Author Interview: Talking Sense Audiobook - Living with sensory changes and dementia by Agnes Houston and Julie Christie

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Talking Sense: Living With Sensory Changes and Dementia by Agnes Houston with Julie Christie
Released: 19th September 2020
Published by: Dementia Centre
**Download a free copy of the book here!**
Talking Sense: Living with sensory changes and dementia, written by Agnes Houston MBE with Dr Julie Christie, is a popular print and online resource and now for the first time will be available as an audio book. This is one of the first audio books in the world to use dementia-friendly audio to ensure it is readily accessible for people living with dementia, along with carers and supporters. “We’ve created this new audiobook version of Talking Sense to support people who are more comfortable with auditory learning – particularly people with dementia who may find it difficult to read or focus on words on a page.” A/Prof Cunningham said. The audio book provides an opportunity for people with dementia to engage with helpful information and practical advice in a format which is especially tailored for their needs. Talking Sense is the culmination of more than a decade of research by Agnes Houston after she was diagnosed with younger onset dementia in 2006. She found that not only was there little support for continued independence, but what support there was had virtually no awareness of the common experience of sensory change. “It was as if I had been given a diagnosis, was assessed cognitively, medication monitored and left to my own devices,” Ms Houston said. “Instead, I chose to go on a quest for knowledge to understand what was happening to me. Surely, I was not the only one having these sensory changes?” Ms Houston is known internationally as an advocate for people living with dementia and in 2016, she completed a Churchill Fellowship to continue her learning about the often-overlooked issue of sensory challenges.
Last month I had the opportunity to attend HammondCare's international dementia conference, showcasing a range of speakers and events surrounding topics on residential care design, different approaches to caring for people living with dementia and emerging research/educational resources being published in the area. With a rise in Australia's ageing population and the need for increased services and resources specifically directed at understanding dementia and how it affects people's lives, I believe that books like Talking Sense are more important than ever to raise awareness on this important issue. More information can be found on the Dementia Centre's Knowledge Hub here

Author Interview

How did the idea for writing Talking Sense first come about? Were there specific gaps in current literature and resources for carers and people living with dementia which acted as a key influence?

Agnes: I was diagnosed with younger onset dementia of the Alzheimer’s type in 2006.  My care afterwards was in the hands of the old age psychiatry service.  It consisted of a dementia ‘early onset’ nurse to monitor my medication and my cognitive function. I found it to be a negative experience, which was all about loss.  There was no attention paid to my sensory challenges, no rehabilitation programme and no counselling.  I felt as if my care was out of my hands. I consulted my optician who knew little about dementia.  My GP team knew little about the sensory challenges associated with dementia.  My psychiatrist made time to talk and listened to my experiences but I felt that little practical help was given to me. Something was missing.  It was as if I had been given a diagnosis, was assessed cognitively, medication monitored and left to my own devices.  Instead, I chose to go on a quest for knowledge to understand what was happening to me.  Surely, I was not the only one having these sensory changes.  This prompted me to ask other people living with dementia about their experiences. As a result, I produced in 2015 a booklet ‘Dementia and Sensory Challenges’ (funded by the Life Changes Trust in Scotland.  In 2016, I obtained a Churchill Fellowship to travel to other countries to learn more.  My findings confirmed the need for this handbook, which we hope will be a starting place for others to discover information on sensory challenges. Among other things, it shows who to go to for help, where support organisations can be located and how to access services and support.

What was the process for coming up with the idea of creating the work as an audiobook?

Julie: It was always our intention to have an audiobook. Talking Sense at its heart is about accessible information. Many of the people interested in this area are living with visual changes and so an audiobook is essential.

Agnes: As I previously was an army nurse, I was assessed for support by Scottish War Blind, who have been fantastic.Through their support I have learnt many skills for coping with sight challenges and have discovered how important audio versions are to ensure this information can be accessed by as many people as possible – friends supported by Scottish War Blind said is was “Always a hassle having to ask people to read it out to me”.

Through your research for the book in relation to dementia symptoms, what were some of the most surprising findings that general readers may not have expected?

Agnes: I was so surprised to discover that there isn’t a specialism and that people are expected to live with often severe changes without the support they might otherwise get with another health problem. You can get a test for hyperacusis, but it wasn’t being routinely offered. You need to ask for it – “the uncomfortable loudness test”. I was also surprised at the numbers of people having sensory challenges, which was higher than I ever anticipated and that these sensory challenges were causing them the most effect of their lives, rather than the memory problems.

Julie: From my perspective, as a nurse and a social worker, it was looking at the experience of sensory changes from the perspective of day to day impact. The ways in which sensory changes make you feel, for example, as a result of losing confidence in going out, the things you miss out on through this, the conversations you can’t take part in. Helping people to regain confidence or find new ways to self manage problems has been very rewarding.

How did you discover that sensory changes were a significant impairment associated with dementia?

Agnes: Many people who receive a diagnosis of dementia are aware that they may experience memory problems. But they are often surprised when they begin to encounter ‘unexplained’ sensory changes. I began having problems seeing things and went to my optician.  My optician said that my eyesight was perfect, but my brain was having problems processing what my eyes were seeing – something known as ‘brain blindness’.

In your opinion, what are some improvements that can be made in relation to community awareness about dementia, and particularly surrounding young onset dementia?

Agnes: Design, in my opinion. What is missing when people talk about improvements is the design – thinking about sensory changes.  You must speak to people with dementia. Signage – too much, the wrong information, too many words.

Julie: My own research is focused on the resilience of people living with dementia. Helping people to stay connected, have more control over their circumstances and have the opportunity to make sense of their lives all help to promote resilience and a sense of well-being. Whether this is something practical, such as, better design and way finding support, or making time to talk to people about their lives and what they want.  There is a lot we can do.

What are some of your top pieces of advice for aged care workers to better care for residents who are living with dementia? Are there differing challenges to watch out for compared to at-home carers?

Agnes: Think problem, think sensory, think solution. Read the book! It’s all in there. Just ask the person living with dementia. Be a detective.

