In this video/audio, I talk about one of my pet hates - the marginalising and shaming of someone’s reading choices. Many readers of romance and science fiction have experienced this in their lives, but undoubtedly it isn’t limited to those genres. Through my PhD reserach into the neuroscience of reading, I’ve really come to appreciate how “story” is a collaboration between reader and text, and that reader has their own memories and knowledge that make the story meaningful. That really questions the absolutist idea of “value” in literature, and the idea that anyone should be shamed about what they enjoy reading, whether it’s for pleasure or for meaning.
You can also follow this link to SoundCloud.
Cheers, Charlotte (proud romance and science fiction reader).
I have no idea why, but I had a hankering for classic whodunnits this past fortnight. Maybe it’s because I’m editing a thriller, and a crime mystery is a nice adjacent genre without being too much the same. Because I’d seen the new Kenneth Branagh version of Murder on the Orient Express earlier this year (not at all motivated by certain small persons’s obsession with trains in this household), I gravitated to Agatha Cristie - not just one, but perhaps three of her most famous Hercule Poirot novels: Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Death on the Nile.
That’s the order in which I read them this time, but not the order in the Hercule Poirot novels - Roger Ackroyd is the earliest (#3 - 1926), then Orient Express (#8 - 1934), then Death on the Nile (#15 - 1937). Note in these numbers I neglect the short story collection and adapted play that sometimes have the books at #4, #10 and #17. Such the confusion.
I’ve read Orient Express before, but not for several years, since I was working on The Horseman (which has a crime subplot and a character obsessed with Christie, and who lends the book to the heroine). I’m sure Agatha Christie is a favourite homage for novelists - I still remember Kate Morton’s The Shifting Fog hinging around a character who was devoted to Christie novels, and a mistruth she tells as a result.
But I digress!
All three novels are masterful stories that are tight and engaging, despite a huge number of the scenes being simply people in a room talking to each other. Hercule Poirot’s personality carries a great deal of the page traction - he is a classic iconic character, one whose defining feature is their collected and unchanging ideosyncratic behaviours, a personality that confers particular advantage in resolving the situation of the story. Much of the tension and the reading pleasure comes from Poirot’s theory testing, running the crime through our eyes in different forms, while as the reader you try to remember little details and ask if they fit.
I read all three novels in under two weeks, a herculean (no pun intended) feat for me, even in Audiobook, so that’s a testament to their aweseomness. And it’s a testment to Christie that the books withstand early correct presumptions of the ending - I have an annoying habit (very mild superpower??) of anticipating twist endings. I worked out The Usual Suspects in the first twenty minutes, and I had my murderer sussed in both Nile and Roger Ackroyd early in the piece, the latter a book made famous for its resolution. I had the same suspicion of the ending when I saw Orient in film. But this minor annoying superpower of seeing-it-coming doesn’t dampen the experience.
Mysteries are more about how the discovery is made, as they are about the revelation. This is why the personality of the investigator matters so much - Poirot’s mind and affectations are a spectacle to watch at work. Anyone who reads romance knows this is true - knowing the ending is not the point; it’s how we arrive at that ending, the pleasure of seeing how it all unfolds, how the character will overcome the obstacles in their way to arrive at “the end”.
I recommend all three novels (if I was being tortured with promise of a mock cream donut, I’d rate Orient my fave, closely followed by Roger Ackroyd and then Nile, but there’s nothing in it). Agatha Christie is an eduring and celebrated novelist for a good reason, and for work published now up to 90 years ago (staggering!) the stories still feel fresh. Kenneth Branagh’s audio narration of Orient is wonderful. He was criticised for making Poirot less perculiar in the film than in previous adaptations, but I found I could move between different incarnations of Poirot without being bothered (I listened to the narrations by Hugh Fraser for Roger Ackroyd and David Suchet for Nile). I read that Kenneth Branagh will be releasing a new adaptation of Death on the Nile in 2019. All Christie, all the time.
Click on below for the trailer for Murder on the Orient Express if you haven’t seen it yet. The cinematography is breathtaking. I so want to go on the orient express - though with less murder would be grand. Links also to all three novels on Goodreads.
If you'd prefer to listen or watch this review, choose the audio track or video below, or read on for the text!
How did I discover this book/film?
I saw a trailer for the Crazy Rich Asians film when I was seeing another movie, and then the book turned up in my audible feed, so I decided to read [or rather listen] to it first.
I'm a huge fan of romantic comedies – there's such a pleasure in those stories when they're done well. But they can be a bit samey – sometimes that's part of the pleasure, and sometimes it becomes tired. One of the great things about Crazy Rich Asians is that it sits broadly in romantic comedy, but is very different from other stories – the characters, the setting, it's all very much not Jenifer Aniston/Lopez. To be honest, I found the book a very slow start. Lots of characters to meet, and a lot of the opulent "world" to be built before the story really feels like it gets going. I wonder if I had been reading a hard copy if I would have stuck with it.
In audiobook, however, I pushed past that start, and the page traction picks up. It's very much a story about the setting – that over-the-top opulence is what makes it work, though there's enough story to be satisfying.
When I saw the movie, I was expecting a huge on-screen realisation of that opulent setting, and to be honest I was a little disappointed with how restrained it was compared to the book. The other dissatisfaction is that, while I think it's a good adaptation, the nuances and complexities of the secondary characters and subplots is completely missing.
