Shelf Aware — Megan Goldin

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Best-selling author Megan Goldin.

Megan Goldin’s debut novel The Girl in Kellers Way (Penguin) is domestic noir of the highest order, and has been greeted with the popular and critical acclaim it so richly deserves. Psychology and the ephemeral nature of memory are among the themes the former foreign correspondent explores in this tight, gripping story inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s timeless gothic thriller Rebecca.

In Megan’s story, lonely and troubled housewife Julie West may be able to lead police to the killer of a woman whose body is found on a desolate forest road, where Julie often jogs. Numbed and deluded by her tedious suburban life and the mind-altering medication she is forced to take, Julie’s account of current and past events is unreliable at best and devious at worst. Her husband Matt, a psychology lecturer specialising in the inaccuracies and inconsistencies of memory, may be an innocent man still mourning the death of his first wife, or a malicious, Machiavellian killer intent on concealing the truth.

Narrated in the first person from Julie and Mel’s alternating points of view, the novel is riveting from the first chapters, when the revelation of the identity of the dead woman raises more questions than it answers. The taut, fast-paced narrative raises questions about trust, truth, infidelity and the manipulation of memory and, as a thriller should be, it’s very difficult to put down.

Before publishing The Girl in Kellers Way, Megan had been a correspondent for the Reuters news agency, a producer for the ABC and a senior editor with Yahoo! News in the Middle East and Asia. I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview her for The West Australian not long after the book was released, and even more delighted when she agreed to be a guest on Shelf Aware. I think you’ll find her responses to my ten questions as fascinating as I did. I am in awe of her disciplined approach to writing. 

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Q. Megan, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. I am a storyteller and a wordsmith who creates imaginary worlds and characters that take on a life of their own in my readers imaginations.

You can’t write without reading so I read voraciously and listen to podcasts on everything from current affairs, to crime, to the arts and history. Writing novels is lonely and isolating work. I find the podcasts are very helpful in stimulating my imagination, giving me ideas and generally connecting me with the outside world when I take long walks during breaks from writing.

I try to work from about 10am to 3pm while my kids are at school. At night, I usually write from 10pm until I get too sleepy to keep writing. School holidays are the toughest time for me to write as there’s no time to write during the day and my kids insist on going to sleep late at night which cuts into my writing time. We have a small house and I can’t concentrate with disruptions at night. Since I’m often driving my kids to various sports training programs, I carry my laptop with me and write in the car or on the benches in the stadium. I’ll often write in the car while waiting to pick the kids up from school. Writing in the car has certain advantages because there’s no Internet connection so I can’t procrastinate. In winter at least it’s sometimes warmer in the car than in my house!

Q. What projects are you currently working on, or do you have in the pipeline?

A. I have just finished the first draft of the manuscript for my second novel which is more of a corporate noir thriller than the domestic noir thriller of my first novel The Girl In Kellers Way. I have a pretty good idea for the plots of my next two books as well as other books that I’d like to write. All I really need now is time and hopefully enough income to enable me to dedicate myself to writing.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

A. We have bookcases in most rooms in the house scattered with books. I’ve moved countries frequently over the past few years so I don’t have an extensive book collection. Also, I lived in Singapore and the tropical climate and high humidity is terrible for books so I had to throw out a lot of mouldy books when I left Singapore.IMG_4385 (2)


My book collection is not extensive. Certainly not compared to some of the authors who have participated in Shelf Aware. I find that I keep certain books that I loved and like to reread every now and again as well as history books that I pick up and read when the mood strikes me. I find it hardest to give away books that I’ve read to my kids as well as books from my childhood. There was one particular book from my childhood that I’d never forgotten though I couldn’t remember the name. I recently searched for it and found the name and a second hand copy. It’s called Tubby and the Lantern. I bought it and read it to my youngest son. I think I enjoyed it more than he did.


Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. There’s no rhythm nor reason in the way that my books are arranged. I generally have the kids books in the kids rooms. The recipe books are near the kitchen. The rest are scattered across bookshelves in different rooms of the house with fiction and non-fiction all mixed together. Perhaps if I had a bigger book collection then I’d have to organise them better. Though I have to say there’s a lot to be said for serendipity when it comes to choosing books.

