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September 2019

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1853. In the Outback there are no rules..... Blood in the Dust by Bill Swiggs
19th September 2019

1853. In the Outback there are no rules..... Blood in the Dust by Bill Swiggs

Blood in the Dust by Bill Swiggs

 

Having won the Wilbur Smith Best Unpublished Manuscript Award, it's no surprise that his debut novel Blood in the Dust is being closely compared to the storytelling of Wilbur Smith himself, and is now being published by Bonnier Zaffe. Set during the gold-rush in 1853 in southern Australia, as Melbourne was still just an emerging town, this driving adventure story has an enthralling plot and beguilling mix of characters, that are sure to keep you hooked.

Here you can read an exclusive short Q&A with Bill to introduce his novel, followed by an extract chosen to give you a real flavour of the story

 


Q&A

  • What made you enter the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing competition and what was it like to win?

I have been a Wilbur Smith fan since 1977 when at the age of 14 I saw the movie The Mercenaries starring Rod Taylor. I think I’ve read everything Wilbur Smith has written. One day, I was taking a break from writing and decided to Google Wilbur Smith. It was late 2017 and that was when I learned of the adventure writing awards. Having submiited an entry I received an email the following June advising me that I was one of five authors shortlisted for the unpublished manuscript division of the award. I thought that was as good as it would get. Boy, was I wrong. At that time, I think I had been rejected by every literary agent in Australia and a few in the UK. A week or two after this, I found myself on a Skype call with Niso Smith, wife of Wilbur Smith. She told me I had won the unpublished category of the award for that year. Then, to my surprise, Niso picked up her laptop and said there was someone else who wanted to congratulate me. She walked to the other end of the table, spun the laptop around, and I found myself face to face with Wilbur Smith. He congratulated me on winning the award and I got to show him all his books lined up on the bookcase behind me. A moment I will always treasure. As an avid Wilbur Smith fan, I think my writing will always carry some of his influence. I love stories that take you on a journey and let you escape the real world while you are reading them. Adventure writing does this for me and I hope my own writing gives others this same escapist pleasure.

 

  • Tell us about the story of Blood in the Dust and what you want readers to get out of reading it. 

Blood in the Dust has been described as an Australian western. It certainly has all the elements one would expect to find in a western novel; lovable good guys, a despicable villain, plenty of gunfights and action and a cast of characters you grow to either love or hate. I think Blood in the Dust is more than this. I like to think of Blood in the Dust as a story about the power of family and families that are not formed only by blood ties. The two main characters, Toby and Patrick O’Rourke, find themselves orphaned and cast out of the only home they have ever known. Alone in a lawless land, they are taken in by an immigrant family who need the brothers as much as Toby and Patrick need them. This extended family unit has a hidden strength to see them all though the hardships of colonial Australia.

 

  • What do you think it is about Australia's colonial past that makes it fertile ground for adventure stories?

I have always had a fascination with Australia’s colonial past and with bushrangers in particular. There is a wealth of stories out there from all walks of life. While in the Air Force, I would drag my wife all around the countryside to visit various historical places, some of which don’t have any markers for passing travellers. For example, the place near Forbes where bushranger Ben Hall was gunned down by the police is just the corner of a farmer’s sheep paddock.  We’ve climbed to the summit of Mount Wheogo, where Frank Gardiner’s gang divided up the proceeds of the Eugowra gold escort robbery, and stood in the shade of a huge gum tree at the head of Johnny Gilbert’s grave, buried in a police horse yard after a gunfight. I like to look for the stories inside the main story, like the story of Constable Samuel Nelson, the sole policeman on duty in Collector, New South Wales, who, in 1865, armed himself and went to face Ben Hall’s gang when they raided the town. This is all so inspiring for a writer.

♦♦♦

Extract

Toby was at the wood heap behind the tack shed when he first noticed the riders. They were still high on the ridge, but coming steadily along the outside of the house paddock. It was the direction they came from that made them a curiosity. The O’Rourke place was the last of a string of properties that followed a narrow valley into the maw of the mountains. There was nothing north until the settled areas of the Goulburn valley and the only paths through were east at the Kilmore Gap, or at the Mount Alexander road, a day’s ride to the west.

