Book Review: First Person, by Richard Flanagan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_first_personFirst Person is Richard Flanagan’s new part-novel, part-memoir. He appears to have sought a balance between these two genres in a more obvious way then the usual novelist. First Person is unexpected in many ways and goes against the norm of a typical novel.

The story’s protagonist (and narrator) is Kif Kehlmann, a struggling writer from Tasmania with a three year old daughter and a wife who is pregnant with twins. He is approached to ghostwrite a notorious conman’s memoir for a sum that would appear to solve his family’s problems and the task itself promises to provide Kif with the purpose and self-assurance that he constantly seems to be in need of. Pride and well-warranted internal warnings hold him back from immediately accepting but eventually he agrees to the project and thus begins his journey to work at creating a sensational memoir with a deadline hanging over him and a dangerous criminal at the helm.

Richard Flanagan himself wrote an autobiography for an Australian fraudster, known as John Friedrich, back in 1991. I researched more on the subject and First Person time and again drew extreme similarities to Richard Flanagan’s own experience – even down to the sum offered as remuneration and that his wife was pregnant with twins at the time. He has acknowledged that his own experience has served as inspiration for First Person and initially to me this made the novel feel more significant to me. ‘

On further reflection though, I think it ultimately hindered the novel. If Flanagan had decided that this was to be his own ‘first person’ account of events that he experienced writing Death of a River Guide about John Friedrich then personally I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more. A novel by definition is fiction and fiction doesn’t have to be as close to the original truth as Flanagan has placed it.

The story at certain stages finds a definite purpose, but all too often it veers off into irrelevancies, to the point that the main motive of the novel is nearly forgotten. Finally, the story moves back to the writing of the memoir of the fraudster, but it seems as though the story goes in constant circles and serpentines, repeating the same events and situations slightly differently and in a progressively amplified manner. The climax was sprung upon you with no time to prepare – the reader doesn’t have time to comprehend that this is what everything was building towards.

Unfortunately the faster pace doesn’t carry on for the rest of the novel, which slows back down to the point where you’re left wondering if there is supposed to be another climax building, though that never delivers. The concept of the story was solid, but I just wish Richard Flanagan had chosen one course – fiction or fact – rather than trying to incorporate both to the extent that he seems to have.

This wasn’t a book I particularly enjoyed, I have seen it described as a literary masterpiece and I definitely can acknowledge that Richard Flanagan is a very good writer. But it seems I was not alone in not enjoying it despite his ability, as I found other reviews that communicated the same view.  I feel like the novel is an acquired taste for a particular audience. I have not yet developed this taste.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

First Person
by Richard Flanagan
Published by Knopf Australia
ISBN 9780143787242



Book Review: Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England, by Liza Picard

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_chaucers_peopleAs an English lit student, many years ago at University, I was fascinated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The trouble was there was not enough information to help the ordinary reader put the people in context

That is no longer a problem. Liza Picard is a social historian and has written about many periods in English history, giving the background and the depth to the actual events. She brings the same academic excellence and readable scholarship to the world of Chaucer. While many writers of historic events put in too much detail and get side-tracked, she avoids these pitfalls. This book is both informative and engaging. It is perhaps not a Summer beach read, but certainly a book I will dip in to and discuss with others.

Picard takes each of the characters form the Tales and puts them in to a group. She then gives us the information about that group. The Wife of Bath comes under the heading of Country Life, but we then get a description of her occupation as a Weaver. The research is meticulous but this is a readable version of the facts. I enjoyed finding out about The Reeve. I did not realise double entry book-keeping was already in existence in the 1300’s. The medical section is so good I kept reading passages aloud to my long-suffering husband. We find out about surgeons, apothecaries, pestilence, women’s problems and mental illness.

‘Most home remedies relied on common herbs, with perhaps some alcohol and faith. A scalded penis (how could that happen?) called for the ashes of burned cloth on a linen bandage. For snakebite take thine own piss and drink it….’. The section on food includes some Medieval recipes, but the suggestion not to try them!

While this book is perhaps more for those with an academic interest in life in Medieval England, it is an interesting tome for the general reader. I worry that we no longer read to widen our knowledge and understanding, but read only for specific outcomes. To me the beauty of a book, is that it leads me in to an unknown world and helps me understand the present by reflecting on the past. Surely, this is the purpose of historical writing.