Julie: Caring is a skilled job no matter the setting. Good care is built on relationships. This involves taking the time to get to know the person and working at their pace. Realising the importance of individuality, of everyday personal moments and routines. It is often the small things we do that are the most important. Ensuring we take the senses into account is an essential part of this.

Could you provide us with a glimpse of any other current research projects you're working on in this space?

Agnes: I am currently looking at research ethics regarding people with dementia. I am part of a panel, Dementia Enquirers, which has set Gold Standards to help people living with dementia to choose which research projects to be involved with. 

Julie: I’m continuing to work in the resilience space focusing on how care staff can use resilience in their day to day work with people living with dementia. Agnes and I are both advocates of learning about life through our shared experiences and resilience is often a subject we discuss. I admire her greatly for bringing this work to life for so many people.

About the authors

Agnes Houston MBE is a dementia activist who has always put others first. She was diagnosed with younger onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2006 at the age of 57. She has campaigned for best practice and improving the lives of people with dementia (especially those experiencing sensory issues) in Scotland and received a lifetime achievement award from Alzheimer Scotland in 2013. Agnes is former Chair of the Scottish Dementia Working Group and currently Vice Chair of the European Dementia Working Group and a board member of Dementia Alliance International. In 2015 Agnes was awarded an MBE and in 2016 was awarded a Churchill Fellow.

Dr Julie Christie is Service Manager - International at the Dementia Centre, HammondCare, based in the UK. Dr. Christie is a visiting Research Fellow with the University of Edinburgh and an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of New South Wales with a focus on resilience, citizenship, and co-production.  She is a reviewer for the Journal of Research in Nursing, Ageing and Society and Dementia: The International Journal of Research and Practice. Dr Christie is currently the lead for the  Dementia Dog Programme evaluation and the Life Changes Trust funded Dementia Friendly Communities Programme, both in Scotland. She oversees the work of Dementia Support UK: Connect, Consult HammondCare’s UK consultancy service for care homes.  

Author Interview: Before the Beginning by Anna Morgan

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Before the Beginning by Anna Morgan
Released: 29th September 2020
Published by: Hachette
Genre: YA Contemporary
Source: Publisher
Pages: 235
The story of four friends, a mysterious stranger, and the week when everything changed. For fans of We Were Liars. Schoolies week: that strange in-between time when teenagers move from school into the adult world. It's a week when anything is possible, and everything can change. Grace is questioning everything she thought about herself, and has opted not to join her clique of judgemental friends for schoolies, instead tagging along with her brother Casper and his friends. Casper, an artist, is trying to create the perfect artwork for his uni application folio. Overachieving, anxiety-ridden Noah is reeling from a catastrophe that might have ruined his ATAR result. And Elsie is just trying to figure out how to hold their friendship group together. On the first night of the trip, they meet Sierra, a mysterious girl with silver-grey hair and a magnetic personality. All of them are drawn to her for different reasons, and she persuades them to abandon the cliched schoolies experience in favour of camping with her on a remote, uninhabited island. On that island, each of them will find answers to their questions. But what does Sierra want from them? An empathetic and suspenseful coming-of-age story from the author of All That Impossible Space.
Equal parts suspense and coming-of-age novel, Before the Beginning is a unique offering in the YA contemporary space exploring the time between school ends and the future beyond. 

Author Interview with Anna Morgan

How did the writing process for Before the Beginning differ from the experience coming up with the plot for your first novel All That Impossible Space?

It was very different! I wrote All That Impossible Space over about four years of writing and redrafting (much longer if you count all the years the story was growing in the back of my mind). I wrote the first draft of Before the Beginning in about six months, so it was much faster. With my second book I knew from the start the specific characters and themes I wanted to explore, and I knew I wanted to set it over one week from different perspectives: having that structure in place helped focus the writing process. Since I was working with my publisher from the beginning, I had editors involved from much earlier in the drafting process. That was a little scary at first for me, but it made the book SO much better and I feel very grateful to have shaped the story with their guidance from those early stages. Oh, and I had more confidence in myself as a writer the second time around, since I knew I'd done it once and could do it again.

What drew you to exploring the coming of age period of time just after high school in this book?

One of my favourite aspects of YA novels is that in-between feeling of transformation and change, that is such a classic teenage experience. Schoolies week - that week just after school finishes - is an especially intense time for this feeling. It's after exams, but before your results, after school, but before many teens know what they are going to do next. It can bring up a lot of anxieties for people too since it's such a pressure-cooker setting - lots of emotional issues can bubble up to the surface, but there's also such a sense of energy and possibility over the week.

Was there a favourite character out of the group which you found was easier to make come to life on the page?

It's impossible to choose a favourite! I love all my characters and am frustrated by them in equal parts - even though all four are very different, they are all based on aspects of myself and they experience versions of what I went through in my teens and early twenties. I've had unreasonably high expectations of myself like Noah, or had a worldview that didn't fit with my experiences any more like Grace, I've struggled with creative blocks like Casper, and I've underestimated myself like Elsie. I did find that Noah's section flowed particularly well as I was writing - and every time I re-read it I just want to give him a big hug! - so I do have a soft spot for him.

What are some of the main messages you hope teens in the same position as some of the characters in this book will be able to reflect on?

The end of school was such an anxious and all-or-nothing time for me, and it is for some of my characters - the main message I want to pass on is that it is okay to change, it's okay to be unsure, and you will figure it out. It's much more important to figure out who you are and what you want from your future than it is to chase a perfect score or to get into the best course. I know this year's school leavers in particular have shown incredible resilience as they deal with the upheaval of 2020, and I hope they can take some comfort from the upheaval my characters go through - even if nothing goes to plan, you will get through to the other side.

Could you give us a sneak peek into what you may be working on next?

