Once, When We Were Innocent – My Pre-Internet Pursuit of the Forbidden

Back when I was growing up, in the dark days before the Internet, there were very few ways to learn about sex.

There were, on occasion, a few glimpses of nudie pictures –  usually someone’s older brother’s Playboy. But these pictures were inert and added to the mystery surrounding sex, instead of offering illumination.

As a child of the eighties, I looked to TV for entertainment, for knowledge, for guidance. I shunned all books. In fact, I never noticed any books in my house, though I now know there must have been books, my father being a reader. Who needed books when they had TV? But TV never spoke of sex. At least not directly. Obliquely maybe, cleverly, but I was a boy who had no finer senses. Even as a grown man subtlety is still somewhat baffling.

It was my best friend who first drew my attention to the strange rectangular objects grown ups and dorks read. He was the first to show me that there was a link between books, reading and sex.

His father liked to read big, fat, trashy novels, which he left about the house when they had revealed their secrets and were useless to him. My best friend would have to move these spent entertainments from chairs before sitting, tables before eating and in the bathroom he would have to kick aside an overfull basket of novels to do his business.

It was in the bathroom that he made his discovery.

At twelve my best friend was my confidante, there was very little he did not know about me and little I didn’t know about him. By thirteen, however, there were secrets. One of which was knowledge of what was contained in these books. My best friend did not share his forbidden fruit with me.

Overnight, my best friend became a reader. This felt like a betrayal. Wasn’t TV good enough for him?

Every time I saw him he was reading a new book. I only lived two doors from him so I saw him at least five times a day. Five fat books a day? Boy! that kid could read...

Then I began to notice him using a patronising tone whenever our discussions turned to the subject of girls and sex. We were thirteen, all of our discussions turned to girls and sex. This tone was annoying and would have lead to a complete rupture had not his secret been revealed.

“I know because I read about it!” he said, in the midst of a heated of a dispute about the mechanics of sex.

“You read about it? There is sex in books!?”

To prove his point he had to find the book and the particular passage. We went into his house and wandered from place to place picking up this book and that. Each time he would do the same thing. He’d hold the book in his palm and let the book flop open by itself. He’d scan the open pages and then say, “No, that’s not it.”

Finally, he discovered the passage and showed me. Mamma Mia! My eyes almost popped out of my head. Here, in print were all the words we were told were forbidden. Here, in words, were all of the acts we were told were forbidden. The rudest, filthiest practices known to mankind were between the covers of these seemingly innocuous objects.

And my best friend’s father left them around the house for the whole world to see!

There was a book called The Godfather, another called Shogun, and books by James A. Michener, Wilbur Smith, Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robbins and on and on and on. Some opened easily on the pertinent passages, some hid their lessons deep within pages of boring clap-trap, and some made you feel like a prospector panning for gold, sifting through the mud and the slime for a few lines of smut.

And then suddenly you’d discover a copy of Clan of the Cave Bears and a cry would ring out of the mountains – Eureka! (Just imagine if our parents were more imaginative and owned copies of Story of ‘O’, Henry Miller’s Sexus or the Marquis de Sade?)

I certainly looked at adults differently after the discovery. Is that why they were always trying to get us to read?

And apparently, we were both slow on the uptake. We soon learnt that his sisters and my sisters had known all along that there was sex in books. Their books had sex in them. Virginia Andrews, Jackie Collins, Jacqueline Susan.

Even Judy Blume!

Years later, some of these books and their detailed accounts of sex lead to problems. One girl I knew had read in a Harold Robbin‘s novel that a girl will know she has lost her virginity because her lover will bite hard on her earlobe at the crucial moment. Another friend had almost ended up in traction trying to re-enact a favourite scene from an Eric Van Lustbader novel.

My best friend’s discovery lead to me reading. True, this was an inauspicious beginning to my reading life. In fact, it was years before I read an adult novel in its entirety, from cover to cover. And when I did, the choice, Jaws, did not encourage further attempts.

But by then I didn’t need books in the same way. So, after reading Jaws, I gave up reading for a time.

The beginnings of my other reading life, which began a few years later, had nothing to do with sex… well, not as much to do with sex. So I’ll leave that story for another time.

It all must seem a little quaint to modern kids who gain a thorough knowledge of the ins and outs of sex the first time they search for images of the Wiggles on Google or look up Enid Blyton‘s series of novels – The Adventurous Four, or watch music clips on Rage on a Sunday morning. But in the eighties if you wanted to know stuff, you had two options – TV and Books.

If you wanted to know forbidden stuff, however, there was only one option, the trash your parents read.

