Search This Blog

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Is it possible for a public library to make money? 

When I was a child, my mother helped out at a private library that definitely was aimed at making a profit, albeit a small one.  It was sited in a small suburban shopfront, and was stocked with popular paperbacks, mostly romances.  The mainly elderly female clientele hired books for a small fee, and were given an even smaller refund when the book was returned, which was a deposit on the fee for the next book taken out.  It didn't last long as a commercial venture, disappearing when a branch of the public library was set up in the same shopping centre, attracting the public with free book loans and a much wider range of literature.

I witnessed a similar venture being set up in another town, about thirty years later, also in a small shopping centre with no public library branch.  The speculator hired the venue, bought in many boxes of magazines and pulp romances, and set up shop.  Her system was a little different.  You bought the book, just as in any other secondhand bookshop, and when you returned the book, you were given a slip that served as a deposit on the next book you "bought."

I think the shop lasted about five months.  This time, the public library was not a factor.  What felled this venture was the quality of the offering.  If you want to look something up, or borrow a book on some esoteric topic, you don't go to a little profitmaking library, because it is so highly unlikely to hold the book you need. 

It is an accepted fact that a public library is a recipient of public funds, not an earner.  In New Zealand, there are various methods of helping out the budget, such as interloan fees, reserve fees, late return fees, and borrowing fees for CDs, DVDs, and bestsellers.  But these don't even start to get the balance sheet into the black.

Yet, David Streitfield reports in the New York Times that a private company in Maryland, called Library Systems & Services, has taken over public libraries in ailing cities in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, growing into the country's fifth-largest library system.

Their aim is to make a profit themselves, while at the same time removing a financial burden from the city.  The question is, how are they going to do it?

The librarians, for obvious reasons, are worried.  The company asserts that libraries are often creaky antiquated organizations with inefficient service.  "Our" librarians are going to be made to work, they aver -- which presumably means that the era of the librarian who becomes so interested in your research project that s/he devotes thought and time to providing active help is over.  There just won't be time for that kind of thing.   There are also dire suspicions that they are going to "clean out" under-used material. 

Patrons are even more alarmed, to the extent of writing petitions.  Publicly owned libraries are a cornerstone of democracy, they say.   Whether they will succeed in fighting the juggernaut remains to be seen.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

CRISIS: One Central Bank Governor & the Global Financial Collapse

"I told those assembled that we thought the crisis had caused the biggest destruction of global wealth -- albeit some unrealised -- in human history."
-- Alan Bollard, Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, remembering a speech made at a summit, 27 February 2009.

New Zealand is a small country -- so small that membership of the great G-20 Group is impossible, and during G-20 summits our political and economic leaders are dependent on Australia for the to-and-fro of the state of the financial world. It was not impossible, however, for the Governor of our Reserve Bank to observe the unfolding of the near total collapse of the world economy, as Alan Bollard confides in this 203-page account of what he experienced during that tsunami time in modern history.

There was a Launch.  I went to it.  It was in the museum of the Reserve Bank, complete with interactive displays. 

The invitation said "business attire.'

I wore the nearest approximation thereof in my wardrobe, and have never seen more Suits at once in my life.  For a person who knows nothing about economic science (and wouldn't even know the difference between the Reserve Bank and the Treasury) it could have been intimidating.  I enjoyed myself mightily, however -- which was not a guarantee of understanding the book, believe me.  Nevertheless, I bought it.  And coaxed the Governor into signing it.

And I found it unput-down-able.  It is an amazing book, making headlines that were terrifying and unsettling at the time comprehensible now.  It is also remarkably intimate.  Co-writer Sarah Gaitanos, orchestrator of the book ("There's a fascinating book in there," she informed the Governor after switching off the digital recorder), is a gifted oral historian who encouraged Alan Bollard to relax and "speak" in his most confiding, most humanly understandable, voice.  Reading it, I found it surprisingly easy to identify with this remote figure, and see the crisis in a different way.

Because of this unexpected empathy, not just does the reader learn about the horrifying hour-to-hour unfolding of the economic crisis, but is given a historic insight into the daily life of one of the front-seat observers.  Thus, we are given the most unusual privilege of knowing that Alan Bollard sneaked away from a particularly taxing summit in Auckland -- to watch cricket.

"I admit to an ulterior motive," he confesses.  "Back in Wellington I headed for the stadium where I was just in time to catch the end of the New Zealand 20:20 cricket game against India."  New Zealand (he says "we") "improbably won off the last ball of the match."

He freely goes on to say that it "was a great emotional release."

Would Greenspan or Summers be as candid?

