Friday, December 29, 2006

Home for the holidays

This is our climate. We have grown up in this air, this light, and we grasp it on the skin, where it grasps us. We know this earth, this polished red stone with the soles of our feet. We will never be ourselves anywhere else. Happier, perhaps, healthier, less burdened, more secure. But we will never be closer to who we are than this.
~ Ivan Vladislavic, Portrait with Keys

I'm at home for a week or two, where the air is still full of smoke from the bushfires and eucalyptus oil, even after a day or so of rain.
It was 35 when I got off the plane and the dams are empty - the taste of summerfruit in drought is that much more intense - but it snowed in the mountains on Christmas Day. Weird.
It takes a while to adjust my eyes to the light, grey leaves and brown grass after green and lush NZ. But then I came face to face with a koala near the river opposite our house (I'm not sure which of us was most surprised).
I'll be back in Auckland in time to watch the fireworks.
Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Who owns history?

Yes, I know I promised to post about this weeks ago, but I had to think about it, and thinking takes more time than has been available lately. But that's another story.
First up, I've read the two books du jour: Kate Grenville's The Secret River and Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip; both centred on interaction between races at the fringes of Empire, in very different ways and set in completely different eras/worlds, and both climax in episodes of brutal horror.
Neither was the brilliant read I was expecting after all the build up, but that might be more about the antipathy of anticipation than any flaw in the novels. Mind you, I must have missed something in Mister Pip, since everyone in NZ raves about it. Indeed I did nearly miss the climax because I blinked at the critical sentence and had to retrace my steps - the earth-shattering event is only a tiny blip of a phrase. I hate that.
The Secret River, though, held a particular disappointment specifically because of the huge debate it, and Grenville, have generated about the ways in which fiction can be used to explore and reflect historical events.
Grenville, you may recall, regrettably held it up as being somehow more insightful and "real" than works of history, and precipitated a rather heated discussion on the Left about the role of fiction in history, rather than the expected furore from the Right about whether any of the colonists ever committed atrocities.
But setting the debate aside for a moment, I was expecting to read something I had never before encountered: new ways of addressing the history of invasion and conquest, and the impact of early Australian colonisation on both indigenous and imported communities.
But I didn't. I certainly didn't learn or understand anything new about the time or the violence or the people that I hadn't read years ago, in history by Manning Clark or Robert Hughes, let alone the historians of the last two decades; in novels of a generation before Grenville - say, Herbert or Stow; or even in the poetry and essays of Judith Wright.
So I'm not sure why the fuss. That's not a criticism of the book, but about the framing of it as a whole new way of looking at the past. Sadly, it's now almost impossible to separate the debate from the work, which is, almost incidentally, very atmospheric and memorable fiction.
To return to the debate: it's been taken up in a fascinating article by Inga Clendinnen in a Quarterly Essay, Who Owns The Past? Clendinnen's main thrust is actually nothing to do with Grenville or the debate about whether novelists or historians are better equipped to write about history.
In fact her central theme is about the cultural or political appropriation of history (teaching, writing, or as received knowledge) to shore up ideology, such as Australian Prime Minister John Howard's insistence that everyone share and be taught his own gung-ho progress-driven neo-Victorian vision of the world. Who Owns the Past? might just as easily be How Does History Make a Nation?
Clendinnen delves into the varying roles of history, story-telling and memory, the part emotion plays in writing and remembering, and the ways in which history - and historians - react and interact with the present. She is, as usual, insightful and apposite:
Our memories are essential: our memories are unreliable. Most of us live with that discomforting paradox. The serious social and political problems begin when stories cease to be personal possessions and come to be owned by a collectivity ... There is comfort in that, but there is a cost, too. Henceforth stories which impugn the now-official account will have to be suppressed.
It is as part of this broader discussion that she takes on Grenville's position of story-telling as a somehow more accurate view of the past (I feel sure Grenville regrets ever having said that her book was the closest we'd ever get to being there).
Clendinnen comes out of her corner fighting, and although I find myself largely in agreement with her, it does seem like a bee in the bonnet which sidetracks us from the main thread of the essay.
She weaves it back in, though, by reinforcing the role of historians as defenders of those who cannot speak for themselves, and whose voices tend to undermine the official chorus.
We have to know the world as it is if we are to change any part in it, and to map the span for human agency so we do not acquiesce in what we could change. Good history might also help us count the cost of inflicting present pain in the expectation of uncertain future benefits.

Funnily enough, I'd suggest that's just the sort of thing Grenville was trying to achieve.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The true story

The Three Wise Men are visiting the Child lying in the manger. One of them was exceptionally tall and smacked his head on the low doorway as he entered the stable.
'Jesus Christ!' he exclaimed.
'Write that one down, Mary,' said Joseph. 'It's better than Alphonse'

We've put our specially commissioned knitted Nativity scene out. It was made for us earlier this year by an extremely clever friend of a friend in South Auckland.

My tips for Nativity stories for children:
Wombat Divine by Mem Fox, illustrated by Kerry Argent.
Cat in the Manger by Michael Foreman.

And I just read that Ian Serrallier's The Silver Sword has been re-published for its 50th anniversary. No real link (although I read it one Christmas many summers ago flat on my stomach on the beach - incongruous given that its characters are mostly freezing throughout this World War 2 narrative). But I re-read it this year and it's as moving as I remembered - might help cast light on the modern refugee experience for young readers now.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

In the post

Just got a huge stack of letters from everyone in Grade 5 at Aitken College, which I visited a couple of months ago. Fabulous letters, all decorated with pirate ships and flags, and lots of pictures of the chalice that appears in Ocean Without End and which surprisingly seems to have captured everyone's attention. It's fascinating to read how they all see the characters.
One of my favourite comments comes from Jake, who is hedging his bets like a true pirate:
This is the first pirate story I have ever read and I think it will be the best. Everything in the book sounds so cool. I haven't started reading the second book but I think it will be the best. But then again the third book might be even better than 1 and 2.

Now, that's cool. Cheers Jake - and everyone at Aitken.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The counter-counter-counter Reformation

The book I’m working on at present is set in the 17th century, amidst the Church’s crackdown on the dreaded printed word.
Should you wonder what relevance this might have for young readers of today, think again:
In August 2003, two Michigan pastors, T.D. Turner Sr. and son T.D. Turner Jr., took a stand against sorcery by burning a Harry Potter book outside their Jesus Non-Denominational Church. The younger Turner, Tommy, says that while he hadn't read the book, the cover alone showed him it promoted wizardry, adding that Potter-related Web sites were gateways to harder stuff. The last straw came when a local girl tried to perform a magic spell. (She was unable, as far as we can tell, to turn anybody into a newt.)
"Parents [have to] realize this is more than a fictional book," says Turner. "It's attached to the occult."

Read the entire sad story of "Harry Potter and the Ministry of Fire" over at Forbes.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Life

Over at The Guardian there's an extract from Victoria Glendinning's new biography of the strangely underestimated Leonard Woolf.
The book's been highly-praised so far, and rightly so, judging by this brief extract.
Eclipsed in fame - and, it must be said, in fiction writing ability - by his wife, perhaps one of Leonard's most remarkable feats was the impact of his writing on the formation of the illustrious but disastrous League of Nations. It was the hope of many, including Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, in a time where hope was a rare thing, and the precursor in many ways to the UN. Leonard's powerful words formed its ideological basis.
The poor man spent much of his later life defending himself and Virginia against a whole range of charges from feminist writers and literary critics who portrayed him as a weak and inferior being who never supported her; or some kind of unfeeling monster (perhaps he and Ted Hughes formed a little support group).
Why everyone picked on him so, I've never known, but I suspect behind all those accusations that he'd virtually driven her to suicide might have been a fundamental and deeply human jealousy that had nothing to do with politics or literary theory. Apparently some have since apologised.
I've never quite managed to plough through Leonard's autobiographies. I swear I will, one day - along with Duff Cooper's and Lees-Milne's diaries and ... But certainly his letters convey an intellect and creativity equal to any in Bloomsbury, and an ethical framework and wisdom on which many of the other fluttering things relied. Not to mention the fact that he was a "penniless Jew" amidst a pack of virulent anti-Semites - no matter how fond one might be of Lytton, Virginia, Vita and Harold, they really could be quite vicious. It comes through in their letters to each other, and their diaries, when they think they are unobserved.
He's vindicated now, at any rate, by Glendinning's book which is now officially (loved ones, take note) on my Christmas wishlist, along with Christopher Ondaatje's Woolf in Ceylon.
"You cannot escape Fate," Leonard Woolf wrote at the end of his life, "and Fate, I have always felt, is not in the future, but in the past."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


