It is always interesting and worthwhile reading books one wouldn’t usually read. People talk blithely about bad writing when what they usually mean they didn’t “get” the book. Some people like a book with a fast pace others prefer a more leisurely stroll. Some like detailed discussion of military hardware and some joycean descriptions of thought processes done in real time.
I am currently reading for the Festival of Book Clubs held at Lord Wandsworth College in a few weeks time – authors that I probably wouldn’t have read but which I have enjoyed in different ways. Fergus McNeill’s Knife Edge about a serial killer was gripping and Fanny Blake’s entertaining The Secrets Women Keep was more than the floaty beach read that the cover suggests. Katherine Webb’s Misbegotten is a slow-burn historical mystery which accelerates into a frantic page turner. Next week I am planning something completely different – the new Martin Amis or David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks?
The Booker longlist has thrown up the usual range of novels from unknowns to the usual suspects. Having previously just allowed UK and Commonwealth authors in, this year, for the first time, it includes titles written from the whole of the English speaking world ie including the USA. There are four Americans, six Brits, one Australian and two Irish writers. That includes a former winner (Howard Jacobson) and two previously shortlisted, Ali Smith and David Mitchell.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is David Nichols author of the highly popular and successful One Day which went on to be filmed with Anne Hathaway. Surprising because it doesn’t fit into the traditional Booker literary model. Us is another slightly offbeat love story and I can report that (despite being only half -way through it) it is going to be another very enjoyable bitter-sweet read.
I have enjoyed two very contrasting books this week. She Landed by Moonlight by Carole Seymour-Jones, the remarkable story of SOE agent Pearl Witherington, who led 500+ French resistance fighters in the weeks after D-day inspiring astonishing loyalty and bravery and contributing directly to the success of the invasion. The other book was the second novel by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling), The Silkworm. This features her private detective Cormoran Strike and is as neat and entertaining as her first The Cuckoo’s Calling.
In the dogdays of August not a lot seems to happen in the book world as in the rest of the country. Various themes rumble along quietly, unhappiness over the paucity of women on the Booker longlist, Amazon threatening publishers, and The Fault in Our Stars maintaining its grip at the top of the bestseller lists.
That all changes in September when the big guns roll out their novels, Howard Jacobson, David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas one not Mr Victoria Coren), David Nichols (of One Day), Niall Williams and Joseph O’Neill slog it out as the Booker longlist of 12 becomes a shortlist of 6. Next month also sees new novels from those who missed out – Esther Freud, Will Self and Ian McEwan. And those who will sell lots of copies without troubling the judges, Victoria Hislop, Kate Mosse (the writer), Wilbur Smith, Conn Iggulden, Ken Follett and for his first fictional outing, Andrew Marr. There are also two collections of short stories from top writers Hilary Mantel and Margaret Attwood. An embarrassment of riches.
Random House delivered an author packed presentation of big autumn books to booksellers this week. Ian McEwen’s The Children Act sounds like it will be terrific (due September), Simon Schama returns with volume two of his History of the Jews and Rose Tremain has a new collection of short stories coming out in August. Howard Jacobson spoke about his new book J with predictable energy. Helen McDonald’s H is For Hawk, a spiritual journey about grief and the natural world, promises to be a great read. Bake Off runner up Ruby Tandoh is bringing out a cookbook called Crumb and the brilliant Karen Armstrong returns with a history of religious wars called Fields of Blood. (Both September)
With the West Meon Festival coming up I have been starting my reading preparation, beginning with Robyn Young’s The Reckoning, the first part, (all 636 pages), of her epic trilogy about Robert the Bruce. She is appearing with Antonia Hodgson whose first book is called The Devil in the Marshalsea, a dark eighteenth century novel about a murder in the notorious debtors’ prison. Plenty of gore to get stuck into before Saturday 12th July.
Always a sucker for creaking mast sagas, I was unable to resist Under Enemy Colours by Sean Thomas Russell. Set, as this genre is, in the Napoleonic wars Russell follows in the distinguished footsteps of CS Forrester and Patrick O’Brian and manages to recreate that peculiar world with colour, excitement and great panache. By way of contrast I read the first in the Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn, Never Mind. The fifth Melrose novel, Lost For Words, has just been published to rave reviews. Despite one of the most unpleasant lead characters in modern fiction, this is a compelling book full of psychological and philosophical insight and dexterous prose.
Liss resident, Classic FM editor and author Sam Jackson is coming to One Tree next Saturday (7th June at 10.am) to sign copies of his new book Diary of a Desperate Dad: One Man’s Guide to Family Life from 0 – 5. This started out life as a very popular blog (diaryofadesperatedad.com) and is full of humour and insight.
Opinion was divided at my recent book club over the merits of The Haunting of Hill House. The book, by Shirley Jackson, and written in the 50s, does precisely what it says in the title. An inspiration for Stephen King and others and a big hit at the time, it is well worth a read.
