BOOK REVIEW: Finding Mr Darcy (Amanda Hooton, Macmillan)

Jane Austen seems to have had a real renaissance lately; we have seen zombies and sea monsters invade her books, and had the books pulled apart to create guides to finding a man, marriage and happiness. Finding Mr Darcy is a little different to the other guides we’ve seen, and encourages the reader to get to know herself, to be the best version of herself, and then find a man. Amanda Hooton brings her trademark witty style and examples from friends and friends-of-friends to add to examples from Austen’s work. Finding Mr Darcy is written in a fantastic, chatty manner, which makes it seem like a conversation over tea and cream buns—or perhaps while walking among the shrubbery. It begins with a closer look at each of the Austen books, clarifying the Hero and the Heroine, and the plot. You don’t have to have read all of Austen’s books to relate to Finding Mr Darcy and you don’t have to be looking for Mr Right to have a laugh and enjoy it. Obviously, it’s aimed at ladies (anywhere from late teens upwards) who are single, but I think I’ll point my single male friends towards a few chapters (namely, ‘The Hero’, and ‘The Bastards’).

Jessica Broadbent is a former bookseller and trained librarian who likes to think of herself as Emma Woodhouse, but is probably more like Marianne Dashwood

BOOK REVIEW: Mateship with Birds (Carrie Tiffany, Macmillan)

Published five years ago, Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was a remarkably assured debut novel, recognised as such by the Miles Franklin and Orange Prize judges. She has brought the same clear-eyed intelligence about human relations and seamless narrative style to her second novel, Mateship with Birds. We are in familiar territory, in rural Victoria, this time post WWII rather than WWI. Harry is a divorced dairy farmer, living alone. His next-door neighbour, Betty, is a single mother of two who works at the town’s nursing home. We follow the vicissitudes of Harry and Betty’s daily and seasonal lives through their interactions, and those of Betty’s children, as well as through a window into the inner lives of both. The ‘mateship’ of the title, captured through the birdwatching episodes which feature throughout, is also a deceptive device, as Harry watches (and lusts after) Betty. At the same time, he earnestly attempts to give her son the s-x education he is so aware he himself lacked. This is a splendidly poised and wryly funny novel: human nature and relationships are as beautifully observed as the rich, circadian rhythms (I’ve not read better prose about the intimate intricacy of dairy farming) of country life. It is clever, original and richly rewarding.

David Gaunt is co-owner of Gleebooks in Sydney. This review first appeared in the Summer 2011/12 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

INTERVIEW: Di Morrissey on 20 years in publishing

Bestselling Australian novelist Di Morrissey has just published her 20th novel in 20 years, The Opal Desert (Macmillan). Andrea Hanke spoke to the author about her career journey, changes in publishing, new media vs ‘pressing the flesh’, and the marginalisation of women’s writing and popular fiction.

Twenty novels in 20 years is an extraordinary achievement. What kind of discipline is required to meet these publishing deadlines, year in and year out?
When you start writing you don’t think past getting that story out and hopefully getting it published, but when you have the commitment of a contract there is an additional motivation. I have a very strong, perhaps old-fashioned, work ethic. I shudder when I hear of people who have a contract or potential interest in their work and diddle around and can’t meet their deadline and never produce anything. I’m there on the day it’s due, manuscript in hand for better or worse. I also understand it’s not just about me but there is a whole team involved, a schedule, a business plan, marketing campaign and people who depend on me producing a publishable book. The writing process may be a solitary endeavour but there is a massive machine involving many dedicated people that take your original scribbles and turn it into a polished, professional product, so it does put considerable pressure on me. And of course, when you have a successful book the expectation is there to do an even better next book.

When you look back over your career, how has the way in which your books are edited, published and promoted changed over the years? Is the publishing industry better at its job today than it was 20 years ago?
Well technology has made it easier in many ways to write. When I first started I mailed hard copy to my editor, so email has certainly speeded things up.  Publishers today don’t like to take risks and have had to adapt, to be more focused, take less of a scatter-gun approach and hope a book on spec does well, as they can’t afford a failure in these more competitive times. So I wouldn’t want to be starting out now! Marketing is even more vital now and traditional media campaigns have changed as social networking and an online presence reaches an audience as quickly and effectively as a print or radio ad. Authors have to be prepared to adapt to the new media but frankly, I still feel that word of mouth and ‘pressing the flesh’ is as powerful as ever. Publishing houses have had to be more savvy as well as cost-conscious, the old conservative days of British publishing dominating the Empire are gone but try telling them that! There’s still a bit of literary snobbishness and parochialism with international publishers believing their books outrank ours.

There has been a lot of talk recently about a gender bias in literary criticism and awards. What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you support the creation of a new women-only book prize? And do you think we need more book prizes for genres outside literary fiction?
There is no question that the bias exists. Women are not reviewed as seriously or in as great a depth or frequency as men. Nor do women receive as many awards as men. But to section ourselves off with women-only prizes and categories is buying into the marginalisation, i.e. ‘Men do art, women do craft’. Besides, I think there are enough specialist categories for a variety of genres. We know literary fiction usually doesn’t sell anywhere near what popular fiction sells, yet the ‘literary’ tag imbues a book with some kind of merit so these ‘serious’ authors content themselves with a badge of assumed quality when most would secretly prefer to have a royalty cheque of quantity. And let’s face it, if a heap of people buy a book, and continue to show loyalty to a particular popular author, then that author must be doing something right.

