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Saturday, October 30, 2010


The BBC reports that Nobel Prize-winner Heaney has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot for his collection of poems called Human Chain -- a collection that has already snared the Forward Prize.

Heaney is certainly consistent: he has won the TS Eliot Prize before, in 2006.

Chair judge Anne Stevenson said that the judges "have found this an exceptional year for poetry, with a record number of entries, and have agreed on a strong shortlist which is unusually eclectic in form and theme."

Others on the list are John Haynes, Pascale Petit, Robin Robertson, Brian Turner, Sam Willetts, Annie Freud, Fiona Sampson, Derek Walcott, and Simon Armitage.

All ten will take part in a poetry reading at London's Royal Festival Hall the night before the Awards ceremony, which will take place on 24 January 2011.  The prize is worth 15,000 pounds.


Follower Lee Blakey has commented on a long-ago post about a sailor's diary from Nelson's time.  He wonders about the ultimate fate of the journal kept by George Hodge, who boarded his first ship in 1790, aged 13, going on to write about his adventures from the highly unusual perspective of the lower deck.

A marvelous creation, totaling about 500 pages, Hodge's diary contains lively, primitive color paintings, including a wry self-portrait, and records his amours as well as his daily life at sea.  Partly memoir, it notes that he was born "in the Parish of Tinmouth in the County of Northumberland," and that his first ship was "brig Margerey," commanded by "Capt Edger."

The journal was held by the family until sometime before the 1980s, when it was bought at a rare book shop in London by an American who founded a maritime museum in Pennsylvania, J. Welles Henderson.  For some reason, when he died it was not endowed to the museum, but instead sold at auction by Peter Coccoluto, of Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Expected to attract bids up to 30,000 pounds (about $50,000), on August 16, 2008, it sold for $110,000.

But to whom?  Or what?  That is the question.  Apparently it was bought by an agent on behalf of an anonymous collector.  The rest is veiled in mystery.  As Lee Blakey suggests, it would be lovely if it were published.  Probably the best one can hope for is that it is in some repository where researchers can read it.

I did, however, find a number of beguiling quotes from the journal, courtesy of the London Telegraph.

Dec 25, 1806. Employ'd in watering ship and seting up the riger - fish for dinner.

July 16, 1807. On shore at Point [in Portsmouth] at 3pm returnd onboard from liberty brot a girl onboard MAK [initials of girl] at 5pm the girls orderd of the ship.

July 19, 1807. Light breeze at 5am picked up body of John Carter and buried him on the Isle of White

July 20, 1807. I receved prize money from the brige Ben Sprance taking of the Isle of ... 13.6.

July 24, 1807. The Donnegal mand the yards and fired a Salute the Donnegal saild clear or lighter of wine and bread.

Dec 26, 1812. A fresh breeze a strange sail in sight. Empl painting quarterdeck.  Fell from the for top mast Mathew Donelson and was drownded.

All the newspaper stories about this diary make wondering comment about the "ill-educated" spelling.  Obviously the writers have not read many early nineteenth century sea journals -- or those written by James Cook or Joseph Banks, for that matter.  If the transcriptions are correct, Hodge's spelling is amazingly accurate for an apparently self-taught seaman, considering his background, his job, and his era.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


The digitization revolution is truly great for historians.  While looking at a faithful reproduction on the computer screen is not at all the same as handling wonderful old documents, complete with additions made by old archivists (see the penciled comments made by the editor John Hawkesworth in the margins of the log of the Dolphin kept by Captain Samuel Wallis in 1767, for instance), it is a million times better than nothing at all.

Maritime historians in particular should be enlivened to learn that the "Bible" of shipping news in 18th and 19th century England, Lloyds List, is now online.  Not only can you see it as it happened (without paying the one pound, ten shillings, annual subscription charged in 1826), but the text is searchable.

This is courtesy of the Hathi Trust, which runs a massive digital archive named after the Hindi word for "elephant," reputedly the animal with the longest memory.