I really loved all the research I was able to do around setting for this book - I set the novel on a fictional version of an island I love off the South coast of NSW and I learned so much about all the wildlife and plants that live there. It was also a place under threat by the fires this January, which emphasised to me even more how important it is to celebrate this land in literature and how much we need to protect it. So that might be working its way into my next book - possibly looking at climate action and young people growing up in regional Australia. But don't hold me to that because it could completely change!

About the author

Anna was born in Sydney, but spent most of her childhood surrounded by mountains in Nepal and Tibet while her parents were part of an international community of health professionals. Navigating this cross-cultural life made her a curious observer of people, although most of her time was spent reading Enid Blyton and dreaming of going to boarding school. This did not cushion the shock of shifting from home-school in Tibet to an all-girls high school in Melbourne when her family returned to Australia. ALL THAT IMPOSSIBLE SPACE explores some of the intense and convoluted friendships that thrive in this setting. Anna completed a MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University in 2015, and now lives in Melbourne with her husband. She works as a bookseller.

Author Interview: A Taste of Life and Love in Australia by Margaret Lynette Sharp

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

A Taste of Life and Love in Australia by Margaret Lynette Sharp
Released: 10th May 2011
Published by: Self-published
Genre: Short Stories, Australian
Source: Library
Pages: 368
This is a highly readable volume of Short Stories, set in modern Australia. Most tales are romantic. The book kicks off with 'The Girl Next Door', an engaging tale of a young man's affection for his neighbour, which sadly goes amiss just as he summons the courage to ask her out.

Other favourites include 'A Song for Ellie': a young man's struggle to be noticed by a singer; and 'The Blossoming': a young woman emerging into life and love. Like all Margaret Lynette Sharp's books, this is edited by her husband Ronald Sharp B.E.M., the creator of the Grand Organ in the Sydney Opera House concert hall.
It's been so refreshing to visit the library again and stumble across some unexpected finds - I came across 'Tales of Life and Love in Australia' while on the lookout for some local authors. The short stories within it are wonderfully told and perfect for small snippets into the character's lives. I soon discovered that Margaret has written quite a few collections so will be checking them out soon!

Author Interview with Margaret Lynette Sharp

What have been the best/most challenging aspects of writing both short stories and longer fiction? How does your writing process for each style of book differ?

Part of the emotional reward I derive from writing fiction is the validation of garnering positive reviews from independent sources – which makes me feel as though I've brought a bit of pleasure to an audience – but probably the more important element is my own personal pleasure in reading the stories sometime later.

The most challenging aspect? There are several. Simply getting the first sentence on paper can be quite daunting. Waiting to see what others make of each book can also be stressful – especially when critics make unkind, and at times untruthful, observations.

My writing style is determined by the type of writing I’m attempting. My Australian romances are written in a fairly informal style, quite unlike my Jane Austen Fan Fiction tales, which are written to replicate Jane Austen’s voice as a revered Regency writer.

I really enjoyed your book A Taste of Life and Love in Australia! Back when you were focusing on Australian fiction, what drew you to the genre and where did your inspiration come from?

I’ve always liked writing short stories – especially romantic ones – and so it was an easy decision. In common with the other titles in this series, “A Taste of Life and Love in Australia” is written in the style of narrative (and thought) that comes most naturally to me. My own "stylistic register," I suppose you'd call it.  A few of the stories are loosely based on actual events in my own life.

Outside of writing, what are some other hobbies which bring you joy?

I’m a keen swimmer, especially in salt water in the summertime. My other favourite pursuit is playing the piano, to which I recently returned after a decade’s absence. Other matters had occupied my attention (and our Steinway had been in storage), but I've so enjoyed my return to the keyboard, that I now wish I’d never stopped playing…  Several of my books – and the "Elizabeth Simmons" series, in particular – have featured young female protagonists who were avid pianists and piano teachers (alter egos, I suppose, though much more proficient than I).

What are the three of the biggest life lessons you've learned through your journey as an author?

First, cultivate patience. It’s the lucky few who are overnight successes after a mere ten years…

Second, develop a thick skin. Remember, reviewers review themselves, and as they say (if they happen to be ancient Romans), "de gustibus non disputandum."

Third, never write purely in the pursuit of money. How can you be true to yourself when you’re simply striving to attract and secure a paying audience? And if you really want to generate income, there are certainly more reliable ways of doing it.

What types of books do you like to read?

I’ve always enjoyed the classics, and as a teenager and young woman, I devoured them in rapid succession. I also like stories such as those written by James Herriot.

Could you give us an insight into your latest release, and a sneak peek into what you're writing next?

My latest release is a Jane Austen Fan Fiction vignette, “A Ball at Longbourn,” which sheds light on the character of the Bennet girls, and especially Lydia. Further vignettes in this series are in the pipeline.

Without giving too much away, is there a particular moment/favourite line in one of your works that stands out to you as being something that you think is quite moving to readers?

I think the conclusion of “Of Love and Secrets,” a short novel that also forms part of the compilation entitled “Love, Now and Then,” is rather moving. The heroine finds happiness after enduring a long train of adversities. This story was highly praised by a Readers Favorite reviewer.

About the author

My early life was spent living near the city of Sydney. I was glad when my family moved us all to an old house in the Georges River district. Here, I found peace, and discovered the beautiful, nurturing environment of Oatley Park. As I grew older, I cared for my ailing mother – meanwhile, studying the art of writing. Six months after she passed away, I met and later married the creator of the Grand Organ in the Sydney Opera House, Ronald William Sharp. We still live in my family home, along with our Maltese, Chicki, and a blue budgerigar named Albert.

Review: Reasonable Doubt by Dr Xanthé Mallett

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Reasonable Doubt by Dr Xanthe Mallett
Released: 28th September 2020
Published by: Pan Macmillan
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Publisher
Pages: 272
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
We all put our faith in the criminal justice system. We trust the professionals: the police, the lawyers, the judges, the expert witnesses. But what happens when the process lets us down and the wrong person ends up in jail?

Henry Keogh spent almost twenty years locked away for a murder that never even happened. Khalid Baker was imprisoned for the death of a man his best friend has openly admitted to causing. And the exposure of 'Lawyer X' Nicola Gobbo's double-dealing could lead to some of Australia's most notorious convictions being overturned. Forensic scientist Xanthé Mallett is used to dealing with the darker side of humanity.

