Anti-Ageing Breakthrough’s [sic]

Today’s headline, Anti-Ageing Breakthrough’s,  comes from a subject line on an email I received this week from a major online cosmetics company. It annoyed me so much, I had to write a blog post about it.

Given their subject line, I wasn’t surprised when I read in the body of the email that their products could help “restore your skin to it’s [sic] most youthful state”.

As I’ve often repeated, a relative 20 years my junior retorted when asked why well educated professional people made so many basic grammatical errors these days, “What’s the problem? We know what we mean”.

It’s true. I do know what that cosmetic company’s subject line means. But I’d love to know the rationale behind putting an apostrophe in such a straightforward plural. On this topic, I once queried a student of mine, who did excellent work but who always used apostrophes with simple plural’s (like that). When I asked him why, he said he didn’t know and that he’d never thought about it. Another teenager told me they were taught at school to put apostrophes “with s words”.

Could this be true? It can be the only answer.

I can understand some confusion about its and it’s: the possessive version is an exception to the usual in NOT taking an apostrophe, though it’s easily explained  (use it’s only when you mean “it is” or “it has”). I can understand the coffee-shop blackboard error, cappuccino’s $4, it being a ‘foreign’ word and all (the plural is cappuccini if you want to be strictly correct, but it has become anglicised in Australia to cappuccinos). I can even understand another one I saw recently, holiday’s (the writer knows that words ending in –y often become –ies in plural, but holidaies is clearly impossible, so the writer has become confused).

There’s the old joke about the grocer’s apostrophe, depicted so well in the illustration on this page (thanks to Juliet Fay for allowing me to use her cartoon, and you can read her excellent blog post on such apostrophes here).

But breakthrough’s?

While we all make errors in our writing and informal correspondence, through haste, a casual approach, or the fact that our work isn’t edited by anyone else, I’d expect professional companies to be just that. To me, it looks unprofessional when I see grammatical errors in publicly released advertising or editorial material, and I wonder in what other ways the company is unprofessional. Get a good sub-editor, or just someone who knows basic grammar, to check the work of your copywriter, companies!

Or am I asking too much? Does it even matter?

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Book review: The Dressmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Llewellyn

GetPageImage.aspxIn a media-soaked world obsessed with lifestyles of the rich and famous, we are in danger of forgetting that the most intriguing stories are those of so-called “ordinary” people.

I believe that every life is extraordinary, but it takes a real story teller to write it down in a way that is exciting, yet which readers can identify with.

This is what Kate Llewellyn does in her autobiography The Dressmaker’s Daughter: a memoir (Pymble: Fourth Estate). From the beginning, I could hardly put this book down. And yet, I’ve had it since it was published in 2008, sitting in the bookcase, waiting for me. I bought it at a writer’s festival where Llewellyn was speaking, and I was so fascinated by her that I bought her book of memoirs. Then I forgot to read it.

In 2008, I didn’t have an ereader, but I’m glad I have the hard copy. For a start, it has a lovely tactile cover, like a piece of lace festooned with a maroon ribbon and dressmaker’s pins holding up old photographs on front and back.

On the back cover is an enticing quotation: “The feel of the cold steel of her scissors clipping around my armpits felt dangerous and lovely. The cloth fell in slivers around my socks”.

Llewellyn was born in 1936 at Tumby Bay, on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. She started her adult life as a nurse, then married and went into the art gallery business with her husband, Richard Llewellyn. That sounds interesting enough, but add to that the fact that her husband had been paralysed by polio as a young man and was in a wheelchair, and you know their life together must have had extraordinary challenges.

Intriguingly though, in her matter-of-fact style, Llewellyn shows that at its essence, it is the story of two people and the path of their relationship, regardless of whether they are disabled or able-bodied. First is romance, then disapproval from many around her who think she is making a mistake in her choice of partner. They marry anyway, then there are children and the trials of making a living, Llewellyn’s mental illness and recovery, and, ultimately, the sad breakdown of the marriage. It’s not what you might expect: Llewellyn’s husband fell in love with someone else and ended it.