 

Toby gathered up an armload of wood and walked around the shed to the front of the homestead. He found his father standing beside the carcass of a sheep that hung from a chain fixed to one of the shed’s rafters. The damp hessian cloth had been removed and his father was running a knife back and forth across a steel, using rapid, well-practised strokes. Paddy stood nearby, waiting to help with the hock once his father cut it away. ‘What’s up with you, me boyo?’ Sean said as he noticed Toby in the doorway. ‘I don’t hear that axe ringing.’ ‘There’s five horsemen heading for the slip rails. They’re planning on paying us a visit.’ ‘Maybe they’re prospectors,’ Paddy offered. ‘I don’t think so.’ Toby shook his head. 

 

Toby walked with his father to the homestead and they climbed the steps onto the veranda. The riders were at the slip rails, about three hundred paces off. Ellen O’Rourke came out of the kitchen and stood beside her husband.

 

The men urged their horses through into the house paddock and Toby expected to see the dismounted man push the slip rails closed again, but he simply swung up onto his horse and followed the others towards the homestead, leaving them wide open. There was a herd of two hundred and fifty head in the paddock, waiting to be driven to the butchers’ yards at the diggings. These visitors would cop hell when they arrived at the homestead. Beside him, his father straightened, eyes narrowing with suspicion. ‘Toby!’ His voice came as a low growl. ‘Yes, Pa?’ ‘Fetch the Lovell for me, boyo.’ Paddy gave a little chuckle at the thought of the drama as their father prepared to confront the men. Toby, on the other hand, felt uneasy. Sean O’Rourke was an emancipated convict and had survived the horrendous conditions of a prison hulk, had been worked to the point of exhaustion on a chain gang and still bore the scars of the punishment lash. There wasn’t much in the world that frightened him, and yet Toby thought there had been a hint of fear in his voice. He found the Lovell where it was always kept, behind his parents’ bedroom door, along with the leather pouch containing powder, caps and shot. He stepped back out onto the veranda, where he handed the musket and leather bag to his father. ‘Here you are, Pa. Primed and ready.’ Sean pulled the hammer to full cock. ‘Good lad!’ He cradled the barrel of the musket across the crook of his left elbow. ‘Sean, are you sure this is the right way to go about things?’ His mother’s voice had lost its melodic quality, replaced instead with a quivering tension. ‘Sean shook his head. ‘If they mean us harm, then it won’t hurt to show them we have the means to defend ourselves. I want you and the boys inside.’ Ellen nodded and took Paddy by the arm, leading him into the kitchen. Toby hesitated, his nervous gaze flicking between the approaching men and his father. Toby didn’t move and his father gave him a wink. ‘I’ll be fine, son.’ Toby hesitated a moment more then went inside and closed the door. He hurried to the window by the stove where his mother and brother were watching the horsemen ride up from the slip rails.

 

The riders were closer now and he could make out more detail. Two white men rode at the head of the little column. The man leading seemed too big for his horse, his large frame filling the saddle, the stirrup straps at full length to accommodate long legs. He had a cabbage-tree hat pulled low over his eyes and a full beard of black, matted hair that reached halfway down his chest. His head turned from side to side as he rode, examining the corners of outbuildings and shadows beneath the trees. When he saw the faces in the window, he paused and his cold stare filled Toby with fear. The other white man was thin and short with sickly-yellow skin. He wore a seafarer’s peaked cap pushed back on his head. A broad smile exposed a set of tobacco-stained teeth. The other three men were Aborigines, dressed in a curious mixture of animal skins and European clothing. They kept a little distance between themselves and the two leaders, their eyes flicking left and right.

 


Bill Swiggs

Bill Swiggs was born in Victoria and brought up in Western Australia, where he still lives. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force as an aviation firefighter before becoming a police officer, and now works as a firefighter for a defence contractor. Bill divides his time between working, writing, flying and his grandchildren.

 

 

Even in the darkest of places, there is a glimmer of hope - Bearmouth by Liz Hyder
17th September 2019

Even in the darkest of places, there is a glimmer of hope - Bearmouth by Liz Hyder

 

Bearmouth by Liz Hyder

 

Liz Hyder’s Bearmouth tells the story of an exploitative mining business, where both adults and children work side by side in brutal conditions, under the rule of the despicable Mayker. Told in the distinctive phonetic English of narrator Newt and exploring the themes of class, friendship and rebellion this YA debut is startlingly original and is already garnering glowing reviews from readers and authors within the YA community.

