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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The boy who whispered to animals

Strays, by Ron Koertge
Candlewick Press, 2007

Sixteen-year-old Ted O’Connor is a rather odd teenager, who had extremely odd parents. His entire world was made up of work at the family pet shop (including the animal waifs and strays his mother adopted) and being bullied at school for being “different.” That world fell apart when his parents died in a fiery car crash.

No money was left to sustain him, so Ted is left to the tender mercies of clumsy social workers and semi-psycho foster parents. His fellow foster kids, C.W. and Astin, look almost normal, compared to the middle-aged couple that is caring for them. They also provide the first friendly company Ted has experienced in many a long month.

Ted has one saving grace – well, it saves his sanity on occasion, though it doesn’t help make him look any less different. He can converse with animals. He has really interesting and reassuring conversations with cats, dogs, and lions, often studded with wryly amusing observations on life.

This truly original and remarkable book is not a cute fantasy in the Dr. Doolittle mould, but the story of a boy’s transition from a lonely affinity with animals to the complexities, gains, and losses that come from rediscovering his humanity.

Though classed as a children’s book, Strays has a message for all ages. Thoroughly recommended.

Downunder kids excel digitally

Aussie and Kiwi teenagers among the world’s best at digital reading skills

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has graded Australasian 15-year-olds second-best at digital reading skills in the world. Top ranking is Korea, with Australia and New Zealand equal second.

The tests are just like the old ones in print, but the students use screens and mouses (mice?) instead of pen and paper.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tupaia and North & South

The full review

Tupaia: the Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator. Random House NZ: $55

Muster roll of the Endeavour April 18, 1769, when Tupaia -- "Tobia" -- joined the crew.
Reviewed by Paul Little

Tupaia is the noble Tahitian priest who facilitated contact with early European explorers of the Pacific.  Today, we would call him a skilled networker.  He was certainly a skilled politician, linguist and, above all, navigator.

Tupaia and Tahiti first encountered Europeans in the form of the 1767 Dolphin expedition.  Like that of the Captain Cook's Endeavour a short time later, it followed the all too familiar first-contact sequence of culture clash, gunfire and death.

There is a lot that will be familiar to readers of Anne Salmond's masterpiece The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, which covers much of this territory in considerably less detail.  Both books, for instance, provide head-spinning accounts of the intricacies of Tahitian society and politics, which make day-to-day affairs in Byzantium look like a Playcentre committee meeting.

History, of course, is often about retelling tales and it's contending interpretations rather than narratives that have to slug it out.  Druett has a very different view of Tupaia from Salmond's.  In particular, as her title suggests, she emphasises his skill at navigation, which was largely spurned by Cook when the Tahitian joined the Endeavour to sail from Tahiti to New Zealand and Australia.  We are often told what great navigators ancient Polynesians were but we've seldom had it demonstrated so convincingly or with such clarity.

Druett also accuses Cook of fudging details of Tupaia's death because he was determined to go down in history as the captain who kept his crew alive.  This charge is not made by Salmond, whose work tends to apotheosise the explorer.

This is a stimulating read, and challenging in a good way.  And additional pleasure is the inclusion of several of Tupaia's own watercolours, some familiar, representing several key events, from Joseph Banks attempting to trade a lobster to a battle between Tahitians at sea and Aboriginals fishing.  This addition to Tupaia's other undoubted skills emphasises the tragedy of his premature death on Batavia.

Beaten babies book boycotted

A Facebook page calling for the boycott of a forthcoming book about the deaths of the Kahui twins is going viral.

Back in 2006 three-month-old twins Chris and Cru Kahui died of battering by person or persons unknown. Right from day one, the families of the teenaged parents closed ranks and refused to talk. Now the twins’ mother, Macsyna King, has cooperated with a journalist to produce a book with a version of the tragedy – and a call has gone out for people to boycott it.

The “Boycott the Macsyna King book” Facebook group ballooned to 1500 likes in the first 24 hours.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ghost Stories with a Difference

Ghost stories with a difference

The Ghosts of Kerfol, by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick Press)

In the store where I bought it, this handsomely produced little hardback was classified as a novel for children. Nothing could be farther from the mark. The Ghosts of Kerfol is an engrossing, evocative, well-written collection of short stories – that I would never give to a child to read.

Or maybe standards have changed since I bought books for my own progeny. I know it would have given me nightmares as a child, and am pretty sure that the son who was addicted to cowering behind the settee while he watched Dr Who would have been scared, too. For adults and young adults, however, it is heartily recommended.

It is also very clever. The author confesses in a note that she is inspired by her favourite ghost story, Edith Wharton’s “Kerfol”. This is the chilling tale of a beautiful young Frenchwoman, Anne de Barrigan, who was convicted of murdering her brutally jealous elderly husband, Yves de Cornault, who was found mauled to death by dogs . . . though there were no dogs on his estate, named Kerfol.

Noyes sets a series of short stories at Kerfol, playing fancifully with the original characters, portrayed as ghosts in all but the first, and progressing forward in time. The first is told from the point of view of Anne’s sympathetic maid, Perrette, and then the tales move on through the eyes of a young artist tortured by memories of the French Revolution, a hard-drinking party girl of Prohibition years, a young American couple on their OE, and a profoundly deaf restorer of old gardens.

Though very different people, in different times and circumstances, they are linked by the ghostly revival of long-dead passions, and the continuing evolution of dreadful events of the distant past.  A collection to be kept, re-read, thought about deeply, and remembered.