That is not the end of the story, though. After they divorced in 1972, Llewellyn went to university, graduating in 1978 at the age of 42 with a BA. While still a student, she became a poet and went on to write about 20 books, including non-fiction works on gardening and travel. Her path to becoming a writer is inspiring and shows we don’t know how good we might be at something until we try it.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes at the beginning, and is the evocative description of a hot summer at Tumby Bay in 1941, when “day after day it was forty degrees”:

“There were no angles except where the jetties joined the beach. Everything was curved and everything was bright. The light went on all day and the sun bore down, peeling our noses, bleaching our hair and, when we played in the sea in our bathers, turning the tops of our shoulders red. My brothers seldom wore shoes and everybody learnt to swim without being taught. One day, we could dog-paddle and the next we could swim.” (Llewellym 2008: 4).

This book is 427 pages, but when it ended, I wished it were twice as long. I think it’s because Llewellyn never gets bogged down in details. It is, rather, scenes from a life both ordinary and extraordinary, told in a simple, honest style. Llewellyn doesn’t big-note herself, but nor does she put on a self-deprecating or insincerely humble manner.

I highly recommend this book, particularly to those who are trying to write their own memoirs.

 

Why an autobiographer can never tell the whole truth…even Agatha Christie

I’ve often thought that if I were famous, and a publisher wanted me to write my autobiography, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Writing about one’s life would require a degree of candour and honesty, a revealing of certain personal events and private thoughts that I just wouldn’t be prepared to share with the world.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. The other option is that you are in control of what you leave out of an autobiography.

Contrary to the idea that you get the true story of events ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, an autobiography is just another version of a life. As a journalist or a biographer has an agenda—to titillate and draw in readers in order to  sell newspapers or books, or to get high ratings—so the autobiographer. That is, to present themselves as they want the world to see them.

Add to that the fact that, especially as we grow older and farther away from the events we describe, our memories often aren’t precise, particularly childhood events when we might not have understood everything that was happening around us. I remember at my father’s funeral, I related some stories that were exactly as I remembered them happening, yet my mother said I had got the facts wrong in several of them.

I could swear, for example, that when my father and I watched the Apollo lunar landing on TV in 1969 when I was a very little girl (this is my first memory of television), we did so in our flat at Heslington, York, in the UK. But no, if I look at the date of that landing, we would have been back in Auckland, New Zealand by then. Strange.

a-christieDame Agatha Christie’s autobiography

I was prompted to muse about autobiographical writing when reading this month the 551-page tome Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, kindly given to me by my friend, the crime writer Angela Savage (whose blog you can read here: http://angelasavage.wordpress.com/).

It’s a fabulous read, quite possibly the best autobiography I have read, beside Roald Dahl’s Boy (1984) and Going Solo (1986). I couldn’t put it down, in fact.

It is intriguing in its description of a Victorian upper-middle-class childhood in an age that seems so strange these days. Born in 1890, young Agatha Miller was brought into a world of apparent privilege—gracious mansions, servants, extended trips to France. Yet,  as she explains, it was not full of luxuries, at least not in the way we would expect today. There wasn’t much cash, and her father was always on the brink of financial ruin, relying on an inheritance. He never worked, and eventually depleted his inheritance by a combination of bad decisions and bad luck.

daily-mirror-agatha-christieA mystery fit for the little Belgian detective

Coincidentally, while I was reading Christie’s autobiography, there was a TV special on her life hosted by David Suchet, who played her most famous character, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot from 1989 to 2013. Part of the show looked at what happened when her first marriage broke down in 1926, and her husband left her for a young woman he had worked with. During that time, Christie disappeared for 11 days, kissing her daughter Rosalind goodbye, leaving late at night, then deserting her car by the side of the road and disappearing. The media speculated that the by-then famous author had killed herself, perhaps by drowning. Eventually, she turned up, and it transpired that she had been staying at a hotel under an assumed name.

Christie never spoke about the incident, completely skipped it in her autobiography, and it remains something of a mystery.

