Tag Archives: books

GaryView: Death and the Spanish Lady by Carolyn Morwood

Gary and LissaLissa: That was a bit of a history lesson. I remember reading about a flu epidemic after the First World War, but I had no idea that it was so bad, or that it shut Melbourne down like that.

Gary: Yeah. I think one of my dad’s uncles died of the flu around when this book is set.

Lissa: This book really brings it home, doesn’t it? The historical setting really works, and I liked Eleanor as well. She’s working through all this grief, but she really wants justice, whether or not the dead guy deserves it.  I like it that the truth was more important to her than staying comfortably out of it.

Gary: You don’t think she should have left the murder for someone else to investigate?

Lissa: I think I have amply demonstrated that keeping out of things isn’t always an option.

Gary: I guess you have. I liked Sister Jones too, though that might be because she reminded me of my mum. Mum was a nurse too.

Lissa: A nurse detective?

Gary: Not that I know of, but I wouldn’t have put it past her. My mum was pretty cool in a crisis. That’s how she met Dad, actually. During the war, she was stationed in Greece. Dad had been wounded and she looked after him on the ship during the evacuation from Crete. They kept writing after he was shipped home, and when she got back to Australia they got married.

Lissa: That must have been hard for him, waiting for her.

Gary: They never talked about it much. Not to me, anyway. Dad had got shot in the leg, though, and they wouldn’t let him stay in the army. He went home and did his teaching degree instead, so he’d have a steady job for when Mum got back.

Lissa: Every time you tell me about your folks I think how awesome they were.

Gary: This book made me think of both of them. They both went through a lot. For years as a kid, whenever I saw someone my dad’s age, or my grandad’s, I wondered whether they had bullet scars too. My mum kept on nursing, too. She used to say the only thing worse than the old air raids was working on the children’s wards.

Lissa: I bet.

Gary: Yeah.

Lissa:. So. Death and the Spanish Lady. Did you work out the killer before the end?

Gary: No. I never do, though. Not even when I was alive. I used to try making notes as I read to see if I could work it out, but I never could. Mum said it was because I wasn’t devious enough.

Lissa: I guess crime stories aren’t really like maths equations. Otherwise all crimes would get solved by the scientists.

Gary: All crimes are solved by the scientists on some TV shows.

Lissa: I like this kind of murder mystery better. And it’s not as gritty and realistic as all those Underbelly-type stories, so I like that better too. I have enough gritty realism in my life. But this has a different kind of realism. That sometimes you succeed in something but it’s not necessarily a triumph.

Gary: I know all about that, too.

Lissa: You and me both. Hey, how about we cheer ourselves up with a musical. <grins at the look on his face> Or a werewolf movie.

Gary: Can I vote for a werewolf movie?

Lissa: Only if it’s the original Teen Wolf.

Gary: Teen Wolf it is.

* *

You can get Death and the Spanish Lady in paperback from Readings, or as an ebook from Booki.sh or Amazon.com.

A story in steam

Of all the modes of transport in the world, my favourite is the train. Trains are more spacious and comfortable than either a plane or a bus (or a donkey cart). They lack the equilibrium-disturbing sway and roll of a boat, or the lurch and petrol-stink of a coach.  I love the fact that trains are almost exactly the same technology now as when they began operation in the 19th Century. I love catching trains through Europe and feeling the miles role away underneath me, and seeing the landscape slide by. And of all trains, the steam train is my very favourite.

On 1 October, I made my way by suburban rail to Belgrave station to catch the Puffing Billy to Emerald to give a talk at Emerald Library.

Doesn’t that sound magical? Belgrave. Puffing Billy. Emerald. Library talk. For me it evokes those wonderful whistle-stop tours undertaken by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Clements across America. Trains have other literary associations for me, too. Holmes and Watson rattling across the English countryside to investigate some macabre murder; feckless young men in PG Wodehouse comedies fleeing on the milk train from ferocious aunts; the Pevensie children at the station before their last great adventure in Narnia; the Hogwarts Express; the Little Engine that Could.

Puffing Billy reminds me of all those things, and has its own special place in the heart of Victorian. I grew up in several states, so I don’t think I ever went on the inevitable school trip as a kid, but the same sense of adventure and excitement is still there for adults. Travelling by steam train in the modern day to a local library had a wonderful steampunk sensibility about it.

The Saturday that I travelled was a bit cold and wet, but people still braved the weather to sit with their legs handing out the windows as they hung onto the metal railings. We chugged through bushland, over bridges, through hills, periodically wreathed in smoke and steam.  As we rose in altitude, the air got crisper (and chillier). I could see flashes of colour from native parrots darting between trees, and see distant, mist-shrouded hills and lakes. The notes of the whistle as it blows is like a call to adventure on our way to Emerald.