A few weeks ago I was browsing through the secondhand bookstall at our local Saturday market, where you can get everything from guitars to fresh crepes to ... well, crap. It's in the grounds of the Returned Soldiers Association clubhouse, so you have to dodge around the light artillery while searching for scones or strange knitted objects.
Anyway, my greedy eyes fell on a book with the name Catherine Jinks on the spine. Imagining it had been wrongly placed in Romance, rather then Young Adult Medieval Fiction (they don't really have a section for that niche, but I like to organise other people's books in my head) I almost moved it to another cardboard box. But since it was a title I hadn't seen before, I thought about buying it.
It really was a romance. A "stirring historical romance in the tradition of ..." etc.
Must be a different Catherine Jinks, I thought, to the creator of Pagan's Crusade and the gritty streetlife of 12th century Jerusalem.
But no. The woman's a chameleon.
And I only knew the half of it.
Here's an interview with her from SMH, which quantifies her work as "30 books that range across young adult, children's and adult genres. She writes historical, horror, chick lit, mystery and science fiction; her latest manuscript is a story about computer-generated porn."
(Nice to see she got a whopper of an advance on her new book in the US.)
Mind you, I didn't buy the romance. Don't care who wrote it.
However, just got back from a dash across the Tasman where I picked up Inga Clendinnan's Quarterly essay on historians versus novelists. Shall report later when I've finished it, as I've also now read The Secret River (apart from anything else, what on earth was all the fuss about?).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The pointy end

Is a manuscript ever really finished?
Of course, if at some point it becomes a book, it's finished in one sense. But perhaps never in the author's mind. One keeps wanting to fiddle, to make alterations and make it better, well beyond the point of no return.
I guess at some point one learns to live with that extra fussy adjective or impossible-to-read-out-loud phrase. Sometimes when I read to kids in schools they read along in their own copies and catch me skipping a phrase or changing a word.
"Hey!" someone shouted one day. Ripped off.
Yesterday I spent most of the day in imaginary Amsterdam circa 1660 then switched to July 1, 1916 (first day of the Battle of the Somme, for those who don't know). I've been redrafting for the umpteenth time the adult WWI novel. There seems to be no end to the slicing and dicing. I'm not sure I'll ever actually stop.

All books are either dreams or swords
You can cut, or you can drug, with words.

~ Amy Lowell

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Imagined history

I like this confession about the juxtaposition of accuracy and imagination in historical fiction, from Isabel Allende Author's Note to her new novel, Inés of My Soul:
"This novel is a work of intuition, but any similarity to events and persons relating to the conquest of Chile is not coincidental."

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Prosecution rests

I was banging on earlier about the subjectivity of blogs. Now I've come across (via Matilda) this discussion on Reading Matters about the ways in which bloggers have been used by businesses (in this case publishers) to promote products - and of course since there's no code of conduct or professional standard, readers have no idea about the influences involved.
Read the initial post and discussion here.

Just give me the facts, ma'am

Australia's Federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan, fresh from deregulating media ownership, delivered the annual Andrew Olle lecture last night in Sydney. According to the ABC, for which the late great Olle once worked:
Senator Coonan said the new digital age has left both journalists and politicians struggling to maintain the foothold into people's homes and minds they once had.
Senator Coonan said she suspects the emergence of the Internet is the closest the media industry has come to its Armageddon, with many warning of the dire consequences for traditional journalism.
But she said the Internet could end up being the best reporting medium ever invented and believes it will only enhance democracy...
Senator Coonan said the growth of blogs and online journalism could have enormous implications for the future of the craft.
"People are no longer just sounding the death knell for the newspaper, but warning of the dire consequences for traditional journalism," she said.

Sure. Traditional print and radio media, in particular, are changing rapidly. But let's not be fooled into thinking that the rise of blogging is an alternative to journalism.
These are some of the ways in which journalism is changing:
~ More people in more places can create news reports, especially sending digital photos, which enhances coverage.
~ Coverage is more immediate, especially in a global sense (although radio has always been capable of that)
~ Coverage is more specific; so that I can watch, say, the US mid-term elections tick over all afternoon sitting in an office in Auckland, instead of waiting for an update in news bulletins.
But journalism has been changing for a long time, and not necessarily in ways that make it more democratic. The steady rise of political interference from networks or proprietors, advertisers, governments, lobbyists and PR people has fundamentally affected the ways in which we see the world.
If anything, the big change wrought by the web is to the business model, not necessarily the craft, although the threat is undeniably there.
Web news outlets can act as a counterpoint to that outside influence, if they are done properly and ... well, like journalism. They can, critically, provide alternative news sources from areas of the world in which media is strictly or covertly controlled.
But by and large the blogosphere is a flurry of electronic pamphlets, an opinion-based media not too much different to the world of Camille Desmoulins; or even the hysterical Puritan William Prynne, who had his ears chopped off by Charles I for expressing his admittedly vile opinions (he argued that theatre was the work of the Devil, complained about the morality of the Stuart court, was branded on the cheek with the letters S L - seditious libeller - and later opposed Cromwell's readmission of the Jews to Britain).
The sorts of apocalyptic outpourings we hear about "traditional journalism" were voiced in Prynne's day too, about the rising threat of the printing press and its democratic nature.
I'm all for the democracy of opinion, and there are a few online media outlets producing high-quality and important news in alternative ways. There are ways in which blogs and websites can and do generate fascinating debates and present a whole range of ideas and information to which we might otherwise never get access. I rejoice in that fact every day.
But let's not fool ourselves. Most blogging is opinion. Some of it is propaganda. All well and good - but it's no more objective journalism than a "Repent or die" pamphlet you find stuck under your windscreen wiper, or the op-ed pieces in the weekend papers. At least most newspapers make disclosures about the affiliations of their commentators. Bloggers don't bother - in fact, many go to great lengths to hide their affiliations, and even their identities.
Many of the politically-influential bloggers are aligned with some faction or other, or are well-established "media commentators" from a lobby group or think tank. Right-wing "trolls" spend their lives searching (trolling) for blogs or websites which voice opinions with which they disagree and then pick fights in the comments section. Some of them are presumably paid to do so, especially in the US. (I'm sure left-wing groups do the same, albeit not on such an organised scale.)
Then the politicians pay attention to these people, just because the opinions are out in the public domain. It's no more journalism - nor, for that matter, genuine public opinion - than shock-jock talkback radio, perhaps even less so, because there are no internal checks and balances like sub-editors, producers or editors making sure that the work is genuine and in line with the ethics of the trade.
But the facets of traditional journalism that matter have not changed:
~ Reporting truth and fact-checking
~ Objectivity
~ Disclosure of vested interest
~ Professional confidentiality of sources
~ Freedom from outside influence.
No matter how much governments may wish it, these elements of so-called traditional journalism, these fundamental freedoms of expression and of access to information, do not face oblivion.
They carry on in media of all varieties, across all platforms, no matter what.
It's called integrity.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Silk threads

History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.
~ Voltaire

I've begun work on the new book, An Act of Faith. Amsterdam, Venice and Seville. Late 16th century. Early printers. Inquisition. Desperate dashes across Europe.
No wonder I couldn't wait to get stuck into it.
Writing's really quite a fabulous thing to do, you know.

Studied indifference

At the weekend I finished my last assignment for my Children's Lit diploma - for this year, anyway. It was quite fun - as I'm studying by distance, they send you a picture book and you have to open the package on the appointed day and analyse the book on the basis of what you've learned over the year.
So it begged the question: what have I learned?
Firstly, I've learned that I could have written a whole book in the time I've spent studying this year, so I've had to weigh up whether or not it's been worth it.
It has, in one sense. After my Masters, I had sworn that I'd never study again until I reached retirement age, which seems like the only realistic time to do a PhD.
But then I developed this unexpected career in writing for kids, and felt like I needed to understand a whole lot more about the field, and particularly about picture books, which I'd like to write (well, I have written a couple, but whether anyone wants to publish them is another matter, which in turn seems to have nothing to do with whether or not they're any good). So I decided to go back to school - and it was a great deal more work than I envisaged.
Yet there are lots of things I know now that I didn't know at the beginning of the year about how picture books, in particular, work. My other subject was largely to do with poetry, which mostly confirmed there's a lot of crap poetry about, including poems written for kids - but also some gems, like the work of Catherine Bateson and Steven Herrick in Australia.
Will I keep going?
I'm not sure. I never cared about getting another qualification, so it's now a matter of deciding how I should best spend the next twelve months or two years. We'll see. Watch this space.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Out of this world

Gob-smacked by this snippet I just read in one of my travel writers' newsletters:
Virgin Atlantic today announced that Alan Watts, a former electrician, will be the first person in the world to become an astronaut using his frequent flyer miles as payment.
Alan has earned the two million Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles required to qualify for the offer and will be redeeming them on a trip to space with Virgin Galactic, the world’s first privately built,commercial space tourism company, in 2009.
I'm not sure what's more astonishing: the idea of commercial space travel or the idea of two million unused frequent flyer points. Such willpower. Never tempted to pop off to Mallorca for a weekend. Let alone those alluring offers of a new electric kettle or a mixed case of wine.
Gives a whole new meaning to the concept of redemption.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Please be Cybil

A group of US bloggers* on children's and YA lit have taken the law into their own hands and set up their own literary awards: the Cybils.
The democracy of the blogosphere in action: anyone can nominate a book in one several categories, and these all go to specialist panels of volunteer judges who make the final decision. It's all very transparent, but we'll wait to see if their decisions are greeted with the same level of debate as other awards announcements.
Take at look at The Cybils here.

* That makes me wonder: what's the collective noun for bloggers?
A gaggle of bloggers?
A coven?
A pod?

