Trends

A journalist rang the other day to ask what everybody was reading this summer.  There are always trends going on in publishing but because of the time lag between writing and the finished copy arriving in bookshops, an avalanche of copycats arrive just too late to sell in the quantities the optimistic publisher desires.

There seem to be a number of novels around at the moment with unreliable female narrators.  Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson was published back in 2011, about a woman who experiences total amnesia every morning when she wakes up.  This was followed by a number of books by women with mental illness (such as How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman), and with dementia (Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey).  The bestseller of 2015 so far has been The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins.  It is about a woman who witnesses something suspicious from a train but whose alcoholism and blackouts make her testimony highly unreliable.  The genre is not new (cf  Jean Rhys’  Wide Sargasso Sea) but seems to have gathered fresh impetus – expect many more over the next year…..

Another fictional trend is the “older person’s quest”.  It started with the ultimate OAP, The Hundred Year Old Man by the Swede Jonas Jonasson, continued with the equally successful  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, and has now spread outside Europe.  Australia has produced Lost and Found by Brooke Davis and likewise from Canada the charming Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper.  The latter has the advantage in combining both trends in that Etta who is travelling across the country to the sea is also struggling with dementia.

Baileys

The Baileys Women’s prize for Fiction is one of those strange beasts – a competition open to only half the population. With good cause, it might be argued, as recent research has shown that the Booker prize – that pre-eminent and most prestigious of awards –  has produced an overwhelming number of male authors on its shortlists and even more of its winners.  However in recent years things have changed pretty dramatically.  The Booker has been going since 1969 and the Orange Prize (the precursor to the Bailey’s) started in 1996.  In the intervening 27 years, the prize was won only 10 times by women.  For the 10 years after, only twice.  So far, so bad.  However in the years since (nine) it has been won by men only four times.  So case made – we do not need a Women’s prize anymore. Not so say some, because the subject viewpoint of two of those women’s Bookers was male – step forward Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell.

Whatever you think, book prizes get people talking about books and that has to be good news (for bookshops at least).

Just out in paperback this week is The History of Loneliness by John Boyne (author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas).  It is written from the perspective of an Irish catholic priest and is very well done indeed.

Making Lists

Making lists is always fun.  I recently gave myself the challenge of picking one book from each of the last twenty-one years for a special person’s birthday.  It meant a highly pleasurable trawl through bookshelves and a less entertaining search of endless websites.  I wanted to include some meaty non-fiction – Long Walk to Freedom, Lean In, Dreams From My Father, The Memory Chalet; a book about old age – Somewhere Towards the End; something humorous – The Uncommon Reader;  some Booker winners and some plain good reads. The fiction side was much more difficult – which books to leave out because two good ones came out in the same year etc. though publication in different parts of the world and different formats allowed for a little cheating…. I wanted it not to be all British (9 are not from this country) and reasonably gender balanced (10 women and 11 men). – books that I knew would be enjoyed and not just my favourites…. full list at the bottom.

In the meantime some good books have made their paperback appearance. John Boyne (author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) has written a very powerful novel, A History of Loneliness, told from the perspective of an Irish priest, a good man compromised by the choices he makes.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is not autobiographical though it is about a grumpy bookseller.  It is a warm-hearted tale of books that manages to be not too sentimental.

1994   Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil   John Berendt

1995   Long walk to Freedom                                 Nelson Mandela

1996   A Fine Balance                                               Rohinton Mistry

1997   The God of Small Things                              Arundhati Roy

1998   Poisonwood Bible                                         Barbara Kingsolver

1999   Dreams From My Father                             Barack Obama

2000   White Teeth                                                   Zadie Smith

2001   Bad Blood                                                      Lorna Sage

2002   Fingersmith                                                   Sarah Waters

2003   The Kite Runner                                            Khaled Hosseini

2004   Old Filth                                                          Jane Gardam

2005   Saturday                                                         Ian McEwan

2006   The Road                                                       Cormac McCarthy

2007   The Uncommon Reader                               Alan Bennett

2008   Somewhere Towards The End                    Diana Athill

2009   Wolf Hall                                                        Hilary Mantel

2010   The Memory Chalet                                      Tony Judt

2011   The Sense of an Ending                                Julian Barnes

2012   Lean In                                                           Sheryl Sandberg

2013   Harvest                                                           Jim Crace

2014   Life After Life                                                            Kate Atkinson

 

comments welcome……

Ian McEwan

The wonderfully divisive Ian McEwan was back in the literary press this week with the release in paperback of The Children Act.  He is one of the most popular serious novelists writing today and a new title is certain to receive the lead review and be followed by a flurry of interviews and profiles.  But there are quite a lot who disagree – vehemently – and they are mostly female.  This is perhaps because of the perceived deficiencies of his women characters and partly because of his preference for big set pieces at the expense of character development – a trait he shares with some of the other big beasts. Perhaps however it is perhaps because some of his leading men are flawed and morally unattractive and some readers identify this (falsely) as McEwen himself.

For my money The Children Act is one of the best things he has written and the central voice (female) is as brilliant (and morally ambiguous) as ever.

Also new in paperback and worthy of mention is Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes.  It is a thought-provoking satirical allegory of the return of Adolf Hitler who wakes up in modern Germany and makes a new career as a media celebrity.  Uncomfortable and at times very funny.

All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon is a big Russian first novel written by an Irishman who we are going to be hearing a lot more of.  Set around the events of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 it is moving and beautiful.

The Petersfield Book

A book launch is always fun but it is particularly special when the book is exceptional.  A Celebration of Petersfield is a real labour of love and like a lot of successes has many fathers, but particular mention should go to the design work of Neil Pafford. The book is not a history but a picture of a thriving living town – a cracking piece of publishing.

