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.
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.
One of the big summer books this year has been The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh. Described by the Guardian as proving that literary fiction and erotica need not be mutually exclusive and by one reviewer as 50 shades of lemon.
It is the story of 40 something Jenn and dull academic husband Gregg on holiday in beautiful Deia (Mallorca) with her 15 year old step-daughter Emily and her slightly older boyfriend Nate. Jenn’s already difficult relationship with Emily gets frazzled further and she is unable to resist the youthful attractions of Nate.
Fast paced but ultimately unconvincing, uneven and disappointing.
Coming out in paperback next week is The Girl With a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson. It is a taut psychological thriller who bumps into a former girlfriend in a bar who had disappeared a decade earlier in bizarre circumstances. The novel swaps between the two time periods with increasing tension with plenty of twists along the way. Recommended.
As promised I have also read the new Martin Amis, Zone of Interest, this week. It is set in Auschwitz and narrated by three independent voices, Golo Thomsen a well connected dilettante liaising between the industrial Buna Werke and the camp, Paul Doll the increasingly deranged commandant and Schmulz, a Jewish Sonderkommando compromised by the mass murders. It is darkly comic with the distinctive sardonic Amis tone constantly in evidence. It sounds a recipe for disaster but I think he succeeds, not in giving us an understanding of the Warum or why, but at least in throwing a little bit more light into the nature of this particular evil.
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.