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Unhealthy reading

Sickness, recovery, recuperation. At such times what sort of reading material do you reach for? The question arose for me after I returned from the other side of the world with an injury which will keep me virtually housebound for some months.

At first, stupified by antibiotics, I felt too dazed to read anything more demanding than the opening credits of an old movