Tag Archives: books

A story in steam

Of all the modes of transport in the world, my favourite is the train. Trains are more spacious and comfortable than either a plane or a bus (or a donkey cart). They lack the equilibrium-disturbing sway and roll of a boat, or the lurch and petrol-stink of a coach.  I love the fact that trains are almost exactly the same technology now as when they began operation in the 19th Century. I love catching trains through Europe and feeling the miles role away underneath me, and seeing the landscape slide by. And of all trains, the steam train is my very favourite.

On 1 October, I made my way by suburban rail to Belgrave station to catch the Puffing Billy to Emerald to give a talk at Emerald Library.

Doesn’t that sound magical? Belgrave. Puffing Billy. Emerald. Library talk. For me it evokes those wonderful whistle-stop tours undertaken by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Clements across America. Trains have other literary associations for me, too. Holmes and Watson rattling across the English countryside to investigate some macabre murder; feckless young men in PG Wodehouse comedies fleeing on the milk train from ferocious aunts; the Pevensie children at the station before their last great adventure in Narnia; the Hogwarts Express; the Little Engine that Could.

Puffing Billy reminds me of all those things, and has its own special place in the heart of Victorian. I grew up in several states, so I don’t think I ever went on the inevitable school trip as a kid, but the same sense of adventure and excitement is still there for adults. Travelling by steam train in the modern day to a local library had a wonderful steampunk sensibility about it.

The Saturday that I travelled was a bit cold and wet, but people still braved the weather to sit with their legs handing out the windows as they hung onto the metal railings. We chugged through bushland, over bridges, through hills, periodically wreathed in smoke and steam.  As we rose in altitude, the air got crisper (and chillier). I could see flashes of colour from native parrots darting between trees, and see distant, mist-shrouded hills and lakes. The notes of the whistle as it blows is like a call to adventure on our way to Emerald.

There’s another literary association for you. Emerald City. Emerald is actually a lovely little country town, one of the stops on Puffing Billy’s route. After recent rain, the town is as green as its name implies. Tim even found a great new café serving excellent coffee just over the road from the library where I delivered my talk on Building Believable Fantasy Worlds. I love those talks. I’m no Clements or Wilde, but I thoroughly enjoy talking to readers and writers and sharing my love of the written word with them. This Oz did not have a man behind the curtain, but it was full of people asking wonderful questions about how to start their own great adventures in writing.

After the talk, we walked back to Emerald Station to catch the Puffing Billy back to Belgrave, this time from the warmth and comfort of the dining car. While pumpkin juice was noticeably lacking, there was lashings of tea, biscuits and fruit cake, the cheerful attentions of the lovely staff and more of those luscious green views before our return to the Big Smoke.

And so ends a day steeped in literary memories, bookish discussion, an appreciation of the Australian countryside and the delights of Victorian-era technology in a hyper-connected cyber world. In other words, a pretty perfect day.

Tim and I travelled as guests of the Puffing Billy Railways.

Interview: Warren Bonett at Embiggen Books

Bucking the trend of bookshops closing down, Embiggen Books threw open its literate doors to the people of Melbourne in August 2011. Warren and Kirsty Bonett brought their arts-meets-sciences store from Noosaville in Queensland to Little Lonsdale Street, opposite The Wheeler Centre, for family reasons. It’s definitely a win for Melbourne!

I spoke to Warren in mid-August about Embiggen’s approach to life and its future plans.

Narrelle: What’s the philosophy behind Embiggen Books and the kind of books that you stock?

Warren: We focus on science as a pretty big area, but our primary thing is where the arts meets the sciences. Our MO, if you like, is a cross pollination of ideas. We got in a lot of neuroscientists to talk in the shop up north and we will do the same down here. They have a lot of things to say to people of all disciplines. You’ll find Proust, for instance, was particularly interested in the mind and there’s been a lot of cross-fertilisation between Proust and neuroscientists in the way that they think about thought itself and the brain.

N: What kind of ficton will you stock?

W: There’s quite a lot of science fiction in there, but what I’ve done is actually keep all of the different genres together from literature through to sci fi, horror and crime, because I think that the distinctions between the genres is shocking at best. It’s all a bit artificial. Science fiction or crime tends to become called literature after a patina of age has given it a bit of respectability.

Fiction is a good example of people being able to stumble across something that they weren’t really expecting to find or look for. Someone might come in for a Dickens and walk out with Doctorow instead. That idea, to me, goes to the heart of the store.

N: The store is making me think of Jules Verne, HG Wells and the whole Victorian era with that idea that the sciences and the arts not only don’t have to be separate but perhaps shouldn’t be separate.

W: I think they’ve both got to transform. Once upon a time you had the Renaissance-type individuals who didn’t really specialise but just applied thought to a wide range of disciplines. I think we’re at a point where that is almost impossible now. But some of my favourite artists and the most stunning artwork you’ll see today are coming out of people like mathematicians and engineers.

I think in some respects it behoves the arts to catch up with that, in that we can’t just rest upon our laurels and say “I’m a creative type, therefore I don’t have to pay attention to this stuff.” I think if you’re a creative type, it’s your responsibility to pay attention to this stuff.

So that’s my take on it, and steampunk and the Victorian era is really classic for it. The great icon of steampunk and in the sciences is Charles Babbage, possibly one of the top five most brilliant people the world has ever produced. His discoveries and his work are absolutely mindboggling, and he really did cross over between multiple genres. For instance, one of his favourite things was automata. That art that has really been lost, where you make a robot, effectively, out of clockwork.

I’d love to have some in the store and be able to represent artists that do the work in here. That would be fantastic.

N: Is that something you might consider in the future, having mini art installations?

W: Up north we actually did have a gallery attached to our bookshop. It just so happened that this space wasn’t really suitable for it. But we will conduct one and two day exhibitions, where we have a particular artist come in, some plinths and things through the store, by invitation only.

N: Is there anything particular you’d like to say to readers about your store and what they can expect of the experience?

W: It’s our mission to keep the culture of bookshops and having somewhere where you will be provoked in thought very much alive. We will have more events than most bookshops tend to, but we’ll bring in the people who are running the synchrotron or scientists from the Florey Institute in order to try make those things more accessible to people.

You don’t have to go to university or a specialised centre to see that. And that’s what we want to permeate throughout the shop. If you’ve got any ideas about anything that is worthwhile and rational and reasonable out there about the world, we want to help people connect with it.


Embiggen Books at 203 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne is open Monday to Saturday, and late on Thursday and Friday nights. Follow them on Twitter @EmbiggenBooks.

Embiggen is also now stocking titles from Twelfth Planet Press, including the first three 12 Planets anthologies, Nightsiders by Sue Isle, Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Raynor Roberts and The Thief of Lives by Lucy Sussex. It also stocks Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. So what are you waiting for? Get yourself in to Embiggen Books!