IMG_4422Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. I have mostly novels and history reference books. I am a great reader of history and these are often the books that I kept when I moved countries.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. I love reading in the sunshine during the warmer months, often sitting on my porch or lying on the grass in my garden. In winter, I tend to read in our front room which gets morning sun. Or of course in bed on a cold Melbourne winter night.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. I have gone on a reading binge after handing in my manuscript for my second novel. I read a heap of literary fiction as well as commercial fiction that piled up while I was too busy writing to read regularly. One of my favourites is A Horse Walks Into A Bar, which just won the Man Booker International Prize. It’s sublime. I am just about to read A Legacy of Spies. John Le Carre’s latest work. I heard him do a reading in a podcast and couldn’t wait to get hold of the novel. I’ve also been reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to my sons. I also have a pile of crime novels that I am planning to read over the school holidays.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. I have so many. I very much enjoy Ian McEwan’s works. Atonement is one of my favourite books. David Grossman and Meir Shalev are two remarkable Israeli writers whose works I greatly enjoy. Also, I’m a huge fan of the American writer Pat Conroy.

Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a favourite novel that I’ve read many times. Not to mention his other works. I adore Robert Grave’s I, Claudius. Another favourite is Daphne du Maurier. I read all her books as a teenager and reread most of them as an adult. Her novel Rebecca was an inspiration behind The Girl In Kellers Way. I love The Catcher in the Rye and couldn’t wait to buy it for my teenage son so I’d have an excuse to read it again. I reread Jane Austen’s works every now and again because I always enjoy them. Thomas Keneally and Richard Flanagan are among a long list of Australian writers whose novels I adore.

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In terms of commercial fiction, at the moment, I am very much enjoying Michael Connelly and of course Lee Child who spoke at the Sydney Crime Writers Festival where I recently participated on several panels.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

A. It would have to be those rare books that can never be replaced. They would include Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.S. Lawrence, as I have a 2nd edition copy. A copy of Mila 18, by Leon Uris, as it has an inscription to my grandfather from my grandmother who gave it to him as a gift in the early 1960s. And lastly, I would save the first proof copy of my own book The Girl In Kellers Way. It was remarkable to finally see my novel in print when I was first handed that copy. I am not sure if people realise how gruelling it is to write a book and get it ready for publication. It was an amazing feeling to finally hold the finished product in my hands. It as a bit like reaching the summit of my own Everest.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. This is a very tough question because there are so many authors and book characters that I’d love to meet. Not to mention the subjects of biographies such as Churchill, Napoleon, Da Vinci and Julius Caesar.

If pressed, I’d invite Jane Austen, Mark Twain and William Shakespeare. I’d serve sushi and sashimi because it would be amusing to watch them grapple with chopsticks and the concept of eating raw fish. Perhaps I’d bring in mugs of hot chocolate and cheesecake to sweeten them up afterwards. I think they’d all be hilariously mismatched and the conversation would go in all sorts of directions. It would be a thoroughly entertaining afternoon.

Megan’s social media links:
Twitter: @megangoldin
You can buy The Girl in Kellers Way here or here.

Book review — All the Dirty Parts, by Daniel Handler

Anyone who picks up a book by US author Daniel Handler will immediately have a fair idea what it’s going to be about.

Just as the children’s books that he wrote and published under the Lemony Snicket pseudonym document a series of unfortunate events that befall the orphaned Baudelaire children, his new novel for adults, All the Dirty Parts, is a catalogue of, well, all the dirty parts in the life of a teenage boy.

Written in the first person through short ‘episodes’ of prose, All the Dirty Parts incorporates graphic accounts of protagonist Cole’s sexual encounters and fantasies – and it’s definitely not for children.

Handler’s explicit descriptions of Cole’s many and varied carnal experiences are utterly convincing, albeit at times confronting.

But it is the indifferent selfishness with which the sex-obsessed teen targets girls for seduction that is most alarming. Are Cole’s obsessions indicative of the base preoccupations of all heterosexual teenage boys, or are his attitudes symptomatic of the systemic objectivisation of girls and women extant in every tier of society?

Cole judges and categorises girls according to their physical attributes and their potential for satisfying his lustful impulses, giving no consideration to possible adverse impacts on the girls he manipulates and conquers. He’s also not above taking advantage of his best friend, Alec, who is grappling with his own sexual identity and impulses.

Yet All the Dirty Parts is much more than a catalogue of a schoolboy’s grubby exploits, with Handler expertly and intelligently developing the plot to accurately examine that most powerful force of human nature — desire.

