Book Review: Sunken Forest, by Des Hunt

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sunken_forestMatt Smith’s life is turned upside down when his petrol-head father is sent to prison for illegal car racing. With the family’s main income earner behind bars, Matt is sent to live with his Nana, relocating from Hastings to Gisborne. The move brings with it a new school, a new teacher (the excellently named Mrs Snodgrass), new friendships, and a whole bunch of unexpected challenges.

Unfortunately for Matt, his Nana’s warning that “early friends aren’t always the good ones” couldn’t be more true of his two fast-friends at Oneroa Intermediate School, Jay and Cameron. The duo use Matt to help smuggle stolen goods out of school, and when Matt performs a random act of kindness, he’s later blamed for what seems to be a related crime.

Consequently, Matt is told he can’t go on school camp with his class to Auckland, and instead he attends a military-style wilderness camp with Cameron and Jay’s class at Lake Waikaremoana. As Matt negotiates making new friends – including a monstrous eel named Elsa – accusations continue to fly. Mr Klink believes the worst and Matt soon finds himself in deep water. Together with his new friends, he must use all his eco-science, detective and adventure skills not only to prove himself innocent, but to save the camp from potential disaster.

Another fabulous read by acclaimed New Zealand writer Des Hunt. I would strongly recommend this as a regular on every Intermediate school teacher’s read aloud list. I love how real and complicated Matt’s social background is, how his self-esteem plays into the relationships he forms, and how Matt’s story is woven into a rich, real-life setting in a way that champions eco-science and wilderness knowledge without becoming overbearing.

While I wasn’t so taken with a few of the secondary characters (namely Maddy, and her one-track-minded desire for revenge regardless of consequence), most in this eclectic cast of characters jump off the page, and the descriptions of Lake Waikaremoana and the surrounding area are stunning. I did wonder if perhaps Matt was a little too innocent – too much in the wrong place at the wrong time – though his shoplifting backstory and his father’s prison sentence do explain why he now has such a strong moral compass.

Perhaps the most satisfying part of Sunken Forest is its ending. It’s an ending that wraps-up not just Matt’s story, but many of the secondary character’s arcs as well in a satisfying, logical way – very much a credit to an experienced writer well in his stride.

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

Sunken Forest
by Des Hunt
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434030

Book Review: Clover Moon, by Jacqueline Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_clover_moonJacqueline Wilson is admirably prolific. Penning her 100th title, Opal Plumstead, in 2014, Wilson is one of the biggest names in children’s literature in the UK and abroad. Clover Moon continues her fabulous work with vivacious female characters in historically-set fiction for children.

Clover Moon lives with her large family in the squalor of Cripps Alley, a slum in Victorian England. She’s the eldest of six children, and she spends most of her time entertaining and looking after her four half-siblings, her beloved sister Megs, and the other children who live in the alley. Clover’s own mother died in childbirth with Megs, and her father has since remarried a wicked woman named Mildred, who cares very little for Clover and beats her given any opportunity. Life in Cripps Alley is grim, yet Clover (who has been taught to read and write by the crippled doll maker, Mr. Dolly) remains forward-thinking and mostly hopeful about her future.

That is, until she loses the one person she loves most in the world, her sister Megs, to scarlet fever. With a life of servitude to Mildred or poorly-paying factory work ahead of her, Clover plans to escape Cripps Alley and runs away to a home for destitute girls, where a new realm of challenges and surprises awaits her.

Wilson does a fantastic job of truthfully exploring the grim realities of slum life in the Victorian era, without resorting to melodrama. Yet while Clover Moon explores the harsh realities and deep sadness of the time, the unwavering vibrancy of Clover herself keeps the tone up-beat and the plot moving.

At a hefty 385 pages, I would find it difficult to recommend Clover Moon as a gateway for new readers into Wilson’s work. However, veteran readers of Wilson’s fiction will no doubt devour this new tale from the bestselling author – it even features a short cameo appearance from Hetty Feather, one of Wilson’s most well-known heroines. Best of all, the ending is open and abrupt – it’s very possible we’ll be reading more about Clover Moon in the future.

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

Clover Moon
by Jacqueline Wilson
Doubleday Children’s Books
ISBN 9780857532749

Book Review: The Muse, by Jessie Burton

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_museThere’s something magical about Jesse Burton’s The Muse. It’s visually immersive in a way I haven’t experienced in a long while. The language feels painterly – a style that reverberates with the content and themes of the novel, and there’s an effortlessness in the prose that feels like ‘viewing’ rather than ‘reading’.

