Penguin Random House’s “My Independent Bookshop” – a rash word of caution, by Thomas Koed

This is a member opinion piece on the creation of My Independent Bookshop, a website launching soon from Penguin Random House UK.

Penguin Random House UK’s CEO Tom Weldon has indicated his company’s focus on getting books to consumers is shifting “from a browse-and-display model to one of online search and recommendation”, and has said “the biggest challenge for publishers is […] building a direct relationship with consumers.” By “browse and display model” he means bookshops (the implication being that a CEO of PRH sees bookshops as merely spaces for consumers to browse through books (and booksellers as merely cashiers and shelf-stockers)). In seeking to provide for (create) a post-bookshop world the publisher is exploring ways to sell directly to the consumer by “getting to know” (i.e. gathering data about) them.

‘My Independent Bookshop’ creating a culture of enthusiastic amateurs
The flagship for PRH’s mission into the supposedly uncharted seas of post-bookshop bookselling will be the website “My Independent Bookshop”(currently in closed beta mode), “a new reader recommendation platform allowing book lovers to set up a virtual bookshop, share their favourite reads and discover, recommend and review books online.”. The words ““My” “Independent” “Bookshop”” need to be nested in inverted commas, both severally and collectively, for the platform recalibrates what is ordinarily understood by these words. Users of the new platform will be able to create their own “bookshop” by placing up to twelve titles on a virtual shelf, recommending them, and locating their bookshop in their very own “high street” of “bookshops” curated by like-minded readers. Visitors to the “bookshops” will be able to purchase the books. The website will also allow PRH to profile its users and use this “direct relationship with readers to tell them about the books they might fall in love with” (i.e. market PRH’s books directly to them). This profiling data is so valuable PRH is prepared to sell other publishers’ books to generate it.

There’s nothing particularly new about any of this (we already have Amazon’s Goodreads, Bookish and the amorphous capacities of Facebook), and there would be nothing particularly wrong with it either if it weren’t coming at the expense of the most effective and adaptable bookselling interface, bookshops-on-the-ground. By calling the new platform “My Independent Bookshop”, PRH are both acknowledging and appropriating the attachment consumers have to independent bookshops and draining the term ‘independent bookshop’ of meaning (thus depriving bookshops of their marketable identity). In a world where anyone can have their own “independent bookshop” just by showing a bit of virtual enthusiasm, the actual independent bookshop and the expertise of the professional bookseller will be lost in an immense ocean of enthusiastically dogpaddling amateur recommenders.

A dangerous connection to make
Users of “My Independent Bookshop” will be able to register their support for an actual bookshop, which will apparently receive a 5% commission from purchases they make through the site (I am generously assuming that this will apply not just to purchases made from the bookshop’s virtual bookshelf).

This may at first seem like a good thing, but we need to consider where “My Independent Bookshop” is designed to attract sales from. If users are being encouraged to believe that buying books through PRH’s platform is way of supporting their favourite independent bookshop, it would seem that they will be buying books there that otherwise they would have bought from that independent bookshop.

If the new platform flourishes, the independent bookshops, given only a small kick-back for delivering their customers’ purchasing focus to the PRH platform, will wither and die in the tiny margin. PRH might appear to be making a nod towards the independent bookshops that have always supported them, but they are maybe more interested in getting the nod from the independents, or, rather, in ensuring that the consumer gets the impression that such nodding is going on. It would be one step too cynical to suggest that the “My Independent Bookshop” platform, with its “bookshop”-lined “high streets” is designed specifically to attract just those consumers whose attachment to independent bookshops and to the local high street has made them resistant to the on-line piranhas Amazon and Book Depository.

