Like many Greek Australians, I grew up on a steady diet of Greek mythology. Herakles and Theseus were as familiar to me as Cinderella and Snow White. That’s why I’m so excited to add my voice to the stories that have been told and retold over the millennia. Of course, I had to give them my own little twist … well, rather a big twist …

I’m keen on history and have always been fascinated by the idea of time travel. I’m also a lifelong fan of quirky kids’ books like Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland. Why not mash it all together?

First I had to find the right main character. I didn’t want some cool, tough little dude hurtling around in time and space. I wanted an ordinary boy, down on his luck. Someone who never once expected that he carried the seeds of greatness within himself. Enter Tim Baker.

So how could he meet a Greek hero? I decided to borrow from the Arabian Nights – well, they borrowed baklava from us – and use the idea of the genie in a bottle. Except it wouldn’t be a genie, but the hero Hercules. And it wouldn’t be a bottle, but a Greek amphora (which in later books gives Tim the ability to travel to Ancient Greece).

In this first book, Hercules tries to help Tim with his problems – but although he’s super-strong, he’s not exactly super smart. His attempts to recreate some of his twelve labours in the modern world lead to comic chaos. How do you convince a hero you don’t need his help?

Sweet Cherry Publishing has done a great job and I’m delighted they took the series on. I’m also thrilled with the illustrations by Nick Roberts. I went into a lather of excitement when I saw him depict Hercules the way he’s shown on Greek pottery, complete with heroic poses. Here the hero is wrestling a tiger skin rug … as one does …

I hope kids love reading the book as much as I loved writing it 🙂

Available from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository, The Nile, Waterstones  and probably some more too!

gormless_gods_invite_london_launch_partyAt the London Book Fair! In case you’re not familiar, the Book Fair is a global marketplace for rights negotiations and the sale and distribution of content. My new publisher Sweet Cherry Publishing are exhibiting there, and they’ll be celebrating the upcoming launch of our new junior fiction series Gormless Gods and Hapless Heroes with some yummy Greek snacks. I’ll talk more about the first book Tim Baker and the Ancient Curse in a future blog, but for now I couldn’t resist sharing this information. As you may have guessed, the series is based on Greek mythology 🙂

 

aliensI’m not being flippant or silly. I really have seen a ghost. In fact, the sighting sparked the interest that led to my writing Aliens Ghosts and VanishingsI was intrigued rather than frightened, and wanted to understand it.

The sighting isn’t discussed in the book. It’s nowhere near thrilling or scary enough to warrant a mention! The book looks at major haunts in historic Aussie locations, such as the convict settlement at Port Arthur, the brutal Old Melbourne Gaol and the notorious Sydney Quarantine Station.

No, my sighting happened in a very humble location – my home. Nobody else saw it, so I can’t call on any witnesses to corroborate me. But I know what I saw.

It wasn’t one of those near-waking experiences, where you could feasibly say it was only a dream. It was in the middle of the day and I was wide awake.

My house is large, modern and open-planned. I was walking from one room to another when I happened to glance towards the front door. The security screen door was locked, but the wooden door was open, letting in a light midday breeze. There, standing near the doorstep, was a young man. I saw him very clearly.

He looked to be in his early twenties. He had blond hair with a longish fringe that flopped over his forehead, with a short back and sides. He was wearing a white shirt and high-waisted jeans. His head was tilted quizzically to the side and he had a gentle smile on his face. Nothing malevolent or creepy – just inquisitive.

I stared at him, wondering what he was doing  there. Was he going to approach the house? Did he want to sell something? Was he collecting for charity? But he just stood there, looking. I was about to approach the door to find out what he wanted, when he vanished. Yep. Right before my eyes!

As I mentioned, I was more curious than frightened. Yes, I felt quite shaken, but that was more a case of confronting the unknown. I had no sense that he meant me any harm. Rather it seemed like he was wondering what was doing there. So … was he a previous occupant, wondering what we’d done to his house? I can’t think of any other explanation!

It got me thinking. Assuming ghosts are real (and if they’re not I’m probably going nuts, which is even more scary!) what are they? Are they fading images being played back on something like a psychic screen? Or are they sentient beings, aware of us and what is going on around them? It certainly seemed like he was looking at me. But who knows?

After all that research, I still don’t understand what that figure was. It’s taught me, however, the importance of keeping an open mind. Scepticism is important, but it needs to be balanced. Maybe it’s okay not to have all the answers, as long as we don’t pretend to understand…

Have you seen a ghost? If so, please share your story in the comments!