In a piece written exclusively for Foyles, author Liz Hyder reveals some of her author inspirations and those books which ignited her young imagination, ultimately leading to her writing a debut novel of such power and (literal) depth, that you’ll feel the coal dust on your skin and stoop to avoid the mine’s roof so close above your head

 


I’ve always read a lot, ever since I first worked out how to decipher the marks on the pages, I’ve been a serial devourer of books. I loved disappearing into other worlds, falling down through the pages of a book to other imagined places, meeting characters who became friends, fearing for them and falling for them. When I was a child, it was my older sister who taught me to read, along with various soft toys who attended her ‘school.’ I shared a bedroom with her too and when our lights went out, I used to dig out whatever current book had me in its thrall, pull open a corner of the curtain and read by the faint orange glow of the streetlights - little wonder that my eyes are so bad now.

 

I cannot help but read – if there is text on a page or on a wall or anywhere, I have a compulsion to read it, from the emergency signs on trains to the back of a cereal packet or the ingredients in a soap bar. But these are all just snippets, little unintentional haikus scattered everywhere, for it is storytelling that I’m ultimately hankering after. Stories that feel so real, so utterly absorbing that when you look back up, the world looks ever so slightly different to before. Stories that tilt you upon your own axis, that haunt your dreams, that live long in your memory many moons after you’ve turned that last glorious page.

 

I strongly believe that many of the best and most startlingly original storytellers today are found within the children’s and young adult sections in our libraries and bookshops. I feel deeply sorry for those adults who no longer read children’s and teen fiction, they’re missing out on the some of the finest books of our age. There are writers like Katherine Rundell and Kiran Milwood Hargrave whose beautiful prose lingers like music whilst they weave the most gripping of tales. There are writers who will make your belly ache with laughter like Sara Barnard, Patrice Lawrence, Holly Bourne and Muhammad Khan, before making your cheeks run wet with tears. There are writers too that glory in minimalism, whose sparse sentences somehow magically conjure up place and atmosphere, bewitching you with their words, casting a spell over you to transport you to another time and place. Alan Garner’s strange, haunting trilogy that begins with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and ends with Boneland, one of the best and most original books I’ve ever read, will crush your heart and make your soul sing, it will bruise and inspire you and, I promise you, you will never forget it. I’d also put Sally Gardner’s extraordinary Tinder in that same category. With disturbingly beautiful illustrations by David Roberts, it’s an exquisite tale told simply and skilfully and it will lurk in the shadows of your dreams for many a night afterwards.

 

Garner is a genius at using place – usually his beloved Alderley Edge and the surrounding environs - as a character, something that Sarah Crossan excels at too. Crossan’s latest, Toffee, is a verse novel, still more common in American teen fiction than over here, but Crossan, the Irish Children’s Laureate, has pioneered the resurgence for a British audience. Toffee is funny, sad, wise and beautiful, you can smell the salt wind of the Cornish seaside in the poetry, taste the ice cream on your tongue, feel the sand between your toes. The characters leap off the page straight into your heart and, if you’ve never read a verse novel, this is a great place to start.

 

For one of the most original and powerful voices in fiction though, the tour de force that is Malorie Blackman is absolutely a must-read. A consummate storyteller, she can seemingly turn her hand to anything, from a whole array of books for different ages to the acclaimed Rosa Parks episode in the latest series of Doctor Who. The Noughts and Crosses series, which a friend recommended to me many years ago, is phenomenal - utterly compelling, moving and unashamedly smart in the way it explores prejudice, racism, love and friendship. Read it or re-read it before the TV series hits our screens later this year.

 

No piece on original voices for younger people would be complete without a mention of masterful storyteller Philip Reeve. He throws you without mercy into whole imaginary worlds populated with characters that are entirely real. From inter-dimensional trains in the Railhead trilogy to the hungry, greedy cities on the move in the Mortal Engines quartet, his imagination seemingly knows no bounds. I will happily read anything he writes and I’ve got a particularly soft spot for the bonkers series of books he’s co-created with the marvellous illustrator Sarah McIntyre. A beautiful example of two talents at the top of their game working closely together on everything from storylines to the complete book to create something entirely original. Cakes in Space, Pugs of the Frozen North and, my current favourite The Legend of Kevin, about a plump flying pony, are all utterly glorious.

 

There are tremendous original writers of historical fiction for children and young adults too, from Michelle Paver’s gripping Chronicles of Ancient Darkness set in the Stone Age to the glorious Catherine Johnson who’s written about everything from the explorer and navigator Matthew Henson (Race to the Frozen North, Arctic Hero) to the ‘you couldn’t make it up’ story of Princess Caraboo (The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo). Paver’s minimalist yet pacy writing is a masterclass in tension and plotting and Johnson’s books have a phenomenal energy that keeps you turning the page until suddenly you find you’ve binge-read the whole thing.

