I couldn’t stop reading these two novels. Here’s why


Do you sometimes read a book and want it to never end? Sometimes I fear that I’ll never find a novel as keep-me-up-all-night good as the one I’m currently reading. It feels like nothing I pick off the shelf will be as absorbing, as transporting. In the last few weeks I’ve had that feeling twice, in one novel after another. The first one was The Rip by Mark Brandi. The second was The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. I tried to work out why.

What these two magnificent novels have in common (besides being Australian and about characters pushed to extremes) is a first person narrator – the voice of the story is ‘I’. This isn’t uncommon in literature, but both of these novels do it so well.

So how did they keep me hooked?

Neither has a complex plot or a huge cast of characters, but both were irresistible. If I wrote a novel, I thought, this is what I would want to do. So how? How could I possibly draw the reader in so intensely, keep them there, right inside the head of a complex and damaged main character?

It’s all about narrative point of view

In The Rip, the protagonist and narrator is a homeless, drug-addicted young woman, name unknown, living in the parks and streets of inner-city Melbourne. Mark Brandi has used the present tense as well as the first person, making the reading experience both immediate and personal. The Shepherd’s Hut is narrated by Jaxie Clackton, the ‘hardarse the kids run clear of all over the shire’. Tim Winton writes the young man’s voice absolutely authentically, bad grammar and all. So we see the world and hear the story totally from their point of view. They are the main character as well as the narrator. Logically, it may seem that a first-person narrator would be the least engaging, and an omniscient or third-person narrator would add more nuance to the story. In the hands of these first-class writers, the first-person point of view puts us inside the world and the mind of the main character but leaves room for us to wonder how reliable they are. We see what they see, experience their world with them, but also bring to the story our doubts about if the world really is as the character experiences it. Our own imaginations fill in some of the shadows, and foresee where the character is going to end up. Until we don’t.

In the hands of lesser writers first-person narration can be limited and self-indulgent. Both these recent Australian novels are well worth examining for lessons in first-person point of view. But read them first as wonderful stories, masterfully told.

Read more about Mark Brandi in 8 things an award-winning author can teach you about being a writer.

Fifty Typefaces That Changed the World

By John L Walters/Design Museum



This is one I snapped up in the marked-down basket at my local bookshop, The Turning Page in Springwood, that little shiver of excitement running through my middle as I found my cut-price treasure. For a long time back in my teens and 20s, I secretly wanted to be a typographer. Lining up each Letraset letter before rubbing the black letter onto the white paper, slowly forming a heading, was how I found my ‘flow’. I used to buy The Face magazine to see what typographer Neville Brody was up to as much as for its cool content.

And then desktop publishing, and the internet. Anybody could be a typographer. We all know how to deride Comic Sans. I stuck with writing and editing. Nothing could every disrupt those, right?

I still keep my love of a good font, and this book runs through most of them, from the Gutenberg Bible’s blackletter in the mid-1400s to Ubuntu in 2011, an open-source typeface available to anybody in the world, in over 200 languages, in and for free. As the designers say, ‘The way typography is used says as much about our brand as the words themselves’.

I have more comprehensive and detailed books about typography, but recommend this one as a heavily visual introduction to the art, with an incidental history lesson attached.

Today is Dictionary Day!

Today, 16 October, is Dictionary Day. The date honours Noah Webster, who created the first American dictionary in 1829.  (So I probably should have spelled that ‘honors’.)

Graminaceous: one who devours grammar?

Dictionaries are a vital tool for writers and editors. And they can be heaps of fun for anybody who has the slightest interest in words. Recently I read The Word Detective by John Simpson, who was the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  It combines a memoir of his time at the dictionary – which included the move to online – with fascinating historical asides about the history of words in English.  Did you know that balderdash was probably first a foamy drink with its origins in Scandinavia?  Or that we have 97 words for hell?

If entering an eternal hell seems better than reading  a 360-page tome on dictionaries, try celebrating dictionary day like this:

Open your favourite dictionary at random and pick a word you have never read or used before.  Now vow to use it before midnight.

Mine is lacustrine: referring or relating to lakes.

If you don’t like this game, go take a lacustrine leap.