 

 

Until I started researching Aliens, Ghosts and VanishingsI was unaware of how many bizarre things have happened here in Australia. TV is full of the freaky stuff that happens overseas, but not so much about our own backyard. Did you know, for instance, that we have our own version of Bigfoot called the Yowie? That the Loch Ness Monster may be related to our very own Hawkesbury River Monster? Or that the mysterious Bermuda Triangle has its counterpart right here in the Bass Strait? I’ve selected just five of the amazing stories I came across while writing this book.

What caused rocks to fall from the sky?

What caused rocks to fall from the sky?

The falling stones of Mayanup

Back in the 1950s and 60s, stones were seen to inexplicably fall from the sky in rural Western Australia. Not just once or twice, but many times, stretching over a period of months. Hundreds of people witnessed the phenomenon and to this date, there is still no rational explanation for what happened. Some say the answer lies in the spirit world. Others blame playful poltergeists. Others prefer not to know!

The Princess Theatre haunting

Some of the hauntings I researched for the book were unnerving, even frightening. Some were poignant and rather sad. But this one left me feeling optimistic. Melbourne’s historic Princess Theatre is said to be haunted by the ghost of actor Federici. A weak heart didn’t stop this young man from pursuing his passion, but during a performance of Faust in 1888, the strain was too much for him. As his character Mephistopheles (a demon!) sank slowly down on a trap door, poor Federici had a heart attack and died almost immediately. That didn’t stop him taking the final bow, however! The audience saw him soaking up the applause, unaware of what had happened. His ghost is said to appear in the theatre to this day. And when it does, the show will be a huge success. Finally – a good luck ghost!

Why did Harold Holt vanish?

Why did Harold Holt vanish?

The vanishing Prime Minister

Sometimes we might wish our politicians would disappear – but not like this! Back in 1967, Prime Minister Harold Holt entered the water at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria. Although a strong swimmer, he was never seen again. Rumours as to why he vanished abounded – including alien abduction, Chinese submarines, and a luscious lady friend!

Alien encounter on the Nullarbor Plain

A family driving the long stretch across the desert were completely shaken when an unidentified flying object chased their car. Not only did it pursue them – it hovered overhead and they felt their car lift into the air! Like many of the other stories in the book, this strange sighting was corroborated by independent witnesses. And we thought these things only happened in America!!

High Aim 6, ghost ship

You may have heard of the Mary Celeste, a sailing ship found drifting in the Atlantic with nobody on board. But have you heard of the High Aim 6, a fishing boat that suffered the same fate in Australian waters? In 2003 the Taiwanese-owned boat was found drifting with nobody on board. An opened packet of cigarettes was found in the wheelhouse, along with the captain’s glasses. Cash, ID papers and other personal effects were left on board. There was no sign of violence or damage. Food, fuel and water were in ample supply. So what happened? It’s just one of the many mysteries I encountered. Hopefully one day there’ll be an answer 🙂

The book illustrations reproduced here are by Richard Morden.

One of the most exciting things about writing is getting to work with a talented illustrator. You get to see your ideas brought to life in ways that you didn’t know were possible! I was lucky enough to be teamed up with Richard Morden for our recent book Aliens, Ghosts and VanishingsHis drawings range from funny to creepy to downright scary – not just echoing the text, but also enhancing it.

Richard Morden, illustrator

Richard Morden, illustrator

Based in Melbourne, Richard works in a range of styles and is fascinated by Australian culture, history, prehistory and natural sciences, gothic horror and science fiction. He was happy to share his thoughts about this latest adventure.

1. Tell us a little about your research for this project.

I looked up all the people, places and animals to make sure they looked just right. I also added accurate details that weren’t necessarily in the text. The aim was not just to draw what was in the text, but to expand on it in a complementary way, helping to create an informative experience for the reader. Some of the animal drawings were based on photos I have taken in museums and a lot of the landscapes were based on photos from my own reference library. Interestingly, I met some of the witnesses of the Westall UFO sighting years ago at a talk promoting a documentary. I asked them what they experienced and their answers helped inform the Westall UFO illustration in this book: best reference ever.

The Westall UFO sighting

The Westall UFO sighting

2. What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the book?

I loved the story of medieval African coins being found on the North coast of Australia. As well as being an exciting story of a chance discovery it hints at possible histories beyond the generally accepted accounts of Australia’s past. It left me wondering what wonderful historical surprises yet await us.