HathiTrust is headed by Director John Price Wilkin, who has led large-scale digitization initiatives at the University of Michigan for more than a decade.  This is also the university which, with Indiana University, provides much of the funding for this massive archive.  Currently, it has digitized 2,465,961,400 pages, equivalent to 83 miles of books and journals, including the results of the Google Book Search Project.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A photographic history of mining in early New Zealand

Writing my commentaries on the politics threatening to affect the Alexander Turnbull Library was very pleasantly interrupted when geologist and historian Simon Nathan arrived with a pre-launch copy of his latest book, through the eyes of a miner, The Photography of Joseph Divis.

Published by Wellington bibliophile Roger Steele, this photographic history is a beautiful production, certainly worthy of its author's pride.  What always strikes me is Simon Nathan's quiet but intense enthusiasm for his project.  He radiated a real affection for Joseph Divis, a curiously lonely man who migrated to New Zealand from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) via Germany in 1909, then kept body and soul together hacking at the unforgiving rock in mines with resonant names like Blackwater and Martha, while he photographed his bleakly spectacular surroundings and his companion labourers as a hobby, in the hope it would become his career.

At times he was given hope, as the now defunct Auckland Weekly News bought and boldly featured his work, but his ambitions failed, in the end.  Ultimately, this is a sad story, but there are wonderful revelations along the way.

Every good tale needs a hook, and this one is no exception.  A pioneer in the art of time lapse photography, Joseph Divis made a habit of sneaking into camera range before the shutter snapped.  Often he was holding the trusty bicycle that got him from place to place; occasionally he managed to get to the middle of a group; and sometimes he posed alone, as a marker to emphasize the immensity of the scenery.  And almost always he was wearing a hat.

His collection of hats was amazing, a testimony to male fashion of the time:  I enjoyed the array of homburgs, trilbies, and boaters almost as much as I relished the solemnity of his fixed gaze.

Most gripping, however, are his studies of his fellow miners.  They are pictured above ground, waiting for the next shift, and below ground, creeping into crannies with their candles, to hunker down by boxes of dynamite, and enjoy a mug of tea.  Through Divis, you participate in their social activities, too -- parties, school concerts, weddings, even the occasional hangi.

Strongly recommended for anyone who loves the history that was captured in fine old photography.  Simon Nathan will be talking about his book at Turnbull House, Wellington, at 5:30 pm on 10 November.

Reactions to my posts on the threat posed by the SS Management Bill ...

Excuses, excuses -- but a good one, this time.

The silence from this end has been because I have been tackling the mountain of mail that has come internationally, as well as from New Zealand readers, as a result of my posts on the State Sector Management Bill and serious concerns about the loss of the independence of the National Library of New Zealand, with the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Some have gone so far to say that they are so alarmed by the prospective legislative changes that they have decided not to donate their precious collections of New Zealand artifacts and books to the Turnbull.

Others ask why the Government appears to be determined to make government departments bigger, not smaller.  This is counter to trends overseas, and cost-savings, dubious as they are, cannot be the whole reason. 

Another correspondent has observed that linking digital technology between branches of the Department of Internal Affairs seems downright dangerous, when censorship is part of the same department.

If any of my links lead to the message "expired search," just persist by prodding links on the site.  The information is still available, though it might have been removed from the front window, as it were.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Submissions to Parliament concerning New Zealand's national library

There has been a great deal of off-list interest in my posting on the Select Committee hearing into the State Sector Management Bill, much of it from researchers, authors, and librarians overseas. 

As I described, there are serious concerns about the impact of the proposals to combine the National Library (including the internationally iconic Alexander Turnbull Library) with the National Archives and make the catch-all body a sub-department of Internal Affairs.

A submission was made by conference call from Auckland, by the head librarians of the Auckland City Library and the Library of the University of Auckland, Janet Copsey and Sue Cooper, where concerns were expressed that the full function of the National Library is not appreciated.   They likened it to the 1980s debacle of selling off the Government Printing Office.  The Government at the time, reckoning that it was just a printing business, sold it off at fire-sale rates to Graeme Hart (creating a local millionaire) and then realized belatedly that the Government Printer had been the issuer of Parliamentary printed documents, a role that no ordinary printer could ever fill. 

