Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tears before freedom

No shameless self promotion today, Legion of Fans (LOF)... no, instead it's a bit of shameless cross promotion, for Pan Macmillan Australia's new author, Steven Horne.

Steve's first novel, The Devil's Tears, set in East Timor, is in stores now and it is a cracking read. Steve's an ex Australian Army officer who has worked for a number of years as a military logistics contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. We worked out, over a beer last year, that we were probably in Afghanistan at the same time, in 2002.

The Devil's Tears is the first novel that I'm aware of to be written by an Australian serviceman since our significant peace keeping operations in East Timor began in 1999.

You'd think a book by an Aussie about Timor would be full of lantern-jawed Aussie soldiers, pretty NGO ladies, loyal natives and perhaps the odd hot or hunky helicopter pilot. Not so, this story.

Instead, Steve's story focuses on the plight of a Timorese family torn asunder during the Indonesian military invasion of East Timor in 1975, following Portugal's relinquishing of its colonial possessions. The Devil's Tears looks at the long, bleak and terrifying years between 1975 and 1999 when thousands of locals died in a protraced guerilla war against the Indonesian occupiers.

Steve's depictions of the long struggle for East Timor's independence are graphic and confronting and it seems as if the family will never be reunited. Interwoven is the story of an aussie journo and photographer who travel to East Timor in search of evidence of an horrendous massacre of civilians. The journo and photograher dodge evil security forces and treacherous traitors to bring the truth to the outside world (and there's a bit of unrequited funny business going on between the two of them, which makes a nice sub-plot).

Steve is a fantastic writer and does an excellent job of combining boy-book action and chick-lit mushy stuff in this impressive debut novel. Even though it felt at times no one would survive this tragic story and the odds of a happy ending were perilously short, I was hooked from the first page and nearly missed my bus stop a couple of times while racing towards the conclusion.

As well as turning out a top yarn Steve is also an all round good bloke, so I urge you all to go out and buy this book and check out his website here.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The ANZAC diet... lose 20kg in six months.

Me, 2002. Minus 20kg, plus hair.

It's ANZAC Day here in Australia tomorrow, April 25, the day we honour servicemen and women past and present who have served, and in particular those who died in the service of our country.

If you've read the blurb on the inside cover of one my books then you might notice a reference to me having been in Afghanistan way back in 2002 on an all-expenses-paid six-month tour courtesy of the Australian Army. I spent most of my war behind a desk, which was just fine by me, and while the SAS guys from the task force were out on operations the whole time, we were very fortunate in that no Australian soldiers were killed during my time there.

The biggest risk I faced in Afghanistan was the Amercian Army D-FAC, (that's dining facilitity in English). According to Napoleon an army marches on its stomach and all I can say is that the American Army is very fortunate in these days of high technology and rapid transport that it doesn't have to do much marching.

The American Army's food (and, I must add things have changed in Afghanistan considerably since 2002) was disgustingly inedible. It was early days in The War Against Terror (as we used to call it) and the kitchens at Bagram Air Base, where I was stationed, were pretty rudimentary.

No, rudimentary is too kind. The kitchens were non-existent. In fact, all our food was cooked (and I use the term loosely) in Germany, then frozen, placed in insulated boxes, and flown by C-17 transport aircraft to Afghanistan. The 'chefs' (and I use that term insultingly) in-country then had the tricky job of heating up the food and slopping it out.

The food hadn't so much been cooked in Germany - more like mass-produced. The Americans were big fans of something called chunking-and-forming. We had chunked and formed pork chops, chunked and formed steak, and chunked and formed ribs. Chunking and forming involves mashing up meat (no doubt all the best cuts, and no brains, spinal cords or offal), mixing it with some kind of bonding agent and then squeezing out the resultant goo into a mold in the shape of a chop, a steak or a rack of ribs.