For much of the book, Cole’s disregard for others makes him an unpleasant and unlikeable narrator. Yet, as the story unfolds, and Cole enters a relationship with a girl who possesses many of his own attitudes and inclinations, Handler imbues his young protagonist with a subtle vulnerability that elicits an unexpected degree of sympathy and reminds us that we were once egocentric teens too — even if we didn’t act on our impulses as frequently as Cole.

Simmering beneath the overt story of an adolescent’s erotic awakening is Handler’s deft exploration of the complex issues of sexual identity, underage sex, societal double standards and the ready accessibility of pornography, each of which impacts on the personal development, friendships and behaviour of his characters and reflects the challenges facing contemporary youth on a broader scale.

Potentially uncomfortable reading for parents of teenagers, and likely to be clandestinely devoured by adolescentss under the bedsheets, All the Dirty Parts is a revelatory and enlightening depiction of one boy’s transition toward manhood.

  • All the Dirty Parts, by Daniel Handler, is published by Bloomsbury, rrp $24.00. My advance review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Here’s the blurb from Bloomsbury:

From bestselling, award-winning author Daniel Handler, a gutsy, exciting novel that looks honestly at the erotic impulses of an all-too-typical young man.

Cole is a boy in high school. He runs cross country, he sketches, he jokes around with friends. But none of this quite matters next to the allure of sex. “Let me put it this way,” he says. “Draw a number line, with zero is you never think about sex and ten is, it’s all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex.”

Cole fantasizes about whomever he’s looking at. He consumes and shares pornography. And he sleeps with a lot of girls, which is beginning to earn him a not-quite-savory reputation around school. This leaves him adrift with only his best friend for company, and then something startling starts to happen between them that might be what he’s been after all this time-and then he meets Grisaille.

All the Dirty Parts is an unblinking take on teenage desire in a culture of unrelenting explicitness and shunted communication, where sex feels like love, but no one knows what love feels like. With short chapters in the style of Jenny Offill or Mary Robison, Daniel Handler gives us a tender, brutal, funny, intoxicating portrait of an age when the lens of sex tilts the world. “There are love stories galore,” Cole tells us, “This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.”


Shelf Aware — Shokoofeh Azar


Author Shokoofeh Azar.

A few months ago, when I read on social media about The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar, I was immediately intrigued — the title conjures so many possibilities. Not long afterward, I became friends with Shokoofeh on social media, via a connection with mutual friend (and early Shelf Aware guest) Rashida Murphy. I’ve enjoyed reading all about the success of Shokoofeh’s novel and have watched several video interviews with her about the book, but we have yet to meet in person.

A few weeks ago, when I was having lunch with another dear friend in Rockingham, Shokoofeh was presenting a workshop at the Rockingham Art Centre, and during a break walked across to the cafe where I was seated at an outside table. She messaged me later that day to say she thought she recognised my face from social media profile photos, but wasn’t certain, so decided not to approach me. I wish she had! After an exchange of messages we discovered that we live just 10 minutes apart — so a meeting will definitely happen before much longer.

As I’ve had a big pile of books to read ahead of author interviews or reviews in recent months, I’ve yet to read The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, but it’s gorgeous cover beckons me every time I see it near the top of my “to read” pile. It won’t be long before I get the chance to open its pages and discover the magical world that Shokoofeh has created.

Shokoofeh’s personal story is a combination of loss, love and hope. You can watch a brilliant ABC Nightlife interview with her here (and I hope you will). For now, I’d like to welcome Shokoofeh as my latest Shelf Aware guest. As you will see, there is some sadness associated with the books she has collected and loved in the past. But in her words you will also recognise the healing power of books and reading.

Q. Shokoofeh, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. I am a fiction writer. Mostly I am write in magic-realism style. My stories are on base of political or social issues, surrounded by Iranian legends, myths and traditional superstitions and metaphysical beliefs. Plus using elements of classic Iranian storytelling techniques and language.


