Just a quick post to flag up - unusually - a change of title for a book. Gabrielle Zevin's The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry has just come out in paperback here, newly titled The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.
I read it last year and found it fun - it's set in a bookshop and is about a bookseller whose life is in ruins, until one day a 'new arrival' changes everything. It's "a heart-warming tale of transformation and the power of literature. Funny, slick, charming, and upbeat, it can be read in a sitting, and with its small, sometimes unlikely, cast of characters and bittersweet humour, it should bring a smile to the face of every booklover."
My recent visit to Oxford coincided with the Oxford Literary Festival, and I was able to go to a couple of events including a rare appearance by Philip Pullman, timed to mark the 20th anniversary of publication of Northern Lights.
In conversation with Nicolette Jones, children's books editor of The Sunday Times, Philip Pullman talked most entertainingly about the writing process, his influences, and the extraordinarily rich concept that is the daemon.
He revealed that he doesn't have the readership in mind at all when he writes as he feels that identifying them even in general terms as 'children' or 'adults' might exert a subconscious control which he doesn't want, and he's glad of his wide audience as no-one is excluded from the world he has created; related to that he commented that there is no right way to read his books, and how you understand or respond to what he has written is entirely up to you; "that is," he says, "as it should be".
It's well known that Paradise Lost inspired the His Dark Materials series (that's the origin of the title, for one thing), and Philip Pullman recalled loving Milton's work, as a teenager, with a "physical admiration and passion, not just an intellectual appreciation". On the subject of his well-known atheism, he termed himself "a cultural Christian", not exclusively atheist, whose work is informed by his deep knowledge of the Bible and of growing up with a clergyman grandfather.
In beginning Northern Lights with the words "Lyra and her daemon ...", he opened up a deep seam of material which he has mined to great effect. His use of the daemon - the soul, the spirit, the physical manifestation of the inner self - arose out of his observations of children (he used to be a teacher) and the changes adolescence brings. The onset of self-consciousness, of a realisation that certain talents will never be ours, of withdrawal in certain circumstances, all these things occur at the same time as a broadening of our mental horizons, and a reconciliation with who we actually are - hence the daemon's changing as the child grows and develops but 'settling' on adolescence: we may think we are a lion, when in fact we are a poodle (to use his own example), but the sooner we accept that and live comfortably with it, the better.
As to the writing itself, he's well on with the next book in the series, The Book of Dust, and says it may be out next year. To this end he continues his habit of writing three pages every day. If the work is going well he stops at three pages, giving himself a 'springboard' into the next day, and if it's going badly he still fulfils his quota. "Gin helps," he says, if he finds himself lacking inspiration, and if he does dry up in the middle he recommends simple dialogue of the ' "Hello," "oh, hello," "how are you?", "I'm fine, thanks," " nature to fill the page!
Asked about his own daemon, Philip Pullman reckons it's a corvid of some kind, a magpie, a raven or a rook: "... a bird which steals things. I hear things, read things, see things, then 'steal' them and use them myself".
In talking about the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction the other day I said I was sorry not to see Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss on the longlist. Honour has been restored somewhat by the novel's inclusion on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, and if you follow that link and watch the short video you will hear chair of judges Bill Bryson remark that "it's the quality of the writing that really sets this book apart".
Anyone who has read Bodies of Light will be glad to know that its 'sequel', Signs for Lost Children, will be out in early July.
In other literary prize news, the Bailey's Prize longlist includes the superbly written The Offering by Grace McCleen. I described this as "a beautifully crafted, fluent work of intensity ... a bleak novel but one of great integrity", and while at times it's harrowing reading, the author's talent is undeniable.
Also on the Bailey's list but towards the lighter end of the emotional spectrum is Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread, a large-scale 'portrait' on a small-scale canvas. I was about to say that Anne Tyler is the consummate prose pointilliste, but I see that Susan Hill got there before me!
Anne Tyler's new novel A Spool of Blue Thread is just out here and in the US, and the respective covers are above. Which do you prefer, or which one - if you knew nothing about the author - would draw you to pick up the book? My vote is firmly for the American design, that is the one on the right. I would also respond favourably to this summary, again from the US:
"Brimming with all the insight, humor, and generosity of spirit that are the hallmarks of Anne Tyler’s work, A Spool of Blue Thread tells a poignant yet unsentimental story in praise of family in all its emotional complexity. It is a novel to cherish."
One of the 'drawbacks' of reading quite a lot of newly published titles is that reviews of the latest thing are inevitably appearing hither and yon round about the same time, and when you come to write about a book you find yourself with nothing to add to what's already there!