The ending, particularly of Astrid's story and Rachel's family past, is very Hollywoodised and underdone in an unsatisfying way. It was odd to watch that, when the early scenes of the movie were straight takes from the book, even the bible study scene which I always thought stood out as not matching the rest of the book. I read somewhere that it was one of the originating scenes for the story, and it read that way – something that was a legacy and didn't quite belong. So double odd that the movie went with it anyway, but then departed so drastically from the book in all the wrap-up.
However, it's enjoyable to watch a rom-com without the usual suspects in the cast, and despite the other-worldly wealth, it does a good job of conveying a universality of romantic difficulties common to everyone. Plus it has some very funny moments!
It's rare for me to read a book so close to seeing the movie (the last time was Lord of the Rings), and it does create a strange story dissonance in my mind where it's hard to separate the two versions of the story, which might be one reason I found the film more unsatisfying. One thing is for sure though – I've never wanted to go eat in a Singapore food market more in my life.
Book – 4 couture dresses out of 5
Film – 3 mega-diamonds out of 5
Interested? Watch the trailer ...
How did I discover this show?
Like a disturbing number of my streaming choices recently, I received the recommendation from fellow author Christine Wells, whose judgement I now rate highly after enjoying Lovesick (Netflix), which she also put me onto. I signed up for Stan (again) just to watch Younger, and very glad I did. The show is currently in season 5, an incredibly rare case of me actually cottoning onto a show before it goes off the air. Sadly, this also means I've caught up to the current episode and am having to exercise all my powers of delayed gratification to WAIT for the next one. Grrr. On the plus side, the series has renewed for season 6.
If you know nothing about it, Younger follows Liza Miller (Sutton Foster) a 40-year-old who pretends to be 26 to get a job in publishing after her marriage breaks up, and an expanding pool of friends and colleagues. While the show does centre on Liza, the ensemble cast is one of the huge strengths and pleasures of the show, with each character maintained in the story even when they are not directly in Liza's scenes. The show is also stuffed full of publishing industry in-jokes and literary references, which is titilating and for me, pumps the funny. The plot follows the ongoing consequences of Liza's lie as different circles of her acquaintence discover her secret.
The writing is tight and effective, a rare case of a drama genuinely keeping the romantic tension going on multiple fronts, and the plot has pleasantly surprised me more than once. The characters are fun to watch, and I have special affection for Head of Marketing Diana Trout (Miriam Shor) with her avant-garde fashion, endless necklace wardrobe and spectacular haughty derision. Ever since she quipped something about the "bottom feeders at Little, Brown" and I spat my tea, I have enjoyed her.
Then there's the ongoing debate between #teamjosh (Nico Tortorella) and #teamcharles (Peter Hermann). And I still don't know whose side I'm on. Do you take all that Joshian romantic passion and raw energy, or Charlesian restrained brooding and experience? I can't say ... and I love that.
In short, this is a binge-worthy, funny, romantic show, that still has some deep moments, dealing with friendship and intimacy, as well as generational changes in attitudes towards age, work, sex, and so much more.
5 New York moments out of 5
Interested? Watch the season 1 trailer. Zero spoilers. Honest.
If you're super interested, you'll find Younger on Stan.
How did I discover this book?
I found Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners (hugh breath!) on a table somewhere in the labrynth of Barnes and Noble (Union Square) New York City. It wasn't on the ground floor, or particularly prominent, but the combination of risque cover (at least for the Victorians), the humour, and the fact I am researching the Victorian period for a book led me to hand over my money. I have no association with the author or publisher.
If you find historical era books a bit inaccessible, this book might be for you. It's fun, witty, and does a good job of using our expectations as modern day women to frame the differences in Victorian times. It's also transatlantic in focus, so you'll have examples from both the American Victorian era, and the British one. If you're a stickler for historical texts, the humourous style might get your hackles up, but it's an excellent introduction point if you want to dig further (a reference list is in the back). And if you're not researching, it's still entertaining. And occasionally sobering. Be glad to be a 21st century woman, I think.
Overall, I read the book very quickly, and I think I took more away from this about the lives of Victorian women than I have in a dozen drier, more traditional history books. A book that is trying to straddle the ground between entertainment and fact isn't an easy feat to pull off (when I get around to posting the review of Gut here, evidence will be presented), but Unmentionable does that for me. That's a win. Also, there is a sequel coming on children of the era - Ungovernable, I think.
5 tight corset stays out of 5
Interested? Here's the blurb from Goodreads
Ladies, welcome to the 19th century, where there's arsenic in your face cream, a pot of cold pee sits under your bed, and all of your underwear is crotchless. (Why? Shush, dear. A lady doesn't question.)
UNMENTIONABLE is your hilarious, illustrated, scandalously honest (yet never crass) guide to the secrets of Victorian womanhood, giving you detailed advice on:
~ What to wear
~ Where to relieve yourself
~ How to conceal your loathsome addiction to menstruating
~ What to expect on your wedding night
~ How to be the perfect Victorian wife
~ Why masturbating will kill you
~ And more
Irresistibly charming, laugh-out-loud funny, and featuring nearly 200 images from Victorian publications, UNMENTIONABLE will inspire a whole new level of respect for Elizabeth Bennett, Scarlet O'Hara, Jane Eyre, and all of our great, great grandmothers.
(And it just might leave you feeling ecstatically grateful to live in an age of pants, super absorbency tampons, epidurals, anti-depressants, and not-dying-of-the-syphilis-your-husband-brought-home.)
