Sunday, May 30, 2010

Another book, another blog...

Here it is, hot off the presses and coming to an Australian bookshop near you on Tuesday, June 1 (if it's not already in store yet) - my latest book, WAR DOGS.
WAR DOGS is the autobiography of Shane Bryant, an Aussie explosive detection dog handler working in Afghanistan. Shane and I wrote his story over a period of months last year in between his stints working as a civilian contractor in the 'ghan (as we used to call that terrible place when I was there with the army in 2002).
Shane is an ex Australian Army and NSW Police dog handler who took a job working as a civilian dog handler in Afghanistan in 2006 as a means of getting on top of his debts.
But it wasn't all about the money. Shane, like a lot of ex military people I know, wanted to go to Afghanistan to put the skills he'd learned in the army and the police to the ultimate test, on the field of battle.
He's a top bloke and I really enjoyed working with him on this book. There are loads of stories about the various dogs he's worked with over the years, including Ziggy, who was as laid back as Scooby Do; Ricky who loved nothing better than chasing Afghan civilians and motorcycles; and Benny the Bouncer, a dog so fierce in the kennels that the attendants used to slide his food in to him rather than open the door.
As well as telling how it is to work with dogs in one of the world's most dangerous places, WAR DOGS also provides an insight into the way the war is being fought in Afghanistan. Shane has been attached to US Special Forces and Canadian military units over the past four years. He's been in numerous firefights and, at those times, he's been expected to man his gun and function as a fighting member of the team he's with, not just as their dog handler. Good, gripping stuff, if I do say so myself.
Shane's providied a fantastic set of pictures for the centre spread of the book and I'll posting the odd on on a new WAR DOGS blog we've set up to shamelessly promote the book. On the blog you'll find videos, pics and interviews with Shane and some recent press clippings.
So, go to the blog, and then buy the book, because Shane has five kids from two previous relationships to support, and I have a wife who doesn't want to work anymore.
Hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Traditional dancing minus the drugs

Traditional dancing...

Let me tell you Legion of Fans (LOF) if there are two words guaranteed to get me running a four minute mile in the opposite direction from the utterer, then those are them.

I can not stand it.

If you're a traditional dancer, then good for you... I respect you and your culture, but it's not mine. (If white Australian people had a traditional dance it would be chicks dancing around hand bags and blokes drinking beer.). So keep it to yourself and don't expect me, as a tourist, to sit through this thing that means nothing to me and then pay you afterwards. It doesn't happen when I'm in Africa and I wasn't about to let it happen in Asia.


After my in depth investigation of the girlie bars of Phnom Penh, it was time to me to do some different research in Thailand. I flew to Chiang Mai via Bangkok and got the hell out of that slightly dodge-like city (not really my cup of tea - a big city in the middle of nowhere, regardless of the country).

Together with a travelling companion and a local operative (this is a very top secretish non fiction book that I've been researching) we commandeered a car and set off for the Thai-Burma border. (That's me (above) overlooking the border, which is just beyond that first ridge of hills). Drug country. AK-47-toting bandit and warlike hill tribe country.

Well, at least it used to be.

The Thai government has had a major crack down on opium growing in this part of the world and the ethic hill tribes who live there have been encouraged to grow other crops (inclduing, as I was to find out that night, some very nice lychees. Not as mysterious and dangerous as drugs, but very nice, and more befitting a 45-year-old man).

Part of my book will be there, and a key part of story is the plight of the hill tribes who live in the area, particularly the La-Hu people. The La-Hu, I learned, I think, are descended from Tibetans who somehow found their way to Thailand (this all got a little lost in our host's translation, but I'll get it sorted in time for the book).

The La-Hu and other tribes span the border of Thailand and Vietnam and until recently they were put in the too-hard basket by the Thai Government and not afforded citizenship or access to basic government services, such as schooling and healthcare. That's changing since the crack down on opium growing, with the reward for co-operation being promise of citizenship and all that entails.

The grey area that La-Hu and other hill tribes occupied in Thailand's population also meant that their children were prey to people smugglers and sex traffickers. (There is another hint about what the book will be about).

So, I spent some time outside the town of Fang, in a La-Hu village, but first my fellow travellers and I had to be welcomed to the village. And this involved Traditional Dancing.

But I must say, that when you're ushered into a temple and a group of people starts dancing in a circle for you as a genuine gesture of welcome it's very different to a bunch of waiters and waitresses doing it, under sufference, in the hope of a bigger tip. The young girls and boys and the elderly lady who welcomed us were doing this not for money (none was asked for or expected) but because it truly was part of their culture.

And, despite my usual dislike of these sorts of things I was dragged into participating as well (there are pictures of this, but thankfully I don't have them, so won't be posting them).