Now she's turning her skills and insight to miscarriages of justice and cases of Australians who have been wrongfully convicted. Exposing false confessions, polices biases, misplaced evidence and dodgy science, Reasonable Doubt is an expert's account of the murky underbelly of our justice system - and the way it affects us all.
Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

Perfect for true crime fans, Reasonable Doubt offers a harrowing and well-researched glimpse into the criminal justice process and what can happen when the wrong person pays the price. Detailing six cases of wrongful convictions, Mallett's accounts offer deep yet objective insight into how failings in how evidence is inspected and even investigators' own biases can play out with consequences that reach far beyond the crime itself. What makes this book so readable is that Mallett sets out her perspective in a way that is measured and critiques the outcomes in each of the cases with reference to the view that prosecutors should 'fight hard, but fight fair'. The additional information on forensic techniques and methods of analysis used in the cases was particularly eye-opening for those interested in the science and psychology behind the investigation process.

It also accounts for the vast majority of cases which go to trial and are run successfully - this balanced perspective adds to the credibility of the work as a whole and though clearly not a 'joyful' read, it is a thought-provoking one. Probing techniques such as guilt-testing and even failings to consider all possible routes of evidence and scenarios which could have set the innocent free, it's interesting, and somewhat disconcerting, to think that the scales of justice can be impacted on even the smallest change in how a crime and its suspects are presented.


If you're like me and enjoyed books such as The Secret Barrister, In Your Defence, or are already an established true-crime fan not one to shy away from a hard look at some of Australia's harrowing criminal cases, Reasonable Doubt is for you. This book offers what is a unique and fascinating perspective on perhaps the most fundamental tenet of our justice system which deserves greater scrutiny, that Mallett has done well in adding to with her educated prose. 

Author Interview: The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman

Saturday, 25 July 2020

The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman
Released: 2nd July 2020
Published by: Scribe Publications
Genre: Non-Fiction
Source: Publisher
Pages: 368
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Genius of Birds, here is a radical examination of the bird way of being and of recent scientific research that is dramatically shifting our understanding of birds — how they live and how they think. ‘There is the mammal way and there is the bird way.’ This is one scientist’s pithy distinction between mammal brains and bird brains: two ways to make a highly intelligent mind. But the bird way is much more than a unique pattern of brain wiring, and, lately, scientists have taken a new look at bird behaviours.

What they are finding is upending the traditional view of how birds conduct their lives, how they communicate, forage, court, breed, and survive. They’re also revealing not only the remarkable intelligence underlying these activities, and disturbing abilities we once considered uniquely our own — deception, manipulation, cheating, kidnapping, and infanticide — but also ingenious communication between species, cooperation, collaboration, altruism, culture, and play.

Drawing on personal observations, the latest science, and her bird-related travel around the world, from the tropical rainforests of eastern Australia and the remote woodlands of northern Japan, to the rolling hills of lower Austria and the islands of Alaska’s Kachemak Bay, Ackerman shows there is clearly no single bird way of being. In every respect — in plumage, form, song, flight, lifestyle, niche, and behaviour — birds vary. It’s what we love about them.

As E.O. Wilson once said, when you have seen one bird, you have not seen them all.
Jennifer Ackerman's passion for her subject shines through in this absolute delight of a book. Insightful and a joy to read, The Bird Way provides inspiration to look up and around at these creatures which we have so much to learn from!

Author Interview with Jennifer Ackerman

Congratulations on publishing The Bird Way! How did the writing experience for this book compare to your others such as Chance in the House of Fate, The Genius of Birds and Birds by the Shore?

Thank you! Working on The Bird Way was pure joy. For all three of my bird-related books, I spent a great deal of time in the field with ornithologists and other bird researchers, which is what I really love to do. Some of my books, such as Chance in the House of Fate and Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream (SSEDD), involved a lot of deep and difficult research on molecular biology and human biology, reading papers and talking with scientists about the genetic and cellular mechanisms we share with other organisms or the way the body works. Then my task was to try to translate the hard science into a lively and accessible narrative about the natural history of inheritance (Chance) or what’s going on in the body over the course of a 24-hour day (SSEDD). For The Genius of Birds and The Bird Way, too, I read numerous papers, but I also traveled around the world to explore bird intelligence and behavior with experts at their field study sites and to meet their birds. I loved every minute of these experiences, especially in Australia.

What are three things you wish people knew more about bird watching?

The birds in your backyard or local park are worth watching, especially for their behavior. There’s no such thing as a boring bird! 

It’s worth putting in the time to learn birding by ear.  I’ve never been very good at identifying birds by their calls, but it’s an invaluable skill and enriches birdwatching enormously. I love to go out in the field with people who are really good at this.

Once you start, you’ll never want to stop.  Birdwatching reminds you that you’re part of a world that’s big and beautiful and wildly diverse. 

Is there a particular moment in your expeditions so far which defined what you love about it?

Stumbling on a male Superb Lyrebird performing on his mound in the Toolangi rainforest. I was with my friend Andrew Skeoch, a superb wildlife sound recording artist, looking for the lyrebirds.  We had slogged up a very wet trail and seen signs of the birds everywhere, scratchings in the soil, and we could hear them from a great distance. But they seemed to be always just out of sight. Finally, late in the day, on the way back down through the forest, we heard one burst into glorious song just up the bank from the trail. It was a magnificent, resonant, booming voice, and Andrew stood next to me whispering the names of all the birds of the forest that the lyrebird was imitating. (Later, I’d learn how the lyrebird actually uses its mimicry to lie to other birds!) The lyrebird flashed its spectacular lyre-shaped tail feathers, and then it was gone. Utterly magical.

Without giving too much away, is there a favourite region or particular species that fascinated you the most while writing The Bird Way?