I know a lot of us are fans of Adèle Geras's books, and will be glad to hear that her new novel for adults, Cover Your Eyes, has just been published. I'm greatly looking forward to this one and shall be reading it soon (and then passing it straight on to my mum who loves Adèle's work), but until I get to it, here's the blurb:
"Eva was once a legendary fashion designer whose career ended abruptly. She lives with her family in Salix House, the home she's loved for forty years. When the family announces it's time to sell, Eva is reluctant. The house contains many memories and long held secrets.
Megan is a fashion journalist who interviewed Eva for a magazine. Devastated at the end of a love affair, Megan is drawn back to Salix House.
Although decades apart in age, both women share painful pasts. Perhaps together they can confront their fears, discover the truth of Salix House's secrets, and move on."
Click here to read an article Adèle has written about the real and terrible events which form the background to the novel, and on a lighter note, the fun she had creating her central character's life in fashion - Eva is a Jean Muir figure, and that elegance and style should make for some lovely detail.
Adèle ends her piece thus: "I think the present is much more interesting when it's aware of the past; when it looks back in some way. In Cover Your Eyes, Eva's early years are woven through the text, threading scenes set in 1938 and at various times in the 1960s into a story that takes place in the present day. I hope that everyone who reads it enjoys this novel and relishes, like me, travelling magically through time."
Back in May, on the recommendation of Lory, I added Hild by Nicola Griffith to my lengthy wish list. Browsing the latest edition of The Good Book Guide today I see the novel - which is based on the early life of St. Hilda of Whitby - is the 'Editor's Choice' in the historical fiction section, praised for its exhaustive research, page-turning qualities, characterisation, and the fineness of its 'cloth'. I've moved it up my list.
From my own recent reading I'd like to offer you three recommendations (and these books will all be appearing in next month's Guide):
Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud, which I loved for its delicacy, its subtlety, its beautiful, restrained writing, and for the poignancy of its story, that of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in the Suffolk village of Walberswick at the beginning of the First World War; "a fine novel of art and nature, and of life's ebbs and flows."
The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse is the first novel of hers I've read, and on the strength of it it won't be the last. She describes herself as a storyteller, I believe, and this book clearly demonstrates that skill. A gripping gothic thriller again set on the south coast but this time in the very stormy spring of 1912, I was impressed by the way the central conceit is developed, and I admire the lengths the author went to for her research (the clue is in the title!) for this "compelling story of justice, and of a punishment to fit a crime".
First Impressions by Charlie Lovett is indeed, as its subtitle has it, a novel of old books, young love and Jane Austen, and if you've read Charlie's The Bookman's Tale, its style will be familiar. It's a literary romp set in Oxford and London in the present day and in Hampshire in the late 1700s, and it features the genesis of one of the greatest novels in the English language and a dastardly plot to discredit the blessed Jane. It's fast-paced and fun, and if at times it recalls the old silent movie 'pretty girl tied to the railway tracks by the evil villain' trope, it's none the worse for that!
" ... a bizarre but lovely mixture of old books and typography, modern technology, a quest, a code, a secret society, a lot of Googling (i.e. an illuminating look inside Google HQ itself), the weirdest book club in the world and the search for something which I cannot reveal. Fun, sweet, warm-hearted, mad-in-a-good-way...",
I'm deep in fifth century Britain with Merlin, and although it took me a wee while to get into the book, Mary Stewart is a storyteller of such skill and flair, and she has done her research so thoroughly, that I'm now caught up in this dark world of warring factions and conflicting beliefs, as seen through the eyes of the young prince with the gift of second sight; it's developing beautifully.
In contrast, I'm also in Illinois in the twentieth century at Laurelfield, home of the wealthy Devohr family. The book is in four parts, moving back in time from 1999 to 1900, and at its centre is Violet Devohr who is introduced in the opening paragraph:
"For a ghost story, the tale of Violet Saville Devohr was vague and underwhelming. She had lived, she was unhappy, and she died by her own hand somewhere in that vast house. If the house hadn't been a mansion, if the death hadn't been a suicide, if Violet Devohr's dark, refined beauty hadn't smouldered down from that massive oil portrait, it wouldn't have been a ghost story at all. Beauty and wealth, it seems, get you as far in the afterlife as they do here on earth. We can't all afford to be ghosts."
Violet's great-granddaughter is married to an academic whose research concerns a poet who lived at Laurelfield when it was an artists' colony. Doug needs access to the colony records which are mouldering away in the attics, but his mother-in-law Gracie "guards the files with a strange ferocity, raising questions about what she might be hiding".