Friday, November 10, 2006


It's been busy lately.
Day job. A few school visits. A few radio interviews. The final assignments for my course this year. Long days, late nights, no writing.
It feels like ages since I've sat in one spot, even on the ferry, and simply read a book instead of rifling through stacks of paper or scribbling notes.
I have one final exam, and then two weeks of (mostly) writing, although there are a few more schools scheduled, and paid work will no doubt intervene.
I visited a school event this week (hello, Kohimarama) but it was in the evening and the crowd was grown ups. I hadn't realised, and rocked up with eye patch and my usual props to explain that there really were women pirates in history, just like in my books. Instead of nine year-olds there were all these (lovely) parents standing about having a wine tasting.
Uh oh. Time to improvise.
One of the things I love most about school visits is when I look up while I'm reading and see spellbound faces: eyes wide, mouths open.
There were a few parents like that at Kohi the other night. But maybe it was the wine. Cheers.
Now that I'm hawking around a second book, it's interesting to see how kids react to the idea of a series of books - they expect such a thing, now, and lobby very very hard to be given a sneak preview of what might happen in the third book.
I've even been offered bribes. Ten bucks. Hard to resist, I know, but that's a lot of money to a ten year-old, so I had to consider for at least half a second before saying "No way".
A few reviews trickling in now for The Pirate's Revenge, too. I won't bore you with them this time, unless they are fabulous or really vile.
Now I'm about to collapse into a bath (cup of tea in one hand, chocolate in the other) and hope to be more like my normal blogging self next week.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Punctuation matters

I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is - my point is, there's a strong will for democracy.
~ President George W Bush, CNN Late Edition (no, I'm not sure, either)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Poetry in motion

Just writing an essay on whether "poetry of the past" is relevant to today's children.
I begin to detest that word "relevant". It's like the academic (and also political) version of "whatever".
If a poem/book/painting/welfare centre/educational program/cultural argument/concern is not relevant in the narrowest possible terms to educational/political/funding/cultural authorities, you get the big "whatever". The newspapers will run a campaign to ask why on earth that artwork or youth refuge cost so much. The Prime Minister will raise an eyebrow on early morning TV. An inquiry will be called.
Is history relevant? Is literature relevant? Is art/youth/age/gender/culture relevant?
Air, water, wildlife? People?
Do we really need them, after all?
Prove it.

The aim of poetry is for me simply to keep the child from its television set and the old man from his pub.
~ Philip Larkin, proving relevance

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Well, I'm chuffed. Just heard I've been awarded a New Work grant from the Australia Council Literature Board, for work on my next novel, An Act of Faith.
I'm classed as an "Emerging Writer" (emerging from the primeval slime, or perhaps obscurity, I imagine) and am the only kidlit writer on that list.
So now, to work!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Common sense

Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.
~ Robert Penn Warren

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

More history wars

I wrote earlier that I'd blog about Kate Grenville's personal history wars, but I've changed my mind: there's a fine discussion happening already amongst those vivisectors over at Sarsaparilla, and plenty of background in yet another Jane Sullivan feature in The Age.
My earlier comments on the dust-up are here and here.

Did I miss anything?

Just back on Waiheke after a whirlwind visit to Melbourne which included a book launch, several school visits, at least six kids' basketball games ("Go Redbacks!"), a spot of gardening in the country, and not a single antique shop nor garden visit. How did that happen? Ripped off.
Poet (and friend) Judith Rodriguez very kindly launched The Pirate's Revenge upon the world at Readings in Port Melbourne. Everyone stared at me. My mother didn't cry. What a waste. Must try harder next time.
My brother got back from Nepal safely on Sunday, with 750 gorgeous photos. About 500 of them include a glimpse of Everest. I'm so jealous. Any hint of that famous plume of snow blowing off the summit and I'm a goner.
There are a few other things that are compulsory for any visit to Melbourne for me: driving discreetly past our house; buying more white and black Bonds t-shirts; and sneaking into my favourite secondhand bookshop, The Old Bakery Cottage in Warrandyte. I did manage all three this time, and picked up a couple of books in a relatively brief and uncharacteristically restrained spree: The Cruel Way, Ella Maillart's 1930s trek from Switzerland to India; and - at last - Prospero's Cell, Lawrence Durrell's Corfu memoir. Those old Faber paperbacks really are the sexiest book covers ever. I still can't get over the time I nearly bought - but didn't - early copies of the individual books of the Alexandria Quartet for the whopping price of $6 each. What was I thinking? They are just right, those covers - much more appropriate than my bloody great compendium copy. It's only been about six years. I'll let it go one day. When I find another set.
I also finally grabbed Kate Grenville's The Secret River.
More on recent reading and Ms Grenville's history wars later. I need more coffee first.

Friday, October 13, 2006


I'm flying to Melbourne tomorrow - hopefully some of yesterday's 250 bushfires have receded. There I'll be eating evil but delicious things, looking at gardens, hanging out with my family, reading at lots of schools, rummaging in bookshops and antique stores, having afternoon tea, picking up the kids from school, cheering at basketball games ("What's that noise?" asked one of Conor's team-mates last time I was there - "That's my aunty"), bushfire-proofing my little place in the country, launching the new book, driving nonchalantly past my dream house to make sure all is in order, and possibly not blogging.
But someone's emailed to complain that the podcast of the interview with Radio NZ's Lyn Freeman has moved. The new link is here.
Oh Lord, I'd better pack. Ciao.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mediterranean climate

Now my second pirate book is out, people ask me constantly about Johnny Depp. Honestly. I've never cared about those Caribbean pirates, nasty lot that they were. What's the Caribbean ever done for anyone? Well, OK, if you're a British pop star you have holidays there and, sure, there is the cricket team. And Bob Marley. But through most of history, especially since European contact, it's been a place of misery and greed.
Now I accept that there are pockets of the Mediterranean that have also had their moments. But isn't it much more interesting? Phoenicians. Greeks. Romans. Venetians. Sophia Loren.
Mediterranean pirates, like my imaginary ones, got caught up in all sorts of fascinating regional and religious conflicts, wore better clothes than Blackbeard (at least if they were Knights of Malta or Barbary captains) and God knows they ate better.
This evening on the ferry I finished Chris Stewart's third book on his Spanish life, The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society (lovely read, too), went to the shop to buy pesto and cannellini beans; drove home past the olive groves to our little Spanish-inspired mudbrick home overlooking the grapevines; helped myself to some Turkish extra virgin olive oil (organic), Greek olives, and crusty French bread while I made spaghetti (Italian import) bolognese (with rosemary, bay leaves and a splash of cab sav).
Sadly, while I ponder my pseudo-Mediterranean existence, it's hailing outside, the wind is whipping right off Antarctica and heading straight towards the island, ripping the apple blossom off the trees. They've had the helicopters hovering over the vines down south to stave off the frost.
But if only I could top off the day with a Maltese pastizzi, or a Moroccan orange syrup cake and a glass of mint tea, I could at least pretend a little longer.
Where would we be without the Mediterranean? Even Johnny Depp lives there.

Vale Peter Norman

I've been shedding a tear today over the death of Peter Norman, one of Australia's greatest athletes and all-round lovely bloke.
It was Peter Norman who stood on the dais at the 1968 Mexico Olympics with the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, as they raised their gloved fists in a silent but dramatic black power salute. I was seven - my dad was over there and the three things I remember about the Mexico Olympics is that Ron Clarke collapsed, my dad had a blood blister that took up his whole heel after his race (the kind of gross detail kids never forget), and that photo of the three men on the dais.
Oh and some kid called Raelene Boyle sprinting down the home straight within spitting distance of the great Irena Swezinska.
Look at that photo of the protest now, and you see how young, how vulnerable and how brave they were. I remember watching Peter race, later, and remember him for some reason as being much more muscular and powerful than that skinny lad standing steadfast with the world glaring at him.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were ostracised and sacked from the team after that incident. They were both at the funeral today:
Carlos said that Norman deserved to be as well-known as Steve Irwin. "Go and tell your kids the story of Peter Norman," he said.
My parents certainly did.
Read the full story here.
Or watch a video about Mexico and the men, here.

AWW review

Oh look. I just have to post it. Bear with me.
This is Tessa Duder's review from the NZ version of the Australian Women's Weekly:
IT'S REFRESHING TO FIND a rollicking children's tale that both boys and girls will enjoy.
The heroine of Australian-born Kelly Gardiner's fine debut novel, Ocean Without End, is 12-year-old Lily Swann, and her world is one of pirates, tall ships, slaves and sword-fighting.
Ocean Without End is the first of the Swash?buckler trilogy, The second, The Pirate's Revenge, is due out in October.
In the best traditions of historical children's fiction by the author's heroes like Rosemary Sutcliffe and Geoffrey Trease, Ocean Without End has an easy authenticity borne of painstaking research.
Kelly Gardiner has a Masters degree in literature, and also works as a journalist and editor.
Apart from extensive internet and library research, Gardiner visited Malta, where she "retraced every step" of Lily's adventures. She added skills learned as a junior fencing champion in Melbourne to create In Lily Swann a wholly believable, if reluctant, pirate girl.
Abducted from her home by pirates, Lily becomes their leader, embroiled in a quest that takes her ship halfway round the Mediterranean.
The dialogue is convincing, the sailing details spot-on and an earthy humour hints at Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean.
Among the standard characters - the fat but caring cook, evil pirate chief Diablo, and Carol [ha! don't tell Carlo] the enslaved aristocrat - Lily is a confident, resourceful girl who is not afraid of a challenge.
This is a great read for children aged eight-plus and an effortless European history lesson.