3. What was the most difficult part of this project?

Some of the more serious topics covered in the book continue to have an effect on people’s lives to this day. Stories such as the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain required representation in a way that is informative and engaging yet respectful to those affected. Illustration concepts such as these need more consideration than others. On a less serious note, what does a bunyip look like? Nobody really knows. How then to illustrate a bunyip? I struggled with this question, changing my mind several times. In the text is a suggestion that extinct megafauna could have been a real life basis for the legends of bunyips. Following this train of thought, I sketched a Zygomaturus, an extinct giant marsupial swamp cow, and decided it looked weird enough to fit the bill. What do you think a bunyip should look like?

4. What was the most fun or rewarding part?

Illustrating all the mysterious locations, situations and characters was a lot of fun, but by far the most rewarding aspect was all the learning involved. I was already familiar with some of the stories but many were new to me, and when researching the illustrations I learned even more. Behind the incredible stories is a backdrop of intriguing Australian personalities, culture and history; exactly the kind of subjects I enjoy learning about.

5. What’s the strangest or most mysterious experience you’ve ever had?

What do you think explains it? In 1996 on a cool but sunny spring morning I saw three large black cylinders quietly floating over the western suburbs of Melbourne. I couldn’t identify them so for me at least they were UFOs. Years later I searched on the internet for what I had seen, and found many pictures of floating black cylinders identical to what I remembered. They were real. I am pleased to say they were not aliens, they were solar balloons! Someone had been playing a prank. Look them up, they are strange looking things.

aliensDid a UFO drag a family’s car off the road in the middle of the outback? Is there really such thing as the gleaming-eyed swamp monster known as the bunyip? How did rocks rain from the sky in WA?  And just what became of the prime minister who went into the surf and was never seen again?

Sure, you’ve heard about UFO sightings in far-flung corners of the United States. You’ve heard of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. You may have even watched a late-night show exploring conspiracy theories surrounding missing media tycoons. But these stories are for grown-ups, and mostly from overseas. Then there are some stories that are so mysterious that only kids can handle them! Aliens, Ghosts and Vanishings is a book for young readers, all about the extra-terrestrials, the supernatural and bizarre disappearances in our very own backyard. It’s ideal for readers aged 10 to 15, or for anyone who has the burning curiosity of a child!

I’ve always wanted to write a book like this, and absolutely loved researching all these amazing events. I hadn’t realised just how many strange things have happened on our own shores – hauntings, sightings, disappearances. I’m delighted that the book was taken on by Penguin Random House, who did a marvellous job bringing it to life. Richard Morden’s illustrations are brilliant!

I wanted to share my interest in the bizarre with young readers – but I wanted to go further than that. This book doesn’t just relate the (albeit juicy) tales. It encourages critical thinking skills. I don’t force any conclusion onto the readers. Rather, I encourage them to look behind the claims. To ask themselves why people say the things they do. When someone makes an outlandish claim, are they lying, mistaken, or simply telling the truth? Everything needs to be judged on its own merits, maintaining a healthy balance of open-mindedness and scepticism.

Oh, and by the way, I’ve seen a ghost.

Yes. Really.

After getting my first junior novel published nearly two years ago, I felt certain that all would be plain sailing from then on. I had my foot in the door, as they say. It was a rude awakening when I discovered that wasn’t necessarily so – at least, not for fiction. Thankfully my non-fiction work was still going strong, and was indeed more interesting and rewarding than ever.

But still. I’d created a proposal for a five-book fiction series and was sure it was only a matter of time before it found a good home. It was awful when the rejections started coming. I re-read my work again and again, trying to see where I’d gone wrong. I tweaked it here and there. But I still liked it and couldn’t see why it was being rejected. Could I have misjudged the market so badly?

I would have given up if it wasn’t for some feedback I received via the Faber Academy. My work was read by the wonderful Sophie Hamley, who assured me it was merely a matter of finding the right publisher. Someone who liked quirky. She encouraged me to not limit myself to the Australian market, but to approach overseas publishers. I’d never tried that before, and thought it would be too difficult.

sweet cherryActually, it was far easier than I expected. Many publishers in the UK and US refuse to consider unsolicited manuscripts (even more so than here), but there are still some that do. The first  I approached asked me whether I was prepared to turn my five-book proposal into a ten-book proposal. Prepared – yes. Delighted – even more so!

It took a while for the pieces to fall into place, but I’ve just signed a contract with that publisher. Horray! I’m so glad they’re prepared to work with a writer who lives half way around the world. They’ve even agreed to generous deadlines, enabling me to keep writing my non-fiction material. Their name is Sweet Cherry, a British independent publishing house specialising in children’s fiction. I checked out their list before I approached them, and felt an affinity with the types of books they publish. This is really important. It shows our styles are a good match, and that’s something authors should always keep in mind.