The Muse presents two narratives, starting in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, an immigrant from Trinidad and a writer who’s more familiar with London’s feet than its journals. Unsatisfied with her job in a shoe shop, she’s offered a position at the Skelton Gallery as a typist, and is swept under the wing of Marjorie Quick. She soon becomes enraptured by the origins of a newly-surfaced painting, its owner, and what Quick may be hiding about her knowledge of it.

The painting’s origins are unearthed in the 1936 story of Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art dealer and a secret painter herself, whose sexual awakening and coming-of-age manifests in an obsession with a local artist. The two narratives enhance the telling of each other in ways that almost necessitate a second reading – there are some truly beautiful insights on life, loneliness, otherness and creativity; yes, some brutal realities are swept over, but so the brush keeps moving.

The John Berger epigraph: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one” is so fitting, not only in keeping with the novel itself, but also in encompassing its creation. Jesse Burton’s first book The Miniaturist was translated into over thirty languages and has sold over a million copies. On her blog, Burton has been quite open about her struggles with depression and anxiety following the success of her first novel (link to her amazing post below). Themes of artistry, creativity and success in The Muse are marked by the author’s fingerprints of experience. I’ve mused on a fair few passages myself – the reading was at times truly cathartic.

Although a little heavy-handed at times, The Muse is one of my favourite books this year. It’s multi-faceted and poignant, and it resonated personally. I thinkBurton makes good on the sentiment she expressed in February, where she so openly discussed the process drafting this book:

“I have tried to write a novel full of life. I have written a book whose themes interest me, a book I would like you to read on a gloomy English night, a book to transport you as much as it chimes close to home.”

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

The Muse
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447250944

NWF: Unprintable Books: Writing for the Digital Era: Kate Pullinger

pp_katepullingerKate Pullinger’s session on unprintable books was another highlight of the National Writers Forum for me. Pullinger (right) has been involved in a diverse array of projects that have traversed that sometimes impossible-looking gap between digital and print media – a gap that could well be a matter of perception over truth. In fact, Pullinger made the point that the perceived boundary between digital and print publishing is much more porous than we might think.

Pullinger’s first book was published traditionally when she was in her mid-20s. Since then she’s published a number of books and short stories –The Mistress of Nothing won the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award in 2009. Yet she’s also diversified and carved out a space for herself, and other readers, writers and learners, in the digital space. Her project Inanimate Alice, which started out in 2005, has become exceptionally popular as an educational resource, as it’s an excellent example of how learning can be ‘gamified’ – combining text, animation, video, sound effects, music, and games with virtual participation. It’s still happening; episode six of Inanimate Alice was released in February this year.

For Pullinger, online collaboration has worked well as a contrast to the solitary process of producing long-form work offline. Landing Gear, a novel that explores the relationship between a suburban housewife and a stowaway who falls from the sky, started its life online, with Pullinger’s participatory research phase involving around 100 people. Opening up the writing process to participation has a few notable advocates now – with scientific peer review attributed as a major factor in the success of breakout hit, The Martian, by Andy Weir.cv_letters_to_an_unknown_soldier

Next Pullinger talked about Letter to an Unknown Soldier, a commissioned online project to mark the hundredth anniversary of the declaration of World War One. Participants were encouraged to write a letter to the Paddington Station’s statue of an unknown soldier. The concept blossomed into an online work that involved 21,439 letters and 8 editorial moderators. When you have a spare moment, I thoroughly recommend perusing through this memorial, or perhaps buying the resulting print book, Letter to an Unknown Soldier: A New Kind of War Memorial, published by HarperCollins in 2014.

But what of smartphones, those pesky pocket-sized computers that loom ominously over publishing? It’s all about finding a way to make the reading experience native to the medium; and Pullinger’s currently exploring how to do just that. Together with start-up oolipo, Pullinger has been working on a way to serialise fiction for smartphones – and there’s a lot more to this process than you might think. Our perceptions of reading in print can limit the way we work in digital space, as ‘the screen as a page’ metaphor persists in the digital reading space. I’m disappointed that I own a Samsung, as I do a lot of reading on my phone, and this project and the release of Pullinger’s serialised Jellybone is potentially industry-changing (though only available for iOS).

I’m a huge fan of Pokѐmon Go, so when Pullinger mentioned ambient literature, I was right there alongside her. “Situated literature exploring delivery by pervasive computing platforms that respond to the presence of a reader to deliver story” may sound like a mouthful, but the idea of engaging with location-specific content is one that really excites me. I’d love to see this medium working with narrative non-fiction in an educational space, as it has the potential to bring about learning experiences that are kinetic, empathetic, and educational.