It was a good welcome to the village, because it broke the ice and I then sat down with some senior representatives of the La-Hu and drank a good deal of beer (they didn't all drink, but I certainly did) and did a bit of research.

That night we stayed in a bamboo house that's been built to accomodate trekkers in a fledgling tourist venture. I'm not sure trekking in these bush covered Thai hills is my thing, but the trekking lodge was a little piece of paradise, with a fantastic view, comfy mattresses and bedding, and mosquito nets. There was even a hot water shower.

Traditions means a lot to the La Hu and in recent decades they've seen some of them eroded by drugs, civil war, military crackdowns in Thailand and Burma, and the loss of some of their children to some very bad people.
They're looking forward to a better future, and I am looking forward to writing this book (if I ever recover from the research trip).

Shocking Asia

Shocking would be the only word for it if I tallied how much beer I've consumed in the last five days and how little exercise I've done. Yes, Legion of Fans (LOF) it is a hard life researching top secret non fiction books... but a good life if you don't weaken.

I'm currently working on a synopsis for a third biography (my second co-written biography, WAR DOGS, by Shane Bryant and me comes out next week, so stand by for lots of shameless self promotion in the near future).

All I can tell you is that it's set in south-east Asia and, as a result, I was able to con (I mean beg for permission from) Mrs Blog into letting me jet off without her. My trip took me to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and then to Chiang Mai in Thailand - two places I'd never been before.

I think I received more wishes of good luck and heartfelt messages to be safe preparing for this trip than I did when I went to Afghanistan. Probably a good thing, too, because there was little risk that my liver would give out in Afghanistan, as opposed to here (I'm writing this from Chiang Mai). All I did in Afghanistan was sit behind a desk and drink coffee, where as here I was treading the mean streets of the seedier parts of the two countries I've been visiting.

Yes, LOF, you won't believe this, but in order to immerse myself in the research for this book I had to visit several girlie bars in the red light districts of PP and CM. I know... can you believe it? The things I go through for you, gentle reader.

Being in deep cover I had to do my best to blend in with the local expats. This necessitated me pushing out my beer belly to maximum bloat, and keeping my fluids up with a constant stream of Angkor Beer in Cambodia, and a tasty new drop I discovered in and around Chiang Mai called Leo.

Cambodia was very interesting and it got me thinking about Zimbabwe. Yes, Zimbabwe.

Cambodia, the country once known as Kampuchea, was devestated under the evil rule of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Millions of people killed and the country's infrastructure was wound back to year zero. The place was, in a word, rooted.

So it was with some surprise that the first thing I noticed getting off the Thai Airways flight from Bangkok - apart from the 45-degree heat - was just how modern and booming Phnom Penh looked. OK, the Khmer Rouge have been gone a long time now, but I was still amazed by how good the roads were and how much new construction and development was going on around the place.

Several people told me it was a different story out in the rural areas, however. Cambodia remains a very poor country overall, but there is an undeniable buzz in the city. Rapid development, of course, brings with it corruption, greed, theft etc etc and there's a bit of all that around if you scratch the surface, but the place is very much alive.

Getting back to Zimbabwe, the loss of human life hasn't been anywhere near as bad as it was in Cambodia (although the comrade president will one day have to be brought to account for the thousands of people murdered in Matabeleland in the early 80s at his order) and the infrastructure, while crumbly, is still kind of, sort of, in place. Seeing the foreign investment (whether it's good or bad) returning to Phnom Penh made me hope that I'll see that kind of surge in the Zimbabwean economy one of these days.

'Enough of the serious stuff and back to the girly bars,' I hear you say.

"No," I say, "Mrs Blog sometimes reads this blog!" Instead, I'll talk about the best place for a drink in Phnom Penh, the Foreign Correspondents' Club, or FCC as we FC's say. Here's me enjoying a chilled Angkor Draft in the bar overlooking the Mekong River.

The FCC is very old-world colonial pukkah and just the sort of ceiling-fan and leather-armchair place you'd expect to see war-weary, dissipated, corrupted old journos (like me) hanging out. My only regret was that I didn't have my safari suit with me.

Cambodia is the new Thailand when it comes to sex tourism and people trafficking (and there's a bit of a clue what the next book will be about, if I can get a publishing deal for it). Many of the working girls are from Vietnam, who've either travelled or been trafficked to Cambodia for money. Not very nice.

Phnom Penh moves at a different speed than other parts of Asia I've visited. Maybe it's the heat (incredible at this time of the year, just before the monsoon season starts), but there was a definite second-gear feel about the place. I got in a Tuk Tuk and I thought the engine must have been buggered because the driver didn't get above about 10km/h despite the lack of serious traffic. The second and third ones that I travelled in were just as slow - it wasn't the engines, just the laid back drivers.