Q and A with Belinda Murrell, author of The Ruby Talisman

Editor of Booktopia’s Six to Twelve BUZZ,

Amelia Vahtrick, talks to

Belinda Murrell

about her new book

The Ruby Talisman


1. The Ruby Talisman was so full of historical detail! Did you do a lot of research for this book?

It took me months! My family and I spent about six weeks in France in 2007 so I wandered the gilded salons and lavish gardens of Versailles, explored extravagant chateaux and townhouses like the ones owned by the Montjoyeuse family and crept through the dank tunnels and catacombs under Paris.

I read dozens of historical books, not just about the history of the French Revolution but about life, clothing, food and etiquette in France during the eighteenth century. Some of these were written by people who experienced the revolution firsthand such as the Memoirs of the Private Life of Marie-Antoinette by Madame Campan (1818), and others were modern histories such as Marie Anotoinette – The Journey by Antonia Fraser (2001), all of which gave me lots of facts to base my story on.

I searched the internet for menus, court protocol and even weather, and kept a notebook of interesting facts and details. We even cooked many of the meals described in the book. The whole research process was fascinating!

2. Why the French revolution? Is there something about this time or about France that really attracted your interest?

I love France – its culture, cooking, landscape, language and history. As a child I remember being fascinated by Queen Marie-Antoinette and reading adventure books such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, with daring plots to rescue innocent aristocrats from the guillotine. While travelling through France, there seemed to be reminders of the French Revolution everywhere we went, so I began imagining all sorts of exciting adventures.

3. Do you speak French? I loved the vocab list at the beginning of the book.

French is such a beautiful language – I love the sound of it being spoken. I learnt French at school (many years ago), and can speak rusty traveller’s French. When I was homeschooling my three children, we started learning French together to prepare us for our time in Europe, but I do find it a difficult language to speak fluently. I used a lot of French phrases in the book, but tried to keep them simple and consistent so hopefully it added to the flavour of the book, not distracted readers from being able to enjoy the story.

4.  Can you explain what exactly a time-slip story is, and how it’s different from a time-travel story.

This is a tricky one! My understanding of a time-slip story is where the protagonist travels back in time through supernatural or magical means, such as falling asleep wearing a magic locket or talisman, whereas time travel depends on a more scientific explanation such as a time travel machine or falling through a wormhole. In my last book The Locket of Dreams Sophie, falls asleep wearing a magic locket and slips back and forth in time for short periods, like an invisible ghost, to experience events in the past. In The Ruby Talisman, Tilly also falls asleep wearing a magic pendant, but she stays in the past for the whole adventure, and is physically present as an active, living person.

5. Do you think aristocrats like Henri and Amelie got what was coming to them, or maybe the peasants were a bit harsh?

In many ways, Amelie is how I imagined Queen Marie-Antoinette to be as a teenager. She loves fashion and jewels, she enjoys dancing and horse-riding and being pretty, she is told to marry someone she has never met to suit her family’s aspirations. In the beginning, Amelie is totally thoughtless about the plight of the peasants, however she is essentially a kind and good-hearted person.

Henri is more aware of the political and cultural climate of France, and critical of the regime, yet he is more talk than action, until he personally experiences the plight of the peasants. So for these particular aristocrats, I don’t think they deserved to be murdered, or to lose their home and family. However, while I could never condone the violence of the revolution, I can understand how desperate and angry the French peasants were at the extreme inequality and injustice of their lives, compared to the extravagant lifestyles of the aristocracy. The peasants had been treated so badly for so long, that the resulting revolution was excessively bloody.

Belinda, thank you.

BELINDA MURRELL has worked as a travel journalist, technical writer, editor and public relations consultant. Her overseas adventures inspired her work as a travel writer for the WEST AUSTRALIAN newspaper and OUT & ABOUT WITH KIDS travel magazine. Her work has also appeared in the SUN HERALD, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH and SYDNEY MORNING HERALD. While Belinda studied Children’s Literature at Macquarie University, her passion for children’s books was reignited when she had her own three children and began telling and writing stories for Nick, Emily and Lachlan. Belinda’s books include the SUN SWORD fantasy trilogy, Scottish timeslip tale THE LOCKET OF DREAMS and French Revolution timeslip tale THE RUBY TALISMAN.

Rodney Hall, author of Popeye Never Told You, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

Booktopia Book Guru asks

Rodney Hall

author of

Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the War

Ten Terrifying Questions


1.  To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born at Solihull and Warwickshire, England, where my early childhood was spent during the Second World War. All through the bombing, my mother promised us we would return to the family farm in Kangaroo Valley, NSW. I was 13 when we finally got back to Australia. As for school, I’m not sure this matters much. It was okay. The main thing about school, in my view, is learning to be among other kids and finding your way in the world. I left school in Brisbane at 16, so I did not have and HSC or equivalent. I went out to work and did various jobs, none of them interesting. I just wanted to get on with my ‘real’ life, which I saw as a life in the arts and a life of travel.