I've done my share of tut-tutting the English tourists on Australian beaches, lobster red and yet still out baking. They're clearly dazzled by the appearance of this thing called sunshine we have in Australia, and in their enthusiasm to up the lifetime quota of Vitamin D, neglect the sunscreen. They may never had slip-slop-slap-(slide) ingrained in their cultural upbringing, but still, it's a stoopid tourist move. After all, who doesn't know about the Australian sun's ability to strip your epidermis before you can turn over?
The only thing is, I think I may have been a little premature in my judge-yness of English tourists in Australia. Might not be able to feel so on the high ground of touristy respect of the foreign country after this week.
You see, we Australians grow up in the pride of having the world's nastiest spiders, snakes, sharks, crocs, drop bears, creepy serial killers, et al. Basically, we think we have all the native aggressors stitched up. Come to Australia at your peril, ho ho ho, we have all the stuff that can get you. Of course, most of us are secure in the knowledge the worst we've ever actually experienced is a red back bite, and even those don't have the whispered deathly mystique they had in primary school. I've been bushwalking all over the place and never gotten anything worse than a leech.
So, on entering the English countryside, I saw endless cultivated fields and thought we were home free. Lo, this is the place where generations of my ancestors worked and lived. Everything nasty has been driven off. Nothing here can harm us!
Not so fast. Now, I realise that yes, there are endless fields. But all that seems to have done is concentrate the attack arsenal of all the stuff lurking in the woods and hedgerows.
First, there's Nettles. Not just one, but fields of fracking nettles. Not the faery story nettles that a princess beats into cloth for her swan brothers (which is absolutely bonkers), but glass-needle, histamine loaded dart tipped nettles. In groves, leaning over every path. Go play, I said to the three year old, and all was jolly. Until there was screaming. And welts. And more screaming. And googling what to do about nettle stings.
Second, Mosquitoes. Not just one or two sneaky ones, but whole fracking clouds of swarming mosquitoes that lurk in the cool of the woods, waiting for tasty tourist flesh to happen by. Unopposed, these things could suck out the blood of an adult human in thirty seconds. In fact, they're not mosquitoes anymore. They are flying wood piranhas. The real version of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves would basically have ended after Kevin Costner said, "we can find safety and solace in the trees", when all the outcasts were instantly driven from the forest by hoard of flying wood piranhas.
Three, the Black Skin Lice. I'll admit, I don't know what these little beggars are called, but they're tiny crawly insects that get on you and crawl around until you squish them into tiny streaks of black. Which sadly, doesn't at all deter their dozens of friends.
Now, it is unseasonably hot weather, so the nettles and FWPs and BSL may have just gone crazy in the heat. But it's also true the houses have no screens. So until we can leave all the greebs behind this week, we just have to put up with them. And wear jeans against the nettles. Maybe this is why I never see anyone walking a bridleway? The only plus is that we have had plenty of sunscreen, so no one has been burned. I never thought I'd look on an Australian fly with nostalgia, but come our return to Oz this week, I just might.
When I finished the last post with a glib suggestion of travel misadventures, I was anticipating turning down a wrong street in London, or hilariously catching the tube the wrong direction up a line. Not what actually happened, which had to do with the flight from NY to London itself. My tardy posting about it (being it's currently London day 7) could be taken as time required to process the experience. Or just laziness, choosing to ingest Sainsbury's 75p croissants as if the rapture is tomorrow, instead of blogging.
So, here's a short summation of the journey from New York to London Stanstead, travelling with a low-cost carrier I'll call Scandi McBudget Air.
I reach Newark airport smoothly (subway, two trains). Drop bag. Query my seat allocation, which appears to be back in an exit row***. Counter staff says "I'm not going to change it". I shrug. Reach gate. Screen says "on time". Staff (who turn out to be cabin crew and flight crew) are standing around drinking coffees. Waiting. Waiting. Irate French woman yells at gate staff (we will soon discover what this is about). Flight finally boards over an hour late, all the while the screen merrily says "on time". Ha-dee-ha. ***there's a long story I won't go into with the booking process where I had a seat in this row to start with, and then it was changed twice to avoid being charged extra for the seat.
Once on board, becomes evident some colossal balls up has happened with seat allocations. People who paid for exit rows aren't the in exit row. Staff come to ask us if we paid for it. I say my seat was changed three times and the woman at the counter then wouldn't change it again. This is what French woman was yelling about. Finally, we leave, very late. Drinks trolley comes out, and water must be paid for. But the staff have been given no card readers (ticket says credit cards preferred) so they are collecting whatever cash people have, Aeroflot style.
I gave my last cash to a distressed woman on the train to Newark, so I'm facing all night in the desiccating cabin air with no water because of Scandi McBudget's manifest organisational fuckery. Steward, to his credit, gives me a bottle of water. Hours pass. The toilets are so stinky I'm convinced they've adapted the long drop to high altitude flight. That's when I notice the duct tape holding an overhead bin closed. Possibly containing snakes?
Yes, duct tape. Just in case you don't believe it, here is the photo. And while duct tape is a wonder material, it's not really what you want to see fixing your aircraft. Any part of the aircraft. Haven't they ever seen Air Crash Investigators? One tiny thing leads to another. To ANOTHER. And suddenly that duct tape on the overhead bin means some solvent dissolves some wire that controls some thing that makes everything go boom.