As I watched the sun set over the Mekong River I adjusted my pace to suit the moment, and cracked a frosty bottle of Angkor and thought how sad it was that so many people had died for nothing, and how even a resurgent boom could bring its own suite of new problems. But Cambodia is on the up, however slowly, while Zimbabwe is still on the way down.

But the Walkabout Bar was beckoning, so it was back to work I went.

Shocking. Asia.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Library patrons of Australia, I salute you

And the winner is... African Sky

Sometimes people are a little embarrassed to tell me they've borrowed one of my books from their local library, because they think they're depriving me of income. Other people make a point of telling me they only borrow my books and never buy them, and these are the people I always ensure get the expensive shout when we're a the pub.

But the truth is that those people who think they're cheating me should not worry, and those readers who think they are pulling a swifty on me should eat pooh, because libraries are actually a win-win for writers and readers.

You may not know this, but I, as a writer of books, get an annual payment based on the estimated number of borrowings of my books. And, cheapskates take note, this payment is coming out of YOUR TAXES. HAHAHAHAHAHA.

For all of its sins, the Federal Government operates an excellent little thing called the Public Lending Rights (PLR) scheme. PLR works under the assumption that if a public library offers my books to readers for free then they are depriving me of the stupendous royalites I would have received if those books had been purchased. And, not wanting to infringe copyright, the Government pays authors an allowance to keep us happy.

We're not talking big money here, far from it, but with six novels in print I'm finding that my annual PLR payment is quite a tidy little sum, thank you very much. Today I received my annual statement, for the year 2009-2010, from the PLR people (and the promise of some cash, to be paid into my bank account shortly).

I won't go into the numbers here, but librarians I've spoken to tell me that my books are quite frequently borrowed. A would-be reader from Tasmania told me the other day that all of my books were on-loan from her local library, which was no good for her, as she had gone in search of them, but good for me.

What I can tell you from the PLR statement is which of my books was the most popular with library goers. It is (minor drum roll, please), AFRICAN SKY.

Yes, AFRICAN SKY. I was a bit surprised, too. AFRICAN SKY is my only historical novel (set during WWII) and it tends to polarise readers. It's the one people always want to tell me about, and not always for good reasons. This is the book that people either love most of all, or hate. Nothing in between. It also happens to be the book that is most published overseas. Go figure.

In case you are remotely interested, the order of most borrowed TP books to least is:

1. African Sky

2. Safari

3. Silent Predator

4. Zambezi

5. Far Horizon.

If you haven't read African Sky, don't worry about trying to borrow it from your local library, as it's probably out. (I did notice a few copies in Target, however, selling for a very reasonable $12.50 a copy).

I almost hate to ask this (given that I really don't care what the answer is, as I like all of my books and don't have a favourite), but do you have a favourite among my books?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Forget the book, let's party

Frank Coates (right) and me at Garfish

Yes, I am a terrible blogger and yes, I have been neglecting the blog. But my excuse remains the same, that I am slaving away on the catchily-titled 'BOOK 8'. I'm nearly finished the first draft but by Friday afternoon of last week I must confess I was a bit over it.

So the words of another Australian who writes books about Africa, Mr Frank Coates, seemed even more appropriate than ever. "I'm sick of all this writing stuff - let's party" was the subject line of a recent email Frank sent to me, and last Friday night was time to do just that.

Frank, and I got in touch with each other when we were both invited to go on separate cruises for P&O to talk at their on board Chapters Bookclub. We swapped stories of our experiences via email but hadn't met until last week.

Whereas my books are mostly set in southern Africa, Frank writes books set in East Africa. He lived and worked in Kenya for a while as a telecommunications engineer for the UN.

Frank and his charming partner and the diminutive Mrs Blog and I met up in Manly, at the Manly Wharf hotel and then adjourned across the road for an excellent seafood meal at Garfish. Several drinks were consumed and there was much talk about Africa.

It's hard, sometimes, for me to explain what it is that attracts me to Africa and what I like about writing, so it was good to meet Frank in the flesh at last. We sat there all night nodding at each other's stories and each knowing exactly what the other one was going on about. He's a top bloke and we got on well and are already talking about lunching, which could be dangerous.

You can read more about Frank and his books at his website, Footloose.

In other news, the PR machine at Macmillan is racing along in high gear as we get ready for the release of my new non fiction book, WAR DOGS, which is due out very soon, on June 1. It's the story of an aussie explosive sniffer dog handler, Shane Bryant, who works in Afghanistan.

And I'm just reading through the proof pages of THE DELTA, my new novel, which is due out in Australia in August, and in England in February 2011 (I just had to say that last bit as I am still very chuffed about my UK publishing deal).

What else... um, yes, that's right.. I'm off to Thailand and Cambodia for a week at the end of the month to do some research for my next (Top Secret) non fiction book. Can't say too much at the moment, or I'd have to kill you all, but at least a trip to South East Asia will give me something interesting to blog about.