The naughty viscountess

Frances Anne Vane, best minuet dancer of her time, and notorious flirt

The lady with the enviable bosom, pictured, is the subject of one of the lives of the week on the online Oxford Dictionary of Biography, written by Emma Plaskitt.

Born in London in 1715, Frances had an interesting father, also named Francis -- Francis Hawes -- with the Francis spelled differently.

Francis (with an i) Hawes amassed a lot of money from his job as clerk to the treasurer of the navy, plus speculating in stocks and bonds, but he lost the lot after being exposed as the brain behind the South Sea Bubble.    His wealth was confiscated, to be distributed to the disappointed shareholders, and so the family was reduced to poverty.

Frances (with an e) coped magnificently, however, partly because of her beauty, vivacious nature, and enviable bosom, but also because she was reputedly the finest minuet dancer in England.  In May 1733, at the age of 18, she married Lord William Hamilton, second son of the Duke of Hamilton. Sadly, young Will passed away at his house in Pall Mall in July 1734.  Within months, in May 1733, the vivacious teenager married the unfortunate Viscount Vane, who was a year younger than herself.

Why do I say unfortunate?  Because the heart of William Holles, Viscount Vane, was lost on a disloyal doxy, whose contempt knew no bounds.  She attempted repeatedly to elope with other men, and to separate from him legally, but he remained infatuated with his beautiful young wife.

In 1751, Frances published an account of her escapades, Memoirs of a Lady of Quality -- which may or may not have provided the material for chapter 88  of the novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, a book written by Tobias Smollett.  Because of style and content, it is now considered that the chapter was indeed written by the naught Ms. Vane.

The Memoirs describe her relationship with William Hamilton as a youthful idyll, a romantic episode cruelly terminated by his death.  They describe how her family pressured her into marrying Vane, who is portrayed as ugly and impotent -- slurs that are probably just excuses for her wild sexual escapades with a good selection of men from the current Burke's Peerage.

What everyone found so shocking about Frances was that she boasted about her adulterous alliances, instead of modestly veiling them from public view.  Accordingly, fate caught up with her.  Shunned by high society after the publication of her Memoir, Frances spent the last 20 years of her life as a bedridden invalid, before dying at her house in Mayfair in March 1788.

Monday, June 27, 2011

JKR's Pottermore plans worry bookstores

Harry Potter eBooks plan a concern for bookstore owners

AP National Writer Hillel Italie notes that booksellers are contemplating JK Rowling's website plans with growing panic.

"Bricks and mortar stores are taking a lot of bullets and there's a limit to how mnay bullets we can take," said Roxanne Coady, owner of the wonderful R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut (where I once had a memorable signing).

Jon Howells, spokesman for Britain's Waterstone chain, said that Harry Potter launches "have become the stuff of legend ... We're therefore disappointed that, having been a key factor in the growth of the Harry Potter phenomenon since the first book was published, the book trade is effectively banned from selling the long-awaited eBook editions."

So what is the problem?  That JKR has raced everyone else to the 21st century, it seems. She announced last week that her interactive website will be the exclusive seller of the eBook edtions of her Harry Potter series.  As Rick Spilman commented on an earlier post, she has cut out all the other eBook distributors, such as B&N and Amazon and Waterstones.  And this, it seems, impacts on the more than 200 independent American bookstores that sell eBooks through Google.

JKR is impenitent.  She is proud of the bond she has created with fans online, and said she was "phenomenally lucky in that I have the resources to do it myself and there I got to do it, I think, right."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Random House bringing back romance

Random House revives romance imprint as digital exclusive

The reports that Random House is to revive its romance imprint of a generation back -- Loveswept -- with the difference that it will be a digital-exclusive list.

The eBooks will be published as a trans-Atlantic initiative with Transworld as a partner.

Romance titles have been Big in digital sales, so both publishers think they are onto a good thing.

Newly written books will feature, as well as classic Loveswept titles.  Eight will be released in August, and from then on another title will come out each month.

Did Shakespeare smoke pot?

Paleontologists want to dig up the Bard

David Edwards on The Raw Story reports that is team of paleontologists (yes, the same guys and gals who study extinct human beings) want to exhume Shakespeare to find out if he was a real hippie.

Whether, in a word, he smoked weed.

The surprisingly aptly named Francis Thackeray -- an anthropologist who heads the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa -- has applied formally to the Church of England to exhume the greatest extinct writer of all.

Well, they are not actually going to lift the skeleton out of its last resting place.  "We have incredible techniques," he assured the very worried interviewer on Fox News.  "We don't intend to remove the remains at all."

They simply want to sample it.  First, they want to make sure it really is Shakespeare. (Shades of that old Francis Bacon canard?)  Then they will inspect the teeth (if any) to check what the owner's health had been like, and hopefully even find out the cause of his death.

And then, oh then, they will carry out tests to see if he smoked marijuana.

Was marijuana even available at English country corner stores in the sixteenth century?  Apparently so.  According to the press release, pips found in the garden of Shakespeare's home in 2001 showed traces of cannabin and cocaine.  (They smoked cocaine?)  They also inform us that Shakespeare's Sonnet 76 refers to the "noted weed."

"There were very few concentrations of cannabis, but the signature was there," claims Tommy van der Merwe, who tested the pipes at South Africa's Forensic Science Laboratory.  According to him, they had the same reading as a modern crack pipe.

Good lord and bless me!