Liza Picard will lead the reader into a fascinating world behind the characters Chaucer so well presented to us in the Canterbury Tales. You will embark on your own pilgrimage to Medieval England but beware of Cooks, Reeves, Merchants, Knights and above all, the Doctor of Physic!

by Kathy Watson

Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England
by Liza Picard
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN 9781474606318

Book Review: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC, by Reed Tucker

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_slugfestThe title says it all: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC. Never have I read a non-fiction book with so many descriptions of conflict and deception. By the final page I felt as though I had done 15 rounds in a boxing ring. Tucker, a Brooklyn (New York) based journalist, has written a detailed history of Marvel and DC’s roles in the volatile comic book industry that he describes as ‘continuously ping-ponging between elation and despair’. The book’s dedication gives a clue to the tone and content that will follow: ‘To the fans who, for decades, have been tirelessly litigating this issue with their voices, keyboards – and occasionally their fists.’ I’m pleased that Tucker used the gender-neutral term ‘fans’ in his dedication, given the frequent assumptions and assertions throughout the book that all comic book fans are male.

If you’re a comic book reader – or even if you’re not – you’re likely aware of the long-standing rivalry between the two giants: Marvel and DC. Tucker’s book chronicles the ups and downs they have both experienced, alongside the shift in how comic books have been perceived over time, and the impact of political, cultural and technological changes on the industry. The ‘iconic trinity’ of DC’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – and other key characters, such as Marvel’s Spider-Man – have survived both on and off the page, and their longevity now seems assured. It’s also interesting to read about characters that sank without a trace (or in some cases never made it to a first issue). They include Brother Power the Geek, The Hawk and the Dove, the Galaxy Green warrior women, Steel and Vixen.

Superman debuted in 1938, with limited powers. Unable to fly, he could however leap one-eighth of a mile. Tucker explains how Superman – and a raft of subsequent action heroes – offered ‘inexpensive escapist entertainment’ to North American readers during the challenging times of the Great Depression and the threat of war.

Not everyone was happy about the rapid growth of comic books, which were thought to be trashy and disreputable. Journalists, psychiatrists and other critics blamed comics and their ‘poisonous effects’ for the rise of the ‘bad behaviour’ of young people. In 1954, a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency convened a hearing on the evils of comic books. In response, the industry produced a code of conduct outlining core values and standards for details such as titles, depictions of violence and costumes. Not all publishers could adhere to the code and many went out of business.

The early comic book readers were perceived to be either very young children or older people who ‘weren’t too bright’, according to Stan Lee (an influential Marvel identity who eventually worked for DC too). The same was true in New Zealand. Some of us can still remember Bob Jones’s public graffiti belittling a Labour Party opponent: ‘[This prominent Labour party politician] reads comics’ it read; see Bollinger (2017).

Tucker analyses comic book characters, the people who draw and voice them, and the artwork itself. The artwork is traditionally a key point of differentiation between one publisher and another, even though an artist’s creativity may be constrained by prevailing house styles. Tucker describes the initial DC characters as bland and steady do-gooders, compared with Marvel’s three-dimensional superheroes who had real-world problems and anxieties.

Tucker covers marketing strategies, print runs and distribution tactics, the emergence of brand identities, trends to watch (hello, martial arts), price increases, optimal page counts and the catastrophic effects of weather on delivery schedules during winter. He tells of territorial wars, accusations of plagiarism and spies, defections, hiring and firing dramas, poaching, friction and competition. Apparently insults and punches were frequently traded. Writers were seen as disposable, like oranges: ‘You squeeze them until there’s no juice left then you throw them away.’ Certain executives are described variously as a ‘world-class jerk… [with a] foul temperament’, a ‘grouchy and demanding…crusty…curmudgeon’, ‘abusive…notoriously difficult… [with a] volcanic temper’, and a ‘prickly…vindictive…bad-mouthing…prick’. And worse. Perhaps it’s no wonder that some former workers are described as bitter, and there are stories about the lingering ‘bad blood’ and ‘screw you’ attitudes that followed the departure or defection of key personnel.