Read their submission here.

The application of the Guardians Kaitiaki of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with a draft of their submission, can be read here.

And an excellent summary of Dr. Donald Gilling's arguments, made in the context of his application to make a formal submission, can be read here.

For those interested in the positions of those who use the New Zealand National Archives, their thoughts are also online.  To read all the arguments made by wise historians, librarians, and archivists, trawl through the list on this page.

There are, as you will see, two pages of submissions, evidence of the deep concern felt throughout the country.  It is nice that it is all online -- that New Zealand is an open society.

My own thought is that it is very strange when the national historical and bibliographic heritage becomes part of the department that issues passports.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


There is quite a history to this particular national treasure, and one modest man's name dominates the story. 

As far back as 1858, the foundations of the National Library of New Zealand were laid, when a General Assembly Library was formed in Wellington, to serve Members of Parliament.  Then, in 1918, a bibliophile by the name of Alexander Turnbull bequeathed his library to the nation.  This led to the 1965 National Library Act, where the General Assembly Library, the Alexander Turnbull Library, and the National Library Service (which interloaned books all over the country, majorly to schools) were combined, to form the National Library of New Zealand.

This was considered so important that in 2003 another Act was passed, which strengthened and clarified the relationship between the National Library and the Alexander Turnbull Library, and affirmed that their collections were a taonga -- a National Treasure.  At the same time a body called the Guardians Kaitiaki of the Alexander Turnbull Library was formed.

The Guardians expressed grave concerns about the independence of the institution they guard, at a Select Committee meeting last week.  This was because of a new Bill, the State Sector Management Bill, which threatens the autonomy of this national treasure. 

According to the website, "The purpose of the Bill is to amalgamate a number of existing agencies to achieve gains of financial efficiences ..."  In a word, it is to cut costs.  According to the testimony of one of the speakers, Dr. Donald Gilling, even this is doubtful, as the figures are controversial. 

Yet, this Bill will effectively remove the independence of the National Library, as with the National Archives, it will be integrated into the Department of Internal Affairs.  Once the integration is accomplished, the Chief Archivist and National Librarian will report to a Deputy Chief Executive, who will be in charge of a proposed catch-all Branch of Knowledge, Information, and Technology.

Elizabeth Caffin reminded the committee that the job of the Guardians Kaitiaki of the Turnbull was to advise the Government on matters relating to the integrity and status of the library collections, and the special research character of the services.  As she pointed out, the Alexander Turnbull Library was one of the world's greatest and most respected research libraries -- "Yet this treasured institution is to be embedded at a low level in a government department in a way that diminishes its status both at home and abroad."

Delegates from the Public Service Association reinforced this by expressing their concern that the Chief Archivist and the National Librarian would be downgraded to third tier management.

After pointing out that the Bill would also remove any ministerial oversight of selling off the holdings, union member (and librarian) Peter Sime said, "We're looking after the national heritage here and it's a pretty big deal to get rid of that sort of material."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Not long ago, I commented on a collection of thriller shorts by debut writers who had been sponsored by veteran authors, Killer Year.  I enjoyed the stories, finding some particularly good, and have set myself a part time task of searching for books written by these fortunate souls.

Jason Pinter's short story was a stand-out for me, so I looked for him first in the library, and found that though he has produced an astonishing number of books in the meantime, they are hard to find -- simply because they are so popular.  I finally tracked down The Guilty, so was introduced to the character, Henry Parker, a rookie reporter who gets into trouble very easily.  In this one, a female superstar is killed on the red carpet outside a glamorous nightclub, and the fun begins. 

It is all very youthful.  Pinter writes with the wide-eyed zest of a winger playing for the All Blacks for the very first time, and his hero is naive to suit.  Everything is calculated to appeal to the sub-thirties set, which is obviously very successful ploy.  Not for the blue rinse set, however.