As the Bard himself would have riposted:

Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad
That slanderers by mad ears believed be

Sonnet 140.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Poetry magazine that survived a windfall's Jim Romenesko tells the very odd story of the magazine that was endowed with a fortune.

Back in 2002, the unimaginatively titled Poetry magazine received $100 million from Ruth Lilly, an aspiring poetess whose submissions had been regularly rejected by the journal.  The news of the windfall was greeted with general shock. 

"It's like leaving a fortune to your goldfish," said one poet.

At the time, the magazine had a modest circulation of 10,000 and an annual budget of $700,000.  Today, its circulation is a relatively modest 26,000 . . . and its budget is over $6 million.

Of this, as Christopher Borrelli of the Chicago Tribune reports, $1.2 million is spent on its website, and $1.3 million pays for administration, including the salaries of 20 staff.  A new home for the magazine has been built, which includes a 125-seat theater, and a library for its 35,000 poetry books.

Plus, a soundproof booth for recording podcasts. 

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Poetry has recently won the award for best literary magazine -- and a prize for best podcast.

Stieg Larsson's 'widow' casts Viking spell on enemies

Charles McGrath, in the New York Times, discusses the recent publication of a book by Eva Gabrielsson (pictured), the common law wife of Stieg Larsson, the fellow who became a blockbuster author of Swedish crime thrillers after his death.

The title is a rather complicated one: 'There Are Things I want you to Know' About Stieg Larsson and Me. Apparently the quote marks are a reference to a sentence he wrote in a letter to her back in the 1970s.

Frustratingly, Ms. Gabrielsson reveals little about the fourth crime novel that reputedly lurks in the dead author's computer.  Instead, however, she cheerfully communicates details of the ancient Viking spell she cast on their joint enemies.

New Year's Eve, 2004, was the date she cast her magic spell -- on all the false friends and cowards "who let Stieg fight your battles while you raked in the salaries of your cushy jobs," the wearers of "suit, ties and wingtips," and the evil ones "who plotted, spied and stirred up prejudice."

Casting the spell was as complicated as the list of malfeasants.  Traditionally, it was accompanied by the sacrifice of a fine, live horse.  Lacking that, Eva broke a ceramic horse in two and tossed the bits into Lake Malaren in Stockholm.

And, it seems, the spell worked.  The people she had listed in her mind have not had a comfortable existence since then.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tupaia and Chris Laidlaw

Another radio interview

Today I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the affable and gentlemanly Chris Laidlaw, veteran of public radio, in RadioNZ House.

Chris had read Tupaia, the Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator, and loved it.

Indeed, he was even keener to talk about Tupaia than I was, if possible!

The interview will be aired on a Sunday -- I suspect, but do not know for sure, that it will be Sunday 3 July.  Check the website to be sure ....

Standard & Poors and Snapper

Ironic moment of the day

I was sitting at a bus stop in downtown Wellington on an unusually beautiful day, today.  As I watched, a young man sporting the logos of the financial rating firm Standard & Poors stepped onto a bus.

As he passed his Snapper fare-paying card over the card-reading machine, a robotic voice intoned:


Harry Potter eBooks on the way

But there will be no sequel.

Reuters reports that the seven Harry Potter blockbusters will be available as eBooks in October.

This was announced by JK Rowling herself, at the launch of a new interactive website that allows young readers to navigate through the magical yarns.

At the same time she broadly hinted that there will be no sequels.

"I have no plans to write another novel," she said. "I'm petty sure I'm done on the novel front.  It was fun while it lasted," she concluded, leaving the word "but" hanging in the air.

She scarcely needs the money (though Spymouse whispers that she has bought a hideaway in Tasmania). The series has sold 400 million copies, and generated a record-breaking movie franchise.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tupaia with Sean Plunkett

Interview on Newstalk ZB

This morning (June 23) I talked with Sean Plunkett, charismatic commentator and radio host, about Tupaia, the Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator.

Thoroughly enjoyable.  As Sean's producer, the lovely Anna Smart, commented, it was a really interesting chat.

After leaving the studio, I walked down to Willis Street, and signed many, many copies at the grandly and recently renovated Unity Bookstore.  Then the books were returned to their large display.

And that was thoroughly enjoyable, too.

It's typewriter anniversary!

143 years ago, a gadget called the Type-Writer was patented

There were great maritime events, too.

On June 23, 1501, Pedro Cabral returned to Portugal from a voyage where he had claimed Brazil for Portugal.  Which is why Brazil is the largest Portuguese-speaking nation, though it isn't even in Europe, but attached to Spanish-speaking South America.

On the same day in 1611, the extremely unfortunate Henry Hudson was set adrift in a small boat in Hudson Bay by mutineers on his ship Discovery. All he wanted to do was find the fabled Northwest passage from Europe to Asia (a quest that was to foil and fell many explorers), but his crew were not so keen on the idea.  Henry was never seen again -- but at least he had a river and a bay named after him.

On this day in 1868, an American inventor by the name of Christopher Latham Scholes received a patent for a machine he called the Type-Writer.

Four years later, on June 23, the first PRACTICAL typewriter was patented by the same Christopher Scholes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Who knows what kind of fine-tuning and tinkering had gone on, in the meantime?

Digital is an earner for Barnes & Noble

It must feel hard to have to court buyers, when investments are just starting to pay off

Jeffrey A Trachtenberg reports in the Wall Street Journal that B&N saw its digital strategy start to pay off in the fourth tax quarter, with good gains in the eReader and eBook sales figures.