And if you're quick, I think this Sunday is the last 50% discount offer on Ocean Without End in the Sunday Star Times (for NZ people only, sorry): look for the Great Kiwi Reads coupon in the Focus section.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bells toll

In The LRB this fortnight is this review by Colin Burrow of Donne: The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs, the "decent" new biography of the irreverent Reverend:
Literary biography is one of the background noises of our age. It’s a decent, friendly sort of hum, like the Sunday papers or chatter on a train. It gives the punters a bit of history and a bit of literature, and perhaps a bit of gossip, and what’s more it saves them the trouble of reading history. And poems too, for that matter. Not to mention the ordeal of ploughing through a load of literary criticism.

One might also argue that with such thoughtful reviews, the punters need never even buy the book, especially with lines like this:
Reading poems is usually, if things go well, a process of losing and finding one’s balance, and then wondering if one has really grasped the thing after all.

Quite. Indeed Burrows' advice is to read the poems (and, I would argue, the sermons) if you want to understand the man - don't bother with a biography.
But I suspect I will have to read the book, as I've always had a soft spot for the old flirt and all his contradictions. Sunne Rising remains the poem closest to my heart, no matter what any biographer may say.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Fashion forward

New look. Was so sick of the old blog.
All right?

Out to sea

The Pirate's Revenge is now afloat in the bookshops, after a minor flurry of radio interviews and a bit of breath-holding until reviews appear.
But this week my focus is on Welsh Black cattle and building barbecues at my day job. Sometimes the dichotomy gets a bit surreal. Two weeks of the month I read books like A History of Sheep in New Zealand, the next week I read a few kids books either for fun or for study, or history books for fiction research, and then if I have a few days "off" I get to read something sensible like a travel narrative or a grown-up novel. Occasionally, as with Tales from the Country, some of these aspects of life overlap: now I've stopped weeping at Brian Viner, I'm onto Chris Stewart's Apple Blossom Appreciation Society, which is part travel book, part escape to the country memoir.
Then on Saturday it's off to Melbourne for my niece's birthday, school visits, another launch, and another world altogether. I have a little place of my own in the country there, a hundred-year-old church surrounded by sheep paddocks and filled with stuff. My stuff. Very important stuff, like my great-aunt Myrtle's fly rod and a wide range of old agricultural implements. And a whole shelf of those marvellous 1950s Readers' Club or Book Circle hardbacks about somebody or other's fascinating adventures among the natives in the Amazon or the New Guinea Highlands or perhaps Kent; all with fabulous dust jackets, bought for 50 cents each at Alexandra Op Shop and perfect for weekends in the country.
Although by the time I get there, I might be reading Mrs Wishy Washy or Vikings, Lords of the Sea. Or A Short History of Gum Boots in New Zealand.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Crying shame

Can't blog. Too busy laughing my head off at Brian Viner's Tales of the Country. Sobbed with laughter so much last night my girlfriend feared for my sanity. Perhaps not for the first time.
Off to the Pink Star Walk tonight around the Domain - a breast cancer foundation charity/education event.
You have to wear pink. And fairy wings.
My girlfriend is a "wing judge" and she seems to have somehow channelled Anna Wintour and found herself a "wing slave" amongst the staff at work who whipped up a set covered in plastic flowers from a lei and large pink jewels. Outrageous.
Nobody told me you had to wear pink until after I'd registered. Red might be the best I can do.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Reading's intimate moments

The always thoughtful David Malouf addressed the National Library of Australia's literature conference, 'Love and Desire', this weekend. His speech appears (in edited form) in The Age:
Nothing in the whole heady business of writing is more mysterious than the relationship between writer and reader. That is, the spell that is cast on the willing reader by the writer's voice; the way we internalise that voice and make it, for the time of the reading, our own, so that the experience it brings us seems no less personal and real than what we experience in the world.
When we speak of being unable to put a book down, it isn't that we can't wait to find out what happens next. It's that we don't want to give up the close and quite tender intimacy that has been established; we do not want to break the spell.
... This is what we, as writers, deal in daily, a dimension, continuously negotiated, of mind, tone, language, where the writer's consciousness and the reader's imperceptibly merge, in an intimacy where, all conditions being propitious, I and other, mind and the world, are one.

Escape artists

All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality - the story of escape.
It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape.

~ Arthur Christopher Benson

Friday, September 29, 2006

On air

If you're listening to the radio on Sunday, tune into National Radio for the lovely Lynn Freeman's Arts on Sunday show and there I'll be, chatting about pirates.
What else?

(For people outside NZ, a podcast will be available after the show.)

I feel like I'm taking over the airwaves next week, from Coromandel to Canterbury, as the pirate's revenge upon an unsuspecting populace begins.


I thought I was blase about last night's book launch until I actually got to Jabberwocky, saw all the posters all over the window, and couldn't extricate myself fast enough from the taxi driver who was offering to distribute my books in India (he's very versatile - also a dairy farmer in his spare time).
It's a bit like having a 40th birthday, except you don't have to clean up afterwards. All about me. I'm not very good at that.
It'll be more extreme in Melbourne, my home town, next month, since my entire family will be there (except my brother who will be at Mount Everest, which is the best excuse I've ever heard), Mum will cry (don't pretend you won't, I know you), and half the people I've ever known in my life will be staring at me.
I think I've changed my mind.
Nevertheless it's at Readings in Bay Street on October 18. That's the old Port Melbourne post office.
I was born in Port. Well, technically I was born at the Royal Women's, but the Borough is my spiritual home, which is why I wanted to have the next launch there. Many major points in my life have occurred in Bay Street: weddings, christenings, funerals, and my debut at the age of three, in hot pink shantung, as a flower girl. I was forced to wear a prosthetic hair bun, which looked a little like a furry cinnamon doughnut and was supposed to make me look like I wasn't a ratbag little tomboy.
That was the last time anyone succeeded in that endeavour.
When my grandfather was a kid, he could have stood in the middle of Bay Street and looked towards the beach and seen a forest of masts. And when I was a kid, he'd take us to see the ships at Station Pier. He was a warfie, and back then it was all still nets and crates and ropes and hooks. Small cranes, but no containers, so when a ship was in, the wharf looked alive - not like the Legoland you see on a modern wharf. Streamers from the passenger ships. Baggage sitting out in the open. Blokes shouting, unloading bikes and brown cardboard suitcases with labels all over them, or hessian sacks and wooden boxes.
One day, there was a huge sail training ship, probably the Argentinian Navy's Libertad. Everything was white: the officers' uniforms and dazzling teeth, the holystoned decks, the hull. It was covered in gold trim and bright brass fittings.
That's the day I fell in love with sailing ships. So it's only fitting that The Pirate's Revenge be launched upon the briny in Bay Street.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Thar she blows

It's the NZ launch of The Pirate's Revenge, book two in the Swashbuckler trilogy, this evening.
It's at 6pm at Jabberwocky Books, 202 Dominion Road, Mt Eden. You are most welcome.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Buyer's guide

I recently had to answer a question on selection criteria for children's books (as part of my course work). I framed it as a checklist, and post it here in case it proves useful for anyone buying or selecting books or poems for young readers:

Does the book or poem achieve one or more of the following through its use of language:
• Enchantment and wonder
• Authentic emotional engagement (free from sentimentality)
• Intellectual and educational challenges
• Nourishment for learning development
• Imaginative journeys?

Does the poet or author’s word and phrase choice offer attributes such as:
• Novelty and variety in vocabulary
• Rhythm or pace
• Respect for young readers (that is, not patronising)
• Delight in wordplay and sentence construction
• Compelling narrative
• Accessible or interesting style
• Engagement with well-formed characters
• Adequate grammar, form, syntax, scansion and usage
• Authentic humour and playfulness?

Does the treatment of the subject matter encourage or engender:
• Reflection or questioning
• Knowledge or understanding
• The pleasure of reading (and writing)
• Appreciation of language and listening
• Enjoyment?

Note: this is only about language/text, not illustrations or design. I might get around to that another time.
Other suggestions are, of course, welcome.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Reader, I married him

As the BBC launches its new adaptation of Jane Eyre in the UK, Lucasta Miller in The Guardian seizes the opportunity to take a fresh look at Jane, Charlotte and their impact, particularly on female readers:
It was its interiority, not its narrative mechanics, that seemed the key to its originality. This was a story that compelled the reader in a completely new way to identify with the heroine...
The "I" of Jane Eyre is what the novel is really about; it is as much a Bildungsroman as a love story. Brontë's originality was to centre the Romantic individualism she had learnt from male writers in the figure of a "poor, obscure, plain and little" governess, the persona into which she had in life often felt boxed, despite her ambitious but secretly held belief in her own poetic genius. In her youth, she had had few female literary role models; her idol had been Byron, whose reputation was based on a personality cult and whose works were all regarded as self-portraits. Debarred by her gender and background from the public posturing of Byron, she invented a new form of specifically female self-expression, based on autobiographical confession, which was less flamboyant but in some ways even more inflammatory. When Jane declares that she is Rochester's "equal", despite being a woman and of a lower social class, it is hard not to suspect that Brontë is implicitly asserting her own equality as a writer with Lord Byron. With his secret guilt and enigmatic brooding, Rochester is her version of the Byronic hero.