It’s really hard to pick just one. Meeting the Kea Parrots of New Zealand was a delight. I first met them in an aviary in Austria, the world’s biggest lab for studying Kea. I was warned to take off all of my jewelry, my watch, my barrettes, etc. before I went into their aviary because the birds are so inquisitive, they’ll explore everything they can get their beaks on. I fell in love with them almost immediately. They are incredibly bold, curious, smart, and just downright adorable. In their native New Zealand, they’re called “Clowns of the Mountains” because they’re so cheeky, funny, and playful. And it’s their use of play that I found particularly intriguing. But I won’t give that away here.

How do you think learning more about bird behaviours can help us become better people?

In so many ways. For one thing, focusing on a form of life other than our own helps us understand that we’re not unique in the ways we once thought we were. We share intelligence, behaviours, emotions, and consciousness with birds and other animals. Also, birds model fascinating behaviors. Species of all kinds cooperate and collaborate in everything from hunting, courting, and migrating, to raising and defending their young, sometimes even across species lines. Invariably, it boosts their success. Birds demonstrate the benefits of living in diverse social groups and working together to solve problems. They show us how to be flexible and adapt—and even the great benefits of play.

What has been your career highlight so far?

Researching and writing bird books!

What do you think still needs to be discovered about the bird world and how to conserve endangered species?

We have much to learn. For so many threatened, rare, or elusive bird species, there’s a scarcity of biological information about breeding habits, movement, and ecology, information needed to assess the status of bird populations and to manage their conservation effectively.  The Australian researchers I spoke with--to a person--all lamented the paucity of research, the critical knowledge gaps about threatened and endangered species that prevent good management.  One of the brilliant researchers addressing this issue is Rob Heinsohn, a conservation biologist at Australian National Univeristy.  

Rob runs a research program called the Difficult Bird Research Group (DBRG) dedicated to studying Australia’s most endangered birds and understanding their ecology and conservation. Rob says that these birds, such as the Orange-billed Parrot, the Swift Parrot, the Regent Honeyeater, the Superb Parrot, the Forty-spotted Pardalote, and several others, often fall into the “too hard basket” because they’re difficult to find, often occurring in remote, wild, and rugged terrain, and highly mobile, moving around a lot.  The DBRG conducts research aimed at understanding these species and pulling them back from the ‘brink’ of extinction.

Could you give us a sneak peek at what you're working on next?

Another bird book, this one focused on a particular bird family that’s ubiquitous and beloved around the world.  That’s all I’ll say for now!

About the author

Jennifer Ackerman has been writing about science, nature, and human biology for almost three decades. Her most recent books include Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: a day in the life of your body; Ah-Choo: the uncommon life of the common cold; Chance in the House of Fate: a natural history of heredity; The Genius of Birds; and Birds by the Shore. A contributor to Scientific American, National Geographic, The New York Times, and many other publications, Ackerman is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Nonfiction, a Bunting Fellowship, and a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Author Interview: When The Smoke Clears by Chrissy Guinery - Surviving the Australian bushfires

Sunday, 7 June 2020

When The Smoke Clears by Chrissy Guinery 
Released: 20 May 2020
Published by: Fifty Days Press
Genre: Non-fiction
Pages: 205
The whole world held its breath as 2020 dawned and Australia was on fire. The final toll was breathtaking: 18 million hectares burned, a billion animals killed, 2,800 homes destroyed.

Even more tragic-the loss of 33 people in the fires. In When The Smoke Clears, fire survivor and author Chrissy Guinery presents the human face behind these figures, through first-hand accounts of the day to day struggle to breathe, to believe, to love-under a pall of smoke and in the path of fire. It's the story of survival that represents the experience of thousands of Australians from the 2019-20 bushfire season, right through to the impact of the coronavirus. And it also begins to answer the question-how do you live, laugh and hope again after your family has been threatened, homes lost, children terrified and the countryside blackened.

When The Smoke Clears is essential reading for anyone in the world who grieved for Australia as it burned, and for anyone at anytime who is wondering where they will find the strength to go on.
When The Smoke Clears is an important release which provides an insightful and raw insight into the experiences of people living on the south coast of NSW who experienced the devastating bushfires last year. Click the link below to hear from Chrissy Guinery, Bateman’s bay Rural Fire Service Captain Ian Aitken and Eurobadalla Shire Mayor, Liz Innes for their take on this book:

Author Interview with Chrissy Guinery

Firstly, congratulations on publishing this book, it is such an important account of the bushfires which presents what happened in such a deeply personal and moving way. What were some of the biggest challenges you came across in writing it?

Time and Tears.

TIME: There was a sense of urgency to get the book out while the topic was 'hot'. I knew the fire victims needed it as a tool to help heal, and others needed it to discover the impact their assistance is having on us all.

TEARS: Lots of tears - some sad tears as I revisited painful, scary and uncertain days, and some happy tears as I recalled all the love and care showered upon my daughter and our community after losing 501 homes to the fire.

Faith is a strong underpinning source of strength that comes through many of the accounts in this book, including your own. How has that shaped the approach you took to both bringing these stories together and having the resilience to keep going even as you saw families around you lose their homes?

Often when you go through trauma, it feels like your world is falling apart so you look for something solid and stable, for me, that's my faith in God. Prayers play a major role in healing through stress, trauma and facing the unknown day after day.

Faith helped us remember we were not alone, and we didn't have to get through it all in our own strength. Leaning on God brought us hope as we lived under a sky of thick smoke for more than 2 months. Hope is what we all needed most, as daily we didn't know if we were going to lose more homes and more lives.  

How did the writing process for 'When The Smoke Clears' differ from your other books 'Room to Breathe' and 'Falling Up Stairs'?

I am an eclectic person, so the books I write are all very different. Falling Up Stairs was lots of zany fun, all about living in a van travelling Australia. Room To Breathe was inspired to help people find a reason to shine after hearing about the staggering suicide statistics of our nation. When The Smoke Clears is a healing journey, it was cathartic and I knew it was to become an essential Australian resource written from the harrowing two months inside the 2019/2020 fires.