There’s another literary association for you. Emerald City. Emerald is actually a lovely little country town, one of the stops on Puffing Billy’s route. After recent rain, the town is as green as its name implies. Tim even found a great new café serving excellent coffee just over the road from the library where I delivered my talk on Building Believable Fantasy Worlds. I love those talks. I’m no Clements or Wilde, but I thoroughly enjoy talking to readers and writers and sharing my love of the written word with them. This Oz did not have a man behind the curtain, but it was full of people asking wonderful questions about how to start their own great adventures in writing.

After the talk, we walked back to Emerald Station to catch the Puffing Billy back to Belgrave, this time from the warmth and comfort of the dining car. While pumpkin juice was noticeably lacking, there was lashings of tea, biscuits and fruit cake, the cheerful attentions of the lovely staff and more of those luscious green views before our return to the Big Smoke.

And so ends a day steeped in literary memories, bookish discussion, an appreciation of the Australian countryside and the delights of Victorian-era technology in a hyper-connected cyber world. In other words, a pretty perfect day.

Tim and I travelled as guests of the Puffing Billy Railways.

Interview: Warren Bonett at Embiggen Books

Bucking the trend of bookshops closing down, Embiggen Books threw open its literate doors to the people of Melbourne in August 2011. Warren and Kirsty Bonett brought their arts-meets-sciences store from Noosaville in Queensland to Little Lonsdale Street, opposite The Wheeler Centre, for family reasons. It’s definitely a win for Melbourne!

I spoke to Warren in mid-August about Embiggen’s approach to life and its future plans.

Narrelle: What’s the philosophy behind Embiggen Books and the kind of books that you stock?

Warren: We focus on science as a pretty big area, but our primary thing is where the arts meets the sciences. Our MO, if you like, is a cross pollination of ideas. We got in a lot of neuroscientists to talk in the shop up north and we will do the same down here. They have a lot of things to say to people of all disciplines. You’ll find Proust, for instance, was particularly interested in the mind and there’s been a lot of cross-fertilisation between Proust and neuroscientists in the way that they think about thought itself and the brain.

N: What kind of ficton will you stock?

W: There’s quite a lot of science fiction in there, but what I’ve done is actually keep all of the different genres together from literature through to sci fi, horror and crime, because I think that the distinctions between the genres is shocking at best. It’s all a bit artificial. Science fiction or crime tends to become called literature after a patina of age has given it a bit of respectability.

Fiction is a good example of people being able to stumble across something that they weren’t really expecting to find or look for. Someone might come in for a Dickens and walk out with Doctorow instead. That idea, to me, goes to the heart of the store.

N: The store is making me think of Jules Verne, HG Wells and the whole Victorian era with that idea that the sciences and the arts not only don’t have to be separate but perhaps shouldn’t be separate.

W: I think they’ve both got to transform. Once upon a time you had the Renaissance-type individuals who didn’t really specialise but just applied thought to a wide range of disciplines. I think we’re at a point where that is almost impossible now. But some of my favourite artists and the most stunning artwork you’ll see today are coming out of people like mathematicians and engineers.

I think in some respects it behoves the arts to catch up with that, in that we can’t just rest upon our laurels and say “I’m a creative type, therefore I don’t have to pay attention to this stuff.” I think if you’re a creative type, it’s your responsibility to pay attention to this stuff.

So that’s my take on it, and steampunk and the Victorian era is really classic for it. The great icon of steampunk and in the sciences is Charles Babbage, possibly one of the top five most brilliant people the world has ever produced. His discoveries and his work are absolutely mindboggling, and he really did cross over between multiple genres. For instance, one of his favourite things was automata. That art that has really been lost, where you make a robot, effectively, out of clockwork.

I’d love to have some in the store and be able to represent artists that do the work in here. That would be fantastic.

N: Is that something you might consider in the future, having mini art installations?

W: Up north we actually did have a gallery attached to our bookshop. It just so happened that this space wasn’t really suitable for it. But we will conduct one and two day exhibitions, where we have a particular artist come in, some plinths and things through the store, by invitation only.

N: Is there anything particular you’d like to say to readers about your store and what they can expect of the experience?

W: It’s our mission to keep the culture of bookshops and having somewhere where you will be provoked in thought very much alive. We will have more events than most bookshops tend to, but we’ll bring in the people who are running the synchrotron or scientists from the Florey Institute in order to try make those things more accessible to people.

You don’t have to go to university or a specialised centre to see that. And that’s what we want to permeate throughout the shop. If you’ve got any ideas about anything that is worthwhile and rational and reasonable out there about the world, we want to help people connect with it.