2.  What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve, with the war having finished only 3 years before, I think I probably just wanted to be alive long enough to grow up. At eighteen I was acting, playing music (classical – baroque), painting and writing. Any of these would have been fine by me. At thirty what I wanted was to be free of debt.

I have never been a commercial writer and that raises a problem because I haven’t had a day job since the age of twenty-two , nor have I written as a journalist. I am just a writer, writing poetry and novels.

3.   What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

That the world was too big a place for the individual to make any progress without being corrupt. I don’t believe that now. And if I didn’t have my international editions in the USA, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Sweden, I would never have been able to scrape a living together. (BBGuru: Shame Australia, shame!)

4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

1: Way back in 1971 I had the privilege of seeing a group of Aboriginal dancers from Arnhem Land. They had never performed in a theatre and never seen a city. Their dancing was electrifying. By that stage I had already been involved in the Aboriginal rights movement in Queensland for ten years, but the integrity of their culture and the virtuosity of their dancing was an eye-opener. One young lad was destined to become famous: David Gulpilil. I still remember his brolga.
2:  When I first saw Michelangelo’s statue of the dead Jesus in his mother’s arms, the Pieta, in St Peter’s, Rome, it impressed me as the greatest work of art I had ever seen. I was 23. The miracle was (and still is) that Mary’s flesh is living – and Jesus’s flesh is dead. All carved of a single piece of marble. How did he do it? Don’t ask me. It’s beyond explanation. A miracle of art.

3:  I was 18 when I first encountered the short stories of Wolfgang Borchert – a German writer who died at 27. He wrote forty short stories and a play. His entire output fits into a 250 page book. But the power of what he wrote made him a major writer by any standard. He transmogrified the experience of war into words as no other writer did before him and none since. These stories changed my vision of what literature can be and what it can do – that the kind of writing I hoped to achieve was not an entertainment but an exploration of the meanings of life. He wrote prose that is timeless and that speaks deeply of human nature.

5.  Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why do you choose to write books?

Really that was chance. I was acting and making music and painting as well as writing – I think I could have gone in any of these directions. What happened was pure chance – I met a published writer, John Manifold, who was twenty years older than me. He became my mentor and encouraged me. If a music mentor had come along, I might have ended up a composer. If an artist mentor had come along I might have ended up an artist. But it was John and he became the key. I will always be grateful to him. (BBGuru: Now that’s the answer I was seeking!)

6.  Please tell us about your latest book.

Popeye Never Told You is a memoir. I have published 36 books, or so, but this is my first attempt at putting autobiographical material on the page.

I have chosen to turn my back on the usual method of writing autobiography – I do not reminisce or theorise or explain anything. The book reads more like a novel. What I do is to get the experiences I remember as clear and straightforward as I can.

It covers the war years, from age 5 to age 9, as nearly as possible capturing the actual experience of being a child. A lot of the experience for the reader is ‘between the lines’, because the adult reader understands what is going on better than the child himself. We moved to another town straight after the war (and then to Australia), so I can date these experiences pretty accurately. I hope readers will find the book touching and funny despite the seriousness of the wartime setting.

7.   What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

All my novels aim at one thing, really: to engage the reader, moment by moment in the experience. Vivid and intense experience is of central importance to me. That’s what illuminates us for one another. With Popeye Never Told You I want to reader to come away knowing just what it was like to be a fatherless child at that time.

8.  Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

The greatest book written in my lifetime is The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The language is the richest, the most free from the shackles of explanation or the plodding Realism of cause-and-effect of any book I can think of. It is free of story – that overrated and formalistic structure. It ranges from first person to second to third and back again in a single sentence. The images tumble out in a cataract of the most brilliant inventiveness ever put on the printed page. And his passionate and compassionate insight into people, the good and the evil, is second to none. A great, great book about the death of a South American dictator. (BBGuru: Must buy this book!)

9.   Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

To embody experience in words so that it ‘actually happens’ in the reader’s imagination. The reader is central to me. I want to take my readers into a world they have never been in before – even if it is the simple world of a child in a small country town.