The behemoths take over
“Our scale is what enables us to do this properly,” says Tom Weldon. This is true, which makes it important what they choose to do. Will this “new model” be effective and sustainable? Can PRH stand up to Amazon/Book Depository without slitting its own pockets? Pursuing an outdated volumes-based sales model, publishers eagerly (or reluctantly) bent over backwards (or possibly forwards) to give this rapacious double-headed monster the discounts and universal stock-range it needed to sell books so cheaply that high street bookshops (who have subsidised those discounts) have been dropping like flies (something that is usually noticed only after it has happened).

The post-free Book Depository model was never intended to be sustainable: it was only intended to be more sustainable than the bookshops it is designed to replace. A price-war would ensure further casualties on the high street, an over-concentration on titles most likely to attain immediate high returns (without these returns being invested in the diverse list that is necessary to healthy publishing) and the accelerated atrophy of the international limbs of representation, distribution and determination that support and flex the book trade, but these are exactly the effects that abandoning the bookshop model and forming a “direct  relationship with consumers” will have anyway if it is successful.

Will Penguin Random House’s so called ‘Independent Bookshop’ be successful? Will it be successful? Nothing beats a book in the hand. Nothing beats expert forces on the ground and among the people, selling books from hand-to-hand in bookshops. My own small experience with bookselling in the “new media” suggests that it is worth developing but that its best effect is in keeping customers coming in an actual door and in cementing the bookshop as a place where physical and virtual communities can overlap. Without an actual bookshop, without actual booksellers ready to listen and talk about books (and about all sorts of other things), without books actually on-hand, without the chains of supply and support extended by publishers to bookshop where their books are sold, we will all (publishers included) be reduced to standing on some virtual street corner in an infinite virtual city of such street corners crying our wares, or stumbling around guided only by our fellow stumblers. At the same rate that we are realising the limitations and narrow satisfactions of the brave new world of virtual shopping, we are finding that that world is becoming the only choice.

- Thomas Koed

Thomas Koed sells books and produces digital and print catalogues for Page & Blackmore (Nielsen Data New Zealand Independent Bookshop of the Year 2013)

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The biggest buzz in international sci-fi book circles at thecv_the_martian moment is The Martian, by Andy Weir: Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Set in the foreseeable future, astronaut Mark Watney is alone on Mars, left behind by crewmates who believe he’s dead, with no way to communicate with Earth and only limited supplies of food, water and oxygen.

Cue a fast-paced, warm-hearted, sci-fi action movie romp. Critics have complained that The Martian is too heavy on the technical detail and too light on philosophical meatiness, and these are fair points. There are many entire paragraphs that read like maths exam questions: “Let’s call the volume of the airlock two cubic meters [sic]. The inflated EVA suit probably takes up half of it. So it took five minutes to add 0.2 atmospheres to 1 cubic meter. That’s 285 grams of air (trust me on the math). The air in the tanks is around 1 gram per cubic centimeter, meaning I just lost 285 milliliters.” There is a lot of jargon and elaborate use of acronyms, many of which are confusingly similar (MAV, MMU, MDV, VAL).

Many times I wished for an index, or explanatory notes – often I caught myself skimming over the surface of descriptions of technical high-jinks, watching out for plot points. And the solitary protagonist’s soul-searching is so perfunctory as to be non-existent: “Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the very first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah, blah, blah.”

But the sheer verve and good-natured bounce of the story make up for all that, and more besides. Weir’s lifelong enthusiasm for all things space-geekery shines through every sentence. And if protagonist Mark Watney is a fairly transparent exercise in authorial wish-fulfillment, he is also a genuinely endearing hero we cannot help cheering along.

Weir’s prose is open and confident, and The Martian is excellently plotted, with tense, page-turning pacing – no mean achievement for seasoned authors, let alone a software engineer turned debut novelist. As well as a cornucopia of one-liners (“Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”), there are also moments of genuine comedy: “[At NASA] Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out to the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. ‘What must it be like?’ he pondered. ‘He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?’ He turned back to Venkat. ‘I wonder what he’s thinking right now.’ [On Mars, Mark's POV] Log entry: Sol 61. How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.”

