The Sketchbook Project

ImageIf the Sketchbook Project Library is popping up anywhere near you, then you have to visit. It’s in Melbourne at the moment and I went to have a look at the weekend.

It’s a travelling library of artists’ sketchbooks. Every artist involved in the project started with the same blank sketchbook which they could then write, draw, paint, paste in, cut out, as they wanted.

The books we saw were absolutely beautiful. Some were travel journals, others filled with preliminary sketches to prepare for a larger work; some had a narrative, others were collections of random images and writing. It was amazing to be able to touch these books and leaf through them, to feel the paper that was almost solid with paint or to unfold pages that had been cut out to make intricate patterns. Getting such a close insight into an artist’s work and being able to interact with it is a very special experience. I went with two friends and we spent hours exploring the books.

Even checking the books out with our personal library cards was fun. We picked up a card at the entrance and registered it, then we looked at the online catalogue and chose a theme (travel, cartography, science, narrative, etc.). One book related to that theme was brought out to us along with a random book. This meant we saw amazing books on themes we might never have considered. We could only have two books at a time each so we went up multiple times to make different selections.  We saw around 24 books in two hours. There are a few thousand sketchbooks currently in Melbourne (the total collection comprises close to 28 000 books) – if only I had enough time to see them all!

I felt really inspired looking at the books. I wish I could draw! But the best thing about the project is that absolutely anyone can take part, regardless of their drawing skills. The next submission date is 15 January 2014 and you can choose to make a basic submission of a sketchbook only (25 AUD), or to have your work digitized (60 AUD). This means that even if you can’t get to The Sketchbook Library in person, you can still have a look at some of the work online in the Digital Library. Do it, it’s great!

The Sketchbook Project Pop-up Library is located at 234 St. Kilda Road, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Building, Melbourne until 9 November.

I Love Libraries

Some weeks ago I went to Brunswick Library looking for Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (it was recommended to me by some members of my non-fiction writers’ group in Edinburgh). The book should have been in the stacks but when a librarian went down to check, he couldn’t find it.

“It’s really unusual for a book to go missing from the stacks,” he said. “There’s not much I can do except reserve it for you and keep an eye out for it.”

Fair enough, I thought, because I don’t have unreasonable expectations about what can and can’t be retrieved from library stacks.

I pretty much thought the book was a lost cause so imagine my surprise when I popped into the library today and the librarian said, “There’s a message here for you: since we couldn’t find the book you were looking for we’ve ordered a new copy.” Then she apologised because that would mean a bit of a delay in me getting it!

I told her not to worry; I thought it was amazing that they were ordering a book for me, just because I requested it. What wonderful customer service!

Book Black Hole Conundrum

I knew it would cause trouble as soon as it happened.

I thought the trouble would come in the form of a bitchy post-it note stuck to the book I’d requested. Something along the lines of This is the second time we’ve had to pull this book for you, written in red biro, of course, with SECOND in block capitals and underlined twice.

Instead I got a phone call just as I was about to board a train into the city. You already had that book yesterday, the voice said.

I was quick to set the record straight. What happened was this: Yesterday I tried to request a book from the stacks but there was a system error and my online request didn’t go through. I asked a librarian for help. He clicked around with the mouse. “There we go. Your book will be ready in half an hour.”

“Oh, but I wanted it tomorrow.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll just put another request in for tomorrow.” Click click click. “Done.”

I’m afraid you’ve been misled, the voice on the phone said. It’s not that simple. We’ve got millions of books, and get hundreds of requests a day. We took back the book you requested yesterday and haven’t been able to locate it today. I’ve had two members of staff looking for it.

I asked if I could request it again for sometime next week.

No, it won’t work, because we’ve got millions of books and hundreds of requests to deal with each day…

“But what happens if you’ve got someone doing long term research who needs to use the same book every day over a long period of time? Is that not possible?”

In that case you can reserve the book. If you like I can give you a tinkle when we locate it and put it on reserve for you.

“Ah, OK, I understand. That would be great, thanks.”

But I don’t really understand. I don’t mean that I’ve got no sympathy for the people who manage the library’s huge collection, or that I’m unforgiving about the situation. I mean that I cannot comprehend what it’s like to work with millions of books..

A million dollars. I know what that’s worth, but I don’t know how many suitcases it would fill in $10 dollar bills. 10 suitcases? 100? A room full of suitcases?