As well as being disgusting, this food was also cruel. I remember the first time I was served up ribs and it looked like they were, well, ribs. I could see what I thought were bones and I imagined gnawing away on them. Imagine my despair, then, when I went to cut off a piece of rib and sliced straight through the non existent bone.

Breakfast was powdered scrambled eggs and greasy bacon. The bacon, of course, had been cooked on another continent, frozen, transported, and re-heated. I think the Bagram cooks probably tipped some cold oily water on it after taking it out of the microwave just to give it that finishing touch.

We only had two hot meals a day back then, thank God, and lunch was a Meal-Ready to Eat per man. The MRE, also known as Meal-Rarely Edible and Meal-Rejected by Ethiopians, is the US Army's field ration pack.

In true American style it is bigger than our ration pack and contains lots of things that in conflicts past you could probably have swapped for sex with underfed members of the local population. There are brownies, crackers, tobasco sauce, M&Ms, jalapeno cheese sachets,Lucky Strike cigarettes and nylon stockings, as well as a piece of chunked and formed something. (I may have dreamed that bit about the Lucky Strikes and the stockings).

About the only thing I found edible from the MRE was the peanut butter and crackers.

As I couldn't face powdered eggs and slimy wet brown stuff for breakfast, and my body rejected anything that had been chunked and formed I was facing a bit of a dilemma. But Australia Post and the Australian Army and the small but perfectly formed (no chunking there) Mrs Blog all came to the rescue.

One very fine thing that the military in this country gets right is the free postal service for troops. Friends and relatives can send deployed personnel (which is what the military calls people) free post packages of up to 2kg. So Mrs Blog got busy putting together food parcels for me.

Pretty soon I was eating Weetbix for breakfast, peanut butter and crackers for lunch (I actually liked the gooey American peanut butter), and various cook-in-the-bowl instant Asian noodles for dinner. I was in seventh heaven and, with my supply of Caramello Koalas and mini Mars Bars, suddenly a popular man in the task force.

The American Army at the time had a rule against the consumption of fresh fruit (as well as alcohol and pornography, so all in all it was a very unhealthy environment for young men and women to be in) so I had Mrs Blog send me dried fruit.

By the time my first consignment of dried pears arrived I probably hadn't eaten anything in the ruffage family for about a month. I don't even like pears (though I didn't tell her this as I was so grateful to be eating something dried rather than formed) but I found myself salivating as I opened the packet. That night, as I did my duty as a watchkeeper in the headquarters tent, I consumed the entire packet.

I knocked off about 2am and went to sleep. At about 2.45 am I awoke feeling like my stomach was about to explode out of my skin, Alien-style. I thought I was dying as I rushed from my stretcher and out into the night in search of the nearest Porta-loo.

It wasn't all quite as bad as I make out. Our own little task force did have its own cooks and they were able to source fresh rations (actual meat, vegetables, fruit etc) on a limited basis from the British Army's supply chain. Our cooks delivered a slap up meal when the SAS squadron was sending patrols out, or if guys had just come in from the field. On those occasions we desk dwellers across the road in the headquarters would be invited for dinner or lunch.

I will never, ever say a bad word about Australian Army cooks. Call them fitters and turners or tucker f-ckers if you will, but I don't think we could have survived without them in Afghanistan.

But I did survive, and thanks to my diet of Weetbix, peanut butter and crackers, and instant noodles, and a complete lack of alcohol, I lost 20 kilograms in six months.

I put all that weight back on when I got home, as I had a lot of drinking and proper eating to do to make up for six months.

When consuming a drop of one of my favourite brews the other day I noticed on the carton that VB (Victoria Bitter - good Aussie beer) is running a 'raise-a-glass' appeal to raise money for Legacy, an organisation which cares for the widows and children of fallen servicemen.

I immediately thought, of course, that this was a cynnical marketing stunt but when I looked at the website I found it was full of poignant stories of fallen soldiers and tributes to them by family and friends. I'm not a crier (never have been), but I must confess a bit of a lump did come to my throat, and I needed raise a glass to wash it away.

