Thursday, 28 June 2012

Event: Morning Tea with Tom Keneally

We were treated last Friday to a visit from Australia’s inveterate storyteller, Tom Keneally, here at Shearer’s to discuss his new novel Daughters of Mars over morning tea. Tom joked that he’s written so many books now that he needs to check the cover before he begins an event to make sure he’s speaking about the right one. Daughters of Mars is his 29th book!

Daughters of Mars is a World War I novel written from the perspective of the nurses rather than the soldiers. The story begins in the Macleay Valley of NSW with two sisters, Sally and Naomi Durance. Both are nurses, one leaving to find a new life in the big smoke of Sydney and the other staying at home, juggling work with caring for their aged parents.

When The Great War begins they volunteer, both of them hiding a dark secret concerning their mother’s mysterious death. The war brings them first to Egypt, and Tom spoke about painting a picture of wartime Cairo, with the sisters climbing the pyramids in the moonlight and dinners in Alexandria.

But in Gallipoli the Durance sisters witness first hand the worst the war has to offer. Tom spent a long time speaking about meaty shrapnel wounds and faces burnt from mustard gas, and while it was a little early in the morning, he spoke so eloquently that everyone was fascinated and hanging on his every word. Listening to Tom tell a story is such a wonderful experience and he’s an effortless speaker, often chuckling to himself with his charming belly laugh.

Tom was inspired to write Daughters of Mars after reading the journals of two Australian nursing sisters written during the Great War, and found an interesting story emerge from these diaries about the status of women at that time and how they had to stand up for themselves. He mentioned Florence Nightingale and how she legitimised nursing, but in the military structures often nurses were forced to do skivvy work and weren’t permitted to treat the men directly, just as Naomi and Sally are when they’re in Gallipoli.

With a quick nod to Tom’s skiing partner, Bryan Brown, who also came to the morning tea to hear him speak, Tom then took us to France, telling us about a young soldier in the novel who had been wounded, and being treated by the younger sister Sally, unable to confront the devastating trauma that he’s endured.

And while it’s a novel about war, there’s also an element of love, with both sisters finding love on the battlefield. But these women are reminded by the continual arrival of soldiers that their men can’t escape this Great War that all of young mankind at the time seem to be falling victim. 

Daughters of Mars is a novel with immense scope: covering heroes and cowards, men and women, the changing face of medicine, conscription, sibling love and so much more. An hour wasn’t enough for him to cover everything and so Tom concluded by saying - ‘For once I won’t tell you what happens, read on!’

If you weren’t able to make it to morning tea with Tom, we have lots of signed copies of Daughters of Mars still available in the store. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Event: NSW Writers' Centre Course Program Launch and Inaugural Author Genre Mash-Up

Tonight Shearer’s held the NSW Writers’ Centre July-December Course Program launch where authors were invited to pitch a book idea completely out of their genre and their comfort zone! Stories that have never been told were earnestly sold, with results beyond the unassuming readers’ wildest imaginations!

Crime writer PM Newton (author of The Old School) was given a brief to write a self-help book for children – admitting she doesn’t read self-help books and doesn’t have children! Wandering through such “dangerous” ideas as ‘Sharpen the Saw’ and ‘Even Firefighters Poop’, PM ends up pitching a series of books that star Dexter Dung Beetle, addressing toilet training                                                           for toddlers, and resulting in raucous 
                                                         laughter from all present!

Young adult author James Roy (author of Town) was given the brief to pitch spiritual or supernatural erotica with side-splitting similes, puns, and “not-so-subtle” product placement - even approaching a hardware company for funding! ‘Fifty Shades of Blah’ is a tale of naughty Bunny who enjoys visiting the local hardware store to get “hammered, nailed and very rarely bolted”.

Graphic novelist Pat Grant (author of Blue) was given the brief of mashing a sci-fi with elements of a cookbook. His novel begins each chapter with a recipe, telling the pre-apocolyptic, post-industrial sci-fi tale of the successes of pro-biotics in writing history and solving mankind’s woes! It is the writers of recipes that rule this dystopian futuristic world congested with 
                     predators and poverty.

Several audience members contributed with their own mashed-up genre-benders, with side-achingly hilarious and oft very surprising results! Jennie, “not a writer, but a playwright”, called for any producers in the room to come forward to produce her ‘Travelling with Great Expectations’ – fan fiction mashed with a travel guide. Philippa pitched a horror tale and a gardening book, including such creepy tips as how to keep your tools sharp! Both were awarded with the best pitch idea, winning a free course at the NSW Writers’ Centre. Congratulations ladies!