10.  What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Read. Read. Read. Read books that challenge and stimulate you. Don’t waste your life on time-filling entertainments. Love the language and use it to the full, stretching it if you are able. Find out everything you can about words, their origin and use. Think about them. ‘Feel’ them. Feel the rhythms they create. Experiment to create different emphases by changing word order or choice of vocabulary. Get the best dictionary you can afford and a Roget’s Thesaurus (and if you’ve already got a thesaurus arranged as a dictionary, throw it away, it’s rubbish). Like anything, if you want to be good at it you have to practise. And remember that what you read will shape what you write. Choose well and aim high. (BBGuru: Don’t waste your life on time-filling entertainments! And remember that what you read will shape what you write..! There is a god. Rodney be thy name.)

Rodney, thank you for playing.

Note from Toni Whitmont, editor of Booktopia Buzz.

Rodney Hall was born at Solihull, Warwickshire, in England. He came to Australia as a child and, as a result of the enchantment of embarking on that six-week voyage by sea, he suffers from a lifelong addiction to travel. After leaving school in Brisbane at 16 he worked professionally as a musician and for a while as an actor, but since 1961 he has lived by his writing, being the author of over thirty books and countless articles. He has won the Miles Franklin Award twice and many of his novels and poems have been published internationally. He lives in Melbourne.


* The Ship on the Coin (1972)
* A Place Among People (1975)
* Just Relations (1982)
* Kisses of the Enemy (1987)
* Captivity Captive (1988)
* The Second Bridegroom (1991)
* The Grisly Wife (1993)
* The Island in the Mind (1996)
* The Day We Had Hitler Home (2000)
* The Last Love Story (2004)
* Love Without Hope (2007)

Innocent by Scott Turow – 20 years on and as good as his first

Some people remember their lives by going through the mental catalogue of what music they were listening to at the time. Others by political events, or sporting events. My milestones are littered with the novels that have influenced me and I can tell you that the it book of 1987 was Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent.

Presumed Innocent was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo of its times. By that,  I mean that everyone read it – from the serious literary reader (who secretly hankered a great whodunit as an escape from the highbrow) to the person who only ever bought their paperbacks at the newsagent.

Presumed Innocent was the great unifier, the great leveler. Turow defined the courtroom drama and in a genre that is crowded now he still, arguably, holds the crown. Of course,  this real life Chicago attorney, novelist , essayist and op-ed  writer has written many a story since then but nothing has had the impact of that seminal book. Nine million copies sold, 45 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, inspiration for a film. Turow owned the legal thriller genre.

Enter the sequel, Innocent.

Twenty years later and the former district attorney turned accused Rusty Sabich is now aged 60. He sits as a judge in the court where he once prosecuted, the court that finally two decades earlier threw out the charge that he murdered another lawyer, with whom he was having an adulterous affair. Now he finds himself again being stalked by his former accuser Tommy Molto who is itching to prove that he murdered  his wife, found dead in their bed one morning. And Molto, having lost his quarry all those years ago, will be destroyed if he sees Sabich walk free a second time.

Let me say from the start that this is not the sort of book that I normally read, so I don’t really know the field. Let me also say that for the first time in my life,  I found myself sneaking in a page or two while sitting in the car at traffic lights. It is that good. Innocent is an absolute rip-snorter of murder mystery. Turow has got the formula right. Just enough of the legal bits to make it about justice, a goodly amount of intrigue to make it about suspense and most importantly, the perfect of psychological insight to demonstrate how the compromises  faced by all four of the main characters hurtle them constantly between the sacred and the profane.

This is no boilerplate legal thriller. It had me up late nights and early mornings. I became obsessed with the motivations, memories  and personalities of the four main characters whose points of view alternate throughout the tale.  Turow writes with clarity, precision and convincing authenticity. And not a Swedish ex-Nazi sadist to be found! Great stuff indeed.

The US hardback of Innocent is available now. Alternatively, pre-order the Australian paperback for delivery early June.

BREAKING NEWS: Miles Franklin Shortlist


by Alex Miller

Chez Dom – a small, rundown Tunisian cafe in Paris run by the widow Houria and her niece Sabiha – offers a home away from home for the North African immigrants working at the abattoirs of Vaugiraud.

One day a lost Australian tourist, John Patterner, seeks shelter in the cafe from a sudden Parisian rainstorm. John is like no one Sabiha has met before – his calm grey eyes promise her a future she was not yet even aware she wanted. Theirs becomes a contented but unlikely marriage, and yet because they are essentially foreigners to each other, their love story sets in train an irrevocable course of tragic events.