 

When I first set out to write what would become Bearmouth, my debut novel, I wanted to write a page-turning fable set entirely within the confinements of an old working mine yet I didn’t want to be beholden to the realities of Victorian mining (horrific and fascinating though they are). I wanted my mine to be a place that existed in my imagination, a place of darkness, danger and foreboding, somewhere in which exploitation was taken as the natural order of things and in which the very act of asking a question could be seen as an act of rebellion. Told in the first person by Newt, the main protagonist, in a distinctive voice, I’d love to think Bearmouth is genuinely original too, but in truth, like all writers, I’ve been inspired and influenced by all the other stories I’ve devoured over the years. From classic series like Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising to John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, from CS Lewis and Malcolm Saville to contemporary writers, all those words I’ve absorbed over the years have undoubtedly seeped into my imagination in some way. All I can do now is hope that Newt’s story and the words that I wrote, will seep into your imagination too.

 


Liz Hyder credit Ashleigh Cadet

Liz Hyder is a writer, experienced workshop leader and award-winning arts PR consultant. She has a BA in drama from the University of Bristol and, in early 2018, won the Bridge Award/Moniack Mhor's Emerging Writer Award. She is currently working on her second book and a range of other creative projects. Bearmouth is her debut novel.

 

 

 

Read an extract from Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurant
12th September 2019

Read an extract from Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurant

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Already a hit in America, Lillian Li’s brilliant debut, Number One Chinese Restaurant, is now published in paperback in the UK. Lauded in O, The Oprah Magazine, as a ‘deliciously comic debut’, it’s a tragicomic tale of family, feuds, and food. Jimmy Han has plans to move on from his family’s homely restaurant and open his own high-end fusion place. His family, friends and colleagues all conspire, both wittingly and unwittingly, to make that as difficult as possible for him. Read an extract from this witty and heartfelt book below.

 


Jimmy turned to see Ah-Jack arriving. The waiter held a large serving plate of Szechuan lamb chops, elegantly piled under a hearty mound of onions and red peppers. The meat glistened with black pepper sauce, flecks of spice filling the air with a rich, roasted smell. Uncle Pang greeted him with a clap of his hands, the sound ringing with false delight. Jimmy was suddenly overwhelmed by the noise of everything happening around him. His body was too heavy to move. Something had gotten on top of him, was smothering him with its weight. He’d been having these attacks recently, but always in bed, in the middle of the night. Never in public. He dug the tip of his tongue into the canker sore on his bottom gum. The sharp, acid sting made the panic lift, just enough for him to wriggle out from underneath. 

 

He was probing the sore again when a jangling sound jerked his head up. The gold chains around Ah-Jack’s wrists were trembling against the china platter. The plate dipped up and down. The old waiter could barely hold on to the heavy lamb chops with both hands. Who the hell let him leave the kitchen like this? 

 

Jimmy was starting to stand when a resigned, almost amused look passed over Ah-Jack’s face. Like he was tired of waiting for disaster to strike. Before Jimmy could stop him, Ah-Jack took one of his hands away from the plate to grab the two serving spoons. His left wrist did not even make an attempt to hold the weight of the plate on its own. Jimmy’s outstretched hand caught air. 

 

Heavy with sauce, the lamb chops plopped onto their table. Some landed on the tablecloth, while others bounced o and onto Uncle Pang’s lap. The platter hit the side of the table with a mu ed sound before ricocheting under the booth. Sauce splattered everywhere, leaving greasy inkblots on their clothes. Someone in the next booth gasped. For a few calm moments, the three of them looked on curiously at the tremendous mess. Then, Uncle Pang was up and roaring. Ah-Jack was left to tremble, cradling his left hand like an injured bird. He looked around wildly, for an exit, or, perhaps, for Nan. Jimmy dove under the table without knowing why. He started picking up the fallen chops, his hands leaving tacky prints on the dirty carpet. Above his head, Uncle Pang was threatening to tear down the restaurant. With a thunk, the scotch bottle fell off and rolled under the table, hitting Jimmy in the knee. The smell of cigarette smoke drifted down, as well as Nan’s timid voice, asking Uncle Pang to put out his light.

