Patrick O’Brian

Introduced to Patrick O’Brian by a friend, I was suspicious. Volume after volume of a boy’s own adventure—ships and sailors, battles on the high seas. Yes, there is that and it is extraordinary in his deft hands but O’Brian’s genius is in taking the Napoleonic Wars as an exoskeleton, holding within it the soft flesh of human frailty. The Guardian describes him as Jane Austen at sea.

I love his creation of Diana Villiers who embodies the period’s freedoms and strictures. She has money and a degree of independence but accepts the protection of powerful men when she needs them. She is frankly sexual and open in her preferences.

The friendship between Dr Maturin, the ship’s surgeon and also a spy, and Jack Aubrey, the captain, is complex and real in its different incarnations; they struggle with weakness and are sometimes estranged. Their needs are plain to each other, and to us; you can love, but often you cannot help.

Sharp and humorous dialogue fills the books. Nonchalantly explaining to Aubrey’s wife an event on a recent trip, Maturin says —

‘To be sure, he lost the rest of his ear in the Indiaman – but that was nothing.’

‘His ear!’, cried Sophie, turning white and coming to a dead halt….

‘Yes, his ear, right ear, or what there was left of it. But it was nothing.  I sewed it on again, and as I say, if you had seen him last night, you would have been easy in your mind.’

‘What a good friend you are to him, Dr Maturin.’

‘I sew his ears on from time to time, sure.’

You can happily wallow in its technical detail of rigging, winds and navigation, or speed through to rejoin the narrative. You would be in good company. Maturin, on being furnished with a lengthy description of the ship’s features cries: ‘For God’s love, Jack, just point the ship in as near the right direction as ever you can and tell me about leeway afterwards.’

O’Brian’s lack of sentimentality is a cool shower on a humid day. Read them in sequence, beginning with Master & Commander and see if you’re not hooked.




Peter Matthiesen

Travel, exploration, philosophy, religion and science in one luminous work—Peter Matthiesen’s 1978 classic The Snow Leopard is unlike anything I’ve read before. Matthiesen’s narrative follows his expedition to the Himalayas with a zoologist friend to study the bharal, a sheep/goat which has proven elusive to classification—somewhat like this book.

The language both soothes and stimulates. I would wander off into introspection only to be drawn up by some abruptly realised danger. As a story of exploration into the wilderness, tension is high: the reader does not know whether both men will return home until the closing pages, or whether the scientific research has been rewarded. The expedition’s course is never certain and the author never lets us forget their near-absolute isolation. When it is time to leave the monastery where they are based, the porters who arrive to escort him back bring letters from home. These he puts away to read once safely down. He knows he cannot move any faster in the event of bad news. ‘Good news too would be intrusive, spoiling this chance to live moment by moment in the present…’ (Matthiessen, 2010, p214).

Matthiesen’s acute sensitivity towards cultural difference and his musings on commonalities would be one reason to read this book. Or for the science, calibrated to a lay audience, and dryly humorous. A description of how the male bharal has evolved to protect its head while ramming other males ends with this observation: ‘Why nature should devote so many centuries – thousands, probably – to the natural selection of these characteristics that favour head on collisions over brains is a good question….'(Matthiesen, 2010, p.229)

Meditation on old and new cultures and spirituality are interspersed with field reports on the bharal and observations of his companions. The book’s title comes from the elusive creature that he craves to see during his sojourn in the mountains—a symbol of our constant searching. Humour, often at his own expense, is frequent. Matthiesen is an intriguing figure of vulnerability and toughness and left me hungry for more. Writing this piece now, I find myself wanting to read it again.

Matthiessen, Peter 2010, The Snow Leopard, Vintage, London


Alice Sebold

This is the first of a series I’m writing to recommend some literary gems and authors I’ve loved. If I can help other readers find some new ‘old’ books, I’ll be repaying some of my debt to writers. Find them!


‘When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.’ So begins Alice Sebold’s novel  The Almost Moon.