Monday, September 25, 2006

What's stopping you?

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
~ Gene Fowler

This morning, my first ever royalty cheque in the mail. Imagine that. All that fun and someone sends you money as well. Only they seem to have left off a nought.
This afternoon, I'm up to one of my favourite parts of the process: the printing out of a final manuscript onto actual paper with actual ink to be read - at which point the story takes on an entirely different aspect and things appear which were not at all obvious and the mind plays tricks and scribbles ensue... and in the case of this particular manuscript, it's about the eighth time I've got to this point and it is, I trust, almost unrecognisable. But it's still a marvellous moment.

Spring seems to have suddenly sprung, too, at long bloody last, so I can sit in the sun and read the damn book - with much coffee, after a five-hour country drive back to town very very early this morning. Once the sun rose there were small lambs and clouds of cherry blossom and mountainous rhododendrons. This country is just so ridiculously green everywhere. You'd think I'd be used to it after three years but I just stare stupidly out the window saying perceptive things like "Look at all that grass." It's not like that where I come from.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Had to flee the house today, due to threatened invasion by plumber, landlord and cleaner all at once. Merely clamping my headphones on tight was not going to protect me against thumps from roof, pipes and vacuum cleaner. Friends very kindly lent me their house so I could sit at the dining table with my laptop and stare out to sea.
I wondered during the morning whether one would ever actually get any work done with such a view. Our own study window looks into a thicket of flax, with only the odd passing chicken to distract the eye. But in fact I powered through everything I had to do. Nearly finished yet another redraft of an old manuscript, and scraped away at a short story as well.
But there were builders working next-door and, as everyone knows, it's impossible to build anything without a radio blasting feeble 80s hits out across the entire neighbourhood. Never mind the power saw and nail gun - Flock of Seagulls nearly finished me off completely.
I suppose one should say that one requires complete silence when writing, and that contemporary music detracts from the sensibilities required to write about the Great War. But actually I took my headphones so it was Me'shell's Plantation Lullabies and good old Missy Higgins that saw me through safely.

By the way, I have a couple of short stories out this month: 'Florence Nightingale's Owl', in the NSW School Magazine, beautifully illustrated by Noela Young; and 'Anzac Day', in the latest Random House NZ anthology of stories for kids, History: Hideous and Hilarious, edited by Barbara Else. My story isn't particularly hideous or hilarious, but it's in there. The book hits the shops on October 6, I think.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


The only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about (the ego eventually falls apart like a soaked sponge), but simply written; it's a dreadful, awful fact that writing is like any other work.
~ Janet Frame

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Shooting season

The last day or so I've had to smile over the stories in the US publishing trade along the lines of "Unknowns take over Booker shortlist!"
That's unknowns like Sarah Waters and Kate Grenville, you understand. And that's one good reason for ensuring the Booker remains an award for "Commonwealth" writers.
Anyway, it's book judging season all over the place, and there's an interesting outline of the process, ethics and pitfalls of judging (including conflicts of interests and dubious invitations to dinner) in this conversation between Ramona Koval and Hilary McPhee on Radio National.

Housewife of the year

The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes.
~Agatha Christie

I'm just going out to test whether this theory applies to mowing the lawn.

Later - I can faithfully report that the only creative thoughts that entered my head while mowing were of revenge against the person who laid shell paths in the garden: it has never been a decent mulch, murder on bare feet, and spreads through the grass to become deadly shrapnel when the mower hits. I think I maimed one of the chooks.
I can also attest that unblocking the composting toilet for the fourth time in as many months doesn't do much for the creative process either.
I'm going to try baking banana bread instead.

Reviews and reviewers

For many months I've dreaded the appearance in my letterbox of the NZ Book Council's Booknotes. Nothing against the Book Council, you understand, of which I am a member, nor its august journal. I've been living in fear of its children's book reviewer, Susan Paris, getting her hands on Ocean Without End.
She's wicked. Often deliciously so, although sometimes it's hard to decide whether to laugh or wince at her forensic reviews. I love the complete lack of fear, the idea that kids' books deserve as fearless an approach as any other literature, and above all the iconoclastic freedom with which she lays into almost everyone, even (gasp!) Margaret Mahy; unless the book is very good, in which case she can be equally lavish.
Well, my time has come.
Here it is:
Middling-decent adventure, weakened slightly by Kelly Gardiner's inability either to maintain or to avoid an in-period style. It isn't clear where we are in history, but the characters slip in and out of a mish-mash nautical-historical dialect more or less at random. Lily is a little inclined to feel and think only whatever the plot currently requires her to, with minimal regard for plausibility or consistency, but things move along quickly enough for this to be a minor niggle rather than a fatal flaw.
I slapped it closed, and after a few hours wandering around the house muttering "Middling!" to myself, changing into my pyjamas, eating chocolate, and watching two episodes of Pride and Prejudice on DVD, I read it again.
On second reading, I accepted that I'm hardly likely to have got everything right in my first book, and it's a critique that will make me focus more closely on voice in future.
I also noted that the entire review is about two aspects that are described as "slight" and "a minor niggle", so while overall it will ensure nobody in their right mind will buy the book, I think the reviewer is actually saying it's not too bad. As an editor myself, I wondered vaguely whether there was more to it that didn't make it to press. I ate more chocolate.
But then I flicked through the rest of Booknotes, and found a letter about the journal's kidlit reviews signed by 26 children's writers and illustrators, including such people as Vicky Jones, Tessa Duder, Lorraine Orman and Joy Cowley - none of them shrinking violets nor likely to complain needlessly. They write to say that the review pages are often "less than fair and balanced", "disparaging" and "sarcastic".
Kate de Goldi's reply as editor takes the line that kidlit reviews ought to be as exacting as any other and that she stands by her reviewer.
I checked the review pages again, to find that this month it's not by Susan Paris at all, but David Larsen (who also, I think, reviews adult books for the Herald and the Star Times).
Will you think me strange if I say I feel disappointed to have been scathed by the wrong person? But I can't fault his taste, since another review gets stuck into Three Fishing Brothers Gruff and agrees entirely with my own view, whereas everyone else seems to love it uncritically.
These general issues are fascinating, and I suspect my position sits somewhere between those of the writers and the Booknotes editor - or perhaps somewhere else entirely.
A scathing review alone doesn't necessarily help an author to learn and improve. There's a difference between robust and "disparaging" reviewing. If I'd been on the receiving end of some of those reviews I might have given up altogether.
But uncritical blurbs aren't much help either in that regard. I'd rather honesty.
On the other hand, there's far too much uncritical reviewing of children's literature, and certainly few reviewers who engage with the actual writing.
I can also sympathise with reviewers who get so sick of being sent crap that should never have seen the light of day they feel the need to vent. (I've decided not to review any more badly-written interminable rural memoirs in my magazine, for example, unless they have some redeeming features - anything will do.)
Over at Misrule, Judith Ridge was thinking about this issue recently:
...Perhaps it's that children's book reviewers are, as we are so often accused of, soft on our own, and lacking in rigour in our critical discourse. I do believe there's some truth in that - most reviews are written, after all, as de facto buying guides for parents, librarians, teachers, and so they focus on content rather than literary merit. On the other hand, the mainstream review pages generally offer few opportunities for the reviewing of children's books (that old song), and thus, I imagine, most reviewers prefer to accentuate the positive - I know I do. And yes, it's a small community, and we all pretty much know each other, and it has to be acknowledged that this fact can influence what you're prepared to put your name to into print.
But I'd like to think, given all the above, that perhaps there's also a culture of courtesy and respect in the children's book community, where the ego and ambition of the critic (usually) becomes secondary to the desire to give children's books, those poor relations, an even break. Now what we have to work on is marrying that courtesy and respect with frank critical writing.

Quite. We need rigour - and good manners. We need kidlit to be reviewed by people who understand how children learn and read, and how they relate to the world and to books as they grow. We need reviewers who engage with language, who can encourage as well as critique; but who are also happy to declare any emperor's new clothes a little threadbare. If that hurts sometimes, well, there's always chocolate.
The very next day's post brought me a clipping of Tessa Duder's review of Ocean from her new kidlit review column in the Australian Women's Weekly. Now, for those who don't know, if you're writing about nautical matters in NZ, Tessa and Joan Druett are royalty, and Tessa is a very experienced, no-nonsense children's literature specialist (and what a good idea of the Weekly's).
If she says it's a "fine debut" novel, that I've got all the nautical stuff right and am writing in the "best tradition" of Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease, and that Lily is "wholly believable" then, frankly, I can die happy.
But I will be working on the finals of book three, The Silver Swan, this week, and now I also know I have to ensure it isn't a middling mish-mash.