 

“I’m not going to burn this place down with one fucking cigarette!” Uncle Pang shouted. He stalked away from the booth, toward the front door. Nan’s thick ankles quickly followed, with Ah-Jack’s jerky shuffle bringing up the rear.

 

From his temporary sanctuary, Jimmy twisted the cap o the scotch bottle and, for the first time in a year, took a deep, searing drink. The sore in his mouth sang out, then quieted into a buzz. 

 


Lillian Li Author photograph

Lillian Li received her BA from Princeton and her MFA from the University of Michigan. She has received the Hopwood Award in Short Fiction, and her work has been featured in Guernica, Granta and Jezebel. She currently teaches English Composition and Creative Writing at the University of Michigan and works as a bookseller at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.

 

 

Secrets, spies and a banned masterpiece in The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
5th September 2019 - Lara Prescott

Secrets, spies and a banned masterpiece in

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

 

Every once in a while a debut novel is published that instantly takes off, receiving outstanding reviews across the media and scoring impressive sales. Earlier this year there was The Binding by Bridget Collins, last year The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower, both of which rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists. September 5th sees the publication of The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott; fascinating, seductive and cleverly constructed, this is a combination of literary history, spy story, and historical romance, all with a deep connection to Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago at its core. Already gathering impressive pre-publication acclaim, both in the UK and the US, where it has already been selected for Reese Witherspoon's bookclub, you can expect to see big things from this beguiling novel.

Here you can read a piece written exclusively for Foyles by Lara Prescott, where she explains her own background and what ignited her own profound interest in Pasternak's seminal work, and inspired her to write this soon-to-be breakout novel

 


 

Named After a Muse by Lara Prescott

 

I have my parents to thank for naming me after Boris Pasternak’s heroine Lara in Doctor Zhivago. As a child, knowing nothing about the book or movie, I’d wind up my mother’s musical jewelry box again and again to hear it play “Lara’s Theme.”

It wasn’t until I was a teenager—and I was deep into my new obsession for Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, and all the Russian greats—that I read Zhivago for the first time. Back then, with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in my mind’s eye, I was most interested in the tragic love story. On my next reading as a young adult, I was most taken with the beauty of Pasternak’s poetic sentences. On my recent readings, what struck me most are the ways in which Pasternak conveys the importance of free thought.

 

Doctor Zhivago Movie Poster

 

And in 1950s Soviet Russia, that was a subversive idea. At the time, Boris Pasternak was one of the most famous living Soviet writers. His readings would sell out to packed auditoriums. Fans would stand and shout lines from his poetry, unable to contain their excitement.

Doctor Zhivago was to be his first novel—and one the Kremlin knew people would want to read. And when they got word of Zhivago’s themes—as well as its critical depictions of the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War—the Soviet censors banned the book.

Meanwhile, in the United States, political leaders were looking for ways to demonstrate American superiority over the East. And what better way, thought the newly-formed CIA, than through art and literature?

To me, there is no greater way to create empathy than storytelling. Books allow us to experience others’ lives, visit other time periods, walk the streets of places we’ve never been. They build connection.

So it’s no surprise that governments—seeking to control how their citizens view and experience the world—have always used words as weapons. Today, tweets, bots, and fake news do the job; but during the Cold War, the Soviets and Americans used books.

I first learned about the Zhivago mission in 2014, after my father sent me a Washington Post article about newly declassified documents that shed light on the CIA’s Cold War-era “Books Program.” With my interested piqued, I devoured the incredible true story behind Zhivago’s publication. What I discovered was that the CIA had obtained the banned manuscript, covertly printed it, and smuggled it back into the USSR. 

 

Doctor Zhivago b Boris Pasternak

 

The first CIA memos on Zhivago described the book as “the most heretical literary work by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death,” saying it had “great propaganda value” for its “passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a sensitive, intelligent citizen.”

And it was seeing the actual memos and so many other declassified documents like them—with all their blacked-out and redacted names and details—that first inspired me to fill in the blanks with fiction. 

The first voice that came to me was that of a group of fictionalized CIA typists working in the Agency’s Soviet Russia division. As I began writing, I imagined all the idealistic Ivy League men at the CIA working on the mission—and behind them, the women in the typing pool. They became a kind of Greek Chorus to drive the book’s narrative. And who else could be a better narrator? After all, these women typed the secrets of the secret keepers.

But as I dove deeper into my writing, I realized I was missing half the story.