Q. What can you tell us about your new book?

A. My novel titled The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is on base of several political and social true stories which friends or I were witness of them or I read about them as a news. These all true stories have combined with Iranian legends, myths and traditional metaphysical beliefs. Also this novel is overflowing with Iranian mysticism and classical storytelling techniques.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

A, This question has a long and upsetting answer. When I was in Iran I had over 3000 books plus my father’s books which had been heritage to me. My bookshelves had books from 100 years ago till now. Also, I had several hand-written books reminded from my father’s library belong to 300 or 400 years ago. All of them been in my writing room in beautiful wooden shelves. After I came to Australia by force as a refugee, my mother kept them in a shed in the boxes. We had plan to transfer them to Australia by the ship, until one day my mother went to shed and accidently found most of boxes empty! After police research, they found a drugs addicted neighbour, has stolen them. My mother did not tell me this until two years later because she knew how much I am depended to my library. I even knew the name each book’s publisher or translator… Recalling of this accident, still makes me so upset. Because my library was the history of our family books and library always was/is an important element in my stories.

Shokoofeh shelvesAnyway, after that I start to buy more books here. Even I bought some books that I had in my previous library at Iran. I expend lots of money to buy them from Iranian publishers or bookshops out of Iran. The price of postage sometimes are more than books. Now I have only about 400 books. All in my writing room.

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A, My books always organised by genre and category. For example, category of: modern fiction, classic fiction, mythology, legends, traveling, interviews, literature critics, essays, poets, physiology, political science, social science, philosophy, theology and etc. Also I have English and Farsi bookshelves. In fiction bookshelf, I consider another category. First my favourite modern writers. Then the writers that are important but maybe not very much. Also I always sort books by name of writer. For instead all books of Milan Kundera sit next together no matter they are novel or collection of short story or essays.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. First of all, modern fiction (novel and short stories), then fiction analyse, mythology, symbolism, poems, theology, legend and classic literature. After that social science and political science and etc.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. A chair in my studio while I put my legs on the table and smoke with a glass of wine or coffe or black tea. Then on the sofa under the shade of an old tree in my back yard, or sofa in living room when no one is around me or in the mid night when everybody is sleep.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

To Kill a Mockingbird

A. Right now, I am reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, translated in Farsi, and I feel so sorry that I did not read this great book earlier… I watched the movie years ago but the novel is absolutely something else. The technique of narrating and viewing angle are very interesting. Also, the story is very touching. One of the other reason that I like this novel is the story narrates by a little girl. I have strong empathy by child narrations.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A, It will be a long list. 😊 Briefly I can say: Writers and mythologist: Jorge Luis Borges, G. G. [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez, Milan Kundera, Marguerite Duras, Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro , Yasunari Kawabata, Vladimir Nabokov , Kenzaburō Ōe, Mircea Eliade, Herman Hesse, Carl Jung, Herta Müller, E. L. Doctorow, J. D. Salinger, Heinrich Böll, Raymond Carver and etc.Carver

And Books: One Thousand and One Nights, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Darab Name (Iranian classic story), Gilgamesh (The oldest myth of Mesopotamia), Ardaviraf Name (The ancient myth of Iran), The Clown, Of Love and Other Demons, Kafka on the Shore, Nothing and Amen, On Mantuleasa Street and etc. Some important books like Ulysses unfortunately never permitted to publish in Farsi but I am sure if I am able to read it in English or Farsi it will be one my most favourite novel (I already read only few pages).

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be?

A. One Thousand and One Nights 2. One Hundred Years of Solitude 3. Ulysses or On Mantuleasa Street.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. I wished you asked me about writers and immediately I’ve answered: G. G. Marques, Mircea Eliade and Carl. G. Jung.

But choosing characters between so many books is really hard. But anyway maybe: Remedios the beauty (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Hans Schnier (The Clown) and Kafka (Kafka on the Shore).
I love to ask from Remedios the beauty: What new from the up?
I love to sit with Hans and talk about the meaning of love.
I love to sit with Kafka and talk about the meaning of life.

Thank you, Maureen. I loved the questions. They are fun and also very important to writers.

Find out more about Shokoofeh Azar here.

You can buy her novel The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree here.


Shelf Aware — Fiona Palmer

Fiona Palmer credit Craig Peihopa

Romance writer Fiona Palmer. Picture courtesy Craig Peihopa.

Western Australian novelist Fiona Palmer is one of Australia’s most popular writers of rural romance, with heartfelt stories featuring characters we’d like to get to know in real life.

Fiona grew up in the small Wheatbelt town of Pingaring, where she spent weekends on a farm run by her aunty and uncle and attended the local primary school before boarding at Narrogin Residential College for her secondary school years.