Years later, living a small, quiet life in suburban Melbourne, what happened at Vaugiraud seems like a distant, troubling dream to Sabiha and John, who confides the story behind their seemingly ordinary lives to Ken, an ageing, melancholy writer. Lovesong is the story of a marriage, of people coming undone by desire, of ordinary lives and death, love and struggle. Into the wonderfully evoked contemporary settings of Paris and Melbourne, memories of Tunisian family life, culture and its music are tenderly woven. Buy Now

The Bath Fugues

by Brian Castro

The Bath Fugues is a meditation on melancholy and art, in the form of three interwoven novellas, centred respectively on an aging art forger; a Portuguese poet, opium addict and art collector; and a doctor, who has built an art gallery in tropical Queensland.

These characters are tied by more than their art, each dealing with questions of deception and discovery, counterfeiting and rewriting, transmission and identity and each stretching the bonds of trust and friendship. Buy Now

Jasper Jones

by Craig Silvey

Late on a hot summer night in the tail end of 1965, Charlie Bucktin, a precocious and bookish boy of thirteen, is startled by an urgent knock on the window of his sleep-out. His visitor is Jasper Jones, an outcast in the regional mining town of Corrigan. Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is a distant figure of danger and intrigue for Charlie.

So when Jasper begs for his help, Charlie eagerly steals into the night by his side, terribly afraid but desperate to impress.

Jasper takes him through town and to his secret glade in the bush, and it’s here that Charlie bears witness to Jasper’s horrible discovery. With his secret like a brick in his belly, Charlie is pushed and pulled by a town closing in on itself in fear and suspicion as he locks horns with his tempestuous mother; falls nervously in love and battles to keep a lid on his zealous best friend, Jeffrey Lu. Buy Now

The Book of Emmett

by Deborah Forster

A stunning first novel from a Melbourne author. The story of the Brown family will wrench at your heart and make you hug those you love ever tighter.

Emmett Brown is as dark as Heathcliff, and as unpredictable. Sometimes he’s an inspiration, but not often. He’s a man of booze and obsessions: one of them is his ‘System’, an attempt to bend the laws of probability. But when the lottery numbers and horses fail him, so do love and reason, and he becomes an ogre to his wife and children.

For the innocents – Louisa, Rob, Peter, Daniel and Jessie – the bonds formed hiding in hedges at the end of the street, waiting for the maelstroms to pass, are complex and unbreakable. Over the years, the consequences of Emmett’s rages shape both their spirits and psyches, but as he lies dying they discover that love – however imperfect – is the best defence against pain. Buy Now


by Peter Temple

At the close of a long day, Inspector Stephen Villani stands in the bathroom of a luxury apartment high above the city. In the glass bath, a young woman lies dead, a panic button within reach.

So begins the sequel to Peter Temple’s bestselling masterpiece, The Broken Shore, winner of the Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel.

Villani’s life is his work. It is his identity, his calling, his touchstone. But now, over a few sweltering summer days, as fires burn across the state and his superiors and colleagues scheme and jostle, he finds all the certainties of his life are crumbling. Truth is a novel about a man, a family, a city. It is about violence, murder, love, corruption, honour and deceit. And it is about truth. Buy Now


by Sonya Hartnett

On the verge of her fourteenth birthday, Plum knows her life will change. But she has no idea how.Over the coming weeks, her beautiful neighbour Maureen will show her how she might fly. Her adored older brothers will court catastrophe in worlds that she barely knows exist. And her friends – her worst enemies – will tease and test, smelling weakness. They will try to lead her on and take her down.Who ever forgets what happens when you’re fourteen? Buy Now

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Stieg Larsson

Apparently the greatest nation in the known universe, The United States of America, has fumbled the Stieg Larsson ball.

The third volume of the astonishingly successful and dangerously addictive Millennium Trilogy – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is not yet available in the States.

How this happened is anyone’s guess but now the US publisher is complaining that desperate readers are buying their books from overseas retailers. Mon Dieu! Imagine a world where readers buy from overseas retailers and avoid local providers!

Of course, if you know anyone in the States, let them know we have copies to buy right now: Click Here

Read more here.

The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

Some classics demand to be read. We hear of them incessantly. We feel we must read them before we die.

I’m thinking now of War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, David Copperfield, Hamlet, Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe.

Then there are classics which are pivotal in the history of literature but rarely mentioned, never recommended and almost always overlooked by readers hurrying to read the former group.

I’m now thinking of Clarissa, The Egoist, New Grub Street, Parade’s End and The Way of All Flesh. (If it were not for Universities many of these would not now be read.)

The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler’s masterpiece, was brought to my attention when talking with a wise old reader I used to know – I was expressing my love for Sons and Lovers and Of Human Bondage at the time. The old man suggested I read The Way of All Flesh, for it was his belief that Continue reading


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