I subscribe to the thought: “Read a hundred books, write one”—which was certainly part of my process. I pored over book after book about the Cold War, propaganda, CIA history, Russian history, and more.

Then, one book in particular caught my attention. A Captive of Time is the autobiography of Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress and muse for his character Lara—my namesake. Ivinskaya also played a pivotal role in Pasternak’s writing process, and in helping bring Zhivago to the world. In fact, she was twice sentenced to hard labor in the Gulag for her involvement with him.

To me, Olga is so much more than a muse, and after reading her story, I knew that I couldn’t just tell my novel through the women in the West; there had to be an Eastern thread as well—told through Olga’s lens.

While most eyes gravitate toward the famous men in the spotlight, I’ve always been more intrigued by the women in the background. The Secrets We Kept is a vehicle to give these women a voice once more.

 


 

Lara Prescott (credit Trevor Paulhaus)

Lara Prescott was named after the heroine of Doctor Zhivago and first discovered the true story behind the novel after the CIA declassified 99 documents pertaining to its role in the book's publication and covert dissemination. She travelled the world - from Moscow and Washington, to London and Paris - in the course of her research, becoming particularly interested in political repression in both the Soviet Union and United States and how, during the Cold War, both countries used literature as a weapon. Lara earned her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, and The Secrets We Kept is her first novel

 

Discover trust, harmony and connection with The Power of Nunchi by Euny Hong
5th September 2019

Discover trust, harmony and connection with The Power of Nunchi by Euny Hong

The Power of Nunchi by Euny Hong

 

Have you ever wondered why a colleague gained a promotion, or how a friend is always catch the bartender's eye? It could be they are skilled in the Korean art of nunchi (noon-chee). In The Power of Nunchi Euny Hong is putting a modern spin on an ancient concept, which will help you understand the subtle skill of gauging other people's thoughts, and feelings in order to build trust, harmony and connection. Not a new fad by any means, nunchi has been practised for over 5000 years in Korea, and now you can learn the techniques for yourself.

In a piece especially adapted for Foyles and taken from the introduction of the book, Euny Hong introduces some of the basics.

 


There’s an old Korean expression: ‘If you have quick nunchi, you can eat shrimp in a monastery.’ Admittedly, this makes no sense until you understand that traditional Korean Buddhist monasteries are strictly vegetarian. In other words, the laws bend to your will if you can harness the power of nunchi.


So what is nunchi? Nunchi is the Korean superpower. Some people even go so far as to say it’s how Korean people can read minds – though there’s nothing supernatural about it. Nunchi is the art of instantly understanding what people are thinking and feeling, in order to improve your relationships in life. Having great nunchi means continuously recalibrating your assumptions based on any new word, gesture or facial expression, so that you are always present and aware. Speed is paramount to nunchi; in fact, if someone is highly skilled at nunchi, Koreans don’t say they have ‘good’ nunchi, they say they have ‘quick’ nunchi.

 

So if you’re thinking, ‘Oh dear, not another Eastern fad – I’ve already thrown away half my clothes thanks to Marie Kondo,’ first of all, it’s not a fad. Koreans have been using nunchi to evade or overcome more than 5,000 years’ worth of slings and arrows. You need only look to recent Korean history to see nunchi at work: the country went from Third World to First World in just half a century. Only seventy years ago, after the Korean War, South Korea was one of the world’s poorest nations – poorer than most of sub-Saharan Africa. To make matters worse, it had no natural resources at all: not a drop of oil, not an ounce of copper. By the twenty-first century, South Korea had become one of the richest, coolest and most technologically advanced nations on the planet.

 

I was not born with innate nunchi. I had it thrust upon me in a trial by fire when I was 12 years old—the year my family moved to South Korea. I’d only ever lived in the US and I spoke no Korean at all, yet I was placed in the local Korean school. It turns out this was the best nunchi crash course I could have hoped for.

 

Since I didn’t understand the language, I had no lever to pull except for studying the classroom ‘mood’ and watching how the students and teachers were reacting to each other. That’s how I learned two cardinal rules of nunchi. Firstly, if everyone is doing the same thing, there is always a reason. I had no idea how to stand at attention or at ease, something regularly expected of students. All I knew was that everyone else was doing it, so I studied their bodies closely and mimicked what they did. The second rule is if you stay quiet and observe long enough, most of your questions will be answered without you needing to do anything at all. Which was great, because I didn’t know any words. Within a year of arriving at Korean school, I was first in my class and only six months later, I was voted class vice president by my peers. I’m living proof that nunchi works.