Back on land

Right, where was I? Just been off earning a living for a few days, writing a searing expose on soil improvement and reporting on rural issues, and now it's back to the (un)real world.
In my case that's 1799, as I have to proof the edited manuscript of the third Swashbuckler book; and then 1917, as I'm looking forward to spending the rest of the week on my War Songs manuscript.
What luxury. It's so exciting that I have to start this very minute.
Well, perhaps after another coffee and a bit of a blog.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Note to self

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
~ Anton Chekhov


I'm terribly proud of my friend Ana Kokkinos's new film of The Book of Revelation. Actually, I haven't seen it yet, because it hasn't arrived in NZ, but it has been invited to Toronto Film Festival and premiered in Melbourne Film Fest last month. I'm proud anyway - of her.
It was always going to be a tough and dark film, challenging audiences and critics, as did Rupert Thomson's novel. She's a brave, thoughtful and insightful film-maker.
But I delight most in the fact that she made herself into a film-maker, at a ripe old age (I can't remember, exactly, it seems so long ago - in her late 30s, I suppose) after years as a lawyer, and her partner Mira also leaped from paid work tilting at windmills to starving in a writers' garret. Well, almost. They both took a risk, and began to do what they most wanted to do.
It would be enough if they were making a living and producing anything - that they are both writing, and in Ana's case directing, varied and remarkable films is a wonderful, inspiring thing. But then they are both wonderful inspiring things, and always have been.

You can watch a few clips and an interview with Ana from the ABC's At The Movies show here.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Adventure story

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant.
The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.

~ Winston Churchill

Launch dates: Pirate's Revenge

Here are the dates of the launches for book two in the Swashbuckler trilogy:

Thursday 28 September, 6pm, Jabberwocky Bookshop, 202 Dominion Road, Mt Eden.

Wednesday 18 October, 6.30pm, Readings Books, 253 Bay Street, Port Melbourne (my spiritual home).
You're all welcome.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hot off the press

What an odd week.
I read The Pirate's Revenge, hot off the press, and although I've read it a million times since I finished writing it, it has had a strange effect.
There are a couple of flabby sentences in the first half that I wish were better, and the feeling is a little like looking back in time to a moment when I was just making it up as I went along and hoping the writing would work. Of course it's a very different set of words to those I originally wrote, and I've edited it several times since then.
But I read it now and realise how much there is still to learn and know, how much more disciplined I've grown over the last year with all the editing and writing - so different in fiction than in journalism. I'm so hard on myself and others when I edit the magazine, and I have to learn all over again how to be my own harshest critic in fiction.
But perhaps other critics will be more harsh - we'll see in a few weeks when it hits the shops and the media.
It's paying off in my work on an old manuscript this week, as I pore over it word by word, and realise how much more there is to do and how much time one paragraph can and should take.
And also, I realise now that I've always believed my life would change irrevocably once I'd written a novel and somebody had actually published it; but now, as my second book rolls off the drydock, life is much the same, although it contains more work and a little more to worry about.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Quiet now

How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)

by Wendell Berry

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgement.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

from Given: New Poems, Shoemaker & Hoard, Washington DC, 2006 (but I read it on Miss Snark)

Friday, September 01, 2006


The other morning my better half was sitting at my desk plucking her eyebrows or some such thing and as I passed she said: "You know, you're not really like other people's girlfriends."
After I finished staring blankly, she pointed out the scribble on the otherwise empty page of my notebook:
Actual maggots.
Made perfect sense to me.
I'm rewriting a story about a World War One ambulance driver. There must be maggots. I have hinted at maggots. I have mentioned maggots in passing. But so far there have been no actual maggots. Never let it be said that there was telling about maggots rather than showing of maggots.
In those two words lies an entire rewrite and rethink on a manuscript that's been haunting me for years now. It's not actually about maggots at all, but about voice and tense and representation of action.
Granted, a maggot or two may eventually make an appearance, but that's beside the point.
Anyway, I have just now finished my final assignment in one of my college subjects (oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen) so I can now get to grips with those maggots.
Which reminds me, when you use maggots as bait you call them "gentles". Wish I understood the etymology of that. I imagine it's one of those marvellous British inversions, or simply because they are white and soft - like gentlemen rather than poachers?
They're very good for trout (Izaak Walton recommends them for barbel, but we don't much see their kind abouts these parts).
So instead of fishing on this fine spring afternoon, I've got plenty of gentles to be going on with.

G'day sport

First of September. Never mind Spring and all that. It is, as we Melburnians say, the business end of the footy season.
We'll draw a kindly veil over my own team's performance this season, but I would like to share with you my favourite passage of sport-related writing, which also happens to be, for my money,the most perfectly rendered colloquial strine (that's Australian) since The Sentimental Bloke:
‘If I’ve arksed youse boys once I’ve arksed youse a thousand times, don’t buggerise with the bloody ball on them flanks, kick the bugger up the bloody centre.’

Cracks me up, every time. That's from Phillip Gwynne's young adult novel, Deadly Unna?
My grandfather used to shout something similar at almost every match: "Don't handball it, son - kick it up the bloody middle!"
I've been known to yell it once or twice myself, at the telly.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

New books

My advance copies of The Pirate's Revenge have just arrived from the publisher.
I picked one up and it felt like it had nothing to do with me at all, something only strangely and vaguely familiar, instead of something I wrote and rewrote and edited and proofed and re-read a million times.
Now it's turned into a book. How odd.
I suppose I'll have to sit down and read it now.
I wonder what happens in the end?

Monday, August 28, 2006

War things

Bloody Sarah Waters.
I'm in the middle of rewriting an old manuscript of mine set on the Somme in World War One - about a woman ambulance driver.
Now I've just stupidly read Waters' The Night Watch, which is in part about a woman ambulance driver in London during the Blitz and it's done my head in.
Mind you, I'm very glad I read it. I was putting it off for fear it wouldn't be as brilliant as Fingersmith, and it is indeed very different but equally compelling.
I've read a few unkind or at least unsure reviews but, by God, the woman's a chameleon. Fingersmith is a perfect rendering of the sensational Victorian novels - think Wilkie Collins or perhaps Mrs Henry Wood - as well as the erotica of the era. (I was less convinced by Tipping the Velvet, which felt too predictably like Rubyfruit Jungle in costume.)
Now she has switched eras and perfectly captured the feel, sombre mood and even the syntax of the novels written by women during or about the War. One feels almost as if it's a novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard or Elizabeth Taylor, except of course there's that modern courage about issues of sexuality and politics that Howard in particular never quite summoned (understandably - if only Howard's Sid had run into Waters' Kay, life might have been rather different for the Cazalets).
Waters has chosen to unravel a narrative backwards from 1947 to 1941. I heard her speak here a few months ago, and she explained that she wanted to reveal her characters gradually, just as you find out about people when you first meet. But even though their pasts, and specific events, are made quite clear during the narrative I was still profoundly shocked at the climax. Not by the fact of the event, but as a result of her precise prose.
The Night Watch will stay with me for some time.
I started reading Kevin Baker's Paradise Alley straight away, to take my mind off it, but now I'm stuck in the Potato Famine and it's too horrible to read late at night. I might have to flee to Jane Austen or something calming.


The books are the best of me. When people ask me why I write I tell them it's what I'm for. It really is as simple as that.
~ Jeanette Winterson


There's a lovely interview with illustrator Robert Ingpen in The Guardian, about his love of reading and illustrating the classics of children's literature. He's working his way through them slowly, one by one, (he'll meet Helen Oxenbury somewhere in the middle, no doubt - perhaps at The Secret Garden) providing gorgeous interpretations for a new generation of readers. And old readers for that matter - I have a precious signed copy of his Treasure Island:
When blind Pew knocks on Admiral Benbow's door in Treasure Island it's 'the most scary sound in literature,' he says. 'It comes as a sound to you by the skill of the writing and the vision of the man. You hear the sound and, if you hear that sound when you're nine years old and you've read it yourself, you'll read forever'.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Table manners

I detest... anything over-cooked, over-herbed, over-sauced, over elaborate. Nothing can go very far wrong at table as long as there is honest bread, butter, olive oil, a generous spirit, lively appetites and attention to what we are eating.
~ Sybille Bedford

Friday, August 25, 2006

Reading rooms

I don't know about you, but I hold my breath when I walk into a great library. An old library. They seem like sacred spaces. Breathless, soundless, musky spaces. Pages turn, people rub their eyes, pencils scratch.
I remember the first time I visited London I was too scared - really, petrified - to go near the British Museum Reading Room (as it was then). It seemed a world apart, as if, had I walked in, I should be asked to leave immediately. I probably would have been, too.
I feel that same sense even now, when hesitating on the steps of some hallowed hall somewhere in the world. I never feel like that about cathedrals or cemeteries. Sometimes I simply can't go in, or it takes a few stern words to myself to get me through the door.
My mother rang a few months ago to say she'd finally gone to have a peek at the renovated State Library of Victoria, and that she'd forgiven Jeff Kennett everything, because he'd funded the building restoration.
("Settle down," I said. "Well, maybe not everything," she agreed.) But it does look spectacular.
Even there, under that familiar dome, I can't actually quite believe I'm allowed in; that I can take down a volume of Captain Cook's journals from the shelf (a facsimile edition, of course) and rest it on those fine mahogany desks and turn pages like a person to the manner born.
It's not surprising, I suppose. Even apart from the old Port Melbourne girl within who tugs at my sleeve and says, "Our kind's not allowed in there", those great Victorian domed spaces still emanate a sense of seclusion - and exclusion.
In the British Museum Reading Room, you had to get a Reader's Pass. Say, for example, you happened to be Lenin or Marx, Dickens or George Bernard Shaw, or perhaps Virginia Woolf: you applied for a pass and if approved (they all scraped through, although Lenin used a pseudonym) you could use the Reading Room to your heart's content.
You still have to get a pass, but now you can order one online.
And for those who find it difficult to breathe at such high altitudes, you can also peek into the world's great library rooms online, here. Heavy breathing. It's purely bookish porn, glorious stuff.