Just out in paperback is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.  It is part love story, part meditation on heroism and part picture of the horrors of the death railway.  It was a popular choice as winner of the Booker and is well worth a read.

For those interested in military memoirs , An Englishman at War,  the World War ll diary of Stanley Christopherson is a particular delight.  He was a stockbroker who joined up in 1939 and ended the war as the colonel of a crack regiment of Tanks – a better description of what it must have been like would be hard to find.

Noreen Riols

It is often the case that artists of one kind or another are not very nice people.  The obsessional devotion they give to their art and that they in return sometimes receive from their fans often comes with poor behaviour particularly away from the public gaze.  Artists of the written word are no exception, although it has to be said that most writers do not lay claim to the description of “Artist”.  Anyhow it is always a pleasure to meet writers who are manifestly not self obsessed.

Noreen Riols is an incredibly impressive lady.  She is the last survivor of the women of SOE (F section) who took the war into German occupied France during WWII.  She came over from France where she now lives to give a series of talks to packed audiences who listened spellbound to her stories of the bravery and sacrifice of the agents, most of whom met horrible ends.  Her book is called The Secret Ministry of Ag and Fish,  as this is where her family were told she was working.  In fact it was not until this century that her story became known to the astonishment of her friends and family who had no idea.

World Book Day

It seems to have become an integral part of World Book Day in Primary schools for all children to come dressed as their favourite book character. This sometimes leads to some odd costumes, particularly this year when a boy came in to one school dressed as Christian Grey (from 50 Shades) in a suit with some cable ties. At Hollycombe School in Milland they opted to do something different and to some eyes old-fashioned this year – a poetry reading competition. The rules were simple, no props and all poems to be learnt by heart. It was a close call for the expert judging panel but 1st prize was won in the end by an excellent performance of The Jabberwocky by a year 3 boy.

WBD at Lord Wandsworth College was celebrated differently with the school creating their own book prize to be voted on by all the pupils. Froxfield School made a visit to their local bookshop.
Added to all this we held a book club in the shop on The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. A good turnout decided that it was by and large a good first novel, full of atmosphere, and with some great set pieces, but with a few flaws.
So we had a busy few days.

The return of Poldark to the small screen has seen the novels by Winston Graham start to move again and the adaptation of The Casual Vacancy (with JK herself involved in the production) has been well received.

I have been enjoying Shop Girl by Mary Portas. It is not about her years as a TV person but about her childhood in an Irish catholic working class family in Watford. Surprisingly moving and well written.

Priligy is an excellent drug you can buy on the dapodrug.com online pharmacy over the counter. But you must pay attention to the terms and conditions of storage of the product. Do not give Dapoxetine pills to your children, and beware of getting moisture on the package. If you have any questions, ask your doctor.

Bubbling Under

It is a sign of a special book when weeks after publication it appears at the top of the bestseller list.  Once the fanfare of publicity has died down and the newspaper reviews have been carefully recycled it is the reader who must carry on the publicity and so Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healy has done well.  It is the ultimate unreliable narrator novel.  Its key protagonist is suffering from dementia, and manages to retain suspense throughout.  H is for Hawk came out in paperback this week and also went to number one – hopefully it will stay there a while.

Anne Tyler’s twenty-second novel A Spool of Blue Thread has just been published.  Set in Baltimore (as usual) it tells the story of three generations of a family with extraordinary precision – she just seems to get better with each one.

There is good news for those who loved Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (and I am one of those).  A God In Ruins, her new book coming out in May, takes one of the characters, the bomber pilot Teddy, and tells his story (without the rebirths).  Having given us a brilliant description of the Blitz in Life after Life, She tells us the story from the other side just as poignantly.

Book Prizes

Is there such a thing as a good book – or are all judgements totally subjective? This is the perennial cry whenever Book Prizes are discussed and a recent discussion at Portsmouth University was no exception.  I was on a panel with Truda Spruyt from The Book PR people Colman Getty who promote the Booker prize and Claire Shanahan from the book charity Booktrust that amongst other things administers prizes. The answer of course is there are books that do some things well and some things badly  – so first pick your criteria – whether it be narrative drive, beautiful prose, new horizons or anything else and judge accordingly.  There seems little doubt that the judges this year got most things right with Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk sweeping the board in the nonfiction categories of the big prizes and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, a popular winner of the Booker.

 

Apologies for the lack of a blog in recent weeks with the website requiring a complete overhaul.  There have been lots of good books that have gone by without comment….  Recent top reads include A Spool of Blue Thread by the venerable Anne Tyler, her 19th novel and still going strong, The Skeleton Cupboard by clinical psychologist Tanya Byron which details the travails of her struggle during an arduous traineeship.  I am currently loving the new Kate Atkinson A God In Ruins due out in May.

Fresh Start

2014 saw the debuts of a number of authors who are going to be making big names for themselves.  The biggest non-fiction title for us was H is For Hawk.

I say non-fiction because it is a book that is difficult to be more specific about.  It is part memoir, and part reflection on the writer TH White, with a lot about Goshawk training and some quite breathlessly brilliant writing about  the  countryside.  I don’t know what she will take on next but I look forward to reading it.

Two young British women garnered a lot of coverage with two very different novels.  Emma Healey’s book Elizabeth is Missing was a new take on the unreliable narrator genre.  Her protagonist is an elderly woman suffering the middle stages of dementia, unable to piece together the clues to solve the mystery of her friend Elizabeth while at the same time uncovering the deeper secrets shrouded in her past.

Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist takes us back to seventeenth century Amsterdam.  A young woman is married to a successful but mysterious trader whose secrets threaten the whole household – atmospheric, chilly and with a real sense of time and place. Just published in paperback, The Miniaturist has become an unlikely number one bestseller.