Overall, then, The Martian takes a decent shot at being that rarest of beasts: ‘hard’ sci-fi that also appeals to the general reader. Despite its faults, I came away completely seduced by its puppy-like charm. I look forward to the inevitable film.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage


Book Review: Eketahuna German Literature Society – A Poetry Collection. Curated and translated by Cordelia Black and Robbie Ellis

ekatahuna_german_literatureA bit more than a year ago two friends decided to put a Kiwi spin on a bunch of classic German poems. First they collected them on a tumblr site, then they decided they had enough to put together a book.

This is the result. And I think it is brilliant. The idea is brilliant, the execution is ingenious. They have not only modernised the classics they have also dipped them in L&P, stuck them into gumboots and re-coiffured their pathos into a mullet.

It helps, if you know German, but this book is still immensely entertaining, if you just look at the Kiwi side of it. Most German poems are available in traditional translations on the internet, if you are keen to know what they are actually saying. I took the book along to my creative writing group, which happens to crawl with Germans, and I had to literally do a bag check on the way out to find out who was trying to sneak the book home. The giggle gave them away.

The transkiwifications do not render the poems as they were, but rather capture their sentiment. There is bromance, love lost and discarded and they talk a lot about the weather, too.

Rilke’s grave and sombre ‘The Panther’ jumps species and turns into a cougar in a rural night club.

The succinct rendition of the great anthem ‘Ode to Joy’ is in a league of its own. Even the Valkyrie gets a Kiwi musical makeover. Good on ya. Keep them coming.

There are two book launches coming up:

17 April Auckland University, Room 501, Arts 2 Building, 18 Symonds Street, 5.30pm
24 April Wellington, Victoria University, Kelburn Campus, 28 Kelburn Parade 5.30 pm

by Melanie Wittwer

Finalist Interviews: The origins of Mortal Fire, by Elizabeth Knox

pp_elizabeth knoxIf you have ever wondered where authors get their ideas, this is your chance to find out. We have asked our fantastic finalists all about their work, and they have been very generous in their responses!

We have previously reviewed Mortal Fire on this blog, and please also see our review of the event Elizabeth did during the New Zealand Festival Writers Week, for further information about this book.

Thank you to Elizabeth Knox for answering our questions:

1.    As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book?
This is the big question, so here’s my only big answer – starting small.

The basic idea for Mortal Fire came, as many of my ideas do, cv_mortal firefrom my imaginary game (for an explanation of that see my website The basic idea was that a family of magic users have imprisoned their most powerful member in hidden house and, after decades, the original spell has grown so strong that it is strangling the vitality and future of the whole family. And, so far, no one in the family has been able to say about the family’s choices: “This is crazy. This isn’t working.”

I wanted the story to read like a mystery, so needed a mystery solver, in this case a determined girl who visits the valley, knows something strange and magical is going on, and wants to get to the bottom of it.

But before I began the book a number of terrible things happened to my family, one of the hardest of which was that my husbands’ brother Duncan died leaving behind a wife, and four children, the Barrowman nephews and niece to whom Mortal Fire is dedicated. They are south Auckland Pasifika kids. Which is one reason the book’s heroine, Canny, is a Pasifika kid.

Duncan was killed in Rarotonga (where he was with his team on a Golden Oldies rugby tour). The man who killed him went to prison for manslaughter. Some thoughts I had during that man’s trial became the secondary theme of Mortal Fire. (It’s first theme is how you can’t always save people, or spare them. The two books I wrote between 2009 and 2012 have that, partly because my mother was dying of Motor Neurone Disease – which among other things is an exercise in being able to do less and less to help all the time. But also because of Duncan, and my husband’s family, especially the kids. Because of many nights lying awake, thinking in desperation and worry, “What can I do? What can I do?”)