Despite the intense rivalry, there have been several successful crossover co-productions, with labour divided between Marvel and DC. For one such publication, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century (1976), Marvel provided the penciller and the colourist, and DC offered the skills of a writer, an inker and a letterer.
Comic book tie-ins emerged as early as 1940, when character-themed merchandise included shirts, soap, pencil sets, belts and watches. Later, licensing and cross-promotion strategies brought in staggering revenue streams. The 1989 Batman film is reported to have generated an estimated $US750 million in merchandising sales. Products ranged from action figures and cereals to tortilla chips and satin jackets. Artists and many others associated with Batman soon became ‘filthy rich’.

Tucker acknowledges that the comic book industry was historically dominated almost exclusively by ‘old white guys’. Nevertheless, this book misses opportunities to acknowledge the work carried out by women in the industry. For example, there is only a passing reference to Marie Severin, a pioneering artist and colourist who at one time had the final word on every cover coming out of Marvel. Her contribution was significant as cover art was critical to ensuring an issue’s success.

I found the often male-centric language and tone – and some turns of phrase – off-putting. For example, why describe DC comics as being ‘suddenly as attractive as syphilis’? Why feature a quote reporting that executives ‘squabbled like two old ladies’? One editor apparently ‘went to the bathroom and puked’ when he heard that the next person to lead DC was to be a young woman, Janette Kahn. Kahn, who was well-educated, experienced and clearly the right person for the role, soon proved to be a ‘fresh and energetic…presence’. Her immediate goals were not only to improve the comics but also to treat the writers and artists with more respect.

As well as female industry executives, female characters such as Super Woman and Wonder Woman have played key roles in comic book history. There have also been many other female characters along the way, such as Wonder Girl, Marvel Girl and Elasti-Girl. (Curiously, I note that in the closing acknowledgments Tucker offers both thanks and apologies to his wife.)

Notes accompany each chapter for readers who would like to learn more, with full references linked to key quotes. There’s a fairly comprehensive although not all-inclusive index; some minor characters referenced in the book do not appear in the index. If you’ve ever wondered what DC stands for, Tucker provides both official and unofficial explanations. The range and scope of topics covered is impressive, although tighter editing of some of the verbatim conversations may have made for a better read.

Tucker makes it clear that this is an industry where ‘conflict equals audience engagement’. Indeed, fans are reported as thriving on the conflict that persists to this day between Marvel and DC. Tucker entertains the possibility that there is room for both companies to succeed, although he also notes the risk that DC’s superhero universe may yet suffer ‘a slow, sad descent into irrelevance’. He observes that the industry is heading into new, uncertain directions, having had to remain resilient and resourceful in the face of the decline of print media.

Slugfest would first and foremost appeal to comic-book fans, but may also attract readers interested in the history of publishing, pop culture, superhero movies, and comic book characterisation. It also includes lessons about office politics, divided loyalties, and marketing practices and strategies – if you don’t mind a book where four-letter words, misogynistic comments and put-downs abound. One surprise: the book contains no images other than the cover art and the starburst at the beginning of each chapter.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC
by Reed Tucker
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751568974

Book Review: Three Cheers for Women!, by Marcia Williams

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_three_cheers_for_women“What’s this book about Dot?”

“Amazing, fantastic girls, Abe!”

“Boys do amazing fantastic things too!”

“Of course they do. But there are lots of books about them already!”

This introduction from the ‘narrators’ says it all really: this is a collection of over 70 amazing fantastic girls who have inspired and help shape our world, from Cleopatra: Queen of Egypt, to Malala Yousafzai: women’s rights activist.

Presented in an engaging comic strip format, each featured woman’s story is told in manageable bites across a double page spread, using fun and witty dialogue to keep the information interesting for younger readers, similar to the popular Horrible Histories series. Additional information features in the margins and the narrators keep up the banter throughout the book.

The range of women selected (and the author acknowledges who hard it was to select only a few from the thousands of inspirational and amazing women there are) features well-known names such as Jane Austen, Anne Frank, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth I, and Marie Curie. It has to be said that these well-known names are predominantly European, and this predominance is somewhat offset with the inclusion of other famous names such as Cleopatra, Cathy Freeman (Aboriginal Olympic gold medallist), Malala Yousfazai, Mae C Jemison (first African-American Woman in space), Wangari Maathai (Kenyan Peace Activist and Environmentalist).