So why didn’t she tell her side of the story? The only thing she says in the book is that it was well documented in the news media and she doesn’t want to say any more: and that’s the answer. She didn’t want to revisit it. Of course, in the 1970s when this book was published, readers couldn’t then look up the internet to view news archives: you would actually have had to go to a library with British newspapers of the time, and few readers would have taken the time to do that. Nowadays, you can simply google it. Speculation continues, as evidenced in this recent article: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/15/books.booksnews

Second marriage and life in Iraq

Some of her views, such as those on transportation of criminals to Australia and on empire would not be appreciated by many readers today: she must be read as a product of her times and class, however.

Christie travelled extensively and adventurously, and tales of these travels are another intriguing part of her autobiography. With her first husband, she travelled round the world in the early 1920s, surfed in Hawaii and visited Australia and New Zealand, all of which she describes in the book with relish. She travelled through the Middle East on her own after her divorce, and met her second husband, Max Mallowan, at Ur. He was an archaeologist who was 14 years younger than Christie. They married when he was 26 and she 40, and the marriage lasted until she died in 1976.

They had an interesting life, living for years in Iraq, at Ur, Ninevah and Nimrud for Mallowan’s archeological digs. Christie even joined in the archeological work, including photographing and drawing it for classification purposes.

Through it all, Christie kept writing, and became very wealthy. She was prolific, sometimes taking only a couple of weeks to write one of her mysteries. But she had to slow down: as she says in the autobiography she had to cut back to writing only one book a year, because writing any more resulted in such high tax that it wasn’t worth doing. She also wrote books under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. They sold well, too, and for years no one knew Westmacott was really Christie.
Interestingly, although Christie and Mallowan were both knighted in their own right—he in 1968 and she in 1971—this is another thing Christie doesn’t mention at all in her autobiography—see “At the end”, below, for the reason.

“Thanks, Grandma!”

In her later life, instead of writing cheques for her family and close friends, she would sign over the royalties of a certain work. For example, her grandson, Mathew Prichard, got the rights to The Mousetrap (then later inherited the bulk of her estate after his mother, Christie’s daughter Rosalind, died in 2004). At the time she gifted her grandson the rights to the world’s longest running play, Christie had no idea that it would be the phenomenal success it was. Read more here about Pritchard and how in 2010 he found long-lost tapes of his grandmother dictating her autobiography.

For the record, Christie’s books have sold about four billion copies—as an author, she is outsold only perhaps by Shakespeare.

At the end

While Christie writes enthusiastically of her young life and middle years, she rather trails off after the late 1940s, and only a small section at the end of the book talks about the 1950s and 1960s. The book was published posthumously in 1977, but she was clear that she would not write about anything after 1965. Although she was still working in the last 10 years of her life, she ended the book at age 75 because “it seems the right moment to stop. Because, as far as life is concerned, that is all there is to say” (Christie 1977:7).

The book is rather haphazard in parts, skipping across vast decades and back again, contradicting itself along the way. But this is part of its charm. I will leave the last word to Christie herself, who explains why the book is like this, after recovering from an illness in the mid-1960s:

“Returning from the valley of the shadow of death, I have decided not to tidy up this book too much. For one thing I am elderly. Nothing is more wearying than going over things you have written and trying to arrange them in proper sequence or turn them the other way round. I am perhaps talking to myself —a thing one is apt to do when one is a writer. One walks along the street, passing all the shops one meant to go into, or all the offices one ought to have visited, talking to oneself hard—not too loud, I hope—and rolling one’s eyes expressively, and then one suddenly sees people looking at one and drawing slightly aside, clearly thinking one is mad.”

Love Letters in the Attic

LettersHistorical literature and film are full of sentimentality, of, for example, images of love letters tied with pink ribbon that are kept forever, to be found decades or generations later.

But how often did this happen in real life? For people who had big houses with attics for storage, and who never moved, a lot of things probably did get saved, if only because they were placed in the storage area and then forgotten. But for the ordinary person before the late 19th century and even beyond to the first half of the 20th century, it wasn’t the norm to keep things forever. It just wasn’t practical or affordable if you were moving house, for example, to lug along all the letters you’d received for the last 20 years.