More mature ladies would prefer Patry Francis, whose the liar's diary is a thought-provoking exploration of the impact of a charismatic eccentric on a small New England community, and the violence that follows. In its way, it is as controversial as the famous Virginia Andrews Flowers in the Attic, but does not get away with it quite as well.  This is partly because Francis, aware that she was perhaps being over-ambitious, lacked confidence, and partly because there are unanswered questions that haunt the reader, but do not seem to be deliberate. Also, the main character, Jeanne Cross, is pictured as dependent on alcohol and sleeping pills, to justify her reactions, which is no substitute for good solid psychological reasons for her actions.  Judging by the acknowledgments, Francis had a lot of advice and help from people who saw great promise in her work.  Another book or two will justify this, I think.

Then I came to Brett Battles, and was astonished.  From the very first word of the very first book, this guy writes like a pro.  His protagonist, Jonathan Quinn, is a true original -- a cleaner, a crime-scene janitor, the man who clears up the mess after those who have done "the wet work" have gone.  Quinn's apprentice, Nate, is even better.  It might sound like Batman and Robin, but Battles gets away with it. Let me make a prediction -- Jeffery Deaver, his mentor, has made himself some competition.

I'd like to know more about Battles himself, but his website, while as professional as his thriller writing, doesn't reveal much.  His first book was apparently bought by a publishing house called Ugly Town, and plucked out of obscurity to be published by Bantam Dell instead.  That's a big step.  How did it happen? 

It's a mystery worthy of working into a Jonathan Quinn page-turner. 

Monday, October 18, 2010


Vanda Symon has been interviewed by the New Zealand Society of Authors in their NZSA Chapbook -- as the chair of the Otago-Southland Branch.

First, they ask what GENRE she writes in.

Vanda Symon's answer:
I write crime fiction, detective crime fiction to be specific. My protagonist is a young woman, Detective Sam Shephard, who starts out in this series in Mataura, but then moves to Dunedin to undertake detective training in the big smoke. I love writing my novels in a local setting, and make full use of our New Zealand way of speaking and doing things. Some people say you can’t sell books overseas if you set them in New Zealand, but my books have sold into Germany. I think international readers like to get a taste of a foreign country. I really enjoy writing crime fiction, and am very happy in that genre.

How long have you been writing?

I started writing my first novel when my youngest son was 6 months old. He’s eight now. Where did that time go! That first novel took four years from whoa to go, as life was pretty hectic with pre-schoolers. Now the kids are older I aim to write a novel a year. I have a mental image of myself when I’m old and doddery with a gin and tonic in one hand and still writing with the other.

What originally inspired you to start writing?

I have always been an avid reader, and from childhood always assumed I’d write books some day. You have to love the innocence of youth - it had never occurred to me that I couldn’t.

What is your most recent publication?

My third novel, Containment, came out in December 2009. I’m delighted that it has been named as a finalist in the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for best Crime Fiction. I have just finished reading the proofs of my fourth novel, Bound, which will be published in February next year. My publisher is Penguin.

What advice can you offer to new writers?

Read, read, read. And read broadly, not just in the genre you have chosen to write in. It gives you a broader picture of how the world works, and how people work. Also it makes life so much more interesting to expand your reading horizons. I have only recently discovered the wonderful world of biographies and memoirs. They provide a great insight into characters, and people dynamics, as well as being straight out inspirational.
When it comes to the writing part – nothing happens unless you sit your butt on a chair and actually write. Sometimes it can be exhilarating, other times it can be a slog, but, as Stephen King put it “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
How long have you been a NZSA Branch Chair?

I think it is five years now. Time goes so fast! The Otago Southland branch is fantastic, a really warm and supportive group of writers. It’s such a pleasure to be a part of it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Jon Snyder/

Obviously, there is huge public interest in e-book reading, and, as American naval novelist and historian James L. Nelson comments below, little knowledge of the damage that lending and re-selling of "real" books does to the income of struggling authors.

Follower Don Gilling sent me a link to an interesting commentary by Victor Keegan in the UK Guardian, which deplores the fact that e-books cannot be passed around between friends, saying that reading should be a communal business. 

Keegan begins his discussion by meditating, "Books have come late to the digital party, but change is now happening at such a furious pace that even conservative members of the trade are starting to realise that their industry is being snatched away from them before their eyes."  In fact, as he goes on to comment, it is analogous to the shift from scrolls to books.  In medieval times, reading was confined to the educated few with access to the scrolls -- it was a little closed elite community that exploded when the print revolution made reading available to the masses.