It’s the same with the books. Are we talking about kilometres of shelving here? Is my book on a long overnight journey in a robotic car through a canyon of shelves back to where it came from? But it can’t be, because it took half an hour to get from its shelf to the library reading room in the first place, so surely only it should have only taken half an hour to get back to where it started? It must be sitting there on the shelf right now, right under the noses of the two staff that have been looking for it; that phenomenon where the very thing you’re looking for becomes invisible the moment it comes into direct eye line.

It’s the physics of the situation that’s so difficult to get to grips with. There must be some kind of variation in the properties of time depending on whether a book is moving in or out of the stacks, or a change in the light reflecting properties of recently disturbed books. A book black hole, perhaps?

It’s a mystery, all right.

Melbourne Central Little Library

How’s this for a neat idea? I spotted this cute Little Library when I went for a walk through the shops at Melbourne Central today.

Readers are free to borrow books and then either return them when they’re done or replace them with another book.

The unstaffed library, which opened recently in a newly developed corner of the mall, is little more than a few shelves but already there is a reasonable selection of reading materials, all donated second hand books.

Great stuff!

An Abundance of Second Hand Bookshops

Books in Australia are very expensive. I’ve got no idea how anyone can afford to read. A book that costs £7 in the UK might be $25 (around £16) here. Even kids’ books cost $15. It’s hardly pocket money. The result is an abundance of extremely good second hand bookshops. By extremely good I mean they are packed to the rafters with a wide range of reading material. The photo is of a second hand bookshop I visited in Castlemaine. It looks like a health and safety hazard. Normally I like to browse by myself but when the lady in the shop asked if she could help me find something, I accepted her offer straight away. Time was tight and I couldn’t afford to get lost in a maze of stacked books.

Normally I am against buying books second hand. My reasoning is that if you buy a new book the author gets royalties for it, if you buy a used book they don’t. Libraries are great because not only do you get free access to books, but every time you borrow a book the author gets a little bit of money too. At least that’s how it works in the UK. I need to find out what the situation is here in Australia.

In the Castlemaine bookshop I was looking for more Paul Jennings stories and I managed to find a collection (after being given directions and a map) of three of his Un books in one volume. At $7.50 it was a bargain. Even second hand books here normally cost almost as much as a new book in the UK. I didn’t feel too guilty about my purchase because I’d already bought all of his books once before. Not only did I not feel guilty, I’d even go as far as to say that transaction made my day.

Still Unconvinced by the Kindle

Standing in the garden with my handful of crushed gum leaves, I remembered a story by Paul Jennings about two feuding neighbours in the outback who could transfer injuries onto each other by playing a tune on a folded gum leaf. I absolutely adored Paul Jennings’ stories when I was a kid. They were quirky and funny and clever and always ended with a twist. I had every single short story collection (at that time – a new one was published in 2002) and I read them over and over again.

It never occurred to me that I would one day be living in Australia, where the books are set. Suddenly all I could think about was those stories and how desperate I was to read them again now that I was closer to the places and the people they described.

Shortly before coming out here I bought a Kindle, thinking it would enable me to travel light with all the books I wanted. I’ve been let down on that score. Most of the books I want to read aren’t available on Kindle yet. Paul Jennings’ books, for example, Ali Smith’s Hotel World, Nicola Barker’s The Burley Cross Postbox Theft. I don’t really consider this a reason not to buy an e-reader. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the huge backlog of printed books gradually appears in e-book form.

What is a huge disappointment as far as the Kindle is concerned are the typos. You so rarely see errors in printed books that on the few occasions that you do, they are burned into your memory forever (‘tina of fish’ in one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books is one that has stuck with me since I was seven years old). I’ve only read two books on the Kindle, How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran and Down Under by Bill Bryson, but both were littered with typos: missing letters, two words joined together, a hyphen in the middle of a word from where it’s been wrapped over two lines in the printed text but appears on one line in the e-book version. Some examples from Down Under which I noted during my last reading session: ‘battered portion offish’, ‘accli-matizer’, ‘bom-bable’. It’s absolutely unforgivable.

So far no typos in my e-book version of the Lonely Planet Guide to Australia, but the maps are shocking (I think I just have to wait for technology to catch up) and the links infuriating. Any time I click on a link it takes to me to somewhere completely random in the text which has nothing to do with what I’ve just been reading. There was one time that clicking a link took me to the right section of the book, but since it only happened once out of dozens of clicks, I have to conclude that it was just a lucky accident.