In the 1950s, my nana moved from the South Island of New Zealand to the North Island. She burnt everything that wasn’t needed, including family letters going back decades. My mother doesn’t know why, but can only guess that it was because it just wasn’t practical to move it all. Nana could see no purpose in keeping old letters, clippings, souvenirs or family documents no longer current, nor in spending money to have them transported.

I’ve been thinking about the idea that things must be saved for posterity since I was reminded recently of how much TV footage the BBC taped over or destroyed, including most of the British coverage of Apollo 11’s moon landing in 1969, which was the first time it had broadcast all night, for a start.

Today, it seems incomprehensible that the BBC also destroyed 97 early episodes of Dr Who in the 1960s and 1970s to save space.

The powers that be in those days, however, still harkened back to a different age. Though they were part of the 20th century, they still had a 19th-century mentality. Before the age of, progressively, mass photography, film, TV and, ultimately, video,  there were of course no actual images of anything. Before photography, you had to be rich enough to have your portrait painted, and then the likeness depended on the painter’s interpretation and skills.

Before recorded music, you bought sheet music and played it yourself, or went to a live concert. There was no one authoritative version of a piece of performed music.

Long, long before that, before Gutenberg’s press became operational in the mid-15th century, most knowledge that ordinary people used was based on memory, not stored in books. Until the 20th century, it was mostly only the well-off who had home libraries of books.

The rise of sentimentality in regard to objects and the cult of keeping things almost to the point of hoarding them seems to me to be a modern thing.

We now have more memories of ourselves than in any other time in history: social media records our thoughts, photos, what we had for dinner, and other minutiae, as an everlasting record.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, we took photos only on special occasions and vacations, and then sparely, because developing and printing were expensive and took a week or more.

Today, we take photos of anything and everything, every day if we want, and post them to Facebook or Instagram or Twitter where they remain indefinitely. We have access to all our favourite songs, thousands at the touch of a button wherever we are, thanks to portable devices.

While these sorts of archives are digital, so don’t actually take up any space in the home, they encourage a mentality that everything must be kept.

I keep reading articles about our modern houses that are stuffed with way too much stuff. We only get rid of stuff when we need to bring in more stuff.

I am no exception, from ridiculous trinkets bought on trips overseas to piles of books I will never read again and clothes I’ll never wear again but that remind me of an earlier time. I used to save all my books because they were a talking point. When visitors came, one of the first things they would do is peruse your book collection.

I have got better at weeding out what I don’t need and I am gradually whittling down my possessions to those I use and appreciate. I would, however, keep old letters if I had them. I have only a few left, as almost all my childhood and early adulthood letters went missing during an international move. Now, of course, it’s not a problem since almost all the letters I send are emails.

Meanwhile, anything that is chipped, broken or not used goes out. Well, almost anything…

Writer’s Diary #7: how many drafts does it take to write a novel?

I am currently immersed in writing my second novel, trying to write most days. It’s quite a while since I wrote my first (The Occidentals, published as Caron Eastgate James by Asia Books in 1999 and later in German editions), because a PhD and a non-fiction book, not to mention employment, got in the way.
So I’m getting into the swing of writing again, aiming for 1000-2000 words a day, but currently doing 300-500 words most days. Still, anything is better than nothing. If you wrote only one page a day, every day, for a year, you’d have a novel-sized manuscript at the end of it. The main thing is, just keep going, no matter how small the input seems. Regular writing is the key to success.

The other important thing is the number of drafts you will write before you deem the novel finished, or at “final draft” stage ready for submission. The other day, I came across a writing journal I’d kept in 1992, when I was starting work on The Occidentals. In it, I had written a blueprint for drafts. I’ve done a lot of writing since then, but I think this brief piece of advice from myself more than 21 years ago is still relevant, and I’m going to keep it in mind this time, too. Here it is, unedited and exactly as I wrote it back then:

My painting of my old manual typewriter, bought in Bangkok in 1991, on which I wrote part of my first novel. I bought it so I could continue working on the novel during the frequent power cuts we had in those days.