Now, that reading public is going to get even bigger.  As e-books are read on devices like fancy cellphones, laptops, and i-pads, the number of those who enjoy reading will increase, probably in dramatic leaps -- "more books will be read in future as out-of-copyright ones are reprinted and 18-to-24-year-olds, the drivers of mobile adoption, take to reading on their phones and other devices."  With the right e-bookreader, you can read in bright light on the beach, or in completely unlit airplane cabins. As he says, "the product itself --­ the book -- ­ is not threatened, only the way it is read."

To which, I comment that the way it is read is going to become important, too -- even more important than the old choices we've been making, between hardbacks, mass market paperbacks, and audiobooks.  Choosing your e-bookreader is going to become as mind-taxing as deciding what kind of television you want in your lounge.  Already, manufacturers and e-bookreader retailers are competing madly for this growing market, as a recent story on wired attests, and the range of readers is widening all the time.   Don't opt blindly for a kindle, they advise (especially if you live outside the States).  Head to the experts before stopping at the store, and even then think very carefully, because it looks as if you are going to be using it a lot.

But, as Keegan points out, reading is going to be a lonelier business than it used to be, because  e-bookreaders and the folks who sell or give you the digital books make it impossible to lend a book if you don't lend the device as well. "Some publishers even ask you to state that you won't read the book aloud," he exclaims.

Well, not being allowed to read out choice bits is really rather extreme.  One wonders how they think they could possibly police it.  But, as far as authors and publishers are concerned, recommending books to friends is a very good thing, but it is hard on the pocket when they are loaned out for free.  It would be ever so much nicer if those friends paid to have those books downloaded onto their own personal readers.  And, if e-books eliminated the secondhand book market, it would be an unexpected bonus.

Friday, October 15, 2010


The latest figures from the Association of American Publishers are quite startling.

Indeed, it is little wonder that has headlined the news that adult hardcover sales sagged 24.4% in August 2010. 

That is not all that is dire.  Paperback sales decreased 18.3% that month, while adult mass market sales plunged 21.9%.  Religious books were also down, but by the relatively insignificant figure of 0.4%.  More disturbing are August figures for children's reading, hardcover children's books being down by 8%
and children's/young adult paperback sales down 15.1%.  Remarkable, too, is that sales of hard-copy audio books decreased by 21.9% that month.

Yet the news is not all bad.  Book sales over all increased by 3.4% when compared with figures for August 2009, and year-to-date sales are up by 6.9%.  So what has bolstered the figures?

Textbook sales are partly responsible.  University press hardback sales were up 10.2% in August, while university press paperback increased by 15.7%.  The market for other professional tomes rose by 14.5%, which indicates that people still need real books if they want to learn.

Another factor is that downloaded audio books saw an increase of 4.6% over last August.  Not bad -- but that figure pales into utter insignificance when compared with the revelation that E-book sales increased by 172.4% when compared to August 2009. 
Looking at a wider range of dates produces an even more impressive figure.  E-book sales for January-August 2010 totaled $263 million, compared to $89.8 million over January-August 2009, an overall increase of 193%.
It is the increase that is so significant.  Year-to-date E-book sales comprise only 9.03% of total book sales -- but at the close of 2009 the figure was only 3.31%. 
Obviously, that percentage is going to soar, and the future for E-book sales is guaranteed to be dramatic.


It has been hidden from view for almost forty years, but now it is up for sale at Nate D. Sanders auction house -- an original Dr Seuss handwritten book.

According to, the master wrote just the first seven pages, and an assistant created the next twelve, but you can see Dr Seuss corrections throughout.  It also doesn't make much sense, being a germ of an idea for a book on sports -- "All Sorts of Sports.  Shall I play checkers?  Golf? Croquet? There are so many games there are to play" -- but the wackiness and rhythm are plain to see.