(Link viaLeaf Salon)

Poor Pluto

Oh come on.
What's Pluto ever done to deserve being knocked off the planetary charts?
It wasn't hurting anyone, just quietly circling, minding its own business, not getting in Neptune's way. A slightly eccentric orbit can hardly be grounds for dismissal, surely, even in Australia.
How can it possibly harm anyone else, to let the poor old thing keep believing it's a planet?
I blame Xena.
Pluto's always been my favourite. We small, round outsiders have to stick up for each other.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

From the book pile

I've had enough of reading kids' books for the moment. I'm going to attempt to be grown up for a while, if I can remember how.
I've launched into Sarah Waters' Night Watch. A wise and trusted friend read it recently - I asked her how she found it and her only reply was: "There are lots of commas". I thought that was very funny until I started reading. There are lots of commas. And if I notice them, there must be millions, because, as you know, I'm a comma placer from way back.
That same wise and trusted friend is off to Malta tomorrow, laden with detailed instructions from me about where to eat rabbit stew. I'm so deeply jealous. Tears threaten.
I blasted my way through Jeannette Winterson's Tanglewreck on Saturday. It's a time travel novel for young readers (her first for kids and I hope not her last). She can be hilarious at times. Even when explaining elements of quantum physics to unscientific minds like mine. It's a lovely romp, hugely enjoyable and interesting adventure - I wished His Dark Materials had a few more jokes in it, now I come to think of it. But don't tell Mr Pullman I said that. There are parallels between the two, but few similarities, which is really quite appropriate for novels about time/universe slips.
I've also finally got my hands on a rather tattered copy of Ella Maillart's Forbidden Journey - her version of the infamous trip through China and Central Asia with Peter Fleming in 1935.
It's infamous in part because in his book about the trip from Beijing to Kashmir, News From Tartary (which I also have), he pretends Ella isn't there. It's ages since I read the Fleming so I'm looking forward to reading them side by side. My favourite Fleming line is:
I have travelled fairly widely in 'Communist' Russia (where they supplied me with the inverted commas).
And yes, in case you're wondering, he was the less wealthy less famous older brother of Ian.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Apologies if the blog is flickering before your eyes. I'm sick of the sight of it and playing with background colours. I'm also sick of the sight of those 216 bloody websafe colours, though, so I keep changing my mind. I've abandoned websafe now. Such a renegade.
Still, a change is apparently as good as a holiday.
I've never really held with that. I'd rather be in Morocco.
Been on a short story blitz this week. Last week I was pondering the sad state of my mind, and wondering why I never have any ideas for short fiction. This week I've written two pieces, with another on the way.
No idea what I'll do with them, but that's beside the point.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Book banning - episode #23,977

According to The Daily News (via As If):
The Wilsona School District Board [in California] has approved new library book-selection guidelines in the wake of trustees' controversial decision to remove 23 books including the latest Harry Potter from a list recommended for a school library.
Books now cannot depict drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, including "negative sexuality," implied or explicit nudity, cursing, violent crime or weapons, gambling, foul humour and "dark content."
"In selected instances, an occasional inappropriate word may be deleted with white-out rather than rejecting the entire book," the policy said.
How appropriate.
And while next month in NZ we celebrate National Book Month, if you're in the US you get to enjoy Banned Books Week from September 23.
Sponsored by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the National Association of College Stores, Banned Books Week is also endorsed by the Centre for the Books of the Library of Congress.
"Booksellers who celebrate Banned Books Week tell us that it is one of their favorite promotions," says the ABFFE. I guess you've gotta laugh.
Bring on some of that foul humour and dark content.

Why indeed?

When I step into this library, I cannot understand why I ever step out of it.
~ Madame Marie de Sevigne (woman of letters - many, many letters)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Worse than denial

Sometimes a web search takes you into weird parallel universes. You don't need Phillip Pullman's Subtle Knife, you just need Google.
When you're writing historical fiction, sometimes you need to know some small historical detail - a fact about clothing or dates, or see an image of something which doesn't make sense described in a book.
There's always someone out there who is mad enough about the subject to spend hours creating websites devoted to it, and in loving detail. Often they are collectors whose depth of knowledge is simply astonishing. Sometimes they are academics or students whose work is complex and scarily deep. Or boffins. Once I needed to know if Blackfriars Station was used as an air-raid shelter in the war. Couldn't find out anywhere. So I emailed the webmaster of a local train enthusiasts' site, and his members provided me with details of rolling stock, bomb damage incidents, and even engine numbers. I wanted to fly over to London and kiss them all individually. And there's a marvellous PhD student in Malta who has answered all sorts of obscure long-distance questions for me about the fortifications in the Grand Harbour.
Sometimes the sites are run by wacky history re-enactors who deep down believe that they really are Vikings or Venetian courtesans or members of the RAF. Or they like dressing up as pirates and sailing about. All harmless fun.
But today was different. All I wanted to know, for a short story, was about the uniforms worn by a 1st lieutenant (Obersturmfuhrer) in the SS in 1942. Grey or black? Simple.
I didn't think it through. I just thought there'd be a few militaria collectors' sites with images.
There are.
But first you have to wade through sites like that of the Australian Waffen SS, for members of whatever the f*ck that is. Deeply weird and sad and frightening sites - can someone just show me a picture of a damn greatcoat - about Holocaust denial and the resurrection of Nazism and ...Oh God.
Of course you know it's there and still current, and it bursts like a boil from time to time, but it's rarely on the surface, rarely glimpsed, rarely acknowledged.
I might have to go read a nice pink fairy book to recover.
Give me dress-up pirates any day.

Friday, August 18, 2006


The true felicity of a lover of books is the luxurious turning of page by page, the surrender, not meanly abject, but deliberate and cautious, with your wits about you, as you deliver yourself into the keeping of the book. This I call reading.
~ Edith Wharton

Invaded by Vikings

Spent yesterday at the Auckland Museum. It's long been one of my favourites, as its collection contains some real treasures of Oceanic art, and the Pacific Masterpieces room is one of my favourite rooms in any museum in the world. Sensational fish-hooks.
Also they have good swords.
But at present they have Vikings - the same exhibition as seen recently in Sydney at the National Maritime Museum, my spiritual home, although it seems a little smaller here.
But anyway weeks ago I had sketched out the plot for the new Viking book, which is the second in a new timeslip series - not much detail and really just knew how it fitted in with the overall narrative. Research so far had been sporadic, mostly because I start from what I already know and then research in bursts as required.
I stared intently at all the Viking displays, took a million notes, had a coffee and then wandered up to look at the swords in the Armoury. It's not the Tower, but it's a smart, small collection.
Stood gazing at something utterly unrelated (the detail on the guard of an 18th century infantry officer's sword) and then came the flash and clunk of a brain cranking slowly into gear.
By the time I got home from the museum I had the entire book clear in my mind and had started drafting.
Gone a-Viking.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Now, where was I?

Have you looked at Google maps? You can see your house from the air. And anything else, for that matter. People standing outside St Paul's or walking along the Embankment. The trees in the courtyards at Topkapi. Malta looks rather blurry, but London is crystal clear.
I can see the rapids in the river below my house in Melbourne. Seagulls on Onetangi beach (OK, I'm exaggerating now, but you get the idea).
But I'm supposed to be writing about recent kidlit I've read. First, some newish books:
I, Coriander (Sally Gardner) starts well, set in Civil War London and great on historical detail and atmosphere. But it's half fairy story and I'm not much interested in fairy stories so my eyes glazed over for a bit. Still, it's nicely written and paced, and I'm sure young readers without my prejudices will enjoy it.
Josie Under Fire is Ann Turnbull's contribution to the Historical House series. This is a great concept: take one house in London and use it as the setting for three separate stories about girls in different eras. Clumsy historical download in the first chapters (see below) but the themes of bullying and difference are explored without any of that moral high-ground nonsense you often get in books set in World War 2. (I do, though, prefer Linda Newbery's chapter, Polly's March).
Now a couple of classics:
I read about The Sprig of Broom by Barbara Willard in an essay in Solander, the journal of the Historical Novel Society, that traced the development of historical fiction for children. I'd never heard of it before then, I'm sorry to say, because it's very much in the Geoffrey Trease mode (it's a kind of post-script to the Mantlemass books, I think). Feisty girl, smart and brave boy, well-written drama, and a little Plantaganet intrigue. What more could one want?
Dragon Slayer is Rosemary Sutcliff's version of Beowulf for children. What a rip-snorter. She manages to capture the spirit if not the language of the time and the songs and poems of the oral tradition, while keeping it at the level of spirited adventure. It's been criticised, I know, but I think the old girl's got it right. Any kid who liked LOTR will find it appealling - and it's almost the real thing.
Had to read it for my course, and I'm very glad I did - I don't have very fond memories of reading the original many years ago, even though I normally love a good saga. I mean that in the Viking sense, not the Days of Our Lives sense. Must read Beowulf again.
Speaking of which, I'm off to the museum tomorrow to see the Viking exhibition - I whizzed around it when it was in Sydney in May, but tomorrow I'll take my time, and take notes, and get all inspired for the next project which is, inevitably, a Viking book.