Though my books are all different 'flavours', they are all similar in that they are raw and real, and all of them are designed to bring hope and healing.

Was there a particular moment or quote from this book which hold particular significance for you?

There are a few, but I guess the most impacting was an incident the day after my six-year-old grandson's home had burnt down, leaving the family with nothing. I took him some clothes and a toy from his cousin, a little red motor bike. Still in shock, he sat on my knee and played with the toy motor bike for 20 minutes or more before looking up into my eyes and saying, 'I have one toy now, Granny.'

That moment will remain with me forever.  

What is the main message you hope readers will be able to take from 'When the Smoke Clears'?

Together we win. That's one of my mantras. It takes community to rise, to heal and be able to move forward. By linking arms with others, reaching out to help and to comfort, we can get through anything. We were never meant to do life alone.

Do you have any tips on how we can continue to support families and communities that have been devastated by the fires and are still recovering?

Absolutely. Give and Pray.

GIVE: It's a small word with huge impact. Give your time to listen to their stories; validate them. Give your money - either by visiting the small businesses that have struggled since December last year or by sowing into the families themselves.

PRAY: Pray for peace, strength, resilience and hope for families, communities & towns left struggling to rebuild from ruins. 

About the author

Chrissy Guinery is all about empowering others. As a successful author and motivational speaker, Chrissy is renowned for her infectious joy, passionate faith and her desire to see others rise to fulfil their purpose and potential. To achieve this, she has been sharing her life secrets for more than 20 years in a down-to-earth relatable style, leaving people with essential tools for pursuing a more effective and fulfilling life. She is the author of When The Smoke Clears (2020), Falling Up Stairs (2016) and Room to Breathe (2018).

Review & Author Interview: The Long Distance Playlist by Tara Eglington

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Long Distance Playlist by Tara Eglington 
Released: 30th December 2019
Published by: HarperCollins Publishers Australia
Genre: YA Contemporary
Pages: 424
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Told primarily in instant messenger conversations, Skype, emails and texts, this is Jaclyn Moriarty's Feeling Sorry for Celia for the modern teen.

Taylor and Isolde used to be best friends - before THAT FIGHT, 18 months ago. It's been radio silence ever since - until Taylor contacts Isolde to sympathise with her breakup: the breakup that she never saw coming; the breakup that destroyed her confidence and ended her dreams of joining the National Ballet School. Taylor's had his own share of challenges, including a life-altering accident that has brought his hopes of competing at the Winter Olympics to a halt. Isolde responds to Taylor, to be polite. But what starts out as heartbreak-themed Spotify playlists and shared stories of exes quickly becomes something more. And as Taylor and Isolde start to lean on each other, the distance between them begins to feel not so distant after all ...

A boy. A girl. A one-of-a-kind friendship. Cross-country convos and middle-of-the-night playlists. With big dreams come even bigger challenges.
I've been a fan of Tara Eglington's work since her first book, and it's been such a joy to see her work grow since then. In The Long Distance Playlist, there is the same sense of realism and exploring what it is to be a teenager with hopes and dreams, tempered with a multi-modal narrative style and storyline that is so much fun to read!

It can be difficult to balance the activities of the main characters within the wider scope of their lives to create a holistic plot, but here it is achieved with ease. There is so much to learn about not only Isolde and Taylor as they navigate recent challenges and rekindling their friendship, but their families moving through different phases as well. Friendship is also a dominant theme here, which brings some hilarious banter into the mix and great examples of support networks that can make all the difference in an adolescent's life.

The feelings of self-doubt and questioning whether Isolde's dreams of pursuing ballet are worth the effort are definitely ideas teens will relate to. Looking back on all our pasts it's inevitable that we've all gone through these sorts of growth phases which shape us into the people we are today. Taylor's own challenges in his personal life and recovery from injury also highlight the qualities of resilience and courage while still showing that there are times where the 'light at the end of the tunnel' seems far away. It's these balanced and multifaceted characters that are brought to life on the page as their whole selves, which makes this book shine. I also really love the part where Taylor describes some of the golden moments of joy in a family, speaking of seeing his mum where 'the smile goes right up to her eyes'. The message of appreciating the small moments in life that reach right to the heart of our connections with friends and family is something really special in The Long Distance Playlist.


Tara Eglington's unique narrative style depicting realistic and entertaining dialogue alongside themes which are always relevant to teens, is sure to make this book a hit with all YA audiences. Full of heart, hope and a central theme of appreciating those close to us - this is going to be a favourite on my shelf for years to come!

Author Interview with Tara Eglington

Firstly, congratulations on releasing your fourth novel! What were the similarities and differences between writing The Long Distance Playlist and previous works?

Thank you! Of my four books, The Long Distance Playlist is the one that is closest to my heart – probably because I had carried the idea for it around in my mind ever since I was fifteen years old!
In terms of process, and similarities in process when it comes to my books - each one of my novels has been inspired by something personal, but this one – a story about a boy and a girl who are oceans apart, but closer than anything – was especially close to home!

Twenty years ago, there was a boy on the other side of the world, who sent me letters and emails across a four-year period. He was the first boy to call me beautiful, to make me jewellery, to read my short stories and songs, and to MSN Messenger chat (2000 much?) with me for hours about my hopes, dreams and fears. What started out as pen-pals - a boy from a land of frozen lakes and snowy skies, and a girl, from the beaches of Byron Bay – became something much more, as we navigated our way through a myriad of experiences in our late teen years.

The years that I spent writing to this boy, became part of my story, and I always knew that one day, I was going to write a book about a boy and a girl, who lived miles apart, but had a very special connection.*

The difference in process between my previous novels and this one, was probably how I approached the form of the novel. I knew I wanted to write a semi-epistolary novel (a novel traditionally composed of letters or documents) but I also wanted the story to feel very modern – so instead of communicating via physical letters, my protagonists Isolde and Taylor use text, email, skype, IM’s, playlists, and Instagram DM’s to connect with each other. This allowed me to explore how these particular ways of bonding with each other online, can feel just as real, meaningful, and poignant as any in-person interaction or catch-up 

*Note from Eugenia: Tara just posted on her blog about this real-life inspiration here!

