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.
You can read the full story here, but wasn't there a similar thing a few years ago called the McLuhan test which involved page 69, suggesting there's nothing new under the sun ...
For fun I picked up a favourite novel of mine, One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes (there's a very early Cornflower post on it here, should you not already know it) and looked at p.112 - it's as perfect as any other page in that book.
The Robertson Davies biography I'm currently reading has on p. 112 a good example of Davies' early experiences providing material for his later novels. The same goes for p. 125 from which I'll quote because it's more of a curiosity:
At boarding school in Toronto, Davies had a Scottish music master called Richard Tattersall -
"In World of Wonders he made use of one of Tattersall's tales to establish the way the immensely rich and powerful Jeremias Naegeli lived in his Swiss castle, Sorgenfrei. Years before, Tattersall had responded to a Glasgow newspaper advertisement - 'Organist wanted for employment in a private house. Must be a gentleman' - and found that his employer was to be the millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The organist's duties at Skibo Castle, Carnegie's great country house, were specific but not onerous. He was to play Bach chorales while Carnegie ate his breakfast, and after a free day, he and Carnegie's many male secretaries would be responsible for taking any unaccompanied ladies in to dinner (the reason a gentleman was wanted). After dinner he was to hold himself ready as soloist or accompanist, whichever was required."
If you're interested in reading about a timeless - and highly demanding - way of life; living with a deep-rooted connection to a place, and all that that means; a necessary, keen awareness of the natural year; farming sustainably in respect of the landscape; people who are "tuned to a different channel"; shepherding, and the ways of sheep, then I strongly recommend you get hold of a copy of The Shepherd's Life.
It's a very down-to-earth, clear-eyed account of the author's own family history and how it has formed him, and of the rhythms, customs and practices which make up a Herdwick sheep farmer's life in the valleys and on the fells of the Lake District. It's illuminating, engrossing, and excellent.
A quick word on this year's judges. As you'll see from the above they include Rick Stein, who is not only a very well known chef and food writer but is shortly to open his own bookshop in Padstow, and Lawrence Norfolk, author of (among others) this wonderful, wonderful book.
Catalogues from Profile Books and Serpent's Tail for the second half of the year have just arrived and two titles particularly caught my eye.
From Susan Hill, who needs no introduction but is here described as "grande dame of English supernatural fiction", comes The Travelling Bag, "a chilling collection of new ghost stories. In the title story, in the warmly lit surrounds of a club off St. James's, a bishop listens closely as a supernatural detective recounts his most memorable case, one whose horrifying denouement took place in that very building.
"This is Susan Hill at her best, with a characteristically flesh-creeping and startling collection of new tales of thwarted ambition, terrifying revenge and supernatural stirrings that will leave readers wide-awake long into the night."
Look for that one in September.
Out in June comes The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, "a sumptuously imagined novel of passion, ideas and friendship.
"Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890s, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other - but not in the usual way. Cora Seaborne is a well-to-do London widow and amateur naturalist who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, where William Ransome is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. As the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
"Dazzlingly written and woven through with rich historical detail, this novel is most profoundly a celebration of love and the many different guises it can take."
"In the course of our studies, we often had to go to museums to gather ideas for our work [...] Looking for old stories demands great effort, but it is well worth it, for it puts one's imagination to work and brings contemporary people in contact with the mystical-ritualistic world of [the past]. It is a kind of dialogue with what has been, from which new stories emerge."
Tove Jansson's The Summer Book is a bargain at 99p for Kindle today, and in case you haven't come across it (or its sibling The Winter Book), here's the gist:
Anyone familiar with Jansson's famous Moomins will recognise the humour in these stories which are a series of essay/sketches like a collection of watercolours, but with a sudden stab of the bold and brilliant. They are profound and funny, and following the adventures of the child Sophia and her elderly grandmother on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland, they cleverly capture the cantankerousness of both youth and old age: "Wise as she was, [grandmother] realised that people can postpone their rebellious phases until they're eighty five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself."
Sophia and grandmother discuss everything from whether God has secretaries, to the plight of halved worms and the frailty of moss (step on it three times and it dies), and all the while the island's vulnerability and isolation focus the stories inward. In her introduction, Esther Freud says the book's allure "is the allure of summer itself for [Scandinavians] who spend so much of the year in the dark." It is equally appealing to the rest of us.
The exhibition Fairy Tale Fashion is currently on at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City - I'd love to see it but doubt I shall. However, there's an accompanying book coming out soon which "[examines] the history, significance and imagery of classic fairy tales through the lens of high fashion and explores the pivotal role of dress in the exploration of power, transformation and identity in fairy tales".
Follow the link above to see some of the exhibits and hear the curator Colleen Hill talk about the show which in addition to clothes also exhibits artwork by Rackham, Dulac, etc. which helped establish "a fairy tale aesthetic". It sounds fascinating.
The picture here is The Storyteller from the stunning Wonderland by Kirsty Mitchell.
Her husband Hunter Davies is reported as saying that she was never interested in publicity or money: "She had an agreement with her publisher not to do literary lunches or do any broadcasting, and she actually didn't care whether the books were published or not. Her fun was in writing them and if the publisher didn't want to publish it, so what? She'd move on to the next one."