The collection includes a typed letter, signed "Ted" (for Theodor Seuss Geisel) and dated July 11, 1983.  It discusses the master's reservations about the idea, saying that a story about a hero who flubs a catch at any ball at all "will make him schnook."  In short, Dr Seuss had a very strong feeling that the reader's first reaction would be, "What's the matter with this dope?"

The auction house was offered the item by one of the master's former assistants, but whether it was the actual assistant who created the last twelve pages is not revealed.  Nevertheless, it certainly has appeal.  The auction closes on Thursday, October 21st at 5 pm US Pacific Time.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Vince Flynn, a bestselling American writer of political thrillers, has inadvertently triggered a fascinating political situation with his latest, called American Assassin.

I have to admit that Flynn's name was unfamiliar to me, probably because his corpse-strewn, neo-con thrillers are warmly recommended by Glenn Beck.  A feature in snagged my attention this morning, though, because it relates to the ebook vs. hardback topic that is so relevant right now.

Buyers of American Assassin are infuriated because the kindle version is only twelve cents cheaper than the hardback-- $14.99 and $15.11, respectively.  It hasn't done Flynn's sales any harm, the kindle book being #1 in the paid bestsellers list, and the hardback #3, but his fans are distinctly unhappy.  Ebooks are much cheaper to produce, they argue, and the price difference should reflect this. 

"Greedy" publishers and authors are pilloried in the heated discussions that have sprung up on the Amazon site, no one having taken heavy discounting of the hardback (in response to policy) into consideration.  There is more than discussion going on, however -- the offended fans have taken to facebook, twitter, and all the other social networks, and mounted a Campaign.  And it looks as if those who make policy at Amazon are doing a rapid rethink.

Latest news is that Amazon no longer publicize the ebook:  on the American Assassin page, there is no link to the kindle edition.  And, when you finally find it by devious means, the price is no longer available.  It will be interesting indeed to see what happens next.

But how does this affect the so-called "greedy"authors and publishers?  It is more important to them than it might seem, at first glance.  "At least with the hardcopy book, I can lend it to a friend, or take it to a used book store and trade it for something I haven't read yet," comments William Smith of Kingston, NY.  This certainly snared my attention.  Used book stores do not yield royalties; and unless friends turn around and buy another book by that same author at a regular store, there is no financial gain to the author or the publisher at all.  If a kindle book can be sold only once, however, the benefits are obvious.

Perhaps authors should be mounting their own campaign, in support of realistically priced ebooks.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


It could be the answer for thousands of frustrated historians who write readable, well-crafted prose, just to see their papers languish in scarcely read academic journals.  It could also solve the problem of the fascinating topic that is too long for a single paper, and too short for a proper book.

A news release issued today (12 October 2010) by Amazon begins:  "Less than 10,000 words or more than 50,000: that is the choice writers have generally faced for more than a century -- works either had to be short enough for a magazine article or long enough to deliver the 'heft' required to book marketing and distribution."

Now, they say, they have the answer to this untapped store of novella-length nonfiction -- "Kindle Singles."  These are books that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature, or about the same length as a few chapters of a regular book.  Naturally, they will be priced to match their length -- a bargain for researchers, who want more than is available in books, but haven't the resources to search all the relevant journals..

The announcement is aimed at "serious writers, thinkers, scientisits, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers," who are invited to "join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world."

How much money would there be in it?  Not much, at a guess.  But it certainly promises an outlet for work that is both too brief and too long to be considered by the publishing world, both trade and academic.

Interested?  Read the release.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Publisher Jacqueline Church Simonds sent me a link to the Admont Benedictine Library, which is not just the largest monastery library in the world, but perhaps the most beautiful.  A masterpiece of baroque architecture, it has occasionally been called the eighth wonder of the world.

Trawling through the site, I learned a great deal.  Founded in 1074, this library boasts a massive three-volume Bible, created around 1070, and more than 1400 glorious illuminated manuscripts.  The white shelves hold thousands of precious old books, while the vaulted ceilings above are daintily decorated with frescoes painted by Bartolomeo Altomonte over the years 1775 and 1776.  There is also fine arts museum (full of religious works, of course) and a natural history museum, which includes a collection of wax fruit.