We have free NSW Writers’ Centre course programs in store, so make sure you pop in on your travels and pick one up!

-By Stef

Miles Franklin 2012 Winner Announced!

Shearer’s Bookshop stood silent in quivering anticipation tonight for the announcement of the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award winner. Speculations have abounded, with everyone throwing in their bit and bob, with many favourites being booted out with the announcement of the Shortlist. The seconds stretched, and hearts quickened – the hour was upon us! Blogs became congested as one name stood above the rest – “Anna Funder”.

Shearer's would like to congratulate Anna Funder on winning the Miles Franklin award for 2012 for her gripping first work of fiction All That I Am. Funder rose to fame and great critical acclaim for her non-fiction title Stasiland, a polyvocal tale about the resistance to the East German regime, and those who worked for the secret police, the Stasi.

All That I Am is based on a true story of bravery, betrayal and resistance to Nazi Germany. Lovers and friends are hunted, exiled and haunted by the ghosts of a part of history that will never be forgotten. Compassionate and unsentimental, complex and ambitious – All That I Am sweeps through love and history, humanity and tyranny to paint a picture too important not to experience.

We have a All That I Am display, and copious copies of all the shortlisted titles in store.

Congratulations also to the Miles Franklin Shortlist 2012:

Tony Birch

Gillian Mears
Foal's Bread

Frank Moorhouse
Cold Light

Favel Parrett
Past The Shallows

-By Stef

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Book Review: Eleven Seasons

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Eleven Seasons was just another book about a young footy star doing his thing and discovering more about himself as a result. Sports narratives generally focus on the triumphalist - a season serves as a mirror, showing how sticking to your guns/following your heart/never giving up will see you rise and see success in your life. Makes sense, right? But this type of story doesn't win a Vogel prize, as Eleven Seasons claim to have done.

In the first few chapters, Eleven Seasons threatens to follow this vein - a moody adolescent lives with his single mother and sees football as both a passion and an escape from his miserable everyday life. However littered throughout these opening stages are hints of things to come, with the casual racism and misogyny of schoolboys, the class boundaries and the undercurrents of 'macho culture' that is already rearing its ugly head in the seemingly innocent world of schoolboy footy. What follows promises to serve as a juicy juxtaposition between To Kill A Mockingbird and Specky Magee...

Initially, we are immersed in the mind of an incommunicative teenager, confused about his lot in life and certain about just one thing - he was put on the earth to play football. It appears as though he is only fully worthy on the field and without it, things would become unstuck. As the book progresses, however, it becomes apparent that football can as much break a man as it can make it man - indeed, the 'football culture' is responsible for a dark secret in his mother's life, one which consumes Jason some years later. Football, the stresses of his day-to-day reality and self-expectations and a new group of 'cool' friends are responsible for his gradual decline, resulting in ejection from the very team he idolised and fought to hard to be a part of. From this point, the hinted inevitabilities are realised and Jason descends into a dark spiral of parties and drugs which results in the disintegration of his relationship with his mother and throws his future and everything he has strived for into doubt. At this point, you don't know whether to feel sorry for Jason or to scream at him to realise the consequences of his actions and to stop being such a narrow-minded boofhead.

When Jason returns in part 2 after a few lost years in the Gold Coast, he is still firmly entrenched in the male-worshipping culture that surrounded him in his adolescence, although this half of the book concerns him trying to make amends and trying to get his life back on track. He is still haunted by the remnants of his past life, but is focused on righting the wrongs and doing the best he can with the opportunities he is given. Football now returns as a medium by which to achieve this and while he does not quite rekindle his former passion, it certainly serves as an important part of his life - after all, it is all he knows. This part of the story becomes either 'nice' or 'soft' (depending on your mindset), as Jason attempts to fix his broken life and heal old wounds, including re-establishing his relationship with his mother. it is a mark of Paul D. Carter's skill that he is able to write about Jason in a way that is both accessible and understandable, as we are let deep into his tortured mind and even start to feel a little sorry for him. We begin to understand his predicament, its affects on his behaviour and the complexities of the adolescent mind are made clear. As a teenager reading the book, I was very impressed by Carter's ability to get inside Jason's head and accurately present the tangled rush of emotions and changes that occur during adolescence.
Even though this book appears to be aimed towards a young adult market, it has much to offer adult readers with a taste for thoughtful fiction about emotions and relationships in the vein of Elliot Perlman or Julian Barnes. Certainly it presents sides of the sporting culture and brute facts about growing up that are often ignored, un-noticed or hushed away, bringing to the fore the fragility of the 'football fantasy' and the destructive facets of this fantasy world. It is no small testament to Carter's abilities that he has been able to explore these issues in a book that even Jason would finish.