Somehow, I doubt it.  This book is unique.  American readers, I highly recommend that you buy this book and take advantage of a unique peephole into recent history.  The book was published by Auckland University Press:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


The BBC reports that a novelist -- Hanif Kureishi -- has been awarded the prize that was set up in honor of a playwright -- Harold Pinter.  The award, worth one thousand pounds, is given to a British writer who casts an "unflinching, unswerving" gaze upon the world.

Pinter's widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, helped judge the prize, and commended the winner because he "courageously and irreverently speaks the truth about life in our multicultural world, beyond any platitudes of political correctness."

Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho will receive the international writer of courage prize, which is awarded to writers persecuted for their beliefs.


Yesterday, we went to a movie -- INCEPTION -- amazing!  Highly recommended.  The effects are mind-bending, as is the plot.  You will come away thinking deeply about reality, and what it is.

Somewhat appropriately, a friend sent me one of those internet posts that go around the world and past many uncomprehending computers -- but which in this case also called in one's sense of reality.

First, it introduced a new word. Paraprosdokian  It is so new, it is not in any dictionaries.  But it is in Wikipedia.  It is easier for me if I think of it as "paradoxian."

Anyway, here is an extract to the post, which will make you think about how follow-up sentences can surprise -- by their sheer paradoxicality ...

paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax

� I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.

� Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

� I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

And isn't my illustration of a pencil-gun appropriate?  The pencil is mightier than the gun, as they say.

It's an artwork another friend gave me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I recently received an interesting email from a fan of True Crime stories.  This was Todd Jensen, who wrote:

Hi Joan,

I recently discovered your blog. Considering that I work with I spend a lot of time on the Internet browsing blogs, and I must say that yours has caught my attention. Coincidentally, we recently published an article entitled (10 Books About Real World Crimes) that I believe would draw considerable interest from your readers. If you are interested in sharing with them, then feel free to do so. Here's the link for your convenience:  TEN BOOKS ABOUT TRUE CRIMES.

It is certainly a fascinating topic.  I feel as if true crime books would develop quite a fan base if they were easier to catalogue and sell.  I have published one myself -- In the Wake of Madness, the truly bloodcurdling story of a whaling captain who was also a serial killer.  The descriptions of the slow and brutal murder of one of his crew -- written by other members of the crew, who stood by helplessly and watched -- were particularly terrible.  As I said to my editor at the time, I used to wake up from heart-pounding nightmares while I was researching and writing the yarn. When I looked for it in bookshops, though, once it had left the "new books" table, it was very hard to find, slotted in a bottom shelf in the nonfiction area.  It's the same in libraries -- there is no easy category for true crime.  The obvious answer is to have a special true crime section immediately following mystery novels.

Todd's site has a list of favorite true crime books, to which a friend -- also a fan of the much neglected genre -- would add Ben MacIntyre's The Napoleon of Crime: the Life and Times of Adam Worth, the Real Moriarty.  (Moriarty, for those of you who are too young to know, was the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes -- until Arthur Conan Doyle resusciated the hero, in response to public outcry.)

My own addition would be Eric Ambler's The Ability to Kill, a collection of yarns that range from rousing and interesting accounts of such classic villains as Jack the Ripper and Burke & Hare, to more modern candidates for notoriety, James Hanratty and Finch & Tregoff.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hardback vs. Paperback vs. E-Book

Interested reader Martin Evans sent me this link to a fascinating discussion of the various book formats by Lisa Jardine.  A highly recommended ten minutes of listening . . . and thinking. From the BBC: click and listen.

Friday, September 17, 2010


For 85 years White Wings: Fifty Years of Sail in the New Zealand Trade has been required reading for anyone researching New Zealand history and the story of trade in southern seas.

Back in the 1920s, shipping reporter Henry Brett wrote a couple of articles for the Auckland Star, to clear up an argument about the quickest passages made by sail.  Intense interest and public demand led to two books, volume one and volume two of White Wings, complete with ship portraits and bloodcurdling descriptions of narrow escapes that are a testament to great seamanship.

A fascinating man, Brett arrived in Auckland in September 1862 on board the Hanover, having arrived from England on his own set of white wings.  He was offered work on the Southern Cross before he even stepped off the ship.  A stint on the New Zealand Herald followed.  In 1870 he helped found the Auckland Star, a liberal paper that owed a lot of its success to his innovative use of carrier pigeons.  He was Mayor of Auckland in 1877 and 1878, Commissioner for New Zealand at the Paris Exhibition in 1889, and the recipient of a knighthood in 1916.  Unfortunately, this remarkable man did not live to see the publication of the second volume of White Wings in 1928.