The B&N webiste sold three times as many eBooks as print books over that period.

The nation's largest bookstore chain is the target of a takeover bid by Liberty Media Corp..  Investing in the digital revolution was a significant factor in its current financial woes, so it is ironic that the figures are showing such improvement at this stage.

Liberty has bid $17 a share, but is still going over the balance books.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Oh boy, when you write a nonfiction account you better tell the truth

Bestselling author Greg Mortenson assailed from all sides
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a TimeSFGate quotes Caryn Rousseau of AP, who reports that the class-action lawsuit against Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson now includes a voice from Illinois.

Ex-teacher Deborah Netter of Lake County, Illinois, filed suit in a federal court against Mortenson, his co-author, and his publisher, seeking damages and class action status.

Like a similar lawsuit in Montana, she cites media reports from "60 Minutes" and highly respected author Jon Krakauer, alleging that Mortenson told lies.

In the book, Mortenson claims that in 1993, while mountain climbing in rural Pakistan, he got lost.  Confused and disorientated, he stumbled upon the village of Korphe, where the citizens helped him get better, and where he promised to build a school.

Published in 2006, the book sold over 3,000,000 copies to an apparently gullible public.

Deborah Netter wants compensation for being fooled.  In legalese, she wants recompense "for herself and all other individuals or entities, who purchased Three Cups of Tea, and did not get what they paid for, but instead, were wrongly induced by each of the defendants to buy a phony and fictional story as opposed to the truth."

Oh my, tell that to the politicians.

Mortenson has admitted that some of the events were condensed in time.  Penguin, the publishers, have refused to comment.

America's largest newspaper publisher lays off 700 workers

Michael Liedke, AP business writer, reports to the Boston Globe that 700 unfortunates in the newspaper business are looking for new jobs.

Newspaper publisher Gannett Co. -- the largest newspaper business in the U.S., which owns 82 newspapers, including The Indianapolis Star and the Courier-Journal  of Louisville, Kentucky, and USA Today -- has announced the largest single string of lay-offs in its history.

Like most newspaper publishers, Gannett has been hurt by the technological revolution, which has sent readers to the so-easily accessible internet.

The company's annual revenue had fallen by more than two billion dollars, or 30% of revenue, since the Great Recession started to bite in 2006.

Since then, Gannett has reduced its work force by 20,000 employees.

That's a lot of people.  Apparently, up to now, they were laid off in dribs and drabs.

For Barnes & Noble, eBooks outsell pBooks three-to-one

B&N said yesterday (EST) that it sold three times more eBooks than physical books last quarter.

I feel as if I am becoming yet another voice of the Digital Age.

Agam Shah reported on that Barnes & Noble has reported it sold three times more digital books than print books since February 2011.

B&N sells eBooks through its Nook ereader and its Nook app for 3rd party devices such as iPhones and tablets.  Millions of Nook users are added each quarter, according to CEO William Lynch.

Otherwise, as we know, Barnes & Noble is in big financial trouble.  Will eBooks signal a way out?

Who knows.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gloucestershire County Council stopped from closing libraries

Local interest group wins the day

High Court halts Gloucestershire library closures

Hail to the power of the ordinary man.  Benedict Page reports on that library closures in Gloucestershire have been halted after lawyers acting for a local resident obtained a High Court injunction prohibiting them.

The Gloucestershire County Council plans to withdraw funding from 10 of its 38 libraries, and reduce operating hours of most.

But because of local outrage, the Council has been stopped in its tracks.

Fiction rules eBooks

Fiction has the dominant share of eBook sales, by far

Jim Milliot in Publishers Weekly reports that a new market study just released by Bowker finds that fiction dominates the eBook market.

Fiction accounted for 61% of sales in 2010, taking 51% of the revenue.

Second most popular was children's books, which took 12% of the market.

British Library, Google in deal to digitize books

Internet users to have access to thousands of texts published between 1700 and 1870. 

A treatise on a stuffed hippopotamus, an 18th-century English
primer for Danish sailors and a description of the first engine-driven submarine are among 250,000 books to be made available online in a deal between Google and the British Library, reports Jill Lawless of the Associated Press.
The agreement, announced Monday, will let Internet users read, search, download and copy thousands of texts published between 1700 and 1870.

It is a small step toward the library's goal of making the bulk of its 14 million books and 1 million periodicals available in digital form by 2020.

"So far we have only been able to digitize quite a small fraction of the global collection," said the library's chief executive, Lynne Brindley.

"There is a long way to go."

The deal with Google, which will see 40 million pages digitized over the next three years, will offer online researchers a selection of rarely seen works from an era of social, political, scientific and technological change that took in the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the American war of independence.

The books range from Georges Louis Leclerc's Natural History of the Hippopotamus, or River-Horse - which includes a description of a stuffed animal owned by the Prince of Orange - to the 1858 work A Scheme for
 Underwater Seafaring, describing the first combustion engine-driven submarine.

The books are more than scholarly curiosities. British Library curator Kristian Jensen said an 18th-century guide to English for Danish mariners shows "how English began to emerge from being the language spoken by people over there on that island" to become the world's dominant tongue.

Google will pay to digitize the books, which are no longer covered by copyright restrictions. They will be available on the British Library and Google Books websites.

Peter Barron, Google's European spokesman, declined to say how much the
project would cost, beyond describing it as "a substantial sum."