Reading the stories and seeing the videos of widows and family members also reminded me just how proud I was of the way Mrs Blog soldiered on while I was away. I was in an interesting (if dusty and not very nice) place surrounded by some of the best blokes I've ever worked with in my life, but she came home to an empty flat every night after work.

I'll be raising a glass tomorrow, especially to those serving overseas now; to their families who wait at home for them; and to their mates who didn't make it back.

Me, c.2009. Plus 20kg and minus hair. Raise a glass with me.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

At last... some real news: a publishing deal in the UK!

No more of the usual naval gazing... no siree! Big news and real news today... I have just scored a publishing deal in the UK!

I am very very excited about this. Recently I was lucky enough to be taken on by the London-based Blake Friedmann literary agency, and I can now confirm that they have done a stellar job negotiating me a deal with Quercus Publishing.

Quercus is the company that publishes the late Stieg Larsson... you know, 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' etc and plenty of other excellent writers. They are publising SILENT PREDATOR in November 2010; my new novel, THE DELTA, in February 2011; and my first novel, FAR HORIZON, in May 2011, so it's all go, go, go on the new UK front.

Quercus will be working through the rest of my backlist (that is, all my old books) over time.

I get quite a few emails from the UK from people who have bought one or more of my books during a trip to South Africa, wanting to know how and where they can buy the others. As with Australia, I've found there are plenty of people in the UK who either have some family or other connection to Africa or are just fascinated by the continent, its people and its wildlife.

I can't tell you how pleased I am now that my days of walking down to the local post office with bundles of books for Britain will soon be over!!! (Though thank you to those good people who were keen enough to buy books all the way from Australia).

For the South Africans out there, your books will now be coming from the UK, courtesy of Quercus, so keep an eye out for them.

Good news travels fast and I was thrilled just a few moments ago to get an email from the extremely nice Jenny Crwys-Williams, who has interviewed me a couple of times on her popular book program on Johannesburg's Radio 702, congratulating me on the deal.

I am so happy I think I will have to go and have a beer. Or maybe two.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Cruising, wheezing and clumsy inhaler-induced segue

Busy, yes busy as usual, Legion of Fans, trying to finish off this pesky eighth novel. Once more we have nothing but lame excuses for not blogging, but I assure you that the above statement is the truth and that I am, indeed, lame.

Yes, last week I was diagnosed with Adult Onset Asthma (AOA). I don't want to bore you (but, hey, I am getting old, and what else do old people talk about other than their medical conditions?) but this AOA sucks the big one.

In fact, it doesn't suck, which is the problem. I found myself quite unable to draw a breath there at one stage and, as a result, I have been prescribed not one but two different inhalers to suck on on.

All is relatively well now, and I was able to summon enough strength over this long weekend to embark on my second cruise on the MV Pacific Dawn, to speak at P&O's onboard cruising book club, 'Chapters'.

In between wheezy breaths, hacking coughs and medicinal alcohol I spoke to two very nice groups of passengers about my latest book, IVROY en route from Brisbane to Noumea.

A dirty job, I know, LOF, but someone has to do it.

The music selection on board the Pacific Dawn is interesting. Definitely aimed at the middle-aged market, the soundtrack to the 'sail away' party from Brisbane included not a few pommie 60s classics.

One song, in particular, re-entered my head after many years' absence. I have found a UK sterling version of it on Youtube and offer it to you so that you may share my obsession (it's still playing over and over in my mind).

Also, there is a subliminal, clumsy segue forming here, like a tropical tsunami deep in the bowels of the South Pacific...

I have news, LOF, big news indeed of a UK invasion of another kind... Stay tuned, but in the meantime, sit back, grab your ventolin or other recreational drug of choice, tune in, and drop out to the silken sounds of Herman and his Hermits...