that set them apart
from men?
We thought of a lot of titles before we settled on The Wisdom of Women – we decided that it really reflected the journey the book takes, as we travel from childhood to adulthood to old age, and the lessons we learn on the way.  I also love the fact that it’s called WoW – because we are WOW, no doubt about it!  We wanted the book to seem like a conversation, where you could dip into a person simply telling their story to you, and it would be part of that wonderful network we share as women with our friends, where chatting and cups of tea and comfort are SO important.  It’s not that men aren’t wise, of course they are – it’s just that this book is about female wisdom.

Did you take the photographs in the book?

I took most of the photographs in the book, yes.  A couple were given to me by a wonderful photographer near where I live, Jacklyn Wagner, and the rest I took.  Taking the photographs for all the anthologies has been extremely rewarding.  I think as an editor what I always enjoyed was the packaging of words and images, and in a sense the anthologies are an extension of that.

You talk about editing – did you enjoy working with people on their stories?

Very much!  In fact I loved working with all the women on their stories, and again with all the other anthology contributors as well – it’s been the most satisfying process, and I hope it has been for them.  I think taking stories that might normally just belong privately to people out into a wider universe is a wonderful thing to be able to do and I hope to be able to continue to do that.