Olivia Fane has been all over the press this week with the paperback publication of The Conversations – 66 Reasons to start talking. Her theory is that it is talking that is the most important thing in a relationship and it is hard to disagree. The subjects range from On Socialism to On running out in a summer storm, naked.
Secret codes, breakneck chases, Religion. – yes, Dan Brown has a new paperback out, Inferno, and it is already the bestselling book of the year. What is his secret? Perhaps it is the hint of intellectual credibility but not enough to get in the way of the page turning. Meanwhile Freddy Forsyth has a new thriller out. The Kill List .It is breathless, formulaic and pretty predictable but I found it hugely entertaining.
Man At the Helm the new novel by Nina Stibbe did not disappoint. I had concerns early in the book that her unique style (showcased in the brilliant memoir Love Nina) was not going to work in this form, but it did. As well as being clever, stylish and funny she can tell a great story.
Antonio Carluccio came to One Tree this week. Most authors who come for signings are given a table and chair in the middle of the shop and orderly queues are formed. Antonio does things his way. Fuelled by strong cups of coffee he sat in the sunshine in front of the shop at a table with four chairs and people came and sat with him chatting about this and that and getting him to sign copies of his new Pasta cookbook.
The RSC production of Wolf Hall is a reminder quite how good Hilary Mantel’s book is. Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell is supported by a very strong cast and three hours disappears in an instant.
I am reading Man At the Helm by Nina Stibbe. Nina wrote the highly entertaining Love Nina about her experiences as a Nanny in North London in the early 80s. This novel is written in a similar style, though about a young family looking for a new father to keep their divorced mother on the rails and allow them a social life in rural 70s Leicestershire. Laugh out loud funny in parts but half way through am still not wholly convinced.
There was an excellent launch for Chris Radamnn’s new novel The Crack at Lord Wandsworth College this week. Chris is the Head of English and he arranged for a panel with a couple of six formers (Grace and Sophia) and his literary agent and editor (both Juliets) to answer questions from me with an audience of interested pupils, teachers and the odd parent. It was all good fun (and we sold a few books too).
For some reason I have been reading teenage books this week. The Glow by local author Helen Whapshott had some really good creative ideas. The Rain by Virginia Bergin, which has the strapline Just one Drop Will Kill You, has a great premise. Any drop that touches you (which includes mains water) means death. Sadly it is written in breathless OMG style prose which is a shame. Leap of Faith by Richard Hardie is a new take on the Arthurian Legend involving time travel – plenty of wit and sharp dialogue. Richard is coming to sign copies at One Tree on Saturday.
Some excellent non-fiction titles came out his week in paperback. Thomas Harding’s Hanns and Rudolf, and Max Hastings’ Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, both did well in hardback, as did Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. A rather more surprising bestseller was Music at Midnight, The Life and Poetry of George Herbert by John Drury
Wednesday night saw a good turnout for the One Tree Book club. We were discussing Life after Life by the wonderful Kate Atkinson.. Strong views were expressed both for and against but a strong majority relished its unique structure. My summary was “joyful, moving, perceptive, funny.”
Interesting figures out from the Publishers Association this week suggest that the public’s appetite for ebooks may be beginning to be sated. Between 2011 and 2012 sales rose by 220% but last year they rose by only 18%. Physical book sales are still chugging along but the “50 Shades of Grey effect” from 2012 rather distorts the figures downwards. Fingers crossed.
This week I finished Kadian Journal by Thomas Harding. It is the story of his son Kadian and the year Thomas spent grieving at his shocking accidental death. Brutally honest, it is also an incredibly beautiful book that balances the joy that he brought, and the sadness of his absence. Thomas wrote the excellent Hanns and Rudolph, one of our bestselling books of 2013.
Any book is going to struggle alongside that and I duly did with The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. He’s an author that plays with different genres ranging from Victorian drama (The Crimson Petal and the White) to crime but I wasn’t even aware of Christian Sci-fi. Despite a great prose style this failed to grip. I am not sure I will be returning to this genre any time soon.
World book Night
Wednesday was World Book Night, which saw hundreds of thousands of books being given away by volunteers all over the country. One Tree Books acts as a picking up point for the registered givers to collect their chosen title. Our involvement does sound rather like turkeys supporting Christmas but there are good reasons why we do it. It not only gets more people reading – it gets people talking about reading. Research suggests that it leads to increased sales of the books given away and more significantly of other books by those authors. If nothing else it reminds the techies that books can be paper as well.
This week I read The Murder Room by Tony Parsons. This is his first foray into the crime area having made his name with Man and Boy back in 2007. This, (M&B), sparked a whole new genre of books by men about men but for women, and there are hints of that in this (the tough, amateur boxer, detective is a loving single parent with a cute dog). Having said that, The Murder Room is a well-plotted whodunit with clues (that I missed) and is well worth a read. (out now £9.99)
I have just started the harrowing Kadian Journal by Thomas Harding – more on that next week.