Kate Pullinger spoke very freely of her experiences in publishing, and contributed very meaningfully to panel discussions. Her work in the digital space continues to break new ground, and I’ll certainly be following her upcoming projects with interest.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

Links:

  • Listen to Kate’s interview with Kim Hill here: Kate Pullinger: Digital Fictions
  • The Writing Platform: Pullinger is the Editorial Director for this free resource for writers and poets on digital transformations in reading, writing and publishing.
  • Inanimate Alice: An early digital project of Pullinger’s, that continues to be very popular as a classroom resource.
  • Letter to an Unknown Soldier:A participatory online memorial to commemorate the centenary of WW1.
  • Oolipo: A start-up exploring smartphone reading experiences and serialised work.

NWF: The Great Debate: Toby Manhire, Michele A’Court, Paula Morris & Leilani Tamu with Te Radar

te-radar

Te Radar

Okay, I’ll admit it – after the release of the now-infamous NZ Book Council research report, I was disappointed that these four debaters emerged from this session with their limbs still attached. The moot “Do New Zealand Books Need Special Treatment?” has become so topical in the past week that the organisers of the National Writers Forum must have been delighted by both their foresight and brilliant luck. I myself reveled in the pre-glow of what I hoped would be a bitter bloodbath, ending with Te Radar’s tender hand floating across the tops of long stems of golden wheat. But Te Radar isn’t Russell Crowe, and this was no Gladiator.

 

Overall this session was less battle to the death and more battle of the wits, and boy, did Manhire come out swinging. Leader of the affirmative team, Manhire suggested that, yes, New Zealand books do need special treatment – in almost every sense of the phrase. Not only do they need to be stroked, cared for, given attention, and lovingly durasealed – and New Zealand writers given resources and plenty of biscuits – but sometimes New Zealand books also need “special” treatment – their prices slashed as they’re chucked into the Whitcoulls cheap basket.

Paula Morris followed up with a compelling argument from the negative team, stating that Manhire and A’Court are both “strange and volatile people”. She argued that New Zealand books aren’t basket cases, and that they need to be given the opportunity to stand up and skirmish with international titles on general fiction shelves – very sensible.

Michele A’Court responded on behalf of the affirmative team, explaining that reading New Zealand’s special books gave her permission to be a writer. Separating New Zealand literature was not a way to weed out New Zealand titles from the good books, but to wave, to say “I’m like you, come and find me.”

Leilani Tamu replied with a poignant anecdote of her child’s first take-home reader – about the importance of engaging with and bonding over a love of story, not identity. New Zealand books need to assert themselves, she said, because they are worthy of the world stage.

What do I think? I have no bloody idea. The treatment of New Zealand books is currently so contentious, with so many credible arguments for each side, that it’s not an issue that I feel my small voice would progress. Perhaps, as Te Radar said, “it really doesn’t make any difference who won this debate”. Another brilliant you-really-had-to-be-there session by the National Writers Forum.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

Image of Te Radar from: http://johnsonlaird.com/our-mcs-entertainers-speakers/Te_Radar

 

NWF: The Future of Publishing: Scott Pack with Dominic Hoey

Scott Pack’s been around the UK publishing block. He was the head of buying for book retail giant Waterstones for six years, before venturing into publishing via indie publisher The Friday Project and HarperCollins. In Scott’s session, he talked candidly with Dominic Hoey about the ‘doom and gloom’ of the publishing industry, and some of his latest ground-breaking publishing endeavours: crowd-funding publisher Unbound, and the champion of out-of-print books, Abandoned Bookshop.

“There is a perception that the publishing industry is fucked…” started Pack, when asked about the current state of publishing. But this attitude comes from publishing’s reliance on an antiquated business model. Essentially, publishers pay authors an advance based on guessing how many books they’ll sell – and this advance is signed for six, twelve, or even eighteen months out from that book appearing in bookstores. Now advances against royalties are dropping, but Scott reckons the publishing industry will keep on ticking – if only because it’s too big to completely die.

A slightly morbid sentiment to start on, perhaps, especially considering the outstanding innovation of Unbound – think Kickstarter, but for a select number of passionately championed books – which in itself has the potential to shake-up the old publishing model and the way books are bought, made, and distributed.