My painting of my old manual typewriter, bought in Bangkok in 1991, on which I wrote part of my first novel. I bought it so I could continue working during the frequent power cuts we had in those days.
Image ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012.

 

1. First draft—tell the story;

2. Second draft—check out the facts; continuity; fill in any gaps in research; rewrite;

3. Third draft—polish the writing;

4. Fourth draft—Complete the polishing; small adjustments etc.

 

 

 

As a journalist, I’m used to writing quickly, but of course, journalism usually requires short pieces, most less than 500 words each and rarely more than 2500, even for features. But I still believe step one on that list is paramount: get your story down, no matter how badly you think you’ve written it. Then you have something to work with.

Finally: 2013 in review

It’s a little later than everyone else’s annual report, but I finally received mine this morning. I was one of the unlucky ones, originally left out of the annual report round and feeling very much like the kid no one picked for their sports team. However, I sent a query to WordPress, et voilà! They sent me a note back within a couple of days to tell me my annual report was now available. Squeaky wheel and all that…
It’s funny how blogging changes your perceptions of being published. When I was a journalist, I worked for several publications that sold more than 500,000 copies each time they were published. Potentially, that was around 1.25 million people who might read each article I wrote (in those days, for print editions in mass media, statistics apparently showed that you multiplied sales by 2.5 to get numbers of readers).
Now as a blogger, I’m ecstatic if I get 100 views in a day. I know the blog will keep growing, and I actually don’t mind that it’s not followed by, say, 5000 people. I quite like this little club, as I’ve come to think of it.
So thanks to everyone for reading, for your kind and informative comments, and for your own amazingly interesting posts.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,500 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Books That Were: my 2013 top reads

I’m what you’d call an eclectic reader: I’m just as happy reading a literary tome that’s won the Man Booker Prize as I am reading a “chick-lit” novel.

I want different things from different books. Sometimes, I want to read beautiful writing for its own sake; sometimes, I want to read classics because I should; sometimes, the location interests me (this is why I liked Twilight—I thought the location of Forks was a great choice, no matter what criticism could be levelled at the writing); sometimes, I’m interested in what on earth a mega-selling author could write next; and sometimes, I just want to have a laugh and a “good read” that doesn’t tax me too much.

There are some authors whose works I will read whatever they publish. There are some subjects I will read no matter who they are by.

Anyway, here are my top five novels of 2013 in no particular order. To note: four of them are historical novels set in the 19th century, and the fifth, The Dying Beach, is set in the 1990s. Two are set during 19th-century gold rushes, one in Australia, the other in New Zealand. Three are murder mysteries, though I don’t set out to read crime fiction: it just kind-of happens. Four are by New Zealand or Australian writers. I read three of them on my Kindle, and the other two as trade paperbacks (the bigger format paperback).

Books-MarchMarch, by Geraldine Brooks (Fourth Estate, 2005, 346pp)

This is set in the 1860s during the American Civil War. The protagonist, Mr March, is the father from Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic Little Women, who barely appears in the original book. But Brooks has cleverly modeled the character more on Alcott’s real father, an abolitionist, educator and writer.

The book is compelling and, although violent in parts, it also has moments of joy and sensuality. It taught me much more about the complicated issues surrounding the American Civil War—and their legacy—than history books I studied at university.  The novel is something of an antidote to the overly moralistic Little Women, which I re-read in preparation for March.

Interestingly, Brooks is an Australian journalist who now lives in the US, and this book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. It is a superb work of art that is among the best books I’ve read. I’ll definitely be reading more Brooks novels, and her Year of Wonders is sitting in my bookcase, waiting its turn.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton (Granta, 2013, 834pp)books-luminaries

This historical murder mystery, the 2013 Man Booker Prize winner, is set in New Zealand in the Otago goldfields, mainly in and around Hokitika, in the mid-1860s. Its brilliance lies in its clever structure and its exquisite use of language. The plot is actually quite simple—a man is found dead and another disappears, and a woman collapses in the street after what is thought to be a suicide attempt. The rest of the book considers what might have happened to them and why, but it is far from a simple book. The complexity of characterisation is a triumph for Catton, as is her ability to speak believably and primarily in the book from a male point-of-view.