The secondary theme was about our desire to punish people who harm us, and what that desire does to us. When we were in Rarotonga, attending the trial, we all hoped for a guilty verdict. The idea that the guy who did it might get off was awful. But one day, when we were driving on the inland ring road, we passed a sign pointing to the Cook Island prison and went to take a look. We sat in the car for a short time staring across a humpy green field at the long, low building. It had barred windows, each with a single horizontally-hinged shutter. The shutters were propped open. The sunshine was bright and hot and the prison’s interior was just a blackness. Now – I might have wanted the guy to go to prison, but right then the thought of putting any fellow human being in that place and making them stay was quite hard. Or serious. Or just real – it made my desire for this man’s punishment something I had not just to feel, but to be responsible for. So, the trial ended and I came home and I went on thinking about that moment, and my own piteous human hesitation, a piteous human hesitation which the man who drove his truck into Duncan failed to have. It wasn’t that I stopped feeling angry and vengeful, or even thought I should stop feeling that way. It was only that I came to understand that my human hesitation was a far, far more valuable feeling (I mean not just to me – but in life, in the world). And some of this found its way into Mortal Fire.

2.    Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?cv_dreamhunter
I’ve written many books now and there seems to be an endless variety of problems that can turn up during publication each one. Mortal Fire had a straightforward start. My editor and agent chivvied me along. I gave it to them and structural/copy editing and proofing all got underway with FSG in the US and Gecko Press’s Julia Marshall here. A great cover turned up, and really good blurbs from writers I admire (Holly Black and Margo Lanagan and Kelly Link and Delia Sherman). Then my wonderful editor Frances Foster suffered a bad stroke. Frances is still alive and facing daily challenges, but she has retired. Frances was my editor for Dreamhunter and Dreamquake too, and I owe her a great deal, and I’ve missed sharing with her things like Mortal Fire being a finalist in the LA Times Book Awards.cv_dreamquake_

3.    Did you tailor this book to a particular audience – or did you find it found its own audience as it was written?
With each book, adult or YA, I just write the book that is there to be written, as faithfully as I possibly can. If I have any useful ideas of an audience it is people who love the books I love. And that’s a wide brief, since I read and love many different kinds of books.

4.    Can you recommend any books that you love, that inspired or informed your book in any way?
Anything by Megan Whelan Turner, Holly Black, Margot Lanagan, Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy. No other book was a direct inspiration, but these are some of the writers of young adult fiction who continue to inspire me.

5.    Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?
cv_night_watchTimes that stick in my mind are these: staying up late in a Tata Beach bach bed with a hammock-like saggy mattress reading Terry Pratchett’s The Night Watch. Lying on a window seat of a bach in Marehau with a view of a rose garden and fruit falling off trees and onto a trampoline then bouncing off like popcorn when you take the lid off the popper. I was reading a formidable, dark book by Roberto Bolano, called 2666. Or, again Tata, two rainy days at the beach reading my first Lee Child books. Or, years ago, looking out over Tata lagoon, and a garden where my four-year-old was playing with round-bellied Burmese kittens while I read an elegant, icy, lethally sad book called The Periodic Table by holocaust survivor Primo Levi.

The thing is, there are times when you’re reading a book that you read the world along with it, and the book reads the world, and the world seems to read the book – especially if it’s a great book, like The Periodic Table or 2666 – or even, in its own way, Pratchett’s The Night Watch.

6.    What is your favourite thing to do, when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?
Playing imaginary games (see website). Why? Because I get to be someone else somewhere else – and usually several someones – much more completely than I do when I’m reading, or watching films or TV, or even writing.

- Booksellers NZ material. Please ask if you wish to extract this material in any way.

Book Review: Heartland, by Michele Leggott

Heartland, like Leggott’s other title Milk and Honeycv_heartland_leggott(2005), points to something wholesome and of the earth. Yet Heartland is more than its bestiary of oyster catchers, crayfish and dogs. Rather, it is a work wherein the ‘strange and familiar’ intersect to create dreamlike sequences − tethered to the past and filtered through the imagination.