Known for her more famous book, The Lovely Bones, Sebold writes from the dark side. We know it because we’ve been there too, even if we push it away, under the rug. It lurks and she gives it a voice that we understand. Suburbia, neighbourhood watch, dogs. Dementia, suicide, fear.

And life goes on amid the desperation. It’s all so normal. Consequences are weighed and considered by the characters as they enter, stage right through the domestic sets of bathrooms, carpeted stairs, basements. Burger King carparks, Life Drawing Classes at the Senior Center. We’ve been there.

I read recently that most women go through life trying to live up to their mother’s expectations. Who can say whether they’re real, or deluded? The expectations and the attempts, or lack of. ‘You’re throwing your life away, you know that? Pissing it down your leg.’


It’s one of those books which crowds your head as you read, each sentence and page turned clamping down a little tighter on the options. How is this going to end? It’s not a thriller, not a whodunit. It’s being painted into a corner.

Her book Lucky is the real account of her rape in her first year at college and living through the days and weeks and months that followed. She’s lucky that she’s not dead, like another girl, killed in that same tunnel. Her life did not end among the dead leaves and broken beer bottles.

Her recounting the events over and over stays with me. When her father, many months afterwards realises that the rapist had dropped his knife, Alice can see him thinking ‘Why couldn’t she get away…?’ So simply, she evokes the burden felt again and again of lifting away that weight, the dead weight of her not struggling hard enough, of granting a permission of sorts.

Other people’s fear or sympathy, or pity, worse by far, were harder that the clinical policing, the courtroom proceedings with their rules and patterns. People knew their roles and played their parts, there.

Don’t be put off by Sebold’s grim landscapes. Her voice is clear and her prose fluent. Like an origami artist, she folds her story deftly, one crease after another, edges sharp, until it becomes the crane, standing upright.

Why go there? Ask yourself that the next time you read a crime story, or watch a murder, or a rape on some screen. Saturated with violence already, this lucid recounting of its impact is a gift.

Facts! Persuasive writing #1

It was astonishing to hear a spokesperson from the Donald Trump camp question whether a ‘fact’ even existed anymore.

Her argument that ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder is a disturbing sign of the pervasiveness of spin, and complete rubbish. In the world that the rest of us inhabit, facts matter. While the Opera House can shimmer with a mermaid’s green scales during Vivid, its tiles are still cream and white.

In a relatively short piece directed to a general audience—it might be a blog piece, promotional copy or a direct appeal such as a letter—keep these points in mind.

  • Get it right. If you are wrong on something that a reader can verify with a few clicks on Google, your credibility is gone. Any interest that you may have generated will be wasted. If you know your product or service, and have something to shout about, this is easy. If research is required, find some verifiable sources (hint: don’t rely on Wikipedia)
  • Not all facts are of equal importance. Rather than crowding your piece with a mass of information, choose the facts that are most relevant to your argument and what your reader needs to know.
  • Don’t mistake facts for argument. You need both. Use your facts as a platform on which to build your supporting argument. Argument is the ‘why’ and provides powerful context.

Next, I’ll talk about understanding and how it can be irresistible.



A masterclass in persuasive writing


Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the ways you can get results with clever use of words. I’ll teach you how to attract someone’s attention, hold it, and get a result.

Writing for outcomes is a blend of basic elements which can be ticked off in a checklist, and poetry which cannot. But, once understood, you will be able to create some of your own magic. And, like any difficult skill, you will get better with practice. I’ll work through the mechanics of persuasive writing and then touch on its artistry.

My own masterclass in persuasive writing occurred over many years working with executives and politicians and in grassroots advocacy. Getting that second look, ensuring that my letter or submission or paper was read beyond the first paragraph is key. You might only have 30 seconds of a senior official’s time before they decide its fate. To keep my appeals moving towards favourable decisions, I had to make every word count.

Stay tuned.

And if you missed these when they came out….