So thank goodness for sweet cherries! I much prefer them to sour grapes 🙂

 

A wonderful fellow blogger had the smart idea of doing a post about books set in foreign lands. Evelyne Holingue is a Frenchwoman who now lives and writes in the US. She is the author of ‘Chronicles from Chateau Moines’, a young adult novel that deals with racial tensions in France. She was kind enough to include my humble junior novel ‘Mike the Spike’ – Australia is foreign to most of the world, after all! There are some great books in this list and well worth a read 🙂

Evelyne Holingue

Long before I left my native France for the United States I already loved novels set in different countries. They allowed me to escape my familiar for the unknown.

Living abroad, in my experience, is discovering the unknown, day after day, not only for the time of a book. Although I am now at home in the US, I will always keep a special fondness for stories set in foreign lands.

Today I invite you to meet six authors who write from the United States, Canada and Australia and chose a foreign setting for their books. I asked them to share the inspiration for the location.

Since I write for both adults and children these authors, all women, represent a large spectrum from children’s picture books to adults’ novels. Stella and Jennifer’s books don’t exactly fit the requirement, but you’ll see why I still wanted to have them here.

 

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The Whitley Award!

The Whitley Award!

It was a humbling experience and – to be honest – a slightly embarrassing one. On Friday night a great honour was bestowed upon me. In the grand foyer of the Australian Museum, I received the Whitley Award for Best Children’s Series. So why did I feel embarrassed?

It was something to do with the calibre of the other recipients. The Whitley Award is presented by the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales – a scientific organisation dedicated to the study and conservation of native Australian fauna. The awards are a tribute to Gilbert Whitley, an eminent ichthyologist (a branch of zoology dealing with fish). Each year, awards are presented for publications that ‘contain a significant amount of information relating to the fauna of the Australasian region’.

Most of the recipients were scholars, experts in their chosen fields. Their books were comprehensive scientific guides, generally the result of years of dedicated work. Whereas my books were about – well, gross and weird animals doing gross and weird things. Farts and vomit featured rather more often than I’d care to remember. But as the hosts so graciously said, the books were fun and informative, and may well be inspiring the next generation of budding zoologists! What a wonderful thought 🙂

The Whitley Award 2015 - Best Children's Series

The Whitley Award 2015 – Best Children’s Series

The books were my Gross & Frightening facts series, a set of six published by Pascal Press earlier this year.

So yes, I felt a wee bit embarrassed getting up to make my speech … saying how much fun I had writing it (lots and lots!) … and rubbing shoulders with some of the country’s most brilliant zoologists. The pre-ceremony glass of wine helped somewhat.

Once I recovered from my bit, I was lucky enough to be able to listen to the interesting work of the experts, and to bask in some of their shared glory.

 

Due to tight publishing deadlines, I haven’t been blogging much lately. You’ve probably noticed … at least, I hope you have! I’ve missed it – nothing beats WordPress for writerly interaction! But now that my new series has been released, I think it’s about time I showed you what’s been keeping me so busy.

I’ve been channelling my inner child. More specifically, my inner warped geekling who loves weird animals almost as much as jokes about farts and bums. It’s resulted in this educational yet highly enjoyable series published by Pascal Press.

Gross & interesting facts about Aussie animals!

Full of gross and frightening facts about Aussie animals, the titles should give you a pretty good idea what the books are about – and why I had so much fun writing them!

  • That’s Sick
  • That’s Stinky
  • That’s Scary
  • That’s Lethal
  • That’s Bizarre
  • That’s Freaky

Here’s how the publisher describes them:

About this series: Fans of the highly successful That’s Gross! Weird & Disgusting Aussie Animals book will find much more to squirm at with squeamish delight in this new stomach-churning series written by Stella Tarakson. Featuring everything from offensive odours to prehistoric puke, these feral facts are not for the faint-hearted! Combining natural history, science and a sense of humour, these books are sure to keep kids entertained while they learn.

To celebrate, I’m offering a giveaway of one book from the series. All you need to do to enter is to write something in the comments section. Maybe tell me which stomach-churning title tickles your fancy the most. I’ll pick a name at random and announce the winner June 10.

As for what’s keeping me busy right now … I wish I could blab, but I can’t say too much about it just yet. I’m writing a book for Random House about something that’s fascinated me since childhood. I’m in a complete lather of excitement as I write, so you can probably guess it’s not another law book! I’ll say more when publication approaches, but for now, here’s a hint. BOO!

 

 

 

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