It is the diverse range of accomplishments represented is wonderful to see – there are queens, sportswomen, creators, scientists and activists. Shared by all the women is a passion and belief in their worth and it is this important message that is there for all readers to see. Girls really can to anything they set their minds to.

The last three double spreads feature introductions to even more amazing women, with both familiar and new names featuring in a roll call of honour. It would have been great to see them have their own bigger spreads, but then the book would have ended up way too big to pick up! Perhaps the publishers could create a Three Cheers for Women – Vol 2?

As a highly readable non-fiction title, this will be a valuable resource for any primary or intermediate school library which can be used as a base for research projects or discussions about gender equality.

With the words of wisdom included and the stories of achievement and desire to help their communities, I sincerely hope it inspires both young girls and boys to find their own passions and way to make the world a better place for everyone – no matter who they are.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Three Cheers for Women!
by Marcia Williams
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406374865

Book Review: The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, by Joe Gorman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_death_and_life_of_aust_soccer.jpgThis is primarily a book about sport, but it is also so much more than that. It tells us a lot about recent Australian history, especially about post-war migration, and its urban setting. Although it is about football culture, it is also about Australian society, and the cultural place of sporting success; as well as a real insight into its urban history.

Joe Gorman is a journalist, but mostly comes across as an enthusiastic sports fan, and a lover of soccer. Or should that be football. The central part of the book is that the soccer culture of post-war Australia was fundamentally ethnic, founded in the clubs created by mostly continental European migrants. The most successful soccer clubs, prior to the creation of the A- League, were unashamedly ethnic. Indeed, most of the soccer clubs attached ethnicity to their names, especially for the Croatian and Greek teams of migrants, but the Italians and even Jewish clubs were also prominent.

But two basic things went wrong. Firstly, the Australian football federation always had a problem with ethnicity, especially when nationalistic identity led to violence between supporters. The second was that the national competition, the NSL, was never a viable commercial product that could compete with other football codes, especially once television coverage was involved. Moreover, the issue of the role of multiculturalism became a political one, and soccer exemplified the ethnic tensions in urban areas. So, eventually, administrators from other codes came along to solve the old soccer problem, and create a football league, one based on clear commercial lines.

Gorman’s historical account also explains some of the more odd features of the A-League. Some of these aspects had developed over time, such as the idea of playing a winter sport over summer, in the Australian heat. Other aspects were borrowed from other codes, especially rugby league, in having a grand final at the end of the year, rather than the winner being the top team on the points table. But rugby league also has long-standing clubs with histories of participation, whereas the A-League was started from scratch, and would effectively rub out the old club system and rivalries. It turns out that most of the stalwarts of the game see this as a backward step, and, at best, a necessary compromise to increase popularity. Gorman calls it gentrification.

Indeed, Gorman is as good at using metaphors and hyperbole as any sports journalist. He describes the A-League as a ‘membrane’ that seals off the elite game from the grassroots, and the development of individual players and club-based identities. Moreover: ‘the story of soccer in Australia…is a vast mess of shattered dreams, colonised tribes and forgotten heroes, splayed out like a Jackson Pollock painting across the landscape of Australian history.’ (page352)

He, of course, has tried to reinvigorate the memories of the forgotten heroes, both on and off the pitch. He also paints a picture of desolate former club grounds in ruins.

All of which makes one wonder what a New Zealand team is doing in the A-League. Certainly the Wellington Phoenix has been far less successful than the Breakers in basketball, for example. And Australian football is focused on Asia, having left the Oceania federation as losers. But rather than look at the elite level, reading the book makes one think of the New Zealand club system. Where I grew up, in Lower Hutt, the key figures were all migrants; but almost all were Anglo-Saxon, not Slavic. And no one had a problem with a New Zealand team that sounded like an English side.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

The Death and Life of Australian Soccer
by Joe Gorman
Published by University of Queensland Press
ISBN 9780702259685

Book Review: The Adventures of a Young Naturalist, by David Attenborough

Available in bookshops nationwide.

51xl7QiCeML._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_David Attenborough is a legend of our time, synonymous with sharing the wonders and delights of the natural world with us through numerous television series over decades. He is a man with fascinating stories to tell about his life and career and Zoo Quest Expeditions shares some of these adventures.

In the 1950’s, David Attenborough was 26, a television producer for the BBC with two year’s broadcasting experience and an unused zoology degree, anxious to make animal programmes.