The author, Eleanor Catton, 28, is the youngest recipient of the Booker, and only the second New Zealand writer to win it. I was literary editor of the Sunday Star newspaper in Auckland when Keri Hulme won the Booker for The Bone People in 1985. The Bone People had been published by a small feminist publisher, Spiral Collective, but was later released by Hodder & Stoughton. I wish I had one of the original small-print-run copies!

Much against her liking, Hulme became a celebrity overnight, everyone wanting to interview her, quote her, find out how she ticked. Hulme avoided the limelight as much as possible, and lives a quiet life in Okarito on the West Coast of the South Island. She has written and published short stories and poetry since winning the Booker, but has not published another novel, although she currently has two in progress.

I emailed Hulme in 2007 and asked her if I could interview her for a story I was writing for Good Reading magazine on the state of New Zealand publishing. She declined, graciously, saying a 2000-word article wouldn’t do NZ literature justice and that, anyway, she didn’t want to be “quote fodder”. Fair enough.

Books-1Mr Chen’s Emporium, by Deborah O’Brien (Bantam, 2012, 352pp)

Set in the fictional Australian gold rush town of  Millbrooke, New South Wales, in the 1870s, this is the riveting story of Amy, a young woman who falls in love with a Chinese man. Their tragic story is interspersed with another set in the present, concerning a middle-aged woman, Angie, who comes to live in the manse where Amy once lived, and who is given a trunk containing clues to Amy’s life.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read—one of those books you can feel lurking on your bedside table, begging you to pick it up again.
I’ve always been attracted by stories that take place in two different times. Two of my favourites from long ago are The Lady of Hay (1986) by Barbara Erskine, and, when I was a child, The Sunbird (1972), by Wilbur Smith (not a child’s book, but, nevertheless, cadged from my dad’s bookcase).

 

The Dying Beach, by Angela Savage (Text, 2013, 334pp)Dyingbeach

This is the third in Savage’s series about Jayne Keeney, P.I., an Australian detective based in Thailand. This time, Jayne has a mystery to solve at Krabi. She is accompanied by her partner, Rajiv, a wonderfully drawn character who is turning out to be a star of the show. Rajiv appeared in the second book, The Half-Child, when he was working in a second-hand bookshop, and he has now become her partner in business and in love.
The book tackles some serious issues, including environmental problems, corruption and the negative side of tourism. Savage has an adept style that brings in these issues almost by stealth, because all the time the reader is being carried along by the fast-paced story.

Savage knows her subject very well, having lived and worked in Southeast Asia for many years, though she is now based back in Melbourne. She is currently working on a fourth novel in the series. For more on Angela Savage, see my interview here.

Death-comes-to-PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James (Knopf, 2011, 304pp)

This is a brilliant sequel to Pride and Prejudice, written masterfully as a tribute to Austen’s style of writing but with satirical elements, with a wink to fans of Austen, who will get the in-jokes, and crossed with the crime thriller genre. James also further develops Austen’s characters in this page-turner that is hard to put down.

As the quotation on the UK cover says: “Dazzling…A book that combines the grace of Jane Austen with the pace of a thriller” (Sunday Express).

The novel was published in 2011 when Baroness James, as she is otherwise known, was 91. It’s interesting that P. D. James herself admits that writing the book was self-indulgence. You can read more about her reasons for and process of writing the book in a story she wrote herself for The Telegraph here.

The book is now a three-part BBC series screened last month in the UK, so let’s hope it comes to Australia soon! It has had mixed reviews—some scathing—as has the book, but I loved this novel, and I hope she does more sequels to Austen novels.

Honourable mentions: The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling; Possession, by A. S. Byatt; The Castlemaine Murders, by Kerry Greenwood (one of three Phryne Fisher books I read this year, as well as viewing the ABC series); The Girl You Left Behind, by JoJo Moyes; A Hundred Summers, by Beatriz Williams.