The Heartland of Leggott’s work is not constrained to one spatial or temporal location. The reader travels from the Taranaki to Brisbane, from the ancestral to the present. Classical references sit beside footnotes to New Zealand history. However, one does not need to know the work of Heraclitus or the tale of Von Luckner to enjoy the work at hand. Leggott is not one of the ‘poets waiting in their towers’ and although she insists that ‘poetry is a crayfish’, it is not only to be picked apart by a privileged few. It is the rich imagery, more than the intellectual treasure hunt, which endures in the reader’s mind.

Leggott’s world is chiaroscuro, and one speculates that, in her blindness, Leggott has ‘learned to love the dark’. But there is light amongst the darkness − ‘white linen on the lawn is moonlight’ and, even in her poem titled ‘the longest night’, there is a ‘bright star’ and the ‘white-flowering Puawananga’. Celestial markers, angels, and Leggott’s own guide dog, Olive, provide the reader with tools to navigate ‘the world I can’t see’.

The darkness Leggott writes of is no silent vacuum. Leggott writes that she ‘stood in the darkness with many others’ and Heartland is pulsing with people and ghosts – the foot soldier, horseman, arrower, earthwalker. These archetypes she recalls to light, as if by séance. They are the ‘foundered derelicts no one mourns’, quoth Mary Stanley, and it is as though Leggott’s exhumation acts to pay its people final respects.

Like the wrecked ship of the cover-image, the poetry within speaks of things prostrate but lingering – the people of our past and their voices that remain, if only in our dreams.

Reviewed by  Elizabeth Morton

by Elizabeth Morton
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408084

Book Review: One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis

One Step too Far is Tina Seskis’ first novel.
Catherine Emily and Caroline Rebecca are twins. Their parents Frances and Andrew Brown are flawed individuals who do their best as parents, but find themselves caught up in their own misery. This misery flows over into their relationship with their twin daughters. The story that then unfolds follows them through their lives: the girls into adulthood, and the parents through their unhappy marriage that finally falls apart and ends up in divorce.

Catherine Emily (known as Emily) and her sister Caroline follow different paths with their lives, but there is a parallel throughout the story that I can’t seem to get out of my head. On the surface the two girls seem so different, but are they really? This book is not a thriller and it’s not exactly a love story. It’s almost as though the author can’t make up her mind!

While I found One Step Too Far an easy read, it wasn’t exactly a compelling read.
We all, at times, dream of escaping our lives. We even imagine how we would cope, and how we would disguise ourselves (different haircut and style of clothing) and our movements. This book carries the idea a step further by leading us down a path of, at times, total fantasy. Changing your name, choosing a profession way beneath your capabilities and ditching a husband because of unbearable trauma; living in squalor, befriending an unlikely elf-like figure of a woman, snorting coke, falling into bed with a man who looks like a younger version of your husband is almost too much to cram into one story.

It’s not that I couldn’t keep track of all the characters and their “stories”, it was more that I didn’t believe in them.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

One Step Too Far
by Tina Seskis
Published by Michael Joseph Ltd (Penguin)

Book Review: Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

cv_look_whos_backAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

It’s 2011, and Adolf Hitler has returned. Or, as the tagline puts it: “He’s back. And he’s Führious.” Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) imagines what would happen if, instead of dying in his Führerbunker in 1945, Hitler travelled through time and reappeared in the present day. Answer: assumed to be a pitch-perfect impersonator, he becomes a media sensation.

It’s an intriguing and unsettling premise that raises the important question: have we, as a Western society, learned to reject Hitler (and other hate-filled fanatics) and keep him away from power? Vermes’ answer is no. The Hitler of his book becomes worryingly famous and influential, and we never really see a sign that this will change. The fascination of Hitler, the power of his magnetic fanaticism and cast-iron self-belief, has not waned. Even as his hatefulness and epochal crimes appal us, we cannot look away.

