When a young poet gets an endorsement from a superstar with as much influence as Lorde, you know they are set to make ripples. The team at Victoria University Press have taken a calculated risk with this debut collection, which has already paid off it seems, with a poem republished online receiving thousands of views. Unity Books sold out soon after the print copy hit the shelves. While it may alienate readers who are more accustomed to more traditional poetry offerings from academic presses, it is sure to appeal for readers looking for something fresh, irreverent and hilariously relatable.
With the release of HBO’s TV series, Girls, created by Lena Dunham, we saw a logical extension of the no-holds-barred, female-perspective sexuality made popular by Sex in the City. That this has spawned a trend across different media genres is no accident, with gatekeepers jumping at the chance to capture the next generation. In Hera Lindsay Bird, what we have is not only a signature honesty and sharp wit, but also a poetic agility that many well-seasoned poets would kill for. The work is well-formed, muscular and intelligent.
At times the stories encased in the poems are akin to a car crash or a horror scene, where you feel a sense of bodily shock, but can’t wrench your look away. For all its humour, it’s a dark set piece. Despite its art-world quirkiness, this is no Zoey Deschanel, manic pixie dream. There is no sugar coating here. The word ‘black’ features over 40 times, along with a litany of other words Blake would blush at. Her work might not pass the filter test on your work computer.
Like the writer of The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lindsay Bird captures that intriguing shadow side of existence, acknowledging that the world is not as shiny and full of kittens and rainbows as Katy Perry or Taylor Swift would have us believe. It makes sense that Lorde aligns herself with Hera’s work, as the dark antihero scorning the romantic view of women as pastel, smiling and infantilised objects for the male gaze. The cover may have Hera in a bright yellow coat, but it is interesting to note the shadow, the dual names, the owning of the dark and light. It is no surprise then that we get a generous amount of gothic imagery throughout the book. This, combined with the pop culture references (e.g. Monica from Friends!) give us a dark, cynical take on the familiar, hyper-colour media fed to us as representative of the youth of today.
A standout piece in this collection is the concrete poem, Mirror Traps, broken into several parts, sectioned off by an internet buffering symbol. Its broken, fractured lines embody the fragmented period of emerging womanhood, perfectly summed up in the line, “…wait for the heart to finish buffering.” Encapsulated in this poem is the idea that sometimes our actions, our hearts and even the mirror can be disconnected. This is not a malady unique to the young, but possibly more prevalent among females, who are thrown into a world of “…discount facial peels” and “cucumber slices”. The “mohair of loneliness” sums up the image of the lone model in mohair. We are reminded that no amount of glamour or beauty treatments can purchase the kind of human connection and love we all crave; this despite how much we are sold this idea from a young age.
It’s an intriguing, fresh and well-crafted debut; one you won’t want to put down.
Reviewed by Anna Forsyth
Hera Lindsay Bird
by Hera Lindsay Bird
Published by VUP
I invited Sarah Jane Barnett to join me on the floor in the kids’ section of Unity Books just before Christmas to talk about Gecko Press and their amazing 10 years of publishing, with a half-cooked concept of coming up with the ultimate top 10 (or more) Gecko Press titles to recommend. Instead, we ended up having a bit of a fan-girl over some of our favourites, and talked a little about what sets Gecko Press books apart.
Sarah Forster: What do you think is your favourite Gecko Press book?
Sarah Jane Barnett: I think my favourite for me is Duck, Death and the Tulip (Wolf Erbruch, 2008, translated from German, 9781877467172), because I find it so moving. But my favourite for Sam is Snake and Lizard (Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop, 2007, 9780958278737) What I like is that the stories are short, so we can read just one, or we can read many of them; and that there’s a lot of conflict in them that we can talk about, but they’re funny as well. I mean, what I like about all the Gecko Press books really is that the characters aren’t too sweet – they’re not smoothed out.
SF: Yeah, see, Reflections of a Solitary Hamster is a good example of that, because he is not a likeable guy, but you love him anyway. He’s really unpleasant to all his friends, and then they all come to his party anyway and give him really good presents. But you love it, and you can’t put your finger on why. That is one of my favourites.
SF: My boys are completely different readers. Dan will read everything just once, while you will read the same books for a week to Alex, and he’ll still want them every night. Both of them though, went through a long period of obsession with The Big Book of Words and Pictures (Ole Konnecke, 2011, 9781877467875)*
SJB: I think that’s a brilliant book.
SF: It was published at exactly the right time for me, Dan was one. It was perfect!
SJB: I think what I do like about those books, and a lot of the Gecko books, is that Sam will just sit down and read them by himself. And he’ll want me to read them as well, but the illustrations are so interesting. And they go from that really young age, through to things like Snake and Lizard, where you’ll start to read these short chapters, and you know but it’s got a few illustrations… Up to the chapter books.
