Bibliophile power-pair ALI BERG and MICHELLE KALUS have been planting free books on the trains and trams of Melbourne since 2016. In the pair’s debut novel, The Book Ninja, an unlucky Melbournite attempts to find love using the same method. ANGUS DALTON meets Australia’s top-ranking book ninjas.
Don’t panic, but a covert and highly trained network of over 500 undercover operatives are currently at work across the nation. Their influence spans from Sydney to Perth, and their insidious influence has sprawled to the upper reaches of the Northern Territory and right down to the forested highways and townships of Tasmania.
They are the book ninjas, and their objective is to plant free books on the trains, trams, buses and ferries of Australia. Their arch nemeses? Good Samaritans.
I’m on the phone to the book ninjas’ two most senior operatives, Ali Berg and Michelle Kalus. In 2016, they founded Books on the Rail, an initiative that began with Ali and Michelle leaving books on the trams and trains of Melbourne for unsuspecting commuters to read.
What started with Ali (a creative director at an advertising agency) and Michelle (a primary school teacher) single-handedly dealing out second-hand books on tram seats has become a national phenomenon with 500 book-planters.
But flinging free books at the public isn’t as easy as it sounds.
‘I actually get quite nervous, putting the books out, because I don’t like drawing attention to myself,’ says Michelle. ‘I tend to put a book down literally the second before I race out the door in the hopes that no-one notices me! Otherwise you get people chasing you trying to return the book to you because they think you’ve left it behind – we’ve got some Good Samaritans out on the Melbourne rail, they’re always trying to catch our book ninjas!’
Ali and Michelle have known each other since Year 2 and always fostered a love of books in each other, especially while growing up with ‘Harry Potter’. The first book they sent sailing down the tram line as part of Books on the Rail was The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. The book is a historical novel set in St Petersburg about the love between an impoverished Russian woman and a young soldier during Hitler’s invasion of Russia.
‘All the books we loved when we were younger really solidified our love of books as adults,’ says Michelle. ‘We salivated over The Bronze Horseman for months, and then I had a book hangover for almost two years – I couldn’t find anything else that could satisfy me. We thought it was quite fitting to begin Books on the Rail by placing our favourite book that had brought us so close together.’
Behind Books on the Rail is a desire to pull commuters’ attention away from their phone screens and onto a book. ‘Even well-established readers are discovering new genres and a reinvigorated motivation to read through the program,’ says Ali.
‘I met someone when I was dropping off a book the other week, and she got so excited because she’d just found a book through Books on the Rail called Pachinko, which we both loved. She usually reads murder mysteries, but she picked it up and devoured it, and said it had completely changed her life, and now she reads historical fiction.’ Other highlights in the Books on the Rail journey include Twitter shout-outs from Margaret Atwood and Amy Poehler, and the recruitment of Melbourne local author of The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion, as a book ninja. Last year, Simsion led a Books on the Rail book club gathering, fittingly held on a Route 3 tram as it trundled through St Kilda.
As Books on the Rail continues to flourish, Ali and Michelle are sending a work of their own down the roads and railways of Australia. The Book Ninja, a romantic comedy novel that they co-authored, grew out of an ambition to write that the pair have always fostered. At the suggestion of Simon & Schuster, they pitched an idea for a novel based on the premise of Books on the Rail.
‘Mich and I started brainstorming, put together a plot map and the first four chapters of a manuscript,’ says Ali. ‘We thought it’s very unlikely anything would happen. But lo and behold, Simon & Schuster emailed us and said they wanted to sign us up – we could not believe it.’
The Book Ninja centres on Frankie and Cat, two booksellers in Melbourne who run The Little Brunswick Street Bookshop. Frankie is a rather scatterbrained Jane Austen tragic trying to piece her life together after a break-up. Cat is her equally frenetic best friend, who is engaged to an accountant, pregnant with their first child, and accidentally sleeping with her K-Pop dance-fitness instructor.
Cat’s infidelity aside, the major problem the pair endeavour to solve is Frankie’s terrible luck in love. To find her the ideal lover – who needs to have firm grasp of classic and contemporary fiction and be as dashing as Mr Darcy – they decide to leave their favourite books on the train and trams of Melbourne as a kind of bait for the perfect bookish beau. In the back of each book they send out is a message – You have great taste in books. Fancy a date? – along with Frankie’s contact details.
Frankie fires up a blog about her search for love through books, and charts the string of resulting dates, which are in turn cringeworthy, embarrassing, hopeful, and always hilarious.
‘We always used to joke a bit about the romantic nature of Books on the Rail, and how amazing it would be if somebody met their partner through grabbing a book off the train,’ says Michelle. ‘Writing the book was a seamless process. I think the fact that Ali and I have spent our entire lives in each other’s pockets helped with that.’
‘Yeah,’ Ali continues. ‘We didn’t really know how to write a book together, whether we should write a chapter or sit next to each other piano-style and write the whole thing. We started writing a chapter each and realised our tone was very similar. It became more and more similar over time, and now we’ve become the same person on the page.’
Much of the book’s flair comes from the rapid-fire repartee between Cat and Frankie, and there are definitely ‘bits and pieces of us’ in the characters, say Ali and Michelle. (Ali, for example, shares a strong disdain of bananas with The Book Ninja’s main male character, Sunny, who harbours a phobia of the fruit.)
But a big part of where Ali and Michelle differ from their characters is Cat and Frankie’s disdain of Y A books.
Sunny, a chiselled bookshop customer, could be the perfect candidate for Frankie’s romantic attention – the only problem is he’s got his nose buried in The Hunger Games and Divergent, a major turn-off for Frankie. She’d far rather a man with a bookshelf stocked with Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights, Catch-22, or at the very least, Jasper Jones.
While their characters turn up their noses at YA blockbusters, Ali and Michelle are at pains to point out that they’re huge fans of the genre. ‘We felt a sense of betrayal talking badly about YA while writing The Book Ninja,’ says Ali. ‘We’ve read so much YA. We ran a Books on the Rail book club with the women who wrote the LoveOzYA anthology. We think it’s such an important genre, and we definitely don’t agree with Frankie and Cat.’
As The Book Ninja is added to the arsenal of Ali and Michelle’s network of book-toting spies, the pair are feeling excited and nervous. The book will appeal to fans of Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Jane Austen Book Club and Graeme Simsion, and makes for a delightful, funny read, particularly for when you’re curled up on the window seat.