After leaving school, Fiona did odd jobs, including rouseabouting, tractor driving and working on the Co-operative Bulk Handling grain bins, where she met her husband-to-be. At secretarial college, Fiona learnt how to type — fast — and she says this has come in handy when typing up long stories. She worked as a secretary at the Shire of Lake Grace and as a Teachers’ Assistant, before marrying and having two children, and for seven years was a speedway driver.

While running the local shop in Pingaring with her Mum, Fiona began writing down a story that was “roaming around” in her head, and which became her first book, The Family Farm.

Fiona’s new novel, Secrets Between Friends (Hachette Australia), is a departure from the usual rural setting of her first eight novels. Instead, it is set on the Western Australian coastline and is about three friends who embark on a luxury cruise, where long-held secrets threaten their friendship.

In this guest post on Shelf Aware, Fiona reveals some of her favourite authors and books, and gives us a glimpse of some of her bookshelves.


Q. Fiona, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

I try to write a book a year and this is usually done between seeding and harvest. So in about 3-4 months I try to write the first draft and I aim for 10k a week. A bit of juggling goes on as usually in this time I will have a new book release in September so I’m doing blogs, social media, book events and tours as well as family things.

Q. What can you tell us about your new book?

A. Secrets Between Friends is about three friends, plus Peter, who go on a reunion cruise. It’s not all smooth sailing as they soon find out — they are keeping secrets from each other and also themselves. And they have nowhere to run! So they have to confront these issues. It’s a story of romance, family dynamics and friendship.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?


A. The main ones are in our office as my husband didn’t like my books all over the house, he wanted them in one spot. So they are mostly in the office but I’m now spreading to the kids’ bookshelf in the games room and soon I’m actually going to move them all down to our community centre (which is our old primary school that closed down in 1998) and put my books in the old library room for the community to borrow. It should please the husband and give something back to the community, who mostly come to me for a book anyway. I will keep all my author signed ones from my friends and favourite authors at home though. I do love to look at them.

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?


A. In genre. I have my own from my first to my latest and the ones I buy are grouped in a rural section, YA and other. There is also a section that is a mix which is ‘my to be read’ pile.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?


A. I would say romance. I have romance in just about all the genres! Then its rural fiction and most of these ones are signed by my author friends so they are very special. YA is my next biggest.

Greatest GiftQ. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. At the moment it’s in my bed. It seems the only time I have left to read is just before I go to sleep. Otherwise it’s when I’m on holidays at the beach that I power through a heap of books as that’s my special time. Or if I’m not ahead of schedule I will read by the fire at night after dinner. I don’t find time to read as much as I’d like.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. I’m reading Rachael John’s ARC of The Greatest Gift as she sent it to me and I’m loving it. Rach and I write quite similarly, so her books are what I love to read, as we tend to write what we love. Plus it’s nice to read a book before it’s even out in the shops.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. I love series, mainly because they last longer. Sarah J Mass, I’m a big fan of, and I loved Harry Potter. Also the Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. Then there are books I love to read from Tony Park to Liane Moriarty to the latest women’s fiction. My favourites tend to change each year as I read.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

A. Julie Garwood’s book Ransom. Because I ended up with this hardcover copy many many years ago before I had any books and I found myself re-reading it every year. I now don’t have the time to read it anymore but I’d love to revisit it because I knew I enjoyed it. Next would be Harry Potter, maybe the first one, just so I can stay familiar with Harry, Ron and Hermione. Besides I look like Hagrid when I brush my curls. It’s hilarious. And last would be Rachael Treasure’s book Jillaroo as it was this book that gave me the confidence to send my first book off to Penguin which then lead to a contract and a career as a writer.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. Oh, interesting. Jack West Jnr from Matthew Reilly’s books because he sounds awesome. I like Indiana Jones and I reckon Jack would have some stories to tell! Plus who doesn’t love a man who can get you out of a jam and save the world.
I’d love to chat to Liane Moriarty and ask her just how she does it!!! The Husband’s Secret was so well crafted. Lastly I would like to have coffee and Tim Tams with Rowan Whitehorn from the Throne of Glass series because…well he is a Fae Prince warrior. That is something I’d love to see in the flesh!

Find out more about Fiona Palmer here.

You can purchase Secrets Between Friends here.