Google has digitized 13 million books in similar deals with more than 40 libraries around the world. But its plan to put millions of copyrighted titles online has been opposed by the publishing industry and is the subject of a legal battle in the United States.

Barron said the company's goal "is to make as wide a range of items as possible" available online.

"Having richer content means people around the world are searching more for it, and that is good for our business," he said.

Last year, the British Library announced plans to digitize up to 40  illion pages of newspapers dating back three-and-a-half centuries, and it recently made thousands of 19th-century books digitized in a deal with Microsoft available as an app for iPhone and iPad devices.

How to sell one million Kindle books

John Locke: How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 months

Well, it is at #354 in paid Kindle sales, and it tells you how to get there.

Now, for the first time ever, the latest member of the Kindle Million Club reveals in ePrint how he did it.

John Locke, as related below, is the ninth author to sell one million Kindle eBooks, and the first self-published author in history to do it.

And all this, his Kindle page brags, was achieved PART TIME, without an agent, a publicist, or paying out heaps of marketing money.

Well, I guess you have to download the book to find out exactly how he did it.  $4.99 is the price.

Self-published author joins Kindle million sales club

John Locke sells one million eBooks

This really is a turning point in publishing -- Maryann Yin, of GalleyCat @, reports that crime fiction writer John Locke  is the first self-published author to join the Kindle Million Club, joining just seven giant authors who have got there by the traditional route.

Locke has sold 1,010,370 Kindle books using Kindle Direct Publishing, the self-publishing arm of  Thus he has gained membership of an exclusive society that includes names like Suzanne Collins, Michael Connelly, James Patterson.

He's not backward in promoting KDP in his press release, issuing this apparently very carefully prepared statement: "Kindle Direct Publishing has provided an opportunity for independent authors to compete on a level playing field with the giants of the book selling industry.  Not only did KDP give me a chance, they helped at every turn.  Quite simply, KDP is the greatest friend an author can have."

Only very exceptional traditional publishers get that kind of effusive praise from their authors.

Locke did have a very good track record to help him on his self-publishing way.  He has produced (traditionally) several international bestsellers, including Vegas Moon, A Girl Like You, and Wish List.
I expect he will do even better with his next book, a nonfiction guide for writers, called How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months

Monday, June 20, 2011

A hell of an anniversary - 20 June

Some amazing things happened on this day in history

On 20 June, 1756, 146 prisoners were locked into a cell known now to history as the "Black Hole of Calcutta." The Nawab of Bengal was the culprit, and according to legend, only 21 were alive in the morning.

In 1789, on this day, French assemblymen representing the common people shut themselves into a tennis court, and vowed to stay there until a constitution was drawn up.  This was the start of the French Revolution.

In 1837, in another hugely historic moment, Princess Victoria  was woken up with the news that her uncle, William IV, had died, having survived until her 18th birthday (which had happened on May 24), making her the heir to the British throne.  Thus, the Victorian Age -- of railways, bridges, huge engineering achievements, and writers such as Charles Dickens -- was heralded.

On June 20, 1867, President Andrew Jackson purchased Alaska from Russia.

In 1893, a jury in New Bedford, Massachusetts, found Lizzie Borden innocent of the ax-murders of her father and stepmother.  (Funnily enough, having seen the play and read all the stories, I thought she was convicted!)

And in 1963 the "hotline" between Russia and the United States was established.

A Quiet Publishing Success

Nicola Smith
John Hawkins, photo
Small New Zealand publisher seizes opportunities

In today's Dominion Post there is an uplifting story by Jenny Keown about the "super-woman entrepreneur" who is more generally known by the name of Nicola Smith.

In the year 2000, the Invercargill mother of four (all under the age of eight) started up a publishing business in her laundry.

How on earth did she manage that?  By being single-minded, she says.

Her business, co-owned with Christchurch-based Geraldine Sloane, and called Essential Resources, specializes in publishing supplementary teaching materials.

The laundry was chosen because it was the quietest room in the house, apparently.  It was there that Nicola and Geraldine taught themselves the basics of building a website, using graphic design software, and the mundane processes of producing books.

Their plan was simple -- to work with the best teachers they could find, to produce the best supplementary material in the field.  In 2004, having at last made a profit, they invested in a trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair.  An excellent move, as since then their export business has really taken off, with exports sales increasing by over 100% per year..

Today their head office is in Invercargill, employing 22 staff to service clients in New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain and Ireland. Another two staff work in Christchurch, where Geraldine oversees the publishing side of things.  They have contracts with 85 authors, or more, and have published over 450 titles, adding about 60 to their list every year.

Read the story for a fascinating Q & A with Nicola Smith.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Palin-Johnston feud in print

Bristol Palin is publishing her memoir of the guy she calls a gnat

The AP, in the persona of Frazier Moore, breaks the news that Bristol Palin is publishing a memoir, including the tale of the loss of her virginity to her boyfriend of the moment (and various moments after that), Levi Johnson.

In case you want the grubby details, it happened on a camping trip after she got drunk (he got her drunk?) on too many wine coolers.

Oops. As they say.  She woke up in her tent with no memory of what had happened.

She had vowed to wait for marriage she says.  Maybe she should have laid off that fizzy wine.  Or maybe she shouldn't have gone on that co-ed camping trip at all.  (Though she was on birth control tablets to control her cramps, she says.)

Otherwise, her memoir, co-written with Nancy French, is the standard one of growing up, her family, and so forth, with the unusual detail of being suddenly involved with Mom's political ambitions.