***

Embiggen Books at 203 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne is open Monday to Saturday, and late on Thursday and Friday nights. Follow them on Twitter @EmbiggenBooks.

Embiggen is also now stocking titles from Twelfth Planet Press, including the first three 12 Planets anthologies, Nightsiders by Sue Isle, Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Raynor Roberts and The Thief of Lives by Lucy Sussex. It also stocks Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. So what are you waiting for? Get yourself in to Embiggen Books!

I don’t love books! (I love stories.)

The Opposite of Life: iPad2, print and KindleThe big question on every literate set of lips lately seems to be “Do you prefer old fashioned paper books or e-books?”. I’m not convinced it’s a valid question. I read stories, in whatever guise they come in, which means I read both digital and print books, and my preference is for whichever one is on hand at the time.

I certainly understand the affection readers have with the printed word. I have myself thrilled to the view of actual manuscripts, kept tantalisingly under glass, of the great books and diaries of yore. I’ve seen one of the first editions of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in a castle in Poland, alongside one of the oldest known atlases in the world. At the British Library, my spine shivered in empathy at the last words in Scott’s diary: “For God’s sake look after our people.”  The written word, on the page, can be spellbinding.

But not all printed words are world changing. Not all books are lovely to hold and look at. Sometimes, no matter how thick the paper or lavish the cover, the story within those pages is bland, or vile, or simply not my cup of tea. The argument that a story is only worth reading if it’s in a book just doesn’t hold for me. As a writer, I find it vaguely offensive that it’s the format, not the story held inside it, that counts.

Perhaps my view comes from the fact that I’m a traveller too. I’ve been reading e-books, on and off, for ten or more years. My husband and I like to travel light (partly because he’s a travel writer and we’re often moving every few days and heavy suitcases get in the way). With only a small backpack into which to fit our temporary lives, we were early adopters of Palm Pilots and would load travel guides and classic literature onto the devices before the trip. (I still miss the neat auto-scrolling capacity my Palm had, so I could eat a meal and read without having even to flick the page with a finger!)

The format was a necessity for the way we travel, but the convenience was marvellous. I didn’t have to worry about favourite books getting damaged as they collided with everything else in my handbag.  If my train was delayed, or I had to spend an irritating amount of time in a waiting room, I always had several books on hand. As screens have developed, it’s become easier and easier to read from them. I used my smartphone to hold my books for ages, and now my Kindle has a delightful matte screen and I can change the font size for those tired-eye days.

Have I found having an e-reader is changing my reading habits? Yes. I’m reading a lot more: at lunchtimes at work; on the tram; waiting for the tram; at home; at cafes. I am reading several books at once, which I can choose from depending on my mood, because I have all of them with me at once. I’m more likely to spontaneously buy a book on  reading the review or getting a recommendation, rather than trying to remember the title next time I’m near a bookshop that’s open. Having a digital to-read pile is less intimidating than my still rather large paper book stash, and easier to add to. (This great news for publishers who benefit from my impulse buying; less so for my bank balance.)

Of course there are going to be less pleasant consquences of the e-book revolution. Bookselling giants like Borders and Angus and Robertson are already disappearing. Will the independent and boutique bookshops follow? I’m not convinced they all will, but I don’t know what the future holds or how readers will adapt to the new market. I’m concerned that access to books may be restricted to people on lower incomes because e-devices may not be affordable and the cheap books, championed by the likes of Penguin, may not longer be available.

It may be some years before the dust settles on the e-versus-tree upheaval and we see how it all pans out. Like all such upheavals, some changes will be for the better, some for the worse. I suspect that books on paper will never leave us, and that when readers discover an digital book that hits them in the heart, they’ll go an buy a lovely paper edition to display on the shelf, to hold and re-read and adore. And people who find a beautiful print book may then buy a digital edition to preserve that book in all its shiny glory while reading the e-book to digital death. Some people will continue to love and seek out dog-eared copies of pre-adored stories with notes in the margins, in the manner of Helen Hanff, while others will treat bound editions like precious art, not to be damaged in any way.

But people will keep on reading. They will keep finding the stories that tell them about themselves, or teach them what it’s like to be someone else, however they are told. We’re human: telling and seeking out stories is one of the nobler things we do.

For myself, I read stories in all kinds of formats. I read paper books and e-books. I read comics. I read texts on my computer and on printed-out sheafs of A4 paper. Whatever the format they come in, I read stories and it is the words, not the medium, that transport me.

*Note: The Opposite Of Life (Lissa and Gary)is now available as an e-book, but since I’m even-handed, you can get it in print form from Boomerang Books.