Shelf Aware — Portland Jones

Portland Jones

In one of those delightful moments of literary serendipity, I had the great pleasure of meeting my latest Shelf Aware guest blogger Portland Jones through a mutual writer friend here in Perth, Western Australia. At the time, my friend was keen to start a book club and, as someone who knows the value of a good book club, I offered to help set it up. The first book my friend had chosen was Portland Jones’ breathtaking and heartwrenching debut novel, Seeing the Elephant (Margaret River Press), which had been right at the top of my “to read” pile. Best of all, Portland had agreed to be a guest at the book club’s inaugural meeting.

Seeing the Elephant is an unforgettable story about the friendship that develops between an Australian soldier and his Vietnamese guide, during the Vietnam War. The language is lyrical and evocative, the characters beautifully drawn, and the plot compelling and emotionally charged. In short, it offers everything I always look for in a novel.

Portland has proven that, as well as being a gifted novelist, she’s also incredibly patient — for which I’m immensely grateful. Portland answered my Shelf Aware questions several months ago, but as I had so many posts organised so far ahead, it has taken me until now to be able to share her responses. I’m confident you’ll agree they are well worth the wait.

In another delightfully serendipitous twist, in her answers to my final question, below, Portland reveals that one of the guests she would invite to afternoon tea is emerging author Louise Allan — the “writer friend” of mine who hosted that inaugural book club meeting (and who will be a guest on Shelf Aware around the time her debut novel, The Sisters’ Song, is released early next year). Another of Portland’s preferred guests is Rashida Murphy, who was also at that inaugural book club meeting, and whose debut novel, The Historian’s Daughter, was my choice for the club to read (Rashida’s Shelf Aware guest post can be revisited here).

For now, sit back and enjoy reading about Portland’s other job in the equine industry, the new novel she’s working on, and some of her favourite books and authors.

Q. Welcome to Shelf Aware, Portland. How would you describe the work you do and how you do it?

A. I’m a horse trainer. Which is a lot like being a nanny for a classroom full of 600kg toddlers on cocaine… It’s quite dynamic at times. It’s a fairly physical job, occasionally dangerous but very rarely boring.

Horses Hate Surprise PartiesMy partner and I start young horses under saddle and retrain difficult ones using an evidence based approach. We coach, give demos and I also lecture in horse behaviour at university. Last year we published a book about horse training called, Horses Hate Surprise Parties and we write for the equestrian press – mostly about various ways of ensuring horse training is ethical and sustainable.

Our days start at 5am and running the business takes up most of the day. We’re usually inside for a couple of hours in the middle of the day and that’s when we answer emails, blog, write and make sure we look after our team of sponsors via social media. I try to spend an hour each day managing the writing side of my life but it doesn’t always work out that way – which is why I am writing this in the horse truck with my laptop balanced on my knees.

I love all animals and I feel very strongly that they must be treated with respect and kindness. We try to advocate for the horse and to teach people that there is always a better way. I like to think that if I stand up for what I know is right I’m making my small corner of the world a better place.

Seeing the Elephane

Portland’s debut novel, Seeing the Elephant, was released to great critical acclaim in 2016.

Q. What projects are you currently working on or do you have in the pipeline?

A. At the moment I’m working on my second novel which is based on some of my family’s history. My great-grandfather was captured by the Japanese in Sumatra during WW2 and imprisoned. Like many of the prisoners he was put to work building a railway line through the jungle and, like many of the prisoners, he died. The railway that he helped to build was finished on the day that Japan surrendered and never saw a train. It’s an interesting story.

Sometimes I think I choose to write about places that I want to go to as an excuse to get there. I’ve always wanted to see Sumatra. My grandparents lived there for many years and I grew up on their stories. When I decided to write about the railway I finally had justification for a visit. I went in 2015 and loved it. Now, thanks to the internet I have befriended a New Zealander living over there who has plotted the entire course of the line with a drone and a four-wheel drive and we’re really excited to be going back in May to drive parts of it with him.

We also have another horse training book planned and I would really love to write some children’s fiction – but my main priority at the moment is the novel.


Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office?

A. We have books everywhere at home. Mostly they are in the two living areas but I have stacks on my bedside table and on my office desk. One entire wall of our living room is taken up with book shelves and my partner, Sophie, made me a beautiful ladder so I can reach the top shelves. We also have books about horses in our outside office and tack room. I am a minimalist in everything but books.