Deer in the Headlights: My Life in Sarah Palin's CrosshairsAnother oops, considering that she was pregnant.

But they made the best of it -- though it would have been easier, if the guy involved had not been such a "gnat."  He, Bristol accuses, "cheated on me about as frequently as he sharpened his hockey skates."

The book is called Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far

Levi Johnston is planning a retaliation in print, to be called, Deer in the Headlights: My Life in Sarah Palin's Crosshairs

The virtual voyage of a village to New Zealand, 1842

Jenny Robin Jones in an earlier life
Interview with Jenny Robin Jones, author of No Simple Passage

Q. Your virtual voyage on the London is at the skirts of your great-great-grandmother, Rebecca.  What did she look like (in your imagination) when you started to write? 

A. My inspiration for the book was triggered by an image of nineteen-year-old Rebecca, at the end of a four-month voyage, giving birth in Wellington Harbour. It’s always like this for me, whether I’m writing or reading: look like is less important than think like.  This was stronger in my mind than an actual image.

 Q. An important element in the story is the journal kept by the young surgeon, William Mackie Turnbull.  By what happy accident did you find his journal, and how did you feel as you turned the pages and realised he was writing about Rebecca's shipmates?

 A. I found a microfiche copy of the journal at the Alexander Turnbull Library, so it wasn’t a case of turning pages but of deciphering with craning neck and watering eyes. Even so, it was thrilling to find the surgeon describing not only his passengers’ ailments but also their disobedience and his reactions. The journal enabled me to see Rebecca and her shipmates as a floating microcosm of society.

 Q. You lived in England from the age of three, and when you sailed back to New Zealand at the age of 21, the immigration department described you as a "returning" New Zealander.  How would you describe yourself now?

 A. My parents identified themselves strongly as New Zealanders and I grew up in the belief that I too was essentially a New Zealander. I adopted their loathing for class snobbery, their championship of the underdog and their love of sparsely populated areas. But with that divided upbringing I can never feel wholly of one country. Part of my motivation to explore New Zealand history came from a need to know the country at a deeper level – to feel its past in my bones.

Q. Before No Simple Passage, what else had you written?

 A.  I began with short stories and also wrote travel and other articles which were published in magazines and newspapers. For many years fiction was where my heart lay but my novels weren’t getting published and eventually I realised why. I am the sort of person who didn’t like playing with dolls because they weren’t real and found it much more satisfying to put her little brother in the doll’s pram.
         I wanted to write penetratingly about things that really happened and to shape them into an artistically satisfying story. When I invented I felt fraudulent as if I was no longer ‘telling truth’. It was excruciatingly painful.
        Eventually I stopped forcing myself and began to write in a way that enabled me to probe human behaviour with what my publishers have called a ‘forensic’ eye, and to feel comfortable speaking in my own voice. My appreciation of fiction enabled me to imagine myself on ship with the passengers and thus to put the book in the present tense even though I am writing about the past. I want the reader to feel what it would have been like trying to make wise decisions 170 years ago.
      With Writers in Residence: a journey with pioneer New Zealand Writers, which was published by Auckland University Press in 2004, I discovered my deep interest in pioneers – of all kinds. An interest followed up in No Simple Passage.

Q. Your research into the backgrounds and fates of Rebecca's shipmates is amazingly extensive and intensive. What was your most memorable experience while searching out the events and background for this book?

 A.  I looked up the militia records of Rebecca’s husband John and found that his claim for compensation had been rejected. I was transported in an instant back to the 24th of November 1896 and the disappointment of a man who had hoped that the country in which he worked so hard all his life would repay him with a little recognition.  I felt as if that man stood  beside me as I read his letter, and yet I could not comfort him.  The best I could do was tell the story and quote the entire letter in No Simple Passage.

 Q. And finally, how did you celebrate when No Simple Passage was accepted for publication?

 A. The arrival in my postbox of an advance copy of the book put an end to the private manuscript and announced the birth of something ready to be seen in public. About to depart for a 3-day walk in the Wairarapa with friends, I added it to my pack together with a bottle of Deutz champagne and that evening, with the book propped up on a table in the hut, we ‘wet the baby’s head’. 

 Thank you for your time, Jenny Robin Jones, and for creating such really interesting answers, which every aspiring writer of history will find fascinating.

Is your cab driver reading a book?

Taxi of Knowledge -- Reading on the Road

In the English edition of the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm ("The Egyptian Today"), Steven Viney describes a most startling initiative -- to get taxi drivers reading. 

"Taxi of knowledge" is the brain child of some genius at Alef Bookstores of Cairo (flagship store is at Heliopolis), a chain that would very much like to see middle-class Egyptians reading more books. 

Back in April 2010, they set up a trial, lending cab drivers five books to keep in their cars.  Once read, they could be exchanged for others.

It has been such a huge success that they have gone for the idea fulltime this year.

"So far it's been a fantastic idea," says cab driver Mohamed Saber.  At last he has been able to hold conversations with passengers that are interesting and reasonably intellectual, and are not probings into his personal life.  Sometimes, passengers take the number of his taxi so they can hire him again, to hear the end of the story.

The books are not bookstore rejects, but loved volumes that have been donated by friends, authors, and volunteers. They cover all genres, including humor and women's health.