So far this "literary scavenger hunt" is excellent, and I can't wait to read on, but if you're casting around for something new and you have a Kindle, may I point you in the direction of Niall Williams' wonderful, wonderful History of the Rain which is currently available for £3.08. I know I've gone on about it, but it's my 'best read' so far this year - there's a snippet of it here, and no, the irony of that passage quoted in conjunction with an e-book bargain is not lost on me!
"Take five strangers with nothing in common except a passion for baking.
Add a hotly-contested competition and beat to stiff peaks.
Heat to just the right degree of tension.
Ice with the bittersweet tale of the iconic woman who inspired them all.
Enjoy in snatched bites, or devour at one sitting.
Relish the exquisite combination of dark and light flavours, the delicious moments and mouth-watering twists."
The search is on to find the 'New Mrs. Eaden', someone to 'don the apron' of the famous cookery writer, author of the 1966 book The Art of Baking. As five amateur bakers compete, "they will learn - as Mrs. Eaden did - that, while perfection is possible in the kitchen, it's very much harder in life".
A highlight of my recent reading, this is a black comedy, a gothic tale of obsession, and in its structural integrity, its strong narrative rhythm, and its memorable central character, it's quite beautifully done.
Little Egypt was once a many-acred estate in the north of England, home to two Egyptologists, their children, Isis and Osiris, and a clutch of servants. Now the twins - who are in their nineties - are the sole occupants of the house, most of the land has been sold off, and the property itself, islanded by a dual carriageway, a superstore and a railway, is falling down, but the resourceful Isis sees a way out and a future for herself at a pleasant care home if only the stumbling block that is her highly eccentric brother Osiris can be removed.
Just how she goes about this, and what dark secret the house has held these many years, I'll leave you to discover for yourself, for this is a very entertaining piece and a highly accomplished one. The book is one of the eight winners of this year's Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, and I'm glad it will get extra exposure as a result; it certainly deserves it.
Subtitled "mother and son on creative inheritance", this afternoon's Edinburgh International Book Festival event featuring author and illustrator Judith Kerr and her son Matthew Kneale - novelist* and lately non-fiction writer - was billed as an exploration of creative heritage: "what travels with us from childhood to form the adults we become - a sense of self, memories, imagination, creativity?"
As is the way of these things, the discussion ranged widely, but at its centre was the early life of both authors, Judith's as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and Matthew's in a house where writing was the family business. Fondly remembered and the subject of many charming anecdotes was Nigel Kneale, Matthew's father, renowned writer of science fiction and screenplays, who would work in his room at the top of the family's large home, his wife remembering the feeling that "there was always something being made", his son recalling both the background noise of typing, and his father's tendency to analyse television drama as the family watched, something which Matthew credits with developing in himself a strong sense of structure in fiction.
Family influences work in both directions, for Judith said that she would never have become a writer and illustrator of picture books had she not had children - they provided much of the inspiration, and discussing her work-in-progress with her husband over lunch each day proved very helpful, while Matthew credited his father's gift for storytelling as a formative example, and his mother talked of her son's "instinctive respect for writers" when he was a young boy.
Having writer parents made Matthew aware that "you could do that and get away with it", but witnessing the frustrations his father had with what he felt were poor treatments of his screenplays, he himself opted for writing novels. Given that both his parents wrote at home, Matthew was asked about his own preferred workplace, and he revealed that he gets more done away from his flat; walks around Rome (where he lives), time spent writing in longhand on a park bench, in cafés or the library is when he is most productive. Interestingly, on the subject of writing methods, Matthew said that he always works first in longhand as it induces the necessary calm state.
Judith, who at a very sprightly 91 is still writing and whose latest book is Creatures: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Judith Kerr, described her modus operandi as beginning with the story and letting the illustrations grow out of it, complementing it rather than referring directly to it, but equally, she said, a detail in a picture can then produce a further idea for the text. Similarly, Matthew comes up with a situation and plot first and then finds the characters to "catch up" with it: "think of something inadequate," he said rather self-effacingly, "and make up the gaps". Sounds simple, doesn't it?
Today's event was an hour spent in the company of two delightful, entertaining people; I'm so glad I was there.
"It was cool on the river, the smooth green glide so much nearer and intimate than the sea had been. The water bucked and writhed beneath the boards at first, but as they progressed they settled into an even slide. The rising smell of the water reminded Isis of ink, when you put your nose to the neck of the bottle - a dark, swilling breath of unborn words."
From Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister - which is excellent, by the way.
I'm interrupting my 'break' again to give you news of one of my top favourite books this year: Niall Williams' History of the Rain is on the Man Booker Prize longlist and fully deserves its place there. It's a wonderful novel - as I hope I've made clear here - and I wish it every success, so fingers crossed that it makes the shortlist in September.