Eleven Seasons? Eleven fast-flowing chapters - a river sometimes smooth, sometimes turbulent, but constantly engaging.


Friday, 8 June 2012

Author Interview: Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller’s new book, The Year of the Gadfly, centres around Mariana Academy, an austere high school that sits in a cold and grey town a long way from the busy-ness of Boston, the sun of California or the ‘cool’ of New York City. The school’s gothic feel is added to by the deathly serious honour code: ‘Brotherhood, Truth, and Equality for All’.

Ostensibly, the school is run by its students but Prisom's Party, a secret society named after the school's founder, has been troubling these studious halls, declaiming the student community code as an empty motto - and exposing teachers, students, and the school for every indiscretion or dishonesty.

Weaving two periods of time and two central characters, Lily in 2000 and Iris in 2012, Jennifer Miller tells a mystery, both intriguing and lethal. Complete with Latin, biology, psychology, and a bit of cultural affairs, the book is a complex look at coming of age, biology and grief. 

I asked Jennifer, who lives in New York, a few questions via email, about her fascinating novel.

PN: The Year of the Gadfly centres around extremophiles and uses these precious, but little known, organisms as a motif throughout. When did you first come across extremophiles?

JM: One of the characters in the book is based on my high school boyfriend, Ben, who was killed in a car accident the summer before our senior year. That summer, Ben had an internship studying the early origins of life with a group of scientists in Washington, DC. The journal article the scientists published after Ben's death was all about extremophiles – mico-organisms that thrive in extreme environments. 

PN: Are you now, after writing the book, or have you always been, fascinated by extremophiles? What can microbiology teach us?

JM: I 'd never heard of extremophiles until a few years after Ben's death, when I read the article his research team published. I was reminded of how Ben himself seemed to thrive under intense academic pressure – just like many extremophiles thrive under intense pressure at the bottom of the ocean. That was how these micro-organisms became a metaphor for high school, which is a pretty extreme social environment. 

PN: Which character was the impetus for you to write the story? Or what was the seed of the idea that got you writing?

JM: I'd say that Lily and Justin were the seeds of this story. Lily's lack of confidence and reluctance to date Justin is very similar to my own situation with Ben. In fact, the first date between the two of them is almost an exact replication of my first date with Ben – straight down to the bacon cheeseburger and the extremely awkward first kiss.

PN: Which part of the story did you write first?

JM: There's a moment toward the end of the novel, where Justin and his twin brother Jonah get up early for an Academic League tournament. Jonah's room is so cold that he decides to pee out the window instead of walking to the bathroom. This scene was initially the opening one –and now it's near the end of the novel!

PN: Did you have a teacher like Jonah when you were at school? What was that like?

JM: I did have teachers who encouraged us to think critically about what we were learning and encouraged freedom of thought. I also had some teachers who seemed to enjoy being demanding (and even mean). I think Jonah takes his teaching style to extremes – and I'm happy I never encountered that. The scientific experiment that he makes his class participate in is kind of sadistic. 

PN: Because the nuance is so precise in regards to the relationships between the characters, I wondered if you were basing some of the fictional events in the book on real events?

JM: I talked about that a bit in the previous questions. Lily, Justin, and Jonah are definitely based on real people. (Jonah was inspired by my younger brother.) It's interesting question though, because the character of Iris, who's really the star of the book, isn't based on anyone in particular. 

PN: Ed Murrow, the famous and well-respected American journalist, appears as Iris’ imaginary friend, and I was curious whether there is something quite specific you are threading through the novel about the ethics of modern day news reporting?

JM: Absolutely. In the 24-hour news cycle, modern television reporting in particular is all about sound bites and surface-level analysis. In the 1950's, there wasn't that pressure to constantly be feeding viewers information, so Murrow could take the time to investigate his sources and topics deeply. I think it's wonderful that the internet has made journalism more democratic – anyone can start a blog, for example. But I also think that a lot of accuracy and accountability has been lost, because everyone is trying to get their information out there at lightening speed. 

PN: Some of the characters in the book are able to grow beyond their high school selves. Others are not. Do you think high school is something none of us can forget?

JM: I think we're all deeply affected by high school – either positively or negatively. That's the most formative time in our lives. We feel the most deeply as teenagers. We hunger the most. But we also have the least control over our own lives.

PN: And what is your next book?

JM: I'm writing about a young woman who flees her fiancé, when he returns from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She ends up traveling across the US on a motorcycle with her dad, who is a Vietnam vet.
The Year of the Gadfly is available in the shop now.