"Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real. As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."
"In 1999 a programmer is trying to fix the Millennium Bug, but can't shake the sense he's been chosen for something.
In 1888, five women are brutally murdered in the East End by a troubled young man in thrall to a mysterious master.
In 1777 an apprentice engraver called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience; thirteen years later this vision returns.
In 1666, poet and revolutionary John Milton completes the epic for which he will be remembered centuries later.
But from where comes the feeling that the world is about to end?"
Toby Litt says this is "one of the most exciting novels I've read in recent years. Michael Hughes writes like a brilliant cross between David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel," while the acquiring editor at publisher John Murray says, "It’s very rare that a debut both has this much ambition and also delivers on that ambition; it’s dizzying, genre-blending, polyphonic and one hell of a ride."
"I always feel like my books are inspired by my books. Bel Canto was a novel that took place outside of linear time. I got so frustrated writing a book in which nobody knew what day it was that I decided my next book, Run, would take place in twenty-four hours. In Run I had a character who was an ichthyologist, and I enjoyed writing about science so much that in my next book, State of Wonder, pretty much all the characters are scientists. I was nervous about publishing my essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage* because it was so personal, but as it turned out no one seemed to care. It made me wonder about writing a novel that was closer to home, something that had more to do with families and less to do with the Amazon, opera, or fish, some of the far-flung subjects I'd been tackling. I wanted to approach the novel more in the way I'd approached the essays: instead of the story coming from research it would be built from the material I had at hand. Which isn't to say the book is true, it's not, but it's made from things I knew and understood. I love doing research but I have to say this was a lot of fun too."
That's Ann Patchett talking about the genesis of her latest novel Commonwealth which will be out here in September. It's the story of a family, told over fifty years and offers "a window into how we change from the children we were, and how we are always ourselves." I'm greatly looking forward to reading it.
*I've no post as such on that one, but as with Bel Canto and State of Wonder (I've yet to read Run), I warmly recommend it.
I'm always very glad to see a book I've loved get the recognition that comes with a literary prize listing or win, and today it's kudos to James Rebanks in the form of a shortlisting for his The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. That award celebrates a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry which "best evokes the spirit of a place", and James Rebanks' book certainly does that and more besides (there's a short post on it here).
I found these three novels by O. Douglas in a local secondhand books shop yesterday and I couldn't pass them by; "nice books about nice people" are too few in number, it seems to me, and from what I know of the author, that's a fair summing up of her work.
The House that is Our Own was first published in 1940, and it bears the following touching dedication to the author's brother, John Buchan, who died early that year:
"To you, J.B., who with little liking for mild domestic fiction, read patiently my works, blue-pencilling when you had to, praising when you could, encouraging always, I dedicate this story, which you are not here to read, of places you knew and loved."
I was interested to find this sticker inside the back cover of one of the other books - Binns was a well-known Edinburgh department store, now House of Fraser. That it sold books is news to me, but I suppose such shops did in those long-gone days.
Turning to the books' dust jackets (and these have plenty of period charm), a couple of short articles on the subject - here and here - may be of interest.
Edited to add: I've linked above to two very striking portraits of John Buchan; here is one of his sister herself, the family resemblance marked.
"I remember that as a child I was so absorbed in my tellings to others that they could see what I saw. I could always get an audience. Not that I looked for one, the telling was all, or rather, the seeing. I don't think I write for children, any more than the great Miss Potter. For what? Whom? Well, myself, perhaps; I never think of an audience, that would kill everything. I think all children's books are grown-up books. When children's books are children's books they are not worth reading."
I'm very interested to read the previously unpublished novel The Theoretical Foot, a "long-lost gem" by the marvellous food writer M.F.K. Fisher, which will be out next month:
"Susan Harper and Joe Kelly, in love and hitchhiking through Europe, never want this perfect, passionate summer to end. It is the late 1930s and society frowns on the slack morals of couples living in sin. But these tiresome strictures are swept away when they arrive at La Prairie, the elegant haven on Lake Geneva where Joe's enigmatic friend Sara and her lover Tim preside - where judgement is suspended and time ebbs deliciously away.
Surrounded by orchards heavy with plums and meadows splashed with poppies, lunches are long, youth is languorous and wine flows. As morning gives way to afternoon and sunset brings the evening's festivities, the unseen tensions and desires of the group are revealed, the fleeting yearnings and the long-held resentments.
[...] the novel illuminates moral attitudes in the 1930s and shows glimpses of a refugee-flooded Europe blighted by the rise of Fascism and the menace of another war. Enchanting, light, yet suffused with the darkness of what is to come, The Theoretical Foot is a witty and bold portrait of a bohemian life under threat."
If you've never read Mrs. Fisher's food writing, you've missed a delight. The Art of Eating brings together her five most famous books, and is, in Julia Child's words, "the essence of M.F. K. Fisher"; it's to be read hungrily!
Frank McCourt said of her, "If I were teaching high school English, I'd use Fisher's books to show how to write simply, how to enjoy food and drink but, most of all, how to enjoy life." He's right.
... Trio, the new novel by the excellent Sue Gee (which will shortly be out).
"Northumberland: the winter of 1937. In a remote moorland cottage, Steven Coulter, a young history teacher, is filled with sadness and longing at the death of his wife. Through a charismatic colleague, Frank Embleton, and Frank's sister, Diana, he is drawn into the beguiling world of a group of musicians, and falls gradually under their spell. But as war approaches a decision is made which calls all their lives quite shockingly into question. Moving between the beauty and isolation of the moors, a hill-town school and a graceful old country house, Trio delicately explores conscience and idealism, romantic love and most painful desire. Throughout it all, the power of music to disturb, uplift and affirm is unforgettably evoked."