This book and its companion have been harder and harder to locate, as library copies fell apart, and collectors clung onto them jealously.  Now, however, they have gone online, courtesy of NZETC, and the whole maritime research community can heave a breath of relief.  Even the vital illustrations are there, to add to the immense value of the work.

The extraordinarily valuable NZ Electronic Text website has separate pages for VOLUME ONE and VOLUME TWO.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Nineteenth century prison ship records reveal ghastly disease-ridden conditions on board for about 200,000 unfortunates, including young children, according to a BBC news story.

The lists include 8-year-old Francis Creed, confined for seven years on HMS Bellerophon for stealing copper worth a total of three shillings. Convicted in Middlesex on 25 June 1823, little Frank served out his term in the company of  an assortment of thieves, bigamists, and murderers, including such colorful characters as 84-year-old sheep stealer William Davies.

The records, held by National Archives, have been published online at

A quick search of the Archives using the key phrase "prison hulks" reveals much fascinating stuff, including the ration of wine per mess (imagine sharing a crowded berth with a drunken murderer!), and surgeons' reports on the difference in health between those on hulks and those incarcerated in "regular" prisons. 

Recommended reading for historical novelists, those in search of mystery plots and settings, and people researching the gritty social background of their ancestors.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


For some time now, I have been watching the sales the kindle e-book edition of Island of the Lost on with intrigued attention.  It is selling well, which is probably no surprise -- though the Allen & Unwin paperback is still in print, and the book is still drawing a great deal of attention, the original New York publishers, Algonquin, don't even have it featured in their catalogue.

Evidently, it is not considered worth the cost of producing a print edition, merely to compete with the electronic book.  This is tough news for booksellers, if so.  And -- if so -- is it justified?

Perhaps so. At the same time, I have made a comparison study of Eric Jay Dolin's fascinating account of the impact of the fur trade on early America.

Fur, Fortune and Empire is attracting a lot of interest, including rave reviews from prestigious papers, and has been doing very well.  By contrast to Island of the Lost, which was published three years ago, Dolin's book was launched just a couple of months back.  Naturally, the hardback sales have dominated.  To my surprise, however, the kindle sales have gradually been catching up, and today I see that they have taken the lead.

Bad news for bookstores, indeed.  And authors have to do a lot of rethinking, too.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Every author's dream -- the book that is hitting the bestseller lists,
-- and is not even available yet. 

The Pentagon may be regretting the decision to buy up all 10,000 printed copies of the latest expose of matters dire in Afghanistan, Operation Dark Heart . . . and pulp them 

According to the website, negotiations are in play with the book's publisher, while meantime demand grows hugely.  Have a look at the numbers for yourself -- and the many customer reviews from people who have not yet had a chance to read it.

Chris McGreal in Washington reports that the US defence department is scrambling to dispose of what threatens to be a highly embarrassing expose by the former intelligence officer of secret operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of how the US military top brass missed the opportunity to win the war against the Taliban.

Originally, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer's book had been cleared by the army, but when intelligence sources saw it, there was general alarm.  For the truly over-the-top unfolding of the events, read the story.

Friday, September 10, 2010


The boat that circled the world, created a sensation, and became the "heroine" of a bestselling book (1967) is up for sale -- for the bargain price of quarter of a million quid.

The name of the yacht was turned into a household phrase when Francis Chichester -- at the age of 65! --became the first man to make a solo circumnavigation of the globe.

Public interest burgeoned into wild enthusiasm over the nine month-circuit, with the result that quarter of a million people greeted the intrepid yachtsman on his return to Plymouth.  (That's a coincidence of numbers!)
Now the 16m (53ft) wooden ketch is being sold by her owners, the United Kingdom Sailing Academy.
All those interested should contact Sue Grant, of yacht brokers Berthon, who said there had been great interest.

"She has been restored to how she was at the time of the record. There are modern electronics but they are hidden behind the original control panel. After Sir Francis died in 1972 she was put in the Greenwich museum for some time and was then sold."

It is popularly believed that a good captain loves his ship, no matter how unlovely that vessel might be.  Not so Sir Francis.

"She is cantankerous and difficult and needs a crew of three," he famously quipped:  "a man to navigate, an elephant to move the tiller and a 3ft 6in chimpanzee with arms 8ft long to get about below and work the gear."

Thursday, September 9, 2010


On a lovely summer afternoon, July 4, 1862, a 30-year-old mathematician, Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, with his friend, Rev. Duckworth, took three little girls boating on the river Thames.  They were sisters, and their names were Alice, Lorina, and Edith Liddell.  As they rowed along, Dodgson told the girls stories, and when they returned to Oxford, Alice asked him to write them down.  It took him the rest of the summer and much of the winter, but by February 1863 he had finished, and had given his story the title "Alice's Adventures Under Ground."