It is this horrified, almost spellbound fascination that is at the heart of Look Who’s Back, that forms both its context and its appeal. As a publication, it has been wildly successful both within Germany and across the globe, and Vermes undoubtedly has Hitler to thank for that (helped by the excellent cover by Punch Design). As a work of literature, Look Who’s Back is nothing particularly special, nor does it have anything new to say. The entire story, which is pitched as a black comedy, is told from Hitler’s point of view, with a lot of the humour reliant on the tried-and-true formula of the bemused alien (that Herr Starbuck sure has a lot of coffee houses, etc). This unchanging point of view coupled with the total lack of character development on the part of the narrator makes the novel oddly flat, with stilted pacing and a tailing-off ending that I found unsatisfying. In a strange way, Look Who’s Back is both shocking and rather dull (albeit with funny moments).

What Vermes has grasped, though, and what I keep coming back to as I reflect on this novel, is the power of silence. Hitler was a charismatic orator, and in Look Who’s Back we see this used to full effect. In the TV studio: “I listened to the silence … my physical presence unleashed a hush upon the assembled crowd … I could see the uncertainty triggered by nothing more than simple eye contact in that breathless silence … The tension in the room was palpable … I enjoyed it.” Here is the tense and painful silence in which we still contemplate Hitler. Part of what makes him so difficult to conceptualise is that what he achieved was so extraordinary. If he had only used his powers for good, we would revere him as a gifted and world-changing leader. But we are horrified not only by what he and the Nazis did, but by the fact that ordinary people, voters like you and me, enabled him do it. Hitler scares us into silence because he shows us the dark side of what we − as a collective, a citizenry, a Western nation; as a group of people we automatically think of as the good guys − are all capable of. Here is the silence in which no one says no.

As a physical book, though, Look Who’s Back is very pleasing. As well as having an absolutely superb cover, it has been beautifully designed and typeset (well done Patty Rennie). I thought it was particularly effective how Hitler’s speeches have been laid out as poetry, inset and with only a few words per line. As a typesetter myself, I always find it interesting when the act of typesetting enters a novel. In Look Who’s Back, Hitler reflects that he ought really to develop his own typeface: “Then it occurred to me that before long graphic designers in printers’ workshops would be discussing whether to set a text in ‘Hitler Black’, and I scrapped the idea.” Look at that – the Führer can make typesetting jokes too! How very, very unsettling.

Look Who’s Back is, in the end, an odd pendulum lurching between horror and farce. It is both a worthy thought experiment that raises important questions, and an inconclusive story that leaves a bad taste in the brain. To read it and enter its world is to see ourselves and our modern, media-drenched society as through a Halloween Hitler mask made of flat cardboard − an uneasy and unsatisfying experience. But perhaps I should let Vermes have the last word: “Books don’t have to educate or turn people into better human beings – they can also just ask questions. If mine makes some readers realise that dictators aren’t necessarily instantly recognisable as such, then I consider it a success.”

Review by Elizabeth Heritage

Look Who’s Back
by Timur Vermes, translated from German by Jamie Bulloch
Published by MacLehose Press
ISBN 9780857052933

Book Review: The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan

cv_the_war_that_ended_peaceThis book is available at bookstores nationwide.

Whose fault was the horrible First World War? In an age of enlightenment, of European prosperity where its tribes had not been to war for decades, how did such a catastrophe occur that would kill millions, wreck economies and undermine the very value of life?

Of course the answer is that there is a huge complexity of factors, people and circumstance that led to the start of the war. And in 607 pages, esteemed historian, Margaret MacMillan in The War that Ended Peace, explores, connects and explains this complexity in an immensely readable style that takes the reader along at a clip that is almost like a classic “whodunnit”.

The subtitle to the book, How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War provides a significant clue to MacMillan’s primary point. It was not so much that the First World War started by design or intent, but rather that Europe and its leaders ran out of ideas of how to keep the peace. Before she gets to that point however, the author tracks with considerable research skill and narrative style the cultures, economies and personalities that all played a part in the abandonment of peace.