I used to have a diet of new releases. I’d follow the Booker shortlist, section myself in the front third of a bookshop, note down reviews. It all seemed too hard to do it any other way. How could you begin to choose something from the closely packed shelves? So many writers. I didn’t need a degree in maths to tell me that the probability of picking something I’d love was low.

And then I had children. The contradictions of living with babies include both slowing you down and speeding things up. In the weirdest way, the day’s allocation of minutes and hours remained the same but everything resized. Leaving the house could take up to an hour. Clothes shopping for me took five minutes.

Reading became a refuge and the greatest pleasure; nobody had told me it was the perfect complement to childrearing. One demands, constantly. The other gives, with no conditions. It provides adult company and imparts lessons in the human condition when you most need them.

Storytime at the local library brought a revelation. Papery dry, cool, unhurried. Free. I could fill a bag with novels by random authors, take them home and read over three weeks. Then take them back and get more. Who first thought of this? Extraordinary! No longer relentlessly contemporary, my reading expanded, in all directions.

But my memory was crammed with the minutiae of daily routines and I could forget, within minutes of closing it, a book’s name. I began to keep a list. No dates or comments (a passing judgement is of no interest to me). Just titles and authors.

Years later, it’s given me a feast of data. I know the authors to hunt down for more of their work. And I am always ready with referrals of those I’ve loved.


This is the beginning of a series I’m writing to recommend some literary gems, exploring a few books at a time through themes. In the vast crush of information today, what is the longevity of a novel? There are so many that deserve to be remembered. If I can help other readers find some new ‘old’ books, I’ll be repaying some of my debt to writers. Bring these ideas to your book clubs. Indulge. You’ll be rewarded.


For my friends in book clubs, looking for ideas…

I went to a party on Saturday night and got talking with friends about bookclubs. I’m a fan of anything that gets people reading, books circulating and authors rewarded. While reading is essentially a private activity for me, I love sharing suggestions and my lovely friends in book clubs asked me for my top ten. Some are well known, some less so. I can recommend them all.

Lydia Millet (Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Mermaids in Paradise)
Ann Patchett (Run, State of Wonder, Truth and Beauty)
Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face; companion to Truth and Beauty, above)
Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me, Olive Kitteridge)
Mark Poirier (Modern Ranch Living)
Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries)
Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch)
Ruth Ozeki (A Tale for the Time Being)
Valerie Martin (Property)

Megan Abbott, (The End of Everything)
Elizabeth Gilbert (The Signature of All Things)
John Green (any – I think he’s a genius in getting into young adult heads)
And that’s more than ten! I could go on. 1234963
Happy reading.

The idea of home

Where is home? What is it? Does it convey a house, a city, a country?

The Oxford defines it as ‘the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household’; the Macquarie says it is your ‘fixed residence’. When we’re kids, I think it means ‘where our parents live’. I grew up in Hong Kong. Friends came and went.  We lived in four different houses. It was a transient life but always ‘home.’

The German word ‘heimat’ describes another kind of home. It has no direct English translation but a friend described it as that ‘place of one’s first memories.’ Although Hong Kong will always be home in that sense, I think ‘home’ is inseparable from belonging. I can’t replicate the innocence of my childhood days in Hong Kong. I don’t belong there anymore.

When I came back to live in Australia in June 1986, I marked the immigration entry card as returning ‘permanently’. The time I’d been away was 10 years, one month. I’ll always remember the official at Brisbane airport who stamped my passport. He looked up at me that day, looked at the 16 year old travelling alone who had left her family for the first time. He said ‘Welcome home’.

I had a love-hate relationship with Sydney for years. It’s a bitch of a city to get around. Real estate is prohibitive, public transport is wanting, its fads and fashions shallow. Even after my three children were born here, I felt no strong ties.

A few years ago, I was working in the city and crossed the Anzac Bridge daily on a bus. If I faced west, I could look across Iron Cove and see Glebe’s parks and terrace houses where I spent my student days, Fisher Library at Sydney University, the gothic elegance of its Main Quadrangle, the church spire marking Annandale where we lived as newly-weds, and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital behind the first house we bought.