His plan was simple. The BBC and the London Zoo should mount a joint animal-collecting expedition on which both he and a curator of reptiles from the London Zoo should go. David would direct film sequences showing the London Zoo curator searching for and finally capturing a creature of particular interest. The resulting television series should be called Zoo Quest.

Zoo Quest Expeditions is David’s diary account of the experiences they had on their animal-collecting expeditions into the wilderness of British Guiana (Guyana), Indonesia, and Paraguay in the 1950’s.

Part of the magic of this book is the realisation as to how special these far flung locations were in a time when there was limited access to the area, and few European faces. Exotic animals were abundant the jungles and wilderness, and sometimes living as pets in remote villages. David and his team come into contact with Caiman crocodiles, piranhas, sloths, exotic birds, giant spiders, vampire bats, capybara, tree porcupines, manatee, anteaters, and many, many more wonderful creatures.

There is also the realisation that David Attenborough was far more than just a television producer and presenter, he was a very hands-on naturalist, with a confidence and appreciation of the animals and wilderness environments. He waded in deep crocodile infested waters, crawled through jungles, climbed trees with giant snakes; the man had no fear. The tale of David wrestling with the monster python a foot wide and 12 feet long in the jungles of Java is an eye-opener.

David Attenborough acknowledges in the book’s introduction that nowadays zoos don’t send out animal collectors on quests to bring them back for the zoo collection. The methods were of the time, when men of science were still concerned with compiling a catalogue of all the species of animals alive today, rather than conservation and respect for the wildlife and environment. If you can be comfortable with this, you’ll be able to appreciate the stories of the beautiful and charismatic creatures and their first interactions with humans, rather than saddened by the fact they were often collected and brought back to zoos.

On the trip back from Guyana, most of the animals were brought back by sea, except a few nice spiders, scorpions and one or two snakes in sealed tins with tiny air holes that went on the plane with David. He also kept a Coatimundi kitten nestled inside his shirt, a delightful furry creature still on a milk diet, with bright brown eyes, a long ringed tail and a pointed inquisitive snout. When he became hungry for more, they fed him worms rustled up from the tulip gardens at the airport in Amsterdam.

Zoo Quest Expeditions is a snapshot of a time long past, and a truly fascinating account of the wonderful animals that live our planet Earth.

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions
by David Attenborough
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9781473665958

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions features in the 2017 Summer Reading Catalogue.

Book Review: The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_diary_of_a_booksellerYou don’t have to be a bookseller to enjoy Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. It is a delightful, amusing daily diary that is just a pleasure to read. It is also a tale of the changing nature of bookseller in this digital age. Though his view of bookselling is sometimes rather cynical, it is cynicism touched with humour, especially in regard the oddities of customers and human beings in general.

Shaun bought the second hand bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland sixteen years ago. He had grown up near Wigtown and, home from university for Christmas, he dropped into The Bookshop to see if they had a copy of Leo Walmsley’s Three Fevers. In the course of conversation, the owner suggested he might like to buy the bookshop. He responded that he did not have any money, which earned the response ‘you don’t need money – what do you think banks are for.’

The diary was written in 2014, and starts each day with a note on how many online orders he had received overnight and how many of the orders he managed to find in his bookshelves. The numbers don’t always match. At the end of each day’s diary entries, he lists the number of customers and the takings for the day, excluding online sales. In between these two notes are passages of amusement, whimsy and often delightful insights into human behavior.

Food features in the book in different ways. Wigtown is Scotland’s National Booktown and there are more than 20 bookshops in the attractive seaside village in Dumfries and Galloway. Each year there is a Booktown Festival which attracts thousands of visitors to buy books and attend many events spread around the village. One night, while attending a festival some years ago, an exhausted author started rummaging around in Shaun’s bookshop looking for food. Shaun, who lives upstairs with Captain the cat, managed to rummage up some simple fare. The idea caught on, now the shop feeds some 200 authors and presenters engaged in the festival. Another angle on food is Nicky, a irregular worker in the book shop who brings in food for Shaun that she has found in the skip at the back of the local supermarket…

Inspired by this as a second-hand bookseller myself, I’m keeping a diary.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

The Diary of a Bookseller
by Shaun Bythell
Profile Books
ISBN: 9781781258820