Anyway. To spoiler the end of the story, we managed to land safely, which I think was the only thing that went well. Chatting to other passengers in the terminal, I learned a part of their window assembly was hanging off, so they could see into some kind of plane innards. Now I know why the ticket was so damn cheap.
From there, I caught trains and tubes effortlessly to my destination, and will not even deign to complain about the lack of promised wi-fi on the Stanstead plane because I clearly used all my points up with the universe on the flight.
Since then, there's been a conference and various research around London, but I'm not sure any of it is very interesting blog material. On the weekend we head north to Lincoln for more research. Stay tuned. Maybe.
It's my final day in New York City, and I'm writing this after the slightly harrowing journey from Manhattan to Newark Airport, which is actually in New Jersey. This is on account of having booked a very budget airline, which will whisk me across the Atlantic for a bargain price, but will then deposit me at Stanstead as punishment for my thriftiness, and require me to fly from Newark and not JFK.
I prepared for this by ensuring I could take trains here (having learned the folly of engaging with New York City road traffic last time), and bringing my own entertainment, being Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners by Therese O'Neill (both hilarious and informative), and Colleen Hoover's Maybe Someday in Audiobook (addictively sexy and romantic – curse your talent, Ms Hoover). Still, the trip involved duelling with the crowds at Penn Station, and wrestling my (by now) 20-odd-kg case up and down far too many staircases (along with public bathrooms, working elevators are also a rarity in NYC).
The reason for my heavy case is that I visited more bookshops today, including Book Culture on Columbus, Barnes and Noble at Union Square, and Books of Wonder. The latter is a specialist children's book store, and I have it on some authority that it's the inspiration behind the store Meg Ryan works at in You've Got Mail. My visit to NYC just isn't complete without a Meg Ryan movie reference, it seems. Sadly for my airline weight limit, I had gifts to buy and terribly helpful staff prepared to take my money.
I confess I bought six books and a book bag, my total spend being so stupendous that I qualified for an extra free book, and thus had to sit on my case to make it close. I regret nothing. But I do make an offering to the gods of baggage handlers (St Anthony of Padua, Google informs me) that my case won't pop like an overstuffed burrito before London. It was an excellent store however, including a rare book section where you could purchase a copy of Where The Wild Things Are, personally signed with a small illustration by Maurice Sendak himself, for $22,500. I stepped back from the case, just a bit.
After Books of Wonder I proceeded to Barnes and Noble and, after a cunning hunt through the four floors, found The Paris Wedding, face out no less, in a nice eye-level position. This rounded my day off nicely.
So, now, I am waiting for my flight to London, binging on an expensive box of GuyLian seashells, which looked cheap until they added the tax and I did the currency conversion. I have attempted to prepare for the long commute from the aforementioned Stanstead by photographing Google map information (and purchasing expensive, consoling Belgian chocolates), which clearly is a foolproof plan with which nothing could go wrong.
Let's just say that the next blog may contain travel misadventures. Stay tuned.
This is a relatively quick one, because it's pretty late. By which I mean, it's late on the clock but I am alert and blogging because timezones and melatonin. Today was my date for out-of-city adventuring, where I caught the subway to Queens, hired a car, and imbued with the confidence of last year's cross-country driving-on-the-right success, drove out to Shoreham on Long Island.
The freeways on Long Island are a little scarier than the I-40 I drove last year. Trucks are thick, and everyone (everyone) speeds. Still, despite one overly long wrong-way detour (which wouldn't have happened if the US would have a little more enthusiasm for public bathrooms), I made it out and back in one piece, so success.
This trip was to visit Wardenclyffe, the location of Nikola Tesla's wireless transmission station from 1901 to 1906. If you're not familiar with Tesla and this site, read the Oatmeal's amusing and enthusiastic recap, which also links to the campaign to save the Wardenclyffe site from development. Now, the museum isn't built yet, so all you can do is stand outside the fence and soak it up. Why did I bother to hire a care and drive three hours just to do that?
Partly, it's because it's just cool – to see a physical remnant of an amazing scientist from a different era. Too good an opportunity to pass up. The other part is that Tesla figures in the science fiction thriller I'm writing for my PhD. The story is an alternative history where Tesla goes to London instead of New York, but I wanted the sense of where he'd been in his "first life" to inform the "second" that's made possible with time travel. Ok, I'm done with the nerding about that. The trip out was 100% worth it.
Having sat in a car for much of the day, when I had the chance to have dinner with some lovely friends tonight, I decided to walk the 30 blocks to their place, and back. Between that and staying in a fifth-floor apartment, my fitbit is very happy with me.
Tomorrow is my last day in New York before I leave for London, and I intend on more bookstore visits. Stay tuned.
One of my objectives in coming to New York was to see my book on an American bookstore shelf. I figured I couldn't take this moment for granted; it could be the only time in my career I have a book out in the USA. In the way of good travel, however, the decision to come led to some twists and turns of fate that made today a bookstore adventure.
It started this morning with a meeting with my wonderful publishing team at William Morrow, after which I asked for bookstore recommendations. One (of the very long list!) was Strand Bookstore, a three-floor wonderland of pages, including a floor devoted to rare books. This also happened to be the location of an author panel tonight called "Romance: it's complicated", featuring Sarah MacLean, Marie Force, LaQuette, Julia London, and Elizabeth Lim. Damon Suede excelled as the moderator, asking poignant and insightful questions (the above quote was one he raised during a discussion of the common misconception that romance is "simple"), and all the authors were articulate and intelligent.