 

Everyone can improve their lot by honing their nunchi; you don’t have to be privileged, know the right people or have an impressive academic pedigree. In fact, Koreans refer to nunchi as ‘the advantage of the underdog’ for just those reasons. It’s your secret weapon, even if you’ve got nothing else. As for those who were born with a silver spoon in their mouth, well, there is no faster way to lose your advantages in life than a lack of nunchi. In the short term, nunchi will save you from social embarrassment – you can’t make a faux pas if you’ve read the room correctly. In the long term, nunchi will make the waters part for you. People will open doors that you never even knew existed. Nunchi will help you live your best life.

 

As Koreans say, ‘Half of public life is about nunchi.’ A well-honed and quick nunchi can help you choose the right partner in life or business, it can help you shine at work, it can protect you against those who mean you harm, and it can even reduce social anxiety. It can make people take your side even when they aren’t sure why. Conversely, a lack of nunchi can make people dislike you in a way that is as mysterious to them as it is to you.

 


 

Euny Hong credit Victor G Jeffries

 

Euny Hong is the author of The Birth of Korean Cool and a journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and the Financial Times. A self-described `nunchi ninja', at age twelve she moved with her family from suburban Chicago to South Korea, not knowing Korean, and within a year was at the top of her class - thanks to her nunchi. She divides her time between New York and Paris and is fluent in English, Korean, French, German - and nunchi.

 

 

Why maths is almost everything - The Maths of Life and Death by Kit Yates
5th September 2019 - Kit Yates

Why maths is (almost) everything - The Maths of Life and Death by Kit Yates

Maths of Life and Death by Kit Yates

 

Wet Wet Wet may have sung that Love is All Around, but it all truth it’s mathematics that really is all around us. In The Maths of Life and Death, Kit Yates tells us the true stories of life changing events, where either the application, or misapplication of mathematics has played a critical role. Accessible, fascinating and on the brink of terrifying in some cases, these stories will bring a new appreciation for the mathematics, and also provide you with some tools and rules for you to use mathematics to make better quality decisions in your own life.

In a piece especially written for Foyles, Kit Yates helps us to get to the heart of the question....

 


 

Do you know what I mean?

 

The chances are that each year the most common number of readers for the books at your local library is zero.

It’s a surprising statistic. Many people, when first reading this statement, will come away with the impression that more library books go unborrowed than borrowed each year. But before you go demanding that your hard-earned tax be taken away from local libraries and given to some other worthier cause, let me explain.

If I’d wanted to be really mischievous I could have said “the average number of times the books at your local library are borrowed is zero”. This would have been further stretching, but not quite breaking the truth. The reason this statement is legitimate is that there are at least three different measures of a data set which we could refer to as the average: the mean, the median and the mode.

The average we are most familiar with is the mean. To find the mean, we add up all the values in a data set and divide by the number of values there are. To find the mean number of times a book is borrowed from the library we would add up the total number of times books were borrowed and divide by the total number of titles offered. If by ‘average’ I had meant the mean, then there’s no getting around it, something would be wrong with our library provision, as a mean of zero implies that the total number of books borrowed is also zero. But this isn’t the average I was talking about.

The mean gives us a good estimate of the overall frequency of borrowing from the library, but it isn’t always the best representation of a data set. In the 1980s the ‘average UK family’ was found to have 2.4 children. Obviously, no-one knows a family with 2.4 children (although I’m sure we all know families in which one of the parents might account for the 0.4). Another, initially surprising, example is the old riddle ‘What is the probability that the next person you meet when walking down the street will have more than the average number of legs?’ The answer is ‘Almost certain’. The very few people who have no legs or one leg are responsible for a small reduction in the mean so that everyone with two legs has more than the average. Clearly it would be ridiculous to assume that the mean correctly characterises any individual in the population.

Although you’ve probably heard the ‘number of legs’ riddle before, perhaps it would surprise you to know that despite having a life expectancy of 78.8 years, which is four years less than that of British females (at 83 years), the majority of British males will live longer than the overall population life expectancy of 81. At first this statement seems contradictory, but in fact it is due to a discrepancy in the statistics we use to summarise the data. The small, but significant, number of people who die young brings down the mean age of death (the typically quoted life expectancy in which everyone’s age at death is added together and then divided by the total number of people). Surprisingly, these early deaths take the mean well below another oft-quoted average - the median (the age that falls exactly in the middle; as many people die before this age as after). To find the median of a data set arrange all the values in a long line and select the middle value. The median age of death for UK males is 82, meaning that half of them will be at least this age when they die. In this case, the summary statistic typically presented – the mean age at death of 78.8 years – is a particularly misleading descriptor of the population.