I could see the passing of those twenty or so years in that view. Sydney felt like home.

What does home mean to you?

3 resources for mental strength – and all from women!

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Three books crossed my path recently that share a message, albeit in different ways. They are about the power of resilience and the value of looking inwards for answers.

In 1995, grieving her mother, not knowing what she was doing in life, dabbling in heroin, loving the wrong men, losing the right ones, Cheryl Strayed made a decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She walked 1,100 miles through California and Oregon, mostly alone, carrying a pack she called Monster.

Her book, Wild, subtitled A journey from lost to found, recounts her resourcefulness in going on, increasing the miles she walked each day, finding water and feeding herself, making camp each night. She earned back her own respect through doing something that was hard, that took courage. She fought off a bear, survived her solitude—she saw no one for her first six days—and ran out of water. She lost most of her toenails, and then lost her boots, mid-hike.  She became alive to her own strengths and witnessed her capacity to bring herself to each day.

When we’re adults, we don’t have our parents to push us anymore. Sometimes we have a mentor or a friend who will but it’s rare. We pussyfoot around each other, careful not to overstep boundaries. Giving advice on life and choices can be construed as ‘interfering’. We’re supposed to be able to do this ourselves. But often we can’t. In a world of the ‘individual’, we have to call on our own resources, our mental strength.

Amy Morin’s book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do identifies behaviours that control you. Strayed’s experience is an exemplar of realising, identifying and responding to those behaviours.

For instance, number 3- ‘[Mentally strong people] don’t shy away from change’. Strayed’s realisation that she had to change her life is there, on page 1. ‘My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings. There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning of [preparation].’ (Strayed, 2007). Morin says that mentally strong people don’t expect immediate results or give up after the first failure. Forty minutes into her hike, ‘the voice inside my head was screaming, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’

Mentally strong people don’t focus on things they can’t control and they don’t dwell on the past. Walking the trail meant living only for that day and ‘each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed.’ When she loses her boot, and throws its useless companion over the escarpment to join its mate, she knew there was only one option—to keep walking.

Perhaps, most especially pertinent, mentally strong people don’t fear time alone. ‘They can tolerate being alone and they don’t fear silence.’ (Morin 2016).

And this is what makes me think of another contributor to this discussion who enters from a different angle.

Susan Cain’s message is about the power of introverts. When we prize extroversion, performance, collaboration, we devalue the contributions of the quiet.  She begs us to ‘stop the madness for group work’ which makes me applaud.  I loathe teamwork. I used to wriggle out of the inevitable interview question with some embroidered half-truths. I’m not a borderline sociopath. I get along with people in the office fine but when left alone, I produce my best work.

Susan says that we need to value the privacy, the autonomy and freedom of working alone: ‘we need to have our own revelations; we need to go to the wilderness.’ Which brings me back to Cheryl Strayed and mental strength.

More please.

Millennial fatigue

I just disappeared down a rabbit hole. Sales, business coaching, marketing, sales, Snap Chat, Zoella, millennials, sales, vlogging.  Anything you can read, you can read to screen. Better. Faster.

I learnt that blogging is passé. If you want to, you can write it down later, from the vlog. There’s your blog. In words. But it’s not as good, is it?

So nobody reads, video content is all but some video content is worse than none. If you’re not onto the next big thing, you’re doomed, it’s too late, you’ll miss it. Don’t miss out.

Vlogging 101: Where to Vlog and Why it Matters: When you write a blog, all you have to consider is the best way to get your message across using good old-fashion words, sentences and paragraphs (Blogging Edge, Vlogging 101: Where to Vlog and Why it Matters, 19 March 2014, UK,

I get change. I love the new media for connecting, for selling, for messages. I consume it. I’m going to make a video or two myself. Stay tuned.

But I feel as though I need to sit in a library for a few minutes.


Who’s with me?