As of this moment, "Taxi of knowledge" has 200 cab drivers taking part.  Alef confidently predicts that by the end of the year there will be two thousand.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Plains radio fm from Christchurch

This Saturday (tomorrow NZST - New Zealand Standard Time, from 10 a.m.) the delightful Ruth Todd speaks with a small selection of women, including yours truly.  How she does it, in the current chaos that is Christchurch, is a matter of wonder, something to be greatly admired.

Runs the blurb on the radio website:

Maritime historian, JOAN DRUETT, brings an "extraordinary genius" to life in her new book, Tupaia, The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator. Tupaia sailed with Captain Cook from Tahiti, piloted the Endeavour about the south Pacific & was the ship's translator.  He was also a master navigator, a brilliant orator & a most devious politician.  He became one of the ship's most important artists & could justly be called the Pacific's first anthropologist.  Despite all this, Tupaia has never been part of the popular Cook Legend.  Joan Druett certainly sets the record straight.  Highly recommended.

The interview will be released as a podcast.

An eBook needs an eEditor

Paying for an editor for your self-published eBook

In the guardian books blog (see link in the righthand column) author and blogger Harriet Evans (pictured) posts a fascinating column outlining the virtues of editors, and the future of editing in the eBook age.

"Even if, like me, you don't particularly love the experience of reading an ebook, and think that a novel that doesn't break if dropped in the bath is still the best way to read, there's no doubt the age of the ebook is here," she begins, and goes on to chat about her own good experiences with editors.

Predictably, I suppose (sigh), the comments to her post focus on this dropping-in-the-bath business.  Ordinary books (apparently now called pBooks!) don't emerge from bathwater in very good condition, either, they point out.  Well, this is true enough.  It reminds me of an episode in the comedy "Cheers," where Sam looks after a first edition of some classic (Moby-Dick?) for Holly, gets absorbed in the story, and drops it in the bath.  He tries to return it to its old shape by tearing out every second page ...

Well, you get the picture.  What is riveting about Ms. Evans's post is her persuasive argument that every book deserves a good developmental editor, even if it is going to be issued very cheaply (or free) as an eBook -- and a copyeditor is handy, too.  Otherwise the book is not going to be as good as the purchaser deserves -- and the author is eventually not going to be very happy and proud, either.

So, should the aspiring self-published writer budget for a freelance editor? 

It seems a good idea.  Nothing, in my experience (and Harriet Evans's, too) replaces a developmental editor you know well, and trust completely, and a freelance editor would be better than no editor at all. 

Coincidentally, Jason Boog, on today's GalleyCat @ discusses the costs.  His link leads to a page created by the Editorial Freelancers Association, which gives a list of ballpark figures (embedded in the subtitle at the top of this post, if you are interested).

As the EFA points out, the list should be used only as a rough guideline, as rates vary considerably, depending on the nature of the work, the urgency of the assignment, and so forth and so on.  However, it does give a very broad hint of what should be budgeted.

A developmental editor works closely with the author to tighten up the book in the right places, expand it elsewhere, adjust the plot, rename the characters (believe it or not, the famous Scarlett O'Hara of Gone With the Wind was going to be PANSY O'Hara before a wise developmental editor made a good suggestion).  Therefore, a developmental editor is going to cost a lot.

The rates chart suggests that developmental editing covers 1-5 manuscript pages (a page being 250 words) per hour, and the charge is likely to be between $60 and $80 per hour.  This means that a 300-page manuscript is going to cost in the region of $6,000, if I read my calculator correctly.

Worth it?  Definitely -- unless the book ends up being dropped in the bath.  

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The untold stories of migrants to America

New exhibits are being staged at Ellis Island in New York Harbor

Okay, before everyone writes in and tells me, I do know the Statue of Liberty is not on Ellis Island.

However, it was the beacon of hope watched avidly by passengers on crowded ships, that from 1892 to 1954, deposited them for processing on Ellis Island (pictured below).

I once had a book launch on Ellis Island, and found it a rather spooky place.  Modern crowds thronged it, but there was an overwhelming impression of the sadness and tragedy the immigrants were escaping from, and the nervous uncertainty with which they contemplated their unknown futures.

At least 40% of modern Americans have an ancestor who went through the processing at Ellis Island that matched getting through the security checks of America today.

Now, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum is planning exhibits that will tell the full story of the teeming masses -- not just European forebears, but African slaves, displaced Indians, and people reinventing themselves, to escape unsatisfactory pasts.

Alan Kraut, chairman of the museum's history committee, promises that the story will present much that is usually overlooked.

Scholars and exhibit designers have been dredging records for three years, looking for the most evocative stories.  The new displays will feature how towns, villages, and cities changed with the influx of migrants, and also the economic and political pressures that drove people to make the huge decision to shift to a new country -- or, once there, to move on to another area.  Discrimatory laws and ethnic prejudices, and the migrants' staunchness in the face of these threats, will be depicted in family histories.

As Mr. Kraut says, "Without their talent and muscle, where would we be?"

PS.  The Statue of Liberty is on Liberty Island.

How Ellen Craft learned how to read and write

I'd rather starve in England than live as a slave

A remarkable story is that of Ellen Craft, who disguised herself as a man for a 1,000-mile journey to save herself and her husband from slavery.

Jerome Farrell, in today's uplifting biography from the Oxford Dictionary of Biography, tells the story of Ellen Craft, who was born into slavery in Clinton, Georgia, about 1825.  As was so common in those days, she was the daughter of a white landowner, Major James Smith, and Maria, one of his slaves.