I've never been so captivated by an author panel. They discussed the relationship between romance and autonomy, the nature of happiness as a subversive act, the correlation between the rise of modern democracy and modern literacy, and above all, the rejection of sentimentality as a label for romance. As the title suggested, romance has never been straightforward, IRL or in fiction.
Despite moments of intense sadness (Sarah's apt comparisons between the foundling hospitals of historical London and the current children at the boarder horror makes me so upset I can barely type about it ... as I write this, Twitter is blowing up over the Corey Lewandowski belittling a child with Down Syndrome separated from parents at the border. I am at a loss as to what's wrong with us as a species in my rage right now.), this was an amazing group of authors, speaking in a spectacular venue, and with important things to say. As (I think Marie) said, love is a social issue. I can't imagine a time when that has been more true, both here in the US and in Australia. I feel very privileged to have been able to attend.
And of course, a little icing on this cake was that I did see my book on the shelf! My own micromoment of subversive happiness, amongst the mucky world we live in right now.
Tomorrow, I'm taking an excursion out to Long Island, so I'll post next about that. Stay tuned.
I'm writing this from a grotto table in the back of Mud Coffee bar, downing an oversize mug latte and waiting for a breakfast involving bacon. I'm in the odd, in-between day of polar-earth position time zone change where, like Byron said, morning has come and went and come and brought no day. Or at least, no sleep. The journey here was two flights racing the sun across the Pacific, split by a strange dash through the bowels of LAX, necessitated by the rules of US Customs which decrees that to fly on anywhere else, we all must queue, clear customs (a labyrinth of crowd control lines), collect our bags, queue, drop our bags back, queue some more, clear security again, and then re-board the same plane, just in a different seat.
The ensuing delay of all passengers making the onward trip to New York (for all other connections, leaving later than us, were given express cards but we were not) meant we were rather badly delayed. We thus missed whatever slender airspace window had been allotted to us and spent a good deal of time circling JFK, touched down late, and then spent some more time waiting on the runway.
By this stage, the pilot was announcing the "annoying delays" in increasingly bewildered tone. After that came another hour or so on trains and subways before I finally put my bag down. However, as I'd re-watched Gravity during the first flight during a patch of turbulence, I should be grateful for the safe arrival, however late. Watching space stations and satellites smash themselves to pieces around Sandra Bullock as she tries to make it back to Earth is a rather special experience while you yourself are ten clicks off the surface of said earth in a shaking aluminium and composite can. I can recommend it to everyone.
I elected this time to stay at an Airbnb apartment, reasoning that staying with a local would be a different and hopefully positive experience. My mistake was apparent soon after arriving, not because of my host (who is lovely, if erring on the strict size of house rules), but because it's New York, which means a tiny tiny apartment with one tiny tiny bathroom (I shall never complain about the size of my workers' cottage at home again). In a hotel, I never worry about how many times I might need to visit the bathroom because I sank two pints of soda water while waiting at a nearby bar for my host to arrive. I also don't worry too much about old and narrow sewerage pipes and how much toilet paper one might be able to use before it becomes a plunger issue.
Then there's the emerging First Rule of Airbnb, which is, We Don't Talk about Airbnb. That is, should anyone ask, I'm staying with "a friend", and though I intensely resent having to tiptoe around the clandestine subletting issue after having paid via a legit website every single time, I of course will not say anything about it. Except to the bartender across the street before said prohibition from mentioning Airbnb was made clear to me at this place. Ooops.
Let's say I survived the night, though much of it was spent not sleeping but listening to Story Club podcasts (and the comic stylings of David Cunningham), flicking through several hundred blocked TV channels, and fretting about what I could wear for the 31 degree heat when I'd packed for a Brisbane winter. When the sun did come up, the view out of the window of the fire escape stairs put me in mind of Vivian's apartment in Pretty Woman. Sadly, no Richard Gere in a limousine was waiting down the four flights of stairs. Probably because, a) I'm in the wrong city for the metaphor, and b) my loved ones are on the other side of the globe. So I walked several blocks to this café.
This degree of sleep dep makes me feel woozy. Hence the industrial mug of latte, though all the coffee in the world will not make up for having been too cheap to buy roaming (or local) data, and having left the comforting radius of the apartment wi-fi without confirming directions to the right subway stop for my trip downtown. That one I'm going to have to wing. I know I have to walk west. Really, what could go wrong?
Next time, I'm going to post about meeting my New York publisher, and adventures in New York bookshops. Stay tuned. For now, breakfast is here. :)
NOTE: EDITED 28 March to add note about "minimum viable product".
I admire indie authors and have absolutely nothing against indie publishing - I republished my backlist as an indie earlier this year and every story you've heard is true: about how much work it is, how subject to luck it is, how long-term the game can be.
In that game, reviews - especially Amazon reviews - are like gold. All kinds of speculation abounds about the number of reviews you need to be treated well by the algorithm. Regardless of the truth of that, reviews definitely matter. Books without reviews are very hard to sell. Some promotion services won't accept your book without a certain number of reviews, and with an average above a certain number of stars.
So, it should be entirely predictable what happens next. Indie authors work out how to most effectively get more reviews.
This isn't a sock puppet story. Amazon has rules about that, and they also have rules about review swapping. And so when you enter reviewing clubs (mostly on Facebook) you'll find all kinds of elaborate rule sets designed to ensure that reviews are NOT swapped and that all is above board with Amazon. The groups vary enormously in how they run - some are only for "free" books, some require you to purchase the book. Some do monthly assignments, others keep a rolling review-last-post list, others just have open posts. The thing is, however they run, the rule sets usually include a policy about what to do if you don't want to give a book 4- or 5- stars.