I spent about two hours this afternoon writing a longish post on the books I'll be reading over the next couple of weeks, only to press 'save' and find that Typepad was down again, and my carefully crafted piece had vanished.
So, to begin again, but more briefly this time, here's my 'soon to be read' pile:
Going Back by journalist and broadcaster Rachael English is a debut novel which sees Elizabeth Kelly leave Ireland to return to Boston where she spent the summer of 1988. "Can she reconcile the dreams of her twenty-year-old self with the woman she has become?"
Writing the Garden by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers is subtitled 'A literary conversation across two centuries', and is a collection of writings on the art of gardening by the likes of Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth von Arnim, Edith Wharton, Beverley Nichols, Penelope Hobhouse and Margery Fish. Perfect for this time of year.
The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go is another debut, this one a time-slip tale of an unclaimed inheritance, "part historical tour de force, part heart-rending love story," a breathless race from London archives to the battlefield of the Somme and the fjords of Iceland to piece together the events of a long-ago love affair and uncover vital proof of lineage. The author talks about it here.
The White Russian by Vanora Bennett is "a sweeping, heartbreaking novel of illicit passion and family secrets set amongst the Russian émigré community in Paris in 1937". Evie comes from New York in search of art and adventure, but her grandmother's sudden death leads her on a quest to discover a mysterious man from her family's past. "With the world on the brink of war, she becomes embroiled in murder plots, conspiracies and more as White faces Red Russian and nothing is as it seems."
Last but by no means least, The Stories, a collection of Jane Gardam's short fiction. Some of these I've read before, some are new to me, all come from the pen of a literary star whose work I love and admire. As the blurb says, "Jane Gardam shakes out life and finds diamonds in its folds." I can't wait.
With the ongoing Typepad problems I hardly dare ask you to tell us what you're reading this weekend, but if you find you can leave a comment - and especially if you have something good on the go - please do let us know.
Grace McCleen's The Professor of Poetry is such an intense, complex, many-layered novel - although at 300 pages it's a highly concentrated one - that I could spend long enough trying to explore its depths here. Instead, I'll just point you towards the preview and then say that I loved it.
It reminded me a little of Amy Sackville's Orkney in that both concern professors of literature and relationships between older academics and their former students, and both are taut and tense books, immersive for the reader, and presumably even more all-consuming for their writers, but while Orkney is a melody played on a single string, The Professor of Poetry, while staying true to its chosen 'key' throughout, has greater range and richness.
It uses poetry and literary theory to fascinating effect; its setting is surely Oxford, unnamed but distilled, essential, and potent; its central characters are prickly, distant and hard to warm to; but in all its abstract, intricate theorising, its playing on musicality, time, memory and dreams, its fairytale-like motifs, stresses and exaggerations, and despite its flaws (for it has them), I was quite swept up in it. It won't appeal to all, but for those whose ear is attuned to its particular, and at times peculiar, literary frequency, it is a highly absorbing read.
It appears that following Typepad's technical problems over the last few days, comments are still not functioning, but I hope this will be corrected soon.
"The library, especially this room, reminds her of a ship, a tier of decks and ramparts. Lulled by the scratch of the moon-faced clock, you can look out at the clouds and it appears to be sailing, the windows those of a galleon, and beyond them a rigging of rooftops and masts. She has become friends with it now, feels a magnanimity towards its foibles and idiosyncracies, its smells, moods, foolishness and sadness, that she doesn't feel towards people. There are as many moods of this library as there are rooms, and rooms exist here as cells in a body, small cavities, industry and conversion, creation and transportation, and between them all runs an intricate arterial network of corridors, pulleys and lifts. There is Sir Godfrey's, dark-ceilinged, filled with the smell of pencil lead and warm wood, pierced by needles of light that fall from narrow windows across the floor of a vaulted tunnel of narrow bays leading through the proscenium to an inner sanctum - a Holy of Holies - chamber of staircases, balconies and ladders unfurling height upon height of still more books; a magician's tower, an Aladdin's cave, where coloured light from jewelled panes falls upon pages not to be touched with bare hands yet pored and wrinkled and smelling like skin; upon letters written by men so long dead their tongues have become obscure and strange-sounding, but are themselves illuminated and stand up quick and brilliant as if the ink hasn't yet dried...
She walks to her seat beneath the row of small suns, surveyed on either side by a border of luminaries, faded heads, ancient leaves, cracked cornucopias, furling scrolls - for this is also the home of the gods: masters, poets, philosophers, 'auctors' all, who studied here before her and whose works now fill its shelves. The eyes of the gods follow her. 'What about this one?' they mutter. 'Will she have something to say?' They stroke hoary chins. 'There is possibility,' they say, 'but there is also doubt.'"