 

 

Austerity and writing

How frugal is too frugal? It depends on your circumstances. About 10 years ago, I remember being horrified when a TV reporter advising people how to save money said that forgoing buying a coffee Monday to Friday would save $750 a year. I would, I reasoned, rather have my daily cappuccino than $750.

A decade on, however, I’m starting to see how much sense that makes, and now I buy only one hot drink a week (chai latte is my choice these days) or fewer.

cheese-finalI thought about that story of saving money again this week while I was at the supermarket. I often purchase pre-cut cheese slices (natural ones, not the over-processed rubber ones in cellophane) and pre-grated cheese. This is purely because they are convenient for sandwiches and recipes respectively. (I know my foodie friends will gasp in horror when they read this. Oh well.)

But comparing prices in the supermarket, I calculated roughly that I would save $150 a year if I bought cheese in blocks rather than pre-cut. That doesn’t sound much, but it is a jolly good night out for two, or a bucket-load of new books, or three bottles of Moët champagne… In return, I have to spend one minute slicing or grating cheese each time I use it. I can do that.

Moving on from that, there must be lots of other ways I could save money just by changing my buying habits slightly.

In reality, any savings I make are likely to go straight to my credit card rather than on champagne. I need to take austerity measures at this time of year, because there is very little academic work from December to the start of March.

On the positive side, it is a wonderful, peaceful time to get some writing done. I’m working on a novel and, from tomorrow, I will aim to write 2000 words a day, most days.

Because of my austerity measures, I will not be going out much to restaurants, going to the theatre or flying away for a weekend in Queensland. In other words, there will be few distractions.

Instead of gadding about, I will be hunkering down, weathering the lean times for another year and…hopefully, at the end of summer, I will have the first draft of my new novel done. That will be a major achievement, since I’ve been researching this topic in various ways for 20 years, and recently, finally, came up with what I think is the perfect formula for the book.

Sky high

There are some days that just make your heart soar with the possibilities that life has to offer. Today is such a day: the sky where I live in Melbourne, Australia, was so impossibly blue, I just had to take this photo of it.

Sky HighWith a temperature of 25 C (77 F), just a breath of wind, and some puffy clouds on the horizon, it couldn’t be better.

It’s Melbourne Cup day. For readers outside Australia, this is the horse race “that stops a nation”. It’s a public holiday in my state, Victoria, and at 3pm, TVs throughout the country are tuned in to watch the race. It was great to see trainer Gai Waterhouse become the first female trainer of a Cup winner with Fiorente, ridden by the amazing Damien Oliver.

(Actually, I have to say I’m not much of a fan of racing: I have a problem with any sport that exploits animals. But that aside, there is always a special holiday feeling in Melbourne on Cup day, like a carnival).

But back to the blue sky. I know the blue is just a trick of the light, but it certainly does fill me with cheer and hope for the months to come. It’s the time of year that my university teaching is finished, with just a couple more weeks of marking before I’m free.

After a few weeks’ break, I’m going to concentrate on my own writing this summer: getting stuck into my next book is my priority.

The peace to write is one of life’s greatest joys: bring it on!

I Feel Like Letting My Freak Flag Fly*

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, doesn’t it? Mystery novelist and academic Margot Kinberg reflects on how we change when we are away from home.

Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

Living Other LivesIf you pay attention in Las Vegas casinos, restaurants, shops and so on, you see an interesting phenomenon: lots of people dress and act in ways that they probably wouldn’t at home. I’ve seen Elvis impersonators, people walking around wearing balloon hats, people dressed in costumes, and people wearing scanty, spangled clothes that I doubt very much they’d wear to work. Nobody seems to mind very much; after all, as I’ve been told more than once, ‘It’s Vegas.’

For many people, visiting places such as Los Vegas gives them an opportunity to live out fantasies in ways they can’t do in their regular lives. I don’t mean just sexual fantasies although of course, that happens too. Rather, I mean adopting a persona that one can’t ‘wear’ at home. Not being a psychologist, I don’t know exactly why people sometimes feel the need to do that, but it seems to be…

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