Poisoned arrows

I go through phases, like everyone. For years I read little but travel writing and history, and very happily too. I've never quite emerged from that phase. I can admit to a 1980s feminist fantasy phase, a brief flirtation with sci-fi, a metaphorical affair with crime, and even my interest in contemporary fiction comes and goes (but then, so does contemporary fiction). I'm also one of those odd people who read poems - like, for fun.
On a plane I'll read almost anything. Even The Da Vinci Code.
Although I write historical fiction, I don't read it much because it's often awful - perhaps I hang about the intersection of histfic and literary fiction.
But at present I'm reading a great deal of kids' historical fiction, to see how it's done - in case I haven't got it right - to see what everyone else is doing, and to recapture the joy it brought me when I was 10 or so and hung out at the Nunawading Library every Thursday evening (Fridays we had fish and chips - not sure which was best).
Oh and also I bought a stack of out-of-print books at a school fair in Napier and it's taking a long time to work my way through them: you'd be surprised how many of those lovely slender Puffins you can fit in a box - or three.
Why bother writing about history for young readers?
In the latest Literary Review, Andrew Roberts rants about the teaching of history in the UK, and with reason. "In recent surveys," he tells us, "nearly three-quarters of 11- to 18-year-olds did not know that Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar was Victory [this in the middle of the anniversary celebrations]... Fewer than half of 16-24-year-olds knew that Sir Francis Drake was involved in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, with 13 percent thinking it was beaten by Horatio Hornblower."
That Horn, eh? He can do anything.
More worryingly, only 45 percent of Britons "associate anything at all with the word Auschwitz".
This brings me to me latest reading list, because when I re-read books such as Cue for Treason that I read when I was ten or so, it is blindingly obvious that we no longer have access to the assumptions that an older generation could safely make about the historical knowledge of their readers.
When I read to kids in schools, we talk a lot about pirates and the sea and history. In some schools, the kids have no idea where the Mediterranean is, that Italy looks like a boot, what on earth a Napoleon Bonaparte might be. I should say that in Australian schools, with so many Italian and Maltese kids and almost everyone learning Italian, the geography is more familiar - but not necessarily the history.
Now, I'm not one of those people who decry modern teaching methods, and I'm perfectly aware that there might be more urgent things kids have to learn that Napoleon's life story.
The point is that when we write historical fiction now we have to spell out every little thing, or give background impressions where once the background existed clearly in the readers' minds. I find it sad. And spelling out every little thing can be the death of historical fiction. I hate wading through potted histories of the world wars or suffragettes in the first chapter, and I'm sure kids do too.
It's the same with language, although for a different reason. It's clear when you read fiction for kids written before, say, 1980, that there's a quite specific assumed readership of middle-class children - especially in British fiction - where the author can rely on a certain level and type of education. The rest of us just had to keep up.
Perhaps now we write books that are more accessible to more kids, but there's a fine line between that and dumbing down, which has the effect of treating every child like a moron.
I've just read two books by Penelope Lively, with sprightly crisp writing, a fine English humour and wonderful characterisation. I remember reading A Stitch in Time when I was a kid: last week I read the Carnegie-winning The Ghost of Thomas Kempe and The House in Norham Gardens, both a breath of fresh air and both happily still in print.
The House in Norham Gardens, when published in 1974, was aimed at readers 11 to 14. Now, thirty years later, it would probably be pitched at Young Adult. It's a complex, sophisticated coming of age story in which nothing much happens except inside the protagonist's head. That's where the history lies, too. She slips into second person point of view and out again, slips through time and across cultures and through delicately shaded states of mind.
And also there are lots of spears and a New Guinea shield, which is always a good thing:
"In no other house, thought Clare, in absolutely no other house, could you open an old trunk and be confronted with a large bundle of bows and arrows...
Clare, putting the tray down on the table by the sofa, thought: I am the only person I know who has spears on their walls instead of pictures."
Some of them even have poisoned tips.
One of the other houses in the world with spears and bows and Highland shields is mine. It started with a bundle of poisoned arrows, went on to adzes and eel traps and it hasn't finished yet, although it's all bundled up in storage in Melbourne at present, because I didn't have the stomach to try to get them through NZ Customs when I moved here.
So I grew very fond of Clare and her elderly aunts in our brief acquaintance, and increasingly fond of Penelope Lively and her sharp mind and flawless prose.
Oh now I've gone on too long. Boring, sorry. I'll have to discuss the other books later.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Poetry gets a political party

Look out Tony Blair. Not only has Paris Hilton never heard of you, but now you're really up against it. Traditional verse activists have launched a political offensive in the UK. Their aim? Compulsory rhymes in all contemporary poems. Or perhaps Downing Street will have to issue press releases in couplets.
Ruth Padel runs through a potted history of potty poets, as therapy after being heckled at a conference by vociferous versifiers:
Too bad: the real rallying flag for the rhyme police is end rhyme in a rhyming scheme. This battle, though, was fought over 400 years ago by cutting-edge practitioners whose blank verse (begun in English around 1540 following Italy's versi sciolti da rima, 'verse freed from rhyme', developed roughly 1530) was blazing out of the language.
In 1602, Thomas Campion attacked 'the unaptnesse of Rime in Poesie'. Bad poets, he said, 'rime a man to death'. The 'popularitie of Rime creates as many Poets as a hot summer flies'. Rhyme should be used 'sparingly, lest it offend the eare with tedious affectation'...
It is fatally easy to rhyme badly. If you rhyme, it had better be fresh, better be good. Otherwise it doesn't just spoil your poem, it betrays rhyme itself.
Milton was against it. Rhyme acts on poets as "a constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse, than else they would have exprest them". Paradise Lost does not end-rhyme, nor much Tennyson, Wordsworth's Prelude and Excursion, or most of Shakespeare's plays.
I can see the bumper stickers now:
I rhyme and I vote.
Honk if you love Walter De La Mare.

Next please

Right then. Time for some shameless self-promotion.
The Pirate's Revenge, book two of the Swashbuckler trilogy, is out in Australia and NZ on October 6. For those desperate to know what happens next, here's the blurb:
Once a pirate slave, Lily Swann is navigator on the Mermaid, running the French blockade of Malta, when she learns her long-lost father may still be alive.
But before she can follow up her discovery, Lily clashes with the vile Captain Diablo, who forces her to show him the way to the famed Golden Grotto. Furious when he is unable to locate its fabled wealth, he abandons her to die in the darkness. As she battles her way out, Lily discovers the true treasure of the grotto, and her silver sword is soon put to the test.
But after another confrontation with Diablo, Lily is cast adrift with her old adversary, Hussein Reis, in a tiny boat without oars, sails, food or water - the pirate's revenge.

But then what? If you need to know what happens after that, you'll have to read book three, The Silver Swan.
You can download a larger version of the cover here.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Freedom of the city

Been writing all day, with breaks for coffee, walking about staring into mid-air, checking on the passage - or otherwise - of John Howard's pathetic refugee legislation, writing some more, researching online, Brand New Heavies on the headphones (I know that dates me, but so does all my working music), talking out loud to myself, poring over texts, and now cooking risotto.
Mostly I'm in Venice, in the Ghetto. Lost in memories of the ironwork around windows, empty squares, sea mist, dark churches, saints' bones, smells of fish and seaweed, onions and coffee in the air. Except I'm there in the 17th century, in a sunlit printing workshop, with a young character called Isabella.
Writing is freedom, too, you see.
It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily.
Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

~ Virginia Woolf

Kylie the fairy

I really do find this remarkable. Here are Nielsen's top ten children's books in Australia for the last month:
1 Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince JK Rowling
2 Kylie the Carnival Fairy Daisy Meadows
3 Lauren the Puppy Fairy Daisy Meadows
4 Katie the Kitten Fairy Daisy Meadows
5 Penny the Pony Fairy Daisy Meadows
6 Pirates John Matthews
7 Bella the Bunny Fairy Daisy Meadows
8 Georgia the Guinea Pig Fairy Daisy Meadows
9 Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix JK Rowling
10 Molly the Goldfish Fairy Daisy Meadows
Let me assure you that last month, before the release of Half-Blood Prince in paperback and the wonderful Pirates, the fairies really dominated.
Now, I know that those of you who haven't yet seen the fairy books in all their shiny pink glory (a bit like fairy floss, really - or Barbie) will be stunned by these rankings, and your first thought will be: Daisy Meadows can't possibly be a real name. Surely.
Of course not. It's the alias of Sue Bentley, best known for the equally glittery Magic Kitten series.
And it works, clearly.
I accept the books are not my cup of tea and never would have been, no matter how young. With all due respect to Ms Bentley, if anyone had given me a book about a Guinea Pig Fairy even when I was a kid I would have laughed, thanked them politely, and gone back to Elephant Adventure. But I'm queer like that.
Still, it's actually Kylie that gets me. Kylie the Carnival Fairy.
Let me just say that one last time.
I agree that Kylie Minogue made a wonderful absinthe fairy in Moulin Rouge, but I'm guessing that's a cultural reference that will slip by most of her intended readers.
A Kylie ain't a fairy. End of story.
Nor, for that matter, is a guinea pig.