Another disadvantage: I can’t flick through pages to see how long till the end of the chapter. This is important to me since I usually read in bed. I have to know how many pages in a chapter so I can decide whether or not I’m going to be too tired to finish reading it.

All these bad points aside, I genuinely believe that e-readers will save the publishing industry. It’s so easy to buy books with the Kindle – one click and you’re away, any time any place – that book buying is bound to increase. I just hope it doesn’t mean the death of libraries. Bendigo Library came to the rescue the other day when I had reached the height of my despair about not being able to download Paul Jennings’ short story collections onto my Kindle. I sat in the kids’ corner with a pile of his books at my feet and devoured story after story. It’ll keep me going for a little while until I get a permanent address, then I can borrow all the books I want.

Interview with Tess Gerritsen

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen talks about her latest Rizzoli & Isles medical thriller, The Killing Place.

The night before I am to meet Tess Gerritsen at the Balmoral in Edinburgh, her publicist texts me to say that they are on a “smog schedule” so could I meet them at Gerritsen’s hotel instead? I agree, although I have no idea what a smog schedule is. Some kind of industry insider code? Or is Gerritsen, who will be travelling on to Newcastle after our interview, concerned about poor visibility affecting the next leg of her journey? This is Scotland, after all.

The answer is neither. The apologetic publicist explains the following day that they are in fact on a tight schedule and the word mix-up was the result of texting while tired.

Gerritsen herself is bright and lively when she meets me at the hotel reception. Although she only arrived in the UK from her native Maine a few days earlier, she has miraculously avoided jet-lag and was on top form the previous evening, entertaining an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival by recounting the real life incidents that have inspired medical thrillers. Dinner conversations, news stories and even the antics of her sons have given Gerritsen the glimpse of the macabre she needs to spin out a terrifying plot.  “I go for the dark stuff. I’m always looking for things that are disturbing because I think that people are interested in those topics.”

The inspiration for The Killing Place came from declassified U.S. federal government reports about an incident in the sixties where thousands of sheep were found dead in a valley. Gerritsen was shocked by the reports because she realised the same thing could happen again to an entire city. She knew she had hit on the idea for a great story because “the emotion around the inciting incident was like a punch in the gut.”

The Killing Place is the eighth book to feature police detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Dr Maura Isles. Gerritsen turns the traditional relationship between the crime solving duo on its head in this novel when Maura goes missing, leaving Jane to track her down.

After the GPS leads Maura and her travelling companions along a road that is closed in winter, they find themselves stranded in the mountains during a snow storm. They think they have been saved when they stumble upon an isolated village but it is soon clear that something sinister has happened in the tiny settlement of Kingdom Come: the houses have been abandoned, meals left untouched on kitchen tables and cars still parked in garages. With nowhere else to go, the group sets up shelter in one of the deserted houses but it isn’t long before they realise that there is someone out there in the woods, watching them. Days later, a burned out car is found with four bodies inside, one of which is identified as Maura Isles. Jane Rizzoli is determined to prove the identification wrong and to find out what really happened to her friend.

“I think that the best mysteries are when the character has an emotional reason to want the case to be solved,” Gerritsen explains. “What sort of creeped me out about this idea was the abandoned houses and the meals left on the table. I like to take something that looks like a horror story on the surface but in fact there’s a logical explanation for it.”

As with all of her medical thrillers, The Killing Place has its share of gory drama which Gerritsen’s background in medicine left her more than equipped to deal with. (She trained and worked as a physician before becoming a full time writer.) “This particular book did not have a lot of research involved. I went online to find cases of GPS disasters. There have been a lot of people who have had accidents or who have died, in the US especially, because we have a lot of very solitary places, a lot of wilderness. There have been people who have been stuck in the snow for weeks because they’ve driven down a seasonal road.”

The Killing Place sees the introduction of two new characters, troubled teenage runaway Rat and his dog Bear, who Gerritsen reveals will be making a comeback in a future novel. “Rat and Bear are going to be more a part of Maura’s life in the future. The next book is not going to have them but I think in the one after that I may show them at their new school.”

The Killing Place by Tess Gerritsen jacket image

The Killing Place is out now in Bantam paperback (£7.99).

Update – 11th Jan 2011: According to an article in the Bookseller, The Killing Place is now number 1 in the Official UK Top 50 books.