SF: A wonderful moment in domestic publishing by Gecko for me was when they published The Travelling Restaurant; I was blown away by the newness of it. Despite the fact it was a trope, it’s done again and again but, the newness of what Barbara had come up with and their ability to recognise it.
SJB: Yeah, they’ve got very good taste, haven’t they?
SF: I guess, like with Mrs. Mo’s Monster, they just picked it up and ran with it.
SJB: I do find these books bring up a lot of conversations.
SF: One book that Dan goes back to and back to, was this one: The Magical Life of Mr Renny. The reason he goes back to it is because he gets it. At the end there’s a joke. He sends a picture to his friend Rose, and Dan was immediately really proud of himself for ‘getting’ it. He’d have just over 3 at the time.
SJB: Yeah, Leo Timmers is – we have Bang! and we’ve got Franky, and a lot of Bang! is just the same joke over and over again. And I like that in Franky, the young boy is so sure that robots live on another planet, and the boy’s right. It’s so affirming, for their world view.
SF: Redemption for kids and how they think.
SJB: Poo Bum and I like Spaghetti are like that as well, the kid gets to say ‘Poo Bum’. The fun of reading Poo Bum is saying it over and over again.
SF: I also love the depth of Mr Renny, because he paints everything his heart desires, and it shows that everything your heart desires is never going to be enough. He gets to the point that he’s got the lot, then he has to paint the person who gave him the power, to get him back, to make himself a painter again. Because he can’t paint without it becoming real. A very clever little philosophical problem.
SJB: They are quite philosophical, aren’t they.
SJB: I think with Gecko, you just always know you’re going to get a good book. I think it’s because its such a small operation as well, the books are so carefully chosen.
SF: Jane had input, but Julia goes to the book fairs and things, and pays money for them – she has very good business nous, coupled with excellent taste.
SJB: You can really see all the love.
SF: When they brought out Toucan Can, by Juliette McIver & Sarah Davis – I like most of what Juliette & Sarah do, but this, for me was like Dr Seuss. I thought, wow – that is so good it’s stunning. I remember writing in a review “I cried a little when I first opened this book.” I think it is her best work, certainly to date – nothing has hit me as hard since. I think there’s something in that. Gecko only take really the cream. They have a very high standard, for what they want their stories to do.
SJB: One of the ones that I really liked – I think I reviewed it for you – was The Lazy Friend. Yes, the sloth.
SF: A wordless one.
SJB: Having the wordless ones, it’s a real diversity of different types of books. The wordless one was brilliant for making up the different stories that you could make, and talking about the illustrations.
SJB: They do some puzzle books as well, don’t they. We had the dinosaur one of those (Dinosaurs Galore, by Masayuki Sebe), and Sam loved that.
SF: Here’s one I really like – Sheep in Boots. It’s a different take on a sheep and a wolf tale. And I adore Just One More, its a really quirky combination of very short stories, illustrated by Gavin Bishop.
SJB: I got a book by Gavin recently, Bruiser. It really only worked at one level. That’s what I like about the Gecko books, is they work at lots of different levels. They’re funny, and they have ways to talk about difficult emotions. Poo Bum and I want Spaghetti are like that.
SF: Actually, A Deals A Deal, have you got that – from the same series. That ones actually very clever, because they’re trying to do a deal on these cars, he swaps him three cars for his one. The car falls apart because it’s plastic, so he puts it together with boogies and says its treasure inside it so the friend takes it back. That was one of Dan’s favourites for awhile.
SJB: And you get to talk about problems kids encounter every day. I find they are very fun to read, really beautifully produced (even just having this half-flap) and the paper stock just makes it so nice to hold.
SJB: And because they are mostly translated, we are getting these cherry-picked books from all these slightly different cultural takes on the world, which I enjoy. It means that Sam’s not just getting one world view.
SJB: In The Cake, they’re all kind of slightly mean to each other, its another book in which they’re not really these sweet characters. In some other children’s books, the characters have conflicts or they’re not very kind to each other, but I don’t believe it. In The Cake, you do believe that they are actually mean.
Mean characters, meaningful discussion points and illustrations that tell the story by themselves: all things that you will find in Gecko Press books. Thank you Julia, for starting such a fine little company 10 years ago, and for having the good business sense and excellent taste to grow it to where it is today. May the next ten years be even kinder to you.
Sarah Forster & Sarah Jane Barnett are fans of Gecko Press. One Sarah has a 5 & a 3 year old boy, the other has a 4 year old boy; they all love Gecko Press books, even if they don’t know it quite that specifically yet.
*After this interview, I took Who’s Hiding, by Satoru Onishi home for Alex, thinking it would be a likely hit. One month later, he has memorised it and enjoys asking us who’s hiding and who’s sad. Every Night.
(I will add a list of details for each of the books mentioned here, in the next day or two)
Unity Books Wellington is fortunate to have two commerce students (Courtney Smith and Selina Kunac) on the staff. During the recent intensification in the debate about New Zealand RRPs − particularly where the book has the UK price printed on the back jacket – we produced a price comparison spreadsheet for our lead winter titles on our front-of-house pyramid book display.
