Many of us are fans of Sarah Moss's work and will be glad to know that she has a new novel - The Tidal Zone - out on 7th July. Here's the gist:
"Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man, and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter's school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed.
In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn't dare to look, and the result is riveting - unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful. The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work/life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence."
For anyone not acquainted with Sarah Moss's novels, there's a post on Night Wakinghere and one on Bodies of Light here. I've yet to read Signs for Lost Children, the third book in that excellent 'series'.
"Had the dogs not taken exception to the strange van parked in the royal grounds, the Queen might never have learnt of the Westminster travelling library's weekly visits to the Palace. But finding herself at its steps, she goes up to apologise for all the yapping and ends up taking out a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, last borrowed in 1989. Duff read though it proves to be, upbringing demands she finish it and, so as not to appear rude, she withdraws another. This second, more fortunate choice of book awakens in Her Majesty a passion for reading so great that her public duties begin to suffer. And so, as she devours work by everyone from Hardy to Brookner to Proust to Samuel Beckett, her equerries conspire to bring the Queen's literary odyssey to a close."
That's Alan Bennett's delightful novella The Uncommon Reader, one of today's Kindle bargains; if you haven't already had the pleasure of reading it I suggest you take a look - it's a treat.
"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.
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.
Another Kindle bargain for you, this time The Messenger of Athens, the first book in Anne Zouroudi's Greek Detective series:
Hermes Diaktoros is no ordinary investigator.
For a fat man - that's how he's referred to throughout - he's surprisingly fleet of foot, though it's tennis shoes he favours rather than wingèd sandals, and although he's been sent from Athens to look into the death of a young woman on the island of Thiminos, he's not a policeman but works, as he puts it, "for a higher authority". If I tell you also that he is something of an avenging angel, a man who sees deep into the hearts of others, who has a knack for knowing what ails a person and what might cure their ills, then you'll perhaps appreciate that this 'messenger', this 'intermediary' is not as other men; that said, it's an all too real world in which he finds himself when he steps off the ferry with his capacious holdall on a chilly Spring day.
Hermes is such an original character and one whose particular gifts will afford his creator great possibilities, but in case you think this book is some kind of myth or fable, let me correct that impression. It's a gritty tale of passion and lust, of jealousy, vengeance and corruption, and of the harsh treatment of women; it's like the picture postcard image of a Greek island but taken in the off-season, with the dilapidation and decay - both physical and moral - which would normally be kept strictly 'out of shot', very much in the frame. So the book works both as morality tale and detective story and makes compelling reading.
As to the plot, Irini Asimakopoulos has been found dead on an island hillside, and while the local police are content to sign off her death as suicide, Hermes takes a different view. In his questioning of the locals, of the victim's husband and others who were close to her - and his methods here are certainly unorthodox - he builds a picture of betrayal and brutality in a society where love and marriage seem rarely to go together. Behind the white-washed façades of the simple village houses, secrets are kept, shame and dishonour are hidden, and piety cohabits with cruelty. But Hermes is in Thiminos to see justice done and this deus ex machina is nothing if not effective, so that by the time he leaves the island many wrongs have been righted in stylish fashion, and the reader will close the book with a sigh of satisfaction.
One of today's Kindle deals is Ann Patchett's novel State of Wonder. I recommend it strongly, as you'll see from my original post:
If, when discovering an author for the first time, you're drawn to read more of their work - not straightaway perhaps, but later - then they've passed a test of sorts. With Ann Patchett's State of Wonder that test was passed for me after only three or so pages, and reaching the end of the novel, the question isn't 'whether' I'll read more but 'when': how soon can I get hold of the rest of her books? Never before have I looked up all an author's published work with a view to buying everything in one go, but so taken am I with this book that I do want all the others, and as soon as is practicable.
While I've read a number of excellent novels recently, State of Wonder is unsurpassed. It's a book of integrity and clarity with compassionate intelligence behind it; it's a story which holds the reader long after the final page has been turned, and it poses questions of ethics to exercise the intellect. I suppose it has everything I unconsciously look for in a book.
It is set largely in the Amazonian rainforest where the maverick scientist Dr. Annick Swenson is conducting revolutionary research into female fertility. Funding for the drug she is developing comes from the Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company Vogel, but as Dr. Swenson refuses to report on progress and remains frustratingly out of contact (even her precise whereabouts are unknown), the CEO has sent one of his own team to find out what's going on. Anders Eckman was despatched from Eden Prairie to deepest Brazil, but little was heard from or about him until a curt note arrived to say that he had contracted a fever and died.
Anders's wife needs to understand exactly what happened to him, and Vogel still want a definitive indication of how soon the drug can move to clinical trials and thence to market, so Anders's colleague and friend Dr. Marina Singh undertakes the mission to the Rio Negro and the Swenson camp to try to bring back answers to their questions. She was once a student of Dr. Swenson's, and it was her tutelage that was to directly determine the course of Marina's career; her visit to the jungle is thus no small undertaking, either professionally or personally.
The plot is, I think, brilliantly and beautifully devised, and set into it are very clearly drawn characters, not least the imperious Dr. Swenson, a woman of "brio [...], utter assuredness [...] indefatigably right". The work being carried out in the jungle is fascinating and raises many questions and matters of conscience, both at universal and individual levels, and some very careful, creative thought has gone into this aspect of the book. In this short clip you'll hear Ann Patchett say that in writing State of Wonder she wanted to make the reader think about different issues, not just to be entertained "but sort of stirred up by this book", and that would be her best case scenario, she says. She has certainly achieved her aim.
Judith Kerr, still going strong at 92, is surely a role-model for us all; in case you didn't see it, here's my report of her appearance at last year's Edinburgh International Book Festival where she took the stage with her son Matthew Kneale to explore creative heritage.
Back to books now, and in other news, the Costa Book Awards shortlists have been announced, and I'm pleased to see Melissa Harrison's At Hawthorn Time in the novel category. It's a story of contemporary rural life set over a spring month, but it's an original and unsettling piece, beautifully done, and it deserves its place on the list.
Lastly today, as a PLR Twitter advocate I'm reminding UK writers to ensure that ALL your books are registered at www.plr.uk.com. Paperbacks and audiobooks - anything with a different ISBN - should be listed along with hardbacks so that they qualify for payment under the PLR scheme. Illustrators and translators should check, too. If you have writer friends, please nudge them to make sure their registration is up to date.
If you're looking for something suitable to read around Hallowe'en, here are a few suggestions.
I'll begin with Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book which, as you'll see here, had me in raptures when I read it a few years ago. Ostensibly for children but just as entertaining for adults if I'm anything to go by, it's a terrific piece.
Last month I mentioned Stacy Schiff's The Witches: Salem, 1692; it will be out in a few days' time, and looks to be a comprehensive and highly detailed account of the Salem witch trials, "examining the legal and social ramifications of the trials, the truth about witchcraft, the world of adolescent girls and how the events of 1692 shaped America's future and its relationship with the mother country."
For a very fun read about witches and 'others', try Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches. I'm ashamed to say that although I have read it twice (which says a great deal for starters) I've yet to get to Shadow of Night and The Book of Life, the other two books which make up the All Souls Trilogy, though both are here on the shelf beside me, but that's nothing to do with lack of interest. If you haven't come across it, there's an introductory post on it here and a fuller one here.
As we enter October I've looked back at my reading journal (kept since 2002) to see what I was reading on this day in previous years. Unsurprisingly, some books remain vivid in the memory while others have faded. I've marked with an asterisk the ones I'd particularly recommend.
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."