But crowdfunding changes not only the book-making processes, but also how people interact with books. Crowdfunding publishing, Pack says, brings the reader and author closer together – and sometimes more literally than you might think. Somewhat like Kickstarter, Unbound consults with authors to offer a range of ‘perks’ for pledges. These can range from digital copies of the book to exclusive events, signed copies – and in the case of Mr Bingo – an insulting Christmas Day phone call. Essentially, your readers are also funding your promotion, and while the average book on Unbound sells for £20-25, their average pledge is £40. For authors with an existing platform, engaging with the market in this way can be quite lucrative – unlike a traditional publisher, Unbound split profits with authors 50/50.

Pack’s newest brainchild is Abandoned Bookshop, which he co-founded in 2016. Abandoned Bookshop takes forgotten out-of-print books and gives them a second life in the ebook market. Pack circumvents the usual bookish media channels, that often do not publish reviews of ebooks anyway, by wrapping his titles in a larger story. ‘Publisher hunts for forgotten detective novelist Clifton Robbins’ reads the title of this Guardian article, in which Abandoned Bookshop are seeking relatives of Robbins in order to pay out royalties. There’s no doubt that wrapping a story around a book like this works well on digital media, and “it’s not rocket science to take out-of-print books and make them available again,” but it does have the potential to inundate a small publisher with amateur genealogists.

And what of the New Zealand publishing scene? Pack started out his time in New Zealand at Christchurch’s WORD festival a month ago. Since then he’s seen a fair number of our bookshops. “Books here are bloody expensive” states Pack, but it’s clear that those working in publishing are passionate. There’s innovation going on here, too, with new ventures like arts crowdfunding platform Boosted which just supported Hinemoana Baker to the tune of 17K, but it’s still hard for New Zealand books to break into the US and UK markets. This is something Pack hopes to change when he returns to the UK – hinting at some possible Abandoned Bookshop New Zealand releases.

Yes, perhaps that old, rusting publishing model needs a bit of a makeover – but with enthusiastic arts champions like Pack and Hoey, I don’t doubt that publishing will continue to thrive.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

NWF: Janet Frame Memorial Lecture ­– Authors, an Endangered Species: Joan Rosier-Jones.

pp_joan_rosier-jonesWhen I first saw the title of this lecture, I thought that it might turn out to be a rather grim note to prologue the National Writers Forum, which officially starts today. I couldn’t have been more wrong ­– Joan Rosier-Jones presented a very informative overview of copyright changes in New Zealand since 1987, the year she joined PEN (Now the New Zealand Society of Authors, or the NZSA); and talked passionately about how theNZSA advocates for writers, ensuring that they do not become extinct.

The session was started by Gordon McLauchlan, who introduced Joan as a practitioner ­­– and therefore a ‘professional survivor’ of the publishing industry. During her time Joan has done far much more than just survive – she’s thrived, writing around 18 novels and books about writing, and she’s been extraordinarily active in advocating and encouraging writing culture in New Zealand. Joan was the first female Chair of the Auckland branch of the NZSA, serving during the transitory period of 1993-1995, during many a heated debate about the 1994 copyright changes (she mentioned one particular ‘debate’ where fists almost became involved). She became the President of the NZSA in 1999 and served through until 2001, and she was also one of the first writer directors of Copyright Licencing NZ. Joan now holds the position of NZSA President of Honour – following Phillip Temple. Other recent Presidents of Honour include Owen Marshall, Joy Cowley, and Sir James McNeish.

Joan did a great job of outlining how copyright has changed for authors since the overhaul of New Zealand copyright legislation in 1994, covering everything from the introduction of moral rights and the establishment of Copyright Licensing NZ, to the 2011 ‘digital age’ copyright changes and potential implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (copyright term currently extends to 50 years after the death of the originator in NZ, under the TPP, this period could extend to 70 years).

Next she talked more specifically about publishing contracts and some of their potential sticking points. While translation rights, digital rights, broadcast and merchandising are reasonably standard requests by publishers (though these can be negotiated), I had no idea that publishers can ask for rights for media forms ‘yet to be invented’… definitely something for the signing author to be wary of, and to opt-out of where possible!

One of the problems with contracts is that authors can be a vulnerable lot. At the beginning of her talk, Joan mentioned that she signed her first three contracts without really reading them – something that in the heat and excitement of the moment, many signing authors may still fail to do. While the doors to publishing expand digitally and retract in print, writers are presented with a variety of new hurdles ­– and it’s great to know that organisations like the NZSA exist to prevent writers from ‘becoming extinct’.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

Emma Bryson is at the National Writers Forum reporting on behalf of Booksellers NZ all weekend.