And here, I ran into my problem.
The first book I ever reviewed, I couldn't give it more than 2 stars. I don't even know where to begin with the editing it needed. The site asked me to contact the author, which I did, and they were gracious about the feedback. That group's policy was if you couldn't give at least 3-stars, they preferred you contact the author first. That, I can almost be ok with - because at 2-stars, the book probably has huge problems that an author probably needs help with, rather than a flaming through the Amazon star system. But then this month, on a new group where I had paid for the books I was reviewing, I posted two reviews, one 3-star, one 4-star. Then next thing, I had a message telling me that in future, I needed to contact the author if I wanted to give a 3-star review (equivalent to "It's Okay" on the star scale), and give them the choice of whether to accept it.
I'm sorry, what now?
Look, reviews are the author's bane. Bad reviews are hell. But I have never in my life expected that I had the right to reply, let alone to silence a reviewer who wanted to give me a less than stelllar review. And yet here, in this club, the expectation is that an author can choose not to accept a review under 4-stars, anything less that "I liked it". What happens with a rule like this? I would suggest that predictably, reviewers feel pressure not to rate under 4-stars. Because then, you have to have that uncomfortable conversation direct with the author, telling them that their book was only "okay" in your eyes and asking if they're ok with that opinion going live. I'm not fine with that. I also highly resent being told to do this when I PURCHASED THE BOOK. I subscribe to the philosophy that someone who's paid to read my book can say whatever they want. That's just the nature of the industry.
I expressed my discomfort with the rule, and in the conversation with the (admittedly lovely) admin of the group, it was clear they didn't really understand why I had a problem. Not posting the review doesn't increase the author's ranking, I was told. Well, that's obvious, but it also skirts around the fact that their books rating doesn't decrease, either. This is the book reviewing equivalent of academic publishing's Achilles heel - no one publishes negative results, so the published record is skewed towards studies where a positive result was seen. So too then with book reviews, and I'm so frustrated with buying indie books stuffed full of 4- and 5-star reviews and finding they aren't that good. Not just not-my-taste not good but poorly written, wouldn't make it out of the slush pile not good. I never understood what was going on there. Now, I wonder if it's just group and club reviews pushing up ratings by deterring anyone who thinks different.*** The admin told me it was totally my choice to give a poor review, just not every author wanted to receive a 3-star review, that's why I had to contact them. Yeah, really missing the point!!
So I did the only thing I can do: I made my choice to leave.
I'm not going to be part of it, this culture of reviewing books of fellow indie authors with the punitive demon of a no-low-reviews sitting on my shoulder. It's against every value I have of fairness and justice and honesty. Reading these books takes a good deal of precious time, as does writing a considered and honest review. If I've paid to boot, then I'm damn well going to be honest about it, and not be held to a rule that allows an author to say, "no thanks, that review's no good for my ranking". But on Facebook, you can't be anonymous. Your picture is right there next to the reviews you've done. I felt I had no choice but so say I couldn't subscribe to the rule, and to bow out. I'm not handing out my reviewing time under those conditions.
So, I wish everyone luck. Indie authordom is a tough gig, but no one is really served by setting up an environment like this. It encourages inflated reviews, encourages skim reading, encourages reviews as a currency, rather than as a reflection of the book itself. Direct interaction between authors and reviewers is always fraught, and in this case, see nothing but conflict. So I choose not to engage. I feel the better for it.
***after publishing this blog, I came across the concept of minimum viable product, through Peter M Ball's newsletter. Basically, this is the idea that you put out a minimum standard of product to draw people in, because raising it to the quality of a fully finished and refined product exceeds your capabilities/resources/patience. A lot of indie publishing, I suspect, falls into this category, either deliberately or through lack of knowledge for how to actually edit a story to a high standard. I've even had an author tell me directly that they'd had a lot of trouble with a book that just didn't quite work, but they'd decided to push it out there anyway just to see how it might do. Now, not every indie is doing that. But the fact that some (many?) are doing this makes the concept of not allowing low reviews even less palatable.
On dealing with online judgement, with some great words to remember
Any writer will tell you that dealing with reviews is a tough gig. Issac Asimov is supposed to have said that writers "fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review."
We all have different techniques for dealing with it. Mine is to not read reviews (works most of the time, but sometimes I must to say, maintain this website). One other writer I know takes a pragmatic approach and says that as long as someone's paid for her book, they can write whatever they like.
But there's no avoiding the fact that the online nature of the world now means that what other people think of you -- your books, or just you -- can be right in your face. If you write romance, or you self-publish, that can be particularly sharp, because so many people think that it's fine to take a dig at you (including big respectable institutions, like this in The Guardian and this in The New York Times) and make fun of what you do because, I don't know, they feel morally superior or something like that. People who are in privileged positions will do it, even though it's really beneath them to be so petty. They do it anyway. I've had it happen to me so many times I've lost count.
When you're starting out on a new venture (as I am right now - can't share details yet, but I will) you're particularly vulnerable to that. And so I wanted to share with you this from the Barefoot Investor that landed in my inbox this week. As someone who's been through financial ruin due to predatory financial advice, I'm a keen follower of Scott Pape and his no BS independent stance, but please know that I don't have any association with him. This is just very timely and important to remember advice, I think.