In 1837, aged just eleven, she was given away as a wedding gift, to Major Smith's daughter, Eliza, on her marriage to Dr Robert Collins of Macon, Georgia.  There, she met and fell in love with William Craft, a slave apprenticed as a carpenter, and they were married in the informal slave tradition, about 1847.

A devoted couple, they were very afraid of being separated from one another by being sold or given separately, or that any of the children they might have would be snatched out of the family and sold. So, in the fall of 1848, they set out on an escape to the north. 

It was a clever plan.  Ellen, who could pass for white, disguised herself as a slave master travelling to Philadelphia for medical treatment, keeping her right hand in a sling, to give her an excuse of not being able to write her name.  William, who was darker-skinned, pretended to be her servant. 

William had saved some money from his tips as a carpenter, which paid for their fares, first on a train to Savannah and then by boat, train, and coach to Philadelphia.  They had contacts -- or maybe had a lucky encounter.  Four days after leaving Macon they were being hidden by a Quaker family outside Philadelphia. Three weeks later they moved on, no longer in disguise, to Boston, where they were temporarily safe from capture.

For the next eighteen months  Ellen worked as a seamstress, William as a cabinet-maker. Befriended by William Wells Brown, an anti-slavery lecturer and himself an escaped slave, they recounted their stories at many anti-slavery meetings, becoming well known among Boston's 2000-strong black community, many of whom were also fugitive slaves.

Then the idyll fell apart. In September 1850 the Fugitive Slave Bill was passed; within three days of the bill's passage some forty fugitive slaves had fled Boston for Canada.  In October, two agents of their past masters arrived in Boston, intent on seizing the couple.  The community came to their aid, staging legal suits and public protests, and the agents were forced to leave Boston without them.

On 7 November 1850 Ellen and William were 'officially' married by Theodore Parker (their earlier 'slave' marriage not being legally recognized). Later the same month they left Boston for England, travelling via Maine, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, where they caught the steamer for Liverpool. England was the safest, most logical haven; it had harboured fugitive slaves from America for many years.

The Crafts talked at meetings in Scotland and the north and west of England, publicizing the slavery issue.  It was now that they learned to read and write -- English abolitionists encouraged them to study at a trade school for rural youth in Ockham, Surrey. Here they also passed on their valuable skills in carpentering and dressmaking to their fellow pupils.

Both Crafts continued to be involved in the anti-slavery movement. Ellen was adamant that she would not return to live under a regime which endorsed slavery: 'I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent'. After leaving Ockham the Crafts settled in London.  Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, the story of their early life and escape written by William Craft, was published in London in 1860 and was an immediate success.

Competition for creative cookbook writers

Attention all cookbook authors!

The New Zealand Food Writers Guild 2011 Culinary Quill Awards are now open for entry. The Guild hopes to see plenty of great work entered to make the awards an exciting event recognising excellence in food writing.

The entry form (including dates, the five Quill categories and the terms and conditions of entry) is available at

Entries close on July 25 and the winners will be announced at an event in Nelson on November 4.

The entry fee is $20 for NZFWG members, $75 for non members.

S Korea welcomes return of priceless looted books

Back in 1866, French soldiers invaded Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul, in retaliation for the execution of French Catholic missionaries, and wreaked an uusual revenge.

The Chosun dynasty's sentence of capital punishment, for simply peddling religion, was certainly an extreme provocation.  To wave a flag and fire a city (or an island) was the standard retaliation in those times, but in this case it was embellished by the looting of the "Uigwe" books.  This was a set of 296 richly illustrated records of major court ceremonies.

A major court ceremony greeted the return of the books, regained after years of intensive negotiations.  As Park Chan-Kyong reports, a procession, headed by an elaborate palanquin bearing sample volumes, borne by twelve red-robed men, was shadowed by court guards in traditional uniform of red or blue robes, sporting false beards.  As the procession passed through the Gwanghwamum palace gate, a band of wind and percussion instruments played court music.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak  and former French Culture Minister Jack Lang were among those waiting at the palace to greet the books.  They must have felt a sense of satisfaction.  The negotiations for their return have been going on for years, accompanied by hard commercial bargaining.

High-tech South Korea places great store on its ancient past, perhaps because so much was lost during 35 years of Japanese occupation (beginning 1910) and the 1950-53 Korean War.  It is a sure bet that French firms have gained valuable contracts from the return of the books.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Free audio book of Go the F**k to Sleep

Samuel L. Jackson

Personally, I always thought the fun part of swearing was doing it yourself.

However, the 62-year-old star of "Pulp Fiction" and "Snakes on a Plane" is reading the foul-mouthed parody of a bedtime story book, Go the F**k to Sleep, ostensibly for those too inhibited to recite it aloud.

Except that the swear words aren't actually said.  Instead, you get those censorship bleeps.  Not recommended for those who like their swearing full-blooded, or suffer from bleep-triggered tinnitus.

As the whole world knows, the book, penned by stressed-out, sleep-deprived academic Adam Mansbach, is this summer's surprise hit.

The book and the audio version were both released on Tuesday.  You have to pay for the book ($8.18 on Amazon, and I don't know how much for shipping), but the audio book can be downloaded for free through  (Complete with bleeps.)

Believe it or not, the film rights have been sold.

How the hell they can create a film out of a foul-mouthed nursery rhyme book absolutely beats me.  But one thing I can guarantee, it won't be released during school vacation time.

Unless, of course, the film comes complete with bleeps.