What the website did not tell me was where I must go to view this very special library.  My only guess at its geographical position was that it is somewhere in Austria.

Further delving told me that it is on the River Elms in the picturesque little town of Admont, and has a spectacular setting on the edge of the Gesause National Park.  More than that, I cannot tell you.  Admont isn't even in my atlas!

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Craig Sisterson, staunch supporter of New Zealand-written crime fiction, has posted a wonderfully tempting plea on his website, KiwiCrime.

He asks, "Why don't Kiwi readers buy (more) Kiwi crime fiction?" -- and goes on to say that he would love to get your feedback and thoughts on his post.  It is quite a commentary in itself, with links to an article he wrote for Book Notes on possible reasons for the historic lack of support for locally-written crime fiction, as well as to excellent recent articles by Mark Broatch and Philip Matthews that elaborate on some of those points.

There are comments aplenty already, from authors as well as readers. Add to them, as you will, but in the meantime, enjoy.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Buy from amazon
Bruce Mahalski, a fan of books about true maritime ordeals, has sent in a noteworthy review of a noteworthy book:  A Furnace Afloat by Joe Jackson.

On the morning of Thursday, May 3rd, 1866, the clipper ship Hornet, was struggling through the doldrums a thousand miles west of the Galapagos Islands when an accident in the hold ignited a barrel of varnish. Soon the whole ship, whose cargo included 20,000 gallons of kerosene, was engulfed in flame. The crew and their two passengers, Samuel and Henry Ferguson – the sons of a wealthy East Coast merchant banker – escaped into the three ship’s boats with only ten days of food and twelve gallons of water to support the 31 men.

After more than 40 days adrift the fourteen starving dehydrated men on the sole surviving boat were about to start drawing straws when they reached Hawaii after an epic journey across the liquid desert of the North Pacific. They had survived the ocean, the heat, starvation, illness, madness and near mutiny. A young writer who called himself Mark Twain was on hand to bear testament to their ordeal in the newspapers of the day.

Mr Jackson has written a rich and compelling narrative which ranks right up there with the very best accounts of shipwreck survival literature. Meticulously researched, written and presented the story draws comparison with other extreme open boat odysseys such at Captain Bligh’s epic 1789 voyage after the Bounty mutiny (3618 miles in 41 days) and the survivors of the Essex, two of whose boats travelled over 4500 miles in 95 days in 1820 after their ship was sunk by a whale.

Without firsthand experience is all but impossible to imagine the suffering endured by the survivors but Jackson does make you feel like you are right there in the boat. You can almost smell the salt and hear the tubercular rattle of Samuel Ferguson’s failing lungs and the whispers of the crew as they plan the details of his death and consumption.

Bruce concludes by saying that A Furnace Afloat is a gripping highly readable story for anyone interested in the human condition.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Buy from amazon
It's a neat idea. Thirteen bestselling thriller and crime writers adopted a group of promising new writers, and mentored them.  Then they chose thirteen of the best short stories that emerged from this nurturing, and St Martin's published them as a book.

A fascinating introduction by writer M.J. Rose explains the background, with an outline of the depressing publishing scene of 2007 (she must have had a conniption fit as it evolved over 2008 etc.).  Very pertinently, she says, "With margins low, distribution costs rocketing, limited or no marketing budgets for all but the top 15 percent of titles, and little major media interest in all but the biggest authors, book sales drop a little more every year and fewer and fewer authors can live off their fiction efforts."  Even those biggest authors are feeling the pinch, she elaborates, and nowadays find their job "is as much about selling as it is about writing." 

Because of the pressure, promising debut writers are being left further and further behind. So, in the fall of 2004, a bunch of kindhearted veterans decided to do something about it.  At Bouchercon, the big mystery and suspense book conference, they formed a club called International Thriller Writers (not international enough to be interested in New Zealand, alas), to create a supportive community.  ITW offered to mentor a selection of newbies, and so "the Class of '07" resulted, along with this book.