A particular feature of the book is the revelations of the personalities and relationships of the leading figures – kaisers, tsars and kings, emperors, presidents, prime ministers and foreign secretaries. She reveals how democracies and autocracies developed and the pressures each brought to bear on the outcome. In Britain and probably France, elected politicians had sway over their military. In Tsarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the monarchy of Germany, the leaders either had direct authority over their armies and navies or, particularly in the case of the German army and separately, the navy, the generals and admirals made their own plans for war without bothering too much to think of ways of preventing it, all to the delight of the Kaiser.British Empire

The competition between the great powers for world domination; carving up Africa, wanting to carve up China, controlling the trade routes through the Mediterranean, Atlantic and the Pacific also created jealousies and friction. Germany certainly wanted to break Britain’s domination of world trade (‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’ rankled greatly with the Kaiser). Tsar Nicolas hated the thought of the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire controlling Serbia, and would have gone to war on that point alone.

The way alliances formed and the reasons behind their formation is also analysed with skill and clarity by MacMillan. The formation and the factors leading to the formation of Entente Cordiale, The Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance are discussed behind a backdrop of shifting considerations of “who is my friend and who is my enemy and who is my enemy’s  enemy “

Certainly, there was every good reason why Europe should not have gone to war and dragged the rest of the world into it. Europe and its people were enormously prosperous at the time, with extraordinary achievements in science, technology, social systems, education and health. Unfortunately, its very wealth allowed for the creation of large armies by the central powers – that eventually had to do something other than sit around.  It allowed for massive expenditure by Britain and Germany on an arms race, particularly with the building of great fleets, especially the Dreadnought battleships. The German Admiral Tirpitz wanted to build a navy bigger than Britain’s. Britain feared he might so they built an even bigger navy.
There were attempts at retaining the peace and structures which could have helped. The concert of Europe was not a forerunner to the Eurovision Song Contest, but rather something like the later League of Nations and the United Nations General Assembly, used as a mechanism for keeping the peace between squabbling nations. But it was probably less effective than the song contest in promoting peace and harmony among the tribes.

So who did it? In a way, the answer is “everybody,”  MacMillan concludes, “and if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left  but to go to war. There are always choices.”

Don’t read another serious book about the First World War before you read this one – it helps in understanding the sacrifice.

By Lincoln Gould

The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914
by Margaret MacMillan
Profile Books Ltd
ISBN 9781846682728

Book Review: Sport 42, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_42Available in selected bookstores now.

Reviewing an issue of a literary journal is a rather curious thing. You’re given the issue—in this case, Sport 42, the latest issue of that well loved landmark of Kiwi lit—and you look inside and see not only a clutch of short stories, but also a hefty double handful of poetry, and a couple of essays, and despite the disparate genres and the disparate levels of experience of the disparate writers (some fresh out of IIML, some already well established), you are told “Go! Go forth and review!” And you look down at this overflowing buffet of words in your right hand and you say, “Um. Ok. Sure. How are you supposed to eat an elephant again?”

Despite my trepidation (Sport 42 boasts a lot of poetry, and I am not a poet), I remembered that I can in fact recognize fine writing when I read it, and Sport 42 has a great deal of fine writing on display in this issue. In particular, the pieces of writing I responded to with the greatest enthusiasm were always the pieces where the style matched, supported and enhanced the content. Hence why Pip Adam’s story “Tragedy of the Commons” continues to ring in my mind; the story is disorienting to read, and there is a stone of despair in its belly, but this is the experience and point of view of Adam’s protagonist too, who looks out at a drenched Christchurch through dead, disoriented eyes.