The bell curve, or normal distribution, which can be used to characterise many everyday data sets, from heights to IQ scores, is a beautifully symmetrical curve in which half of the data lies on one side of the mean and half on the other. This implies that the mean and the median – the middle-most data value – tend to coincide for characteristics that follow this distribution. Because we are familiar with the idea that this prominent curve can describe real-life information, many of us assume that the mean is a good marker of the ‘middle’ of a data set. It surprises us when we come across distributions in which the mean is skewed away from the median. The distribution of ages at death for British males, displayed below, is clearly far from symmetrical. We typically refer to such distributions as ‘skewed’.

Maths of Life and Death by Kit Yates

The age-dependence of the number of deaths per year for males in Great Britain follows a skewed distribution. The mean age at death is just under 79, while the median age is 82.

 

The median gives us a better idea of what is typical than the mean does for skewed data sets, including those on our life expectancy. For the same reason, the median is often used when presenting data on average income. The high wages of the very well-off individuals in our societies tends to distort the mean.  The median gives us a better idea than the mean of what to expect of a ‘typical’ individual’s income.

Although the median is superior in some cases, it’s not a silver bullet either. It could be argued that the income of high earners or the deaths of younger people should not be neglected, as they are as valid as any other data points in the set. The statistic we choose to use should depend on the context of the point we are trying to get across.

I’ve often come across articles which report the psychological phenomenon of illusory superiority, more commonly known as the better-than-average effect. They usually start by reporting a study that claims to have found that most people rate themselves as above average drivers or better than average lovers. The articles’ authors then go on to poke fun at these people because, as they reason, the maths says that, by definition, half of all people must be below average. Only, if by average, you are referring to the median. Clearly, if you’re taking the mean as your definition of average it’s possible for almost everyone to have an above average number of legs or for the majority of people to live longer than average.

The same is true if we consider our definition of average to be the mode. The mode is the most popular value in a data set. It would tell us that the most common number of children of a UK family is not 2.4, but the more acceptable value of two. It even makes sense when the values in the data set are not numeric. You could use the mode to answer more nuanced questions, about the UK’s average pet for example. The mode gives you the sensible answer ‘dog’ rather than the chimera you might expect by using the mean.

I was thinking of the mode when I came up with the slightly contrived statement “the average number of times the books at your local library are borrowed is zero”. Of all the books a library lends out, some will have been borrowed thousands or tens of thousands of times. Others will have been borrowed hundreds of times and some only tens. A few will not have been borrowed at all. There will be one number of borrowings that is more common than the others. It’s unlikely that this will be some high number like 23,542. What are the chances that more than one book is borrowed exactly 23,542 times? As it happens, although there aren’t huge numbers of books that don’t get borrowed at all, even the very few books that remain unborrowed each year are enough to ensure that zero is the most frequent number of times a book is borrowed. In this case the mode clearly isn’t a very useful descriptor of the data set – unless of course you want to catch people’s attention with what looks like a surprising statistic.

None of mean, median or mode is correct in any objective sense. The different averages are simply useful in different contexts and for describing distinct aspects of real world phenomena: from the median being employed to clean up digital photos or prevent life-endangering false alarms in intensive care units to ‘regression to the mean’ giving us a false impression of how effective alternative therapies are. These and many other practical applications of mathematics alongside the often life-or-death experiences that accompany them, are the essence of The Maths of Life and Death. The stories in the book should empower anyone, no matter their mathematical background, to take the power of mathematics into their own hands, because sometimes maths really is a matter of life and death. Reading the book will guarantee that next time, when you’re wowing someone with a statistic you’ve read about what happens on average, you’ll be confident of exactly what you mean.

 


 

Kit Yates, Maths of Life & Death

 

 Kit Yates is a Senior Lecturer in mathematical biology at the University of Bath. His job consists of taking real-world phenomena and uncovering the mathematical truths that lie behind them. He extracts the common patterns that underlie these processes and communicates them. He works in applications as diverse as embryonic disease, the patterns on eggshells and the devastating swarming of locust plagues - teasing out the mathematical connections in the process.

 

 

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