Of all 20 novels, which is your favourite?
I don’t have a favourite book per se, it is a bit like choosing a favourite child. But I have to confess to a slight affection for Tears of the Moon as it was the book that broke me out in hardback and international sales. And it was a deliberate strategy to find a mainstream and male audience and change the perception of me being a writer of romance fiction.

Which book has been the hardest to write?
The one I’m writing now! I face each new book with trepidation and insecurity, I never feel complacent and the more successful you become and the more you write, the greater the pressure. But equally I do it because of the passion and fulfilment that I only find from writing.

What has inspired your latest novel?
I’ve always loved opals, and I first visited the opal fields in the 1980s and decided I wanted to spend time in this strange word and write about it one day. I’ve been going to Lightning Ridge for many years and I saw how the industry was changing and decided this was the year to explore the lure and obsession that draws people to this different lifestyle and isolated community. It’s also about women’s friendship. The bonds and special connection and emotional support women draw from each other. This book explores the relationship between three women of differing generations who find themselves in the remote and wonderful opal fields.

INTERVIEW: Matthew Reilly on ‘Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves’ (Macmillan)

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves (Macmillan) is Matthew Reilly’s fifth book in the Scarecrow series (including the spin-off novella Hell Island, produced for Books Alive in 2003). In the latest instalment, Reilly has ‘humanised an often superhero-like character’ while creating his ’most cruel and violent villains yet’, says reviewer Emily Smith. (See her review here.) She spoke to the author.

You’ve featured many different nations and organisations as the villains in your books. To what extent do current affairs and politics affect who you cast as the bad guys?
My books—especially the Scarecrow series—are set in the real world, so current events are very important. In fact, the reason it’s been eight years since the last Scarecrow novel is that I was waiting for the world to change. And around 2008-2009, it did!

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves reveals the characters’ personal lives more than in previous books: we learn more about Schofield’s family and Mother also opens up about married life. What made you decide to explore this?
I put Scarecrow through hell in Scarecrow, and I felt that readers would like to know how he dealt with the horrible things that happened in that book. That meant delving into his personal life, and that of his friend, Mother, as well. I am older now, too—I am 37 now, whereas I was 23 when I wrote Ice Station—and I think as I get older, I like to find out more about my characters. That said, while I wanted to explore Scarecrow’s and Mother’s characters, I wanted to do it in the middle of an absolute rampage of a story!

You set the first Schofield novel, Ice Station, in Antarctica. What made you choose to return to a frozen landscape?
I have always wanted to set a book in the Arctic. It is very different to the Antarctic, with its own dangers (polar bears, extreme cold) and unique features (the sea ice, the leads, old Soviet bases). I also like setting my books in faraway places as they allow readers to escape; they also allow me to escape when I write the books.

Your novels keep getting faster and faster. How do you juggle a fast-paced plot with character development and back story?
My theory is this: try to develop character during big action scenes! I wanted Thieves to be both fast and intense, to be relentless in its relentlessness. And I think I have succeeded in this aim. I want every new book that I write to be somehow better than the one that came before it—with this one, that would be in its intensity. But action and thrills are worthless if readers don’t care about the characters, so I needed to thread character moments and back story into the action. How do I do it? I’m not quite sure. If you’re going to have a character moment, why not have it on a runaway missile train!

What’s in store next for Shane Schofield?
I have an idea for a new Scarecrow story. I now have to decide whether to write a new book about him, or do another Jack West novel. This is the decision I must make.

What was the last book you read and loved?
I am loving Boomerang by Michael Lewis right now. I have loved all of his books, especially Moneyball. Lewis is a gifted nonfiction writer, who writes with clarity and humour about subjects like pro sports and the Global Financial Crisis (in Boomerang he goes to  countries like Iceland, Greece and Ireland to find out why they suffered as they did in the GFC). I read a lot of nonfiction, but Michael Lewis is the man. If I see a new book by him on the shelves, I will buy it without even reading the jacket. I just know it will be good.

BOOK REVIEW: Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves (Matthew Reilly, Macmillan)

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves reunites readers with US marine captain Shane Schofield, call-sign ‘Scarecrow’. In his latest adventure, Schofield has been assigned to lead a weapons-testing team to the Arctic as his commanders are worried he may not be mentally fit for active duty. After weeks of isolation with just three other marines, four civilians and a robot for company, Schofield receives a call from the White House requesting his help. A mysterious group calling itself the Army of Thieves has taken over an abandoned Soviet base known as Dragon Island and is threatening to unleash a terrible weapon on the world in five hours. With no-one else close enough to get there in time, Schofield must lead his under-equipped team to the fortress-like base and dismantle the weapon before it’s used to destroy the world. The Army of Thieves are Matthew Reilly’s most cruel and violent villains yet, and some of the scenes may be unsuitable for younger readers. However, Reilly has also put more humour and character development into this book than any of his previous ones. Some of the scenes between Schofield and his loyal friend Mother are particularly touching, and long-time fans will enjoy learning more about both Schofield and Mother’s personal lives. Schofield’s ongoing grief, after losing someone close to him in Scarecrow, has also humanised an often superhero-like character.

Emily Smith is a Melbourne-based freelance reviewer.