Lawrence Patchett’s taut writing was wonderful to read too—no fat, all muscle. I also greatly enjoyed the economy on display in both Breton Dukes’ and Uther Dean’s work. Dukes’ very short short stories were each only an A5 page long but nevertheless scooped together sharp characterisation, metaphor, dialogue, depth, plot and a character called Raimundo (and how can you go wrong with a character called that?) Uther Dean’s collection of haiku also managed to say a lot with a little, using the haiku form to perfectly (and often weirdly) present some of the grains of absurdity or sadness scattered through our lives: (“All the sad robots/Pretend to robot smile/At their robot friends.”) I also gravitated towards those pieces that seemed to open a door for us to drift out of real life and into dream or memory, as in Frances Samuel’s “Vending Machine”, and I also enjoyed Bill Manhire’s “Bridle Song”, which was zany as heck right up until it became very troubling (“pyong-yang-a-lang, pyong-yang-a-loo/dear leader says he’s coming soon for you”).

Stephanie de Montalk’s ‘fact-ional’ interview with Alphonse Daudet (who died in 1897) was a highly absorbing piece of writing that also merged reality or fact with pure fiction, but which always felt truthful. de Montalk imagines going back in time to meet Daudet who suffered from the neurodegeneration typical of advanced venereal disease. She gives Daudet a voice, imagines his character based on his writing, imagines how he might sit, speak and act, while still incorporating facts and analysis and moving the interview through meditations on chronic pain and suffering. This was a truly masterful piece of writing, and it exemplifies why literary journals like Sport must continue to exist. I admit to some exasperation at the several pieces of writing made of well turned out words but little real feeling (as far as I could tell), but there was more than enough in this issue to show the importance of having this kind of outlet for creative writing. Long live Sport, and here’s to issue number 43!

Review by Febriani Idrus

Sport 42
Edited by Fergus Barrowman
Victoria University Press

Book Review: Old Blue –The Rarest Bird in the World, by Mary Taylor

cv_old_blueThis book is available now in bookstores nationwide.

Mary Taylor works mainly as an artist. Her limited editions, etchings and paintings feature New Zealand fauna and flora. She has also written Dyptoe: The Yellow Eyed PenguinOld Blue was first published in 1993 by Scholastic.  The book I reviewed is a redesigned and updated edition.

Mary first heard about Old Blue (Chatham Island Robin) from a friend at DOC (Department of Conservation). The ensuing story was written to try and save this increasingly rare bird.
For thousands of years the Chatham Island Robin lived in the Chatham’s safely, but then settlers arrived by boat. As the years went by and hundreds more people arrived the Robin was threatened by the animals they bought with them.  They bought cows, sheep, pigs and worst of all they bought carnivorous animals.  Feral cats and rat populations exploded threatening the habitat of these little native birds and other species on the island. This was also a time when the disappearance of species wasn’t important to the inhabitants of the Chatham’s.

By 1900 there was only one island where the Chatham Island Robin was safe – Little Mangere Island.  Its sheer cliffs and environs made it difficult for predators – men, rats and cats.  For a time these birds flourished, but then it was discovered there were only twenty left in the world.  One pair of birds’ laid two eggs, with only one of these hatching.  This one hatchling was the only one in the whole world.

The New Zealand Wildlife Service had been visiting the Chatham’s to study different species of native birds on the island. They became concerned with the number of native birds that were gradually dying off, with some becoming extinct. They then visited Little Mangere Island where the little Chatham Island Robin was now one year old.  One of the wildlife officers was a gentleman by the name of Don Merton.

The story that unfolds of the ingenious way to save this beautiful little bird is heart wrenching and wonderful. Thanks to Don and his team of helpers this little bird today is thriving.

The story of “Old Blue” is beautiful.  We are certainly lucky as New Zealanders to have such dedication by wildlife officers (now DOC – Department of Conservation).

The illustrations by Mary Taylor with her text are breathtakingly beautiful.  I kept thinking what lovely framed prints they would make.

Highly Recommended.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Old Blue –The Rarest Bird in the World
by Mary Taylor
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432371