In most cases, each new writer's story is introduced by an established writer, who lauds it in hyperbolic terms.  Again, a neat idea.  James Rollins recommends the "razor-sharp prose" of Brett Battles's "Perfect Gentleman" and Lee Child writes that J.T. Ellison's "Prodigal Me" is "a classic short, with a great payoff twist in the final paragraphs."

Tess Gerritson calls Patry Francis ("The Only Word I Know in Spanish") "a writer worth my absolute attention."  Jeffery Deaver says that Jason Pinter ("The Point Guard") "is a terrific young talent."  And so forth and so on.

The participating writers worked hard to make this idea a success.  Promotion included a Killer Year blog and a website (now defunct).  A chapbook was created and mass mailed to a slew of independent bookstores, and Killer Year panels were set up at various book conferences.  This book, as well as the concept, got major press coverage.  Many radio interviews were made, and feature articles were published.

Having read all this, I delved into the stories themselves with lively interest, as in the past the genre thrived on new voices, and there is no reason to believe the rule does not still hold.  Though a couple of the stories got the "what the hell was that about?" reaction from me, and a couple more were too predictable, the collection passed an entertaining few hours.  Jeffery Deaver would make a great critic -- Jason Pinter's story is absolutely stunning.  Others that stand out are "Slice of Pie" by Bill Cameron, "One Serving of Bad Luck" by Sean Chercover, "The Only Word I Know in Spanish" by Patry Francis, and "The Crime of My Life" by Gregg Olsen.

But what did it do for the writers?  As I said, the Killer Year website is down.  The exercise was successful enough to be repeated for a couple of years, but there were no follow-up books.  I have to confess that the debut authors' names are unfamiliar to me -- despite the best of intentions, Jeffery Deaver and Lee Child have no competitors here, though I notice that all the participants I googled have their own websites, and are as assiduous as ever in promoting their work. One at least has taken advantage of the kindle service, and has a long extract available free.

Everyone has done his or her best.  That nothing tremendous has come out of it yet is indeed a commentary on the current parlous publishing scene.  But I feel faith that at least one of these writers will become a Name, in the end.


Publishers Lunch features a gossipy and interesting report on the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is bustling and busy, with major deals being struck, helped along by glorious weather.

One comment caught my eye, reminding me of my recent note that kindle sales were catching up with hardback sales, or even overtaking them, even with very recently launched books.  Google's Tom Turvey questioned four publishing executives on the transition to e-reading, and CEO of HarperCollins, Brian Murray agreed that there has been "a sea change in the past few months," where hardcover sales of bestsellers are lagging behind ebook sales.

Questioned on the niggly problem of ebook royalties, he thought that "25 percent is fair and appropriate right now" for the author's cut, and he doesn't "see anything on the horizon that makes me think that's going to change."

The really startling comment came from Bloomsbury executive Evan Schnittman, who added, "the real royalty rates are much higher" once you factor in unearned advances.

E-book royalties don't count against the original advance, even if the ebooks are outselling the print edition?  That's news to me.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Blood letting, blistering, and burying to the neck in sand were some of the treatments used ­ with varying degrees of success ­ by surgeons of Britain’s Royal Navy to treat patients from the late 1700s to the late 1800s, as government records released Friday show.

Britain’s National Archives has cataloged and made available to the public journals and diaries from surgeons who served on ships and in shore installations from 1793 to 1880. The archive represents “probably the most significant collection of records for the study of health and medicine at sea for the 19th century,” said Bruno Pappalardo, naval records specialist at the National Archives.

Rum was the treatment of choice aboard HMS Arab during a voyage to the West Indies in 1799 and 1800. A surgeon writes that “application of rum” to the area of a scorpion or centipede bite helps prevent paralysis. The same surgeon mixed rum with oil to treat a tarantula bite.
Aboard HMS Princess Royal in 1801, tobacco was thought to have curative properties. A man who had fallen overboard and was submerged for 12 minutes was brought back aboard the Princess Royal with the appearance of a corpse, surgeon Ben Lara wrote. The victim was dried and warmed by hot water bottles and then tobacco smoke was pumped into his lungs through a tube. After almost an hour of treatment, a pulse was detected and the man lived, according to the journal....

Read more.