If you're not already acquainted with Sue Gee's work, here are posts on some of her other books:
Lots of us are admirers of the work of Sarah Moss, and as her 2014 novel Bodies of Light is one of today's Kindle bargains, I thought I'd repost my thoughts:
This is a very fine work indeed: tightly controlled and restrained, and all the more powerful for it; elegant, eloquent; founded on careful research, every fact used with skill and precision to make a point - and there are many to be made in this novel which is concise and self-contained but universal in its themes.
It is the story of Alethea Moberley, sister of May from the historical strand of Night Waking, but it is also an account of the position of women in society in the second half of the 19th. century, of their rights and educational opportunities (or lack of same), of their gradual incursion into the world of medicine*, and of family life and maternal feeling and failings.
I could go into greater detail regarding the measured plot, the characters who are all seen in relation to Alethea, the clever use of her father's paintings as allegory/commentary, the chilling epigraph which sets the tone ... but suffice to say there is a sequel in the offing, and that is good news on many counts, but chiefly - and simply - because this book is first class.
Good news for all of us who are fans of the late Mary Stewart: to mark the centenary of her birth this year Hodder are to be reissuing her entire backlist with new covers. I haven't seen any of the designs yet, but I hope that putting her work centre stage in this way will bring in new readers and perhaps remind old ones that her books are well worth revisiting. I've linked to this video interview with Mary Stewart many times, but if you haven't already seen it do take a look.
Unveiled today is this year's Books Are My Bag limited edition book bag designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith (who needs no introduction). The bags will be available at independent and chain bookshops around Super Thursday, which this year is October 6th..
Many of us will know Natalie Fergie as the talent behind The Yarn Yard, purveyors of hand-dyed yarn and embroidery thread*. Well now Natalie has turned her creative hand to writing and she's penned a novel called The Sewing Machine. You can read all about it - and hear from Natalie herself - over on the book's Unbound page, and if you like the sound of it (as I do) you might consider giving it your support. To find out more about Unbound and how it works, click here.
*Unsurprisingly, the shop's empty just now as Natalie has been giving her writing her full attention.
"the most important and most complete writer's library anywhere in the world".
Landseer's portrait of Scott's terrier Ginger,
and at the door, a likeness in stone of his beloved deerhound, Maida.
If you visit Abbotsford, be sure to take an audiotour; there is more than one to choose from, but I found the version narrated by 'Scott himself' very interesting. Also, go early if you can - I was there just after opening and had the house almost to myself, but the coach parties were thronging the adjacent visitor centre by the time I left mid-morning.
The shortlisted authors have been invited to take part in a panel discussion on historical fiction at The Borders Book Festival in Melrose on Saturday, 18th, June, and the winner will be announced that day.
'From the beginning, Davies saw writing as a matter of recording communications from the unconscious. In a light-hearted 1948 talk, he described the process, basing his account on "a certain amount of practice and a few vague intuitions." When an idea occurred to him that seemed "to demand embalming" he would immediately jot it down, lest it vanish, in a notebook he always carried for the purpose. Then the idea would seem "to acquire a life of its own," presenting itself in dramatic form, growing and sometimes transforming itself utterly, until it settled into a final shape. Only then, when it had become "an aching tooth which has to be pulled," would he commit the play to paper. He has described the process of writing his plays and novels in similar terms ever since. When an interviewer asked, soon after the publication of Fifth Business*, how he went about developing a character, he replied: "You don't. The character arises in your imagination and then you go ahead. I know this sounds terribly pompous and grandiose, but you don't really do it; it's something that happens and you write it down. You can't sit down and say, 'Now, I think I'll think up a funny Jesuit,' and do it, because you'll get a mass of eccentricities; you won't get a live person. But if one arises in your mind, and he's got all his oddities and you see him hopping around and doing things, then you just write down about it. This is what imagination is. It's not invention, you're more passive than that. You listen to your ideas; you don't tell them what to do." And in 1989, after describing the writing of Fifth Business, he concluded: "It is this sort of explanation, I know, which persuades some critics that an author is an idiot savant, who does not know what he is doing. But that is a misunderstanding of the creative process. The author may not know consciously every detail of his story when he begins it, but his Unconscious knows, and it is from the Unconscious that he works." '
Over thirty years ago, I had what was one of the greatest experiences of my university life, when I attended a series of lectures* by Professor Richard Cobb on life in France under German occupation. During those years millions of men and women had to make horrible choices about how to live their lives, do their jobs, feed themselves and their families; Cobb's message was that those of us who had never had to confront those choices needed to be very wary before handing out either praise or blame.
This deeply humane and civilised attitude is evident on every page of Allan Massie's excellent quartet of crime novels** set in Bordeaux during the occupation. His hero, Inspector Lannes, meets political and personal depravity from both collaborationists and their enemies in the Resistance; his family is split, with one son supporting Vichy and the other escaping to London to join the Free French, and both are young men of integrity; his daughter falls in love with a quixotic patriot who goes off to fight for Hitler on the Eastern Front; and his wife turns away from him both physically and emotionally. He always tries to do what he thinks is right, but so often the choice is between the bad and the worse. The ethical complexity of such a world is a gift to the crime novelist, and Massie takes full advantage of the setting. The novels are also a loving Francophile's evocation of the France of grumpy concierges and long lunches, of Charles Trenet songs and barges on the foggy Gironde, of scruffy bistros and grand hotels. I read them avidly, all four in less than a week, and warmly recommend them.