So, for all those doing brave things, carry on. If you see someone trying to be brave, lift them up. The world will be cruel enough. And don't be afraid to call out your friends when they behave like jerks to other people beneath them. Hard to do, but important.
I've been tardy in writing about The Paris Wedding's launch last Friday night, partly because the last week had been a terrible no-sleeping storm here (natural insomniac tendencies + the-wakeful-toddler) and I tend to forget the things that aren't immediate pressing deadlines. But, here I go!
I want to thank once again the wonderful cosplayers, led (instigated?) by my mother Isobella and my step-dad, Vic. They organised dual (the first time I typed it, I wrote 'duel') Australian and French flags, and berets and stripey shirts and colourful umbrellas just like on the book's cover - Vic even played quintessential French accordion music. I was really touched by the effort. Avid Reader once again excelled in events management with flawless organisation, the wonderful Krissy Kneen MC'ing, and my lovely publisher Rebecca Saunders leading the conversation. There was wine, and signing, and stories about Paris and writing - a very good time.
This all capped off a week in which The Paris Wedding and The Horseman have been in the iBooks top 20 paid books (at one point, 2 and 3 in romance). Some wonderful reviews have been coming in so it really did feel like a celebration. Thanks again to all.
Thank you to all the readers who signed up for my newsletter in the last week. I'm very pleased to announce the winner of the giveaway is Jenni Brown in South Australia. Congratulations Jenni! A copy of The Paris Wedding and The Horseman are coming your way, so please check your email inbox for further details. Happy weekend everyone!
I'm very pleased to confirm that my publisher, Rebecca Saunders, will be the official launcher for The Paris Wedding! We'll be having the launch party at Avid Reader (a truly awesome independent bookshop in Brisbane) in West End on 7 July 2017, 6 for 6:30pm. Avid always put on a fantastic event, and it's free, but you'll need to click here to register for numbers. Come and find out more about behind the scenes writing The Paris Wedding, enjoy a glass of wine, and celebrate with us. I'll be signing books, and feel free to bring previous books along, too.
And now to the giveaway ... to celebrate the launch, I'm giving away a personally signed and fresh off the press (literally - I got the books yesterday!) copy of The Paris Wedding, plus a copy of The Horseman. To enter, simply sign up for the newsletter (if you're already a subscriber, you're entered). Entries close 16 June 2017, 5:00pm AEST and the lucky winner drawn at random. Good luck :)
If you can't make the launch, you can check out the upcoming library events - I'll be answering questions and signing books there too.
I'm back safely in Australia now, negotiating the final jet-lag and reintegration to regular life that comes after trips (boo for that). So, for the final blog in my USA research trip series, I thought I'd do a whimsical and quick list of outtakes (embarrassing moments, gaffes, and hairy situations mostly exempted from the other blogs) and superlatives. Here goes.
Most embarrassing moment
The walk from the hire car drop-off to the airport terminal in Nashville is a fair way. It involves lifts, and road crossings. I passed a lot of people on that walk. Of course, when I dropped off the hire car, the last thing I did was to reorganise my bags (read: frantically opening compartments, stuffing in junk that had spread through the car, and hauling out stuff I wanted in my carry-on), in preparation for check-in. It was only when I got to a seat inside the terminal and looked down that I realised I'd left a zip open on my bag. On a pocket that faced down. The pocket where I'd put my underwear. So, of course, all the contents were merrily showing themselves. I'm surprised there wasn't a marked trail of underpants along my route. So, note to self: check all bag pockets are closed, unless you want all of Nashville International Airport to know you have leopard print underpants and a purple G-string.
Most expensive mistake
Taking Uber from Manhattan to JFK airport. It's close to USD100, and it took over 1.5 hours. Pile up on the freeway, which seems a regular occurrence. While actually on the Uber ride, I learned about the AirTrain, which costs $7.75 ($5 for the airport, and $2.75 for the subway connection), and would have taken an hour. That one hurt, especially as it was a very near thing me making the flight at all. Note to self: always investigate mass transit.
Catching the car hire company overcharging me USD200. When you drop a car off at a different location to the one you hired at, they charge you a one-way fee, which is pretty hefty (USD500, and that was a cheap one). That's enough hurt on its own. But the company tried to charge USD700, and were really (politely) insistent until I pulled out all the paperwork. Note: always bring paperwork with all charges highlighted!
Most unexpected awesomeness
Being given a fresh first edition copy of Michael Crichton's next (probably last) book Dragon Teeth, while in the New York office of my US publisher. Note to self: always indulge in fangirl moments. Sometimes good things come!
As runner-up, the historical site park by the Arkansas River in Fort Smith. Really lovely in the twilight. Note to self: always go to the places that are not accessible on Google street view. They are invariably completely different than imagined.
For a few seconds I thought I had turned down a freeway off-ramp (somewhere in Texas). I saw a sign that said "wrong way go back", and a big truck coming towards me. It actually wasn't. I was on the right road, and the off-ramp (with oncoming truck) was actually alongside. The "Wrong Way Go Back" sign was a tad too rotated towards me. Did a great job of scaring me half to death though. I don't know what the note to self is here ... trust self more, maybe.
Times Square. Not really a square. Bright, garish, loud and congested. Lots of hustlers. Note: not worth it.