Looking at the spreadsheet as a whole, there is not a lot of difference between the publisher/agencies involved.
We sent the specific publisher result to each publisher/agency involved and asked them to respond about their factors for pricing books for NZ. We got great and lengthy comments, for which we give them our thanks.
In summary, comments included that NZ RRP involves considerations of: format, extent, print volume and location, UK buy price (their margin), the ebbs and flows on individual title costs created by publisher discount changes, UK home vs export royalties, production values, the forecasted sell-through rate, the air or sea freight costs to the warehouse, then out again by air to NZ, the cost of carrying stock in a distribution centre. Then there is the need for NZ publishers to set some level of standardised price pointing, release date, parallel importing, write offs and depreciation, returns and returns freight, exchange rates (which have been mercifully steady) and, as we are all aware, the many other business overheads feeding book sales and relying on book sales, all involving people & services. No real surprises. Every aspect of the book industry is pared back. The long lunch hasn’t been part of the formula for some time.
Are the originating UK prices too high? Can the multinational’s NZ offices keep improving bookseller margins and Total Operating Margin? Can the pricing process itself (UK price converted to Australian price, converted to NZ RRP) be changed?
Competitively fair pricing has always been vitally important to indie and group viability, and it is amplified now with the growing online offshore consumer culture. NZ online spending offshore rose 11% in a quarter compared with the same time last year. Local web sales increased by half again in the same period. The government’s perpetual “work in progress” about GST capture of offshore purchases is lamentable. Until they resolve that, our RRP is always going to be 15% higher than the Amazon/Book Depository price, regardless of our shop business strategies.
Unity Books Wellington has said for two years, that publisher/agency conversions from UK to $A to $NZ have improved a lot – that NZ RRP’s do not have a lot of fat in them – and this view is reinforced by the results of this exercise. We welcome feedback from others in the book industry.
Unity Books doesn’t want to alienate those for whom RRP is a major industry issue, but our analysis of this survey is that a lot more could be achieved for viability and fair pricing if the entire trade – including the publishers – got behind the Booksellers NZ and Retail NZ lobby for government capturing the GST on offshore purchases.
Article by Tilly Lloyd, Manager, Unity Books Wellington
* opinions in this piece are those of Tilly and her shop, and do not necessarily represent those of Booksellers NZ as an organisation.
This personal story touches some of the rawest parts of New Zealanders’ experiences of the Second World War. Greece Crete Stalag Dachau is the tile of Jack Elworthy’s eyewitness of heavy defeat in Greece and Crete, of staunchness in surviving the privations of being a prisoner of war in two of Germany’s Stalags and the horrors encountered with the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.
The names in the title are some of well-known headlines of the war. This story ranges through these areas frankly and honestly in an almost diary-style of writing. What is not a regular feature of many other war memoirs is the revelation of the personal toll that leaving and returning to his family after seven years had on Jim, his wife and young child. Settling back into ‘normality’ was hard for all of the family.
Jack Elworthy was a professional soldier who joined the army in 1935, and rose to the rank of Warrant Officer 1st class (a rank more popularly known as Sergeant Major). He stayed in the army after the war, retiring in 1956 with the rank of Captain.
Officers command men, sergeants lead their men. That seems to have given Jack a closer focus on the experiences of the rank and file, because he was part of what happened to the ordinary soldier. When taken prisoner on Crete, he was not separated from his men, as officers were. His account of that battle is real, personal, sometimes humorous, often bitter.
His POW experiences included having to lead prisoners from his own side into forced labour in coalmines. His care for his men often got him into trouble.
It is difficult to understand what really drove him to do quite extraordinary things after he was released from the Stalag in March 1945. Released prisoners were not allowed to return to the fray, but Jack did, by teaming up with an American unit which was fighting their way through Germany. He had the chance then and often later to go back to New Zealand, and chose not to do so.
Jack was court marshaled for being AWOL, but the charges were dismissed when it was realised he “wanted to do something further in the war.” He got back to England after a number of incidents, only to break the rules once again and hitchhike back into Ally-occupied Europe to have another wander around, before getting back to England and an interview with MI5.
The chapter on his return to home and family is poignant as well as a letter to his daughters on their visit to Crete in 1993.
This book is not the first time Jack’s story has been told. The genesis of the publication is a never-screened documentary prepared in the mid-1980’s and then turned into a radio programme. However, now as a book, publisher Awa Press has done an excellent job in bringing this experience to full public view. The indices, bibliography, timeline, appendices, end notes, add a lot to the personal account.
Reviewed by Lincoln Gould
Greece Crete Stalag Dachau: A New Zealand soldier’s encounters with Hitler’s army
Written by Jack Elworthy
Published by Awa Press