One thing I always find shines through in your books is how realistic the dialogue and narrative voices are for your teen characters. How do you go about developing what your main characters will 'sound' like? Does this come before your idea for how the plot will play out or do they run together from the start?

Thank you so much – that’s the ultimate compliment for a YA writer! The process of developing a character’s voice is a really interesting one, and it actually varies for me, with each book.

Taylor’s voice was so strong and clear from very early on in the process. Even before I started to write the novel, I could hear him talking in my mind – whole pieces of narrative would come to me whilst I was brushing my teeth or doing the dishes. Taylor has a real intensity about him – which is probably tied in with being an elite-athlete – but he’s also got this lovely playfulness, and a terrific sense of humour too. So that dynamic was already there, even in the initial sample chapters I wrote for my publisher in early 2018. And as the novel progressed, Taylor became even more real to me. When I was living in Queenstown, I often felt as if I might just to bump into him down on the shoreline, or while skiing at Cardrona!

It’s a funny thing to try and explain – you know, the whole, characters talk to me! quirk that is part of being a writer. Or even trying to pinpoint the sense of say - whilst writing a scene, knowing with full certainty that ‘No, Taylor wouldn’t say that!’ But I guess that’s how characters can drive plot – at a certain point, they kind of take over and start telling their story to you, rather than the other way around!

Sometimes it takes time to work characters out. Isolde was a little bit of a mystery to me for a while – and in that scenario, I often find that the best approach is to work on building up a profile of the character – their unique interests, their family dynamics, their backstory –  and this usually helps me to ‘work out’ who they are. Then the voice will start to trickle through more and more. 

In terms of how I plot my novels, my first book – How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You – was really heavily pre-plotted. When I sat down at the computer every morning, I had a detailed outline I was working to for each chapter.

With my other books, it’s been a bit more of an organic process. Usually I know the beginnings of a book, and some of the major plot points I’m writing to, but there’s also a great deal I’m uncovering and discovering as I go, which is really fun!

The influence of arts and culture are another unique element of your books which I really love! Your first book How to Keep a Boy From Kissing You featured a production of 'Much Ado About Nothing' in the storyline, and here there is Isolde's evolving dream of being accepted into the National Ballet School. What drives you to include these kinds of ideas in your works?

I’m so happy to hear that you enjoy these elements – I love weaving things like art, theatre, and music into my novels because these forms of creativity bring me so much joy! I was very lucky to attend a creative arts high school whilst in my teen years, and I think the way that we learnt, and the things we learnt, have had a big impact on my writing. Our lessons – even things like biology, mathematics, and history – were taught in such an engaging way – for example, say we were learning about medieval history – we would learn the facts and dates of course, but our teachers would be reading us Arthurian legends in English class in the middle of the day, and then in the afternoon, we might be learning metalwork, and making our own copper chalices, or swords. It was really immersive way to learn – I remember my sister’s class built an actual Viking ship!

So during those years, I performed in Shakespeare productions (which of course, found it’s way into How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You), learnt about Dante, Renaissance art and mythology (which you’ll find in My Best Friend is a Goddess) and got to attend the ballet and some opera performances (which forms part of The Long Distance Playlist)!

My family – who are all creatives – have also had a big impact on my books. My father (like Emily’s mum in Goddess) is an artist, and my sister was the youngest student (at the time) to be accepted into a full-time dance school. 

Aside from the slowly-blossoming romance, friendships, family structures and the relationships between teens and their parents are other areas explored really well in The Long Distance Playlist. It's great to see that the parents of Isolde and Taylor also have a role in this book. Did you always imagine the story being much more than a series of interactions between the two main characters?

Absolutely! For me, I loved the fact that Isolde and Taylor’s families have had a long-intertwined history – Isolde’s mum, and Taylor’s Dad dated once upon a time! The two families have spent a lot of time together over the years, and Taylor and Issy have been friends since they were tiny. I’ve always loved YA stories that incorporate family –so it was a delight to be able to explore this in the latest book.

I think sometimes there’s an assumption about parents in YA – i.e. their presence should be minimised because teens aren’t interested in anything outside of themselves etc (which is so wrong!). Our families – their dynamics and unique histories – are a huge part of our identities! When I look back on my teen years, I remember how much of an impact that family had on my life, and my friend’s lives – whether that was big stuff – like parents dying, divorcing, or remarrying – or the more subtle stuff, like the conversations we had with our Mums or Dads about our dreams, our identities, our futures – as we matured, and discovered who we were.

And it’s the same for Taylor and Isolde in the novel. Isolde’s life is hugely impacted by what’s happening to her parents. For Taylor, I really loved that he knew that he could go to his parents for support – as he says – The thing I love most about Mum and Dad is that they never make me feel like what I’m going through is ‘kid stuff’ – you know, less than, or not as valid as adult stuff. And they don’t jump in with ‘shoulds’ or ‘shouldn’ts.’ 

That’s what my Dad was like when I was growing up. I could go to him with anything and he would listen really intently, and try and help, without casting judgement. I know there’s a lot of kids who have that same dynamic with their parents, so I loved having a healthy example of that kind of teen-parent relationship in the novel.

Friendships also play a huge part in the book – and for me, that’s the heart of The Long Distance Playlist. Whether it’s Taylor and Isolde confiding in each other about their deepest fears, or most painful memories, or Finn and Taylor’s easy-going, no-judgement dynamic, or Ana cheering Isolde on with her dancing - these relationships are the place where the protagonists find strength, understanding and courage. 

The idea of including the email trails, messenger conversations (and of course the music playlists!) made the story even more vibrant. Is it more difficult to write in these different modes than just using prose?

Funnily enough I actually found these sections of the novel the easiest to write – I think because the forms (emails, texts, messenger conversations, DM’s, IM’s) are quite conversational in nature, and I’ve always found dialogue easier to write than prose!