Best food moment
Tie between The Bar-B-Q Shop in Memphis (best ribs) and Prince Street Pizza in New York City, which was a random find one night. I had one slice. I should have had two. It was crispy but chewy, tomato-y and cheesy and yum. Will go again next time I'm there.
The enormous fishing/hunting store inside the Memphis Pyramid, complete with floating boats on a lake, a cabin-style hotel, and towering ceilings. Incongruous but weirdly amazing.
That's it! I'm still processing everything I learned and absorbed during the 3200 km drive and the last leg in New York. It was quite the Odyssey. Next month I will begin editing the book all this informs and hopefully by then it will all make a bit more sense.
Today was my last day in New York, and as a very special final reason for being here, I had a meeting with my US publisher Lucia Macro, who will be publishing The Paris Wedding. Visiting a publisher is always less like going to an office and more like going to a candy store. The Hachette offices in Sydney have always been like that for me (books everywhere) and HarperCollins in New York is no different. It's way downtown, on Broadway quite near the World Trade Centre, and has books, everywhere, books, including a floor for children's publishing where such immortal favourites as Where The Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon looked out from the shelves. I know both of those by heart. It was very special to stand in a place like that.
Of course, I spotted a good deal of amazing adult titles as well: Rachael Gibson's many novels, a few of Neil Gaiman's, gosh dozens of others … there was even a SECRET CUPBOARD FULL OF BOOKS with a sign that said to TAKE WHATEVER YOU PLEASE (***honest, this was true, except not really a secret) and then I rounded a corner and saw this: (Cue fangirl moment)
For anyone who doesn't know me, Michael Crichton's books were a huge influence in my life. They got me interested in reading again in my early teenage years, and I've read every novel he ever published (excepting one or two of the early, pseudonym ones). I've also re-read a number of them over and over. Needless to say, it's a special case of fandom, which is something I am not for just about anything else (except horses, and Michael Biehn's work in the 80s). You know how you're supposed to remember where you were when you heard that Princess Di had died? Well … I remember where I was when I heard Crichton had died, sadly far too young. That should perhaps tell you enough.
Posthumously, two more of his novels have been released, but those have been out for ages, so I was really surprised to learn several months ago that another was coming in May. I've had it on order. So knock me down when (after my fangirl moment) I was offered a copy on the spot. YES. It's very carefully wrapped in my scarf now, so that I can at my leisure read it on the flight home. It's a hard cover, with cut pages, and gloriously beautiful maps on the inside covers. I'm very rarely thrilled by material objects, but this is one of those occasions. It's the spinkles on the chocolate sauce on top of the cherry.
Speaking of food, after all that excitement, I got to enjoy a lovely lunch with my publisher where we talked about so many things - New York, Australia, publishing, politics. A great time was had, especially by me. My publisher took a great deal of time out of her day to show me around and do lunch, so a huge, huge thanks for such a generous gesture. It made my whole week.
After that I had to head to the airport (that story in the next blog) where I am now sitting, eating skittles (because metaphorical candy stores can be followed by actual ones) and wishing there was a Starbucks or something like it on this side of the security gate (JFK is not known for its friendliness). Ahead is about another hour of waiting, then a shade under six hours to LA, two hours of layover, and 13 or so hours back to Brisbane. It's a long way home, but no regrets at all about coming. None at all.
I started the first day in New York City fairly late, courtesy of a flight that landed after 10 pm, a terminal remodelling project that had relocated cars a bus-ride across the airport (and into a hell of gridlock), and the usual 24-hour New York traffic. And yet, somehow, despite all the people yelling into phones in ten different languages, the sirens and the honking (wow, the Olympic sport honking!) this city manages to be exciting. Perhaps anxciting, but still.
I remember reading once about why cities are such dynamic places, and important for innovation and change. Putting a huge number of people together in one place facilitates exchange of ideas and cooperation. The outcome is not only diversity of citizens, but of the ideas and businesses and inventions they produce. It's the cliché of opportunity. New York feels like the kind of place that long ago crossed the critical mass for being dynamic and now sits, with the few other super cities of the world, in a class all of its own.
Being up late, I figured I would start the day with brunch at Katz's deli. If you don't know about that, all you probably need to know is that the famous fake orgasm scene was filmed there. I saw Katz's on the foot network last year. Think sandwiches with stacks of sliced meat, delicate corned beef and pastrami, served with pickles and condiments. The walls are covered with photos of the famous. So it wasn't a surprise when I walked in to find a film crew working for Food Nation. It was a surprise when they asked if I'd be on camera. My mission: bite the sandwich, say "mmmm".
Haha, it was great fun, and got chatting to food writer David Rosengarten, who was helping out with the crew. David is obviously a passionate New Yorker, I left with tips for a great dinner venue and some insider neighbourhood information for my research.
From there, I went walking. All the way downtown to the Brooklyn Bridge, through Two Bridges and Tribeca, before catching the subway to Central Park.
Central Park is where New York excels itself. Where else could you do so much within the body of the city itself? I watched a baseball game (I know nothing about baseball, but it was exciting), climbed rocky outcrops, listened to a jazz band and found a zoo, and that was barely a quarter of the distance up the park. It's a necessary counterpoint in what is a mega metropolis, with all the pressure that brings.
It's coming up to dinner time now, but I'm not hungry (I shouldn't think so after the half a cow Katz put on my brunch sandwich) so I'm going to head up to Times Square, and then one last research item to check off. Tomorrow morning, I'm meeting my publisher downtown, which is super exciting. The only thing more exciting is the lovely feeling of soon going home.