It followed the pattern that has become familiar to many generations, a feature of thousands of childhoods:  Intrigued by the sight of a white rabbit in a waistcoat -- a rabbit, what's more, that took a watch out of its waistcoat pocket, Alice follows it over the fields, and falls down an almost endless hole -- so far, in fact, that she wonders whether she will end up in the Antipodes (upside-down, of course) and have to ask, very politely, "Please, Ma'am, is this New Zealand or Australia?"  However, she lands in a hall with many doors, none of which she can open, though there is a glass table with a tiny key.

You remember the rest: Alice finds a little door with a lock that fits the key, shrinks when she drinks from a bottle labelled "Drink me," and expands when she eats from a cake labelled "Eat me," and after almost coming to grief (along with a number of small animals) in a huge pool of her own tears, she makes it into a beautiful garden, where she finds (in no particular order) a blue caterpillar smoking a hookah, gardeners painting white roses red, a Mock Turtle, a Gryphon, a the Queen of Hearts playing croquet with live ostriches for mallets, and curled-up hedgehogs for balls.  No Mad Hatter or March Hare, you will notice -- they came later, in a revised and lengthened version called Alice in Wonderland, which Dodgson wrote in response to general demand after showing the original manuscript to his friends.  Then he self-published it, with the famous illustrations by John Tenniel, in 1865.  And, as everyone knows, he published it under the pseudonym "Lewis Carroll," which became so famous that in encyclopedias, you have to look him up under that name.

Our book group devoted a month's study to Alice in Wonderland -- though I am not sure why.  The meeting was interesting, as queries about pedophilia and mind-altering substances were posed.  The first has been thoroughly debunked, and the second never contemplated.  The reputation of this fanciful Oxford mathematician is unsullied and blameless, so we can safely admire his great contribution to the very new literature of books written especially for children.

The meeting also inspired me to watch the Tim Burton-produced movie.  A huge disappointment for this Tim Burton fan.  The brilliantly Chaplinesque Johnny Depp was as great as ever, but even he couldn't shine -- the overdone special effects and the extremely poor scriptwriting condemned him from the start.  Any similarities to the classic children's story appeared to be accidental.  The writer even seemed to confuse Charles Dodgson with Charles Kingsley, the author of that Victorian tear-jerker, Water Babies, also written for children


New Zealanders have voted, and Whitcoulls have launched its new list of Top 100 books.

Surprise, surprise (joking) the Millenium Trilogy heads the parade.   A real surprise is how Harry Potter has slumped.  It is nice to see classics (old and new) like Pride & Prejudice, To Kill a Mocking Bird and Memoirs of a Geisha there.  Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones is probably predictable, as there has been so much publicity here, what with our own Sir Peter Jackson producing the film -- which made me raise an eyebrow to see that none of the Lord of the Rings series is in the top twenty.

As for the rest of the list, I evidently have to visit a store to see the full array.  Why have they not posted the full list on the website?  There lurks a mystery.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The aftermath of disaster

Sadly, the Christchurch Writers' Festival -- the largest literary event in the South Island of New Zealand -- has been cancelled, because of the many severe aftershocks that have followed the weekend's big earthquake.

For more details, see Graham Beattie's blog and Craig Sisterson's "Crimewatch" in the righthand column.

It is a great disappointment to the publishers, writers, sponsors, and, most profoundly, the hardworking organizers, but not unexpected, considering the grave damage to the infrastructure of New Zealand's second-largest city.  My sympathies to them all.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Bookstores struggling Downunder

While publishers -- Random House in particular -- seem to be breasting difficult economic currents, the story for Australasian booksellers is still murky. The plot thickens in the Whitcoulls story, for instance.

Redgroup Retail, the owner of the Whitcoulls and Borders book stores Downunder, has bargained for a waiver for breaches to its banking covenants.

The book, stationery and entertainment company, based in Melbourne, is exploring a range of options to strengthen its long-term balance sheet.

Last month the company forecast earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and so forth of about $25 million for the 12 months ended August 28, 2010, against which interest payments of approximately $9 million were due, which would have put it in breach of two out of three banking covenants.

It cited a tough trading environment, particularly in Australia, in the last quarter of its financial year.

Chairman Rod Walker, who led the company as executive chairman after its acquisition of the Borders book store chain, will step down, and Joe Browne, finance director of electronics manufacturer Startronics, will take over as a non-executive director.