Q. How are your books organised or arranged?

A. I keep non-fiction books arranged (sort of) according to subject and I have a filing system for my fiction but it’s probably more about how they make me feel than any objective and demonstrable criteria. I read by theme, so when I was doing my PhD I read lots of books about the Vietnam War. They all lived in piles on my desk while I was writing but now they live together on the shelves. The day I submitted my thesis I transferred them from my desk to the shelf. The day of the great book migration was a particularly satisfying one.

Guess How Much I Love YouI also keep my favourite children’s books together. I couldn’t face the thought of giving away books like, Guess How Much I Love You. I read that book to my three children so many times that I think I can recite it all without looking at the text.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. I think my books are pretty evenly split between literary fiction and non-fiction, particularly history. I love poetry too. I also love travel books – the Lonely Planet guides are definitely a guilty pleasure; I have heaps of them. And cookbooks… I really like cookbooks because they have nice pictures and always have a happy ending.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. I read in bed at night before going to sleep. It’s a lifelong, unbreakable habit. No phone, quiet and warm – bliss.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books?

A. I always have several books in circulation. I have just finished Anthony Doerr’s, All The Light We Cannot See and just loved it. But I’m also reading The Desert Anzacs which is primarily about the light horse, Walking Wounded, about a group of combat veterans walking the Kokoda Trail and The Diary of Prisoner 17326, about a boy interned in a Japanese POW camp in Sumatra. I also have 2 academic papers to read and I am very eagerly awaiting the arrival of another biography of T.E Lawrence because I am absolutely fascinated by his story.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. I love Patrick White, Voss is so darkly complex and lyrical – and so perfect. And Tim Winton of course, just a monstrous talent. Richard Flanagan is a wonderful storyteller. Annie Proulx has the best ear for the spoken word I’ve ever come across, her gift is extraordinary.

I love Abraham Verghese, his novel Cutting for Stone is beautiful on every page. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is the most evocative book I have ever read about the aftermath of war. Michael Herr’s Dispatches started my love affair with modern history.

Randolph Stowe writes place beautifully and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is a masterpiece in every way. I love everything that David Mitchell has published (quite honestly I would read his shopping lists) but Cloud Atlas is one of the most immense, ambitious and wonderful books in my collection.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be — and why would you choose them?

A. If there was an emergency the first thing I’d save is my library ladder. Not just because it’s beautiful but because it reminds me every day that hard work and optimism are the cure for almost everything. If I lost all my books I would need to be reminded of that.

Once I’d packed my ladder the first book I would save would be my much sticky-taped copy of Hamlet. I read it for the first time at 17 and cried for the impossible beauty of it. The two eldest of my three children also love it. My third child is perhaps a little young, so I would save the book for him in the hope that he, also, will find something truly extraordinary within its pages.

I would also save The Collected Works of Banjo Paterson – not just because his are the rhythms and the words of my childhood but also because my father gave it to me when I was ten in the hope that it would start a lifelong love of writing and reading. That love has been the best gift anyone could ever wish for.

Lastly, I would save my family’s copies of the Harry Potter books because, quite frankly, if I didn’t my children would disown me. They have been read and reread many times over and to me they represent what is unique and magical about the experience of reading. I think that books find you at certain times of your life – maybe they show you the way, or offer some kind of comfort, perhaps they inspire or support you. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter why a book speaks to you, it just matters that it does. The Harry Potter series helped inspire in each of my children a love of fiction and so, for me, it holds a special place in my heart.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would you like to talk to them about?

A. I have to admit that if I was asked to plan my perfect afternoon tea I would, without hesitation, choose my best friends and family as guests. Life is very hectic and I realised with sadness a while ago that I spend more time with my dogs than I do with the people who matter most. I really love my dogs but I have to say that their conversation is fairly limited.

However, that’s not really playing by the rules of this game… So I would choose three West Australian writers because I think it would be great fun. I would invite Richard Rossiter, not just because he is a great writer, editor and mentor but because he is my friend and always interesting. I would also invite Louise Allan and Rashida Murphy – I met them both quite recently (since Seeing the Elephant was published) and to me they represent the tip of what is an enormous iceberg of supportive local writers. I think there must be something very therapeutic about ink because writers are some of the kindest people I know.

I’m not sure what we would eat or talk about but champagne would definitely be on the menu. Any day when you get to sit down and spend some time with interesting people who love books is a day worthy of celebration.

Buy Seeing the Elephant, by Portland Jones, here.

Visit Portland’s website here.