I loved incorporating such modern forms of communication into the book. I think texts and DM’s and so forth have a real immediacy to them, and these types of interactions are such a part of our everyday lives – whether that’s texting a friend, skyping a family member, or DM’ing someone on Instagram. So for me, it felt like a really natural way to tell a love story that’s set in 2020.

I think the main challenge with the email and messenger conversations, was probably working out how to convey things like the characters backstories and histories, without falling into ‘telling’ – i.e. if Taylor and Finn are having a skype conversation about Ellie (the girl that Taylor had a crush on at the start of the novel) both boys already know who Ellie is, and are aware of all of the previous interactions Taylor has had with her, etc – whereas the reader doesn’t know any of this, and has kind of ‘dropped in’ mid-conversation! So you have to be quite clever in how you weave that essential information through each medium! 

Without giving too much away, is there a particular scene or quote from the book which is particularly special to you?

For me, the heart of the story, is in these words, by Taylor:

All I know is that there are no guarantees. Anything could change at any moment. The way I want to live is to grab on tight to the people that I love and things I love doing. I want to squeeze every bit of joy out of every moment I have with them. What will come will come. It’s how you live in the meantime that counts.

*Note from Eugenia: This is my favourite quote too!

What are some of the main messages you hope people will be thinking about after reading The Long Distance Playlist?

The Long Distance Playlist is for me, a celebration of friendship. Of the people in our lives, that we can call upon, in the middle of the night, in any time zone - and find understanding, empathy, comfort and love, waiting for us.  Issy and Taylor go through some tough stuff in this novel – but they are able to lean on each other for support. It was the same scenario for me in high school – it was my friends who helped me cope with a wide range of difficult and painful situations. I hope anyone who’s read the book and may be going through tough stuff of their own, is left with a feeling that they can reach out to someone who cares.

The other thing I hope readers might take away from the novel is a sense of hope – the sense that even though life might throw incredibly painful and difficult stuff our way - stuff that might turn every plan we have had for ourselves, upside down – we have the strength inside ourselves to adapt, and to redefine our lives. 

The setting, particularly the New Zealand sections, are so vividly described. When did you realise that this was a place you wanted the story to feature? (Travel recommendations are also welcome!)

It was such a joy to set the majority of the novel in the Central Otago region of New Zealand. I was born in NZ (although I’ve spent the last 30 years in Australia), and I introduced my husband Greg to Queenstown in 2014. We both fell head over heels for the place – it’s the most breathtaking town that sits on the edge of a vast lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains everywhere you turn! Greg and I have visited every single year since to ski, and even spent 18 months living in QT from 2018-2020.

Each location in the book has a very special meaning to me. The Queenstown shoreline, where Finn and Taylor hang out at the start of the book, was where I would take my lunchtime walk. Jacks Point – where the boys played golf – was actually where my husband and I lived, right at the foothills of the mighty Remarkable Mountains. Cardrona ski-field, where Taylor, an up and coming snowboarder, trains daily, is a mountain I’ve spent winter after winter skiing. So it was such a joy to write about these places, and to bring them to life for my readers. I’ve had some reviewers say that the setting of The Long Distance Playlist is almost a character in itself, and I love that!

I also love the idea of my readers visiting Queenstown in the future! My tip would be to plan your trip for the end of August/beginning of September - the time of bluebird skies, when the mountains are at their most beautiful! Make sure you go for a stroll along the Queenstown shoreline, and up past the botanic gardens. Enjoy a famous fergburger, and then take a gondola ride up to the top of Bob’s Peak, to take in a sunset view of the entire town. Visit Arrowtown, an adorable little village with a fascinating gold-rush history. And a drive out to Glenorchy – just for the views – is something you shouldn’t miss.

I’d also suggest you try your hand at skiing or snowboarding – Cardrona skifield is amazing for beginners and the more advanced.

And if you can, spend a night or two in the Mt Cook/Aoraki National Park – it is absolutely breathtaking, especially from the air (try to do one of the scenic flights, you won’t regret it). 

What are some of your favourite things about writing in the YA genre? Are there any challenges related to writing for this audience?

I love writing YA. I love reading YA. I don’t think that will ever change, because that period of time – those teenage years - continues to be a fascination for me. There’s so much there to explore as a writer – whether that’s the intensity of the emotions, the magnetic force of those real ‘firsts’ – like the first time you fall in love, or have your heart broken, or lose a friendship, or realise your parents are just people, who sometimes make mistakes too – or the potent discoveries of that period  – working out who you are, and what you want to do with your life – it’s all amazing material.

Maybe my head and heart are still stuck there, in some way, because if I close my eyes, I can travel back to that period in a split second – and what I was feeling, thinking, or dreaming of back then, rises up again.

The challenges of the YA genre…. hmm. That’s a hard one. The only thing that comes to mind is that sometimes my characters want to swear, and that’s usually a no-no in YA! But it forces you to be more creative, which can only be a good thing! 

Could you give us a sneak peek as to what you might be working on next?

Ooh, I would love to share – right now I’m in the process of pitching a few different ideas (all YA) to my publisher. I know that’s a little vague (sorry about that!) but I’m hoping I will have some good news to announce in the near future (fingers crossed)!

About the author

Tara Eglington grew up in Byron Bay, New South Wales, wrote The Long Distance Playlist by the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, and now lives in Sydney. 

She is the author of four YA novels: How to Keep a Boy from Kissing YouHow to Convince a Boy to Kiss You (titled Kissing Games in the USA)My Best Friend is a Goddess and The Long Distance Playlist, the third of which was a top-ten bestselling Australian YA title in 2016 and a notable for the 2017 CBCA Older Readers Book of the Year. 

Tara’s hobbies, when she’s not writing, include watching endless cat videos on YouTube, planning pretend holidays to the Maldives, and daydreaming about who would play Hayden Paris in the film-adaption of How to Keep a Boy from Kissing You.

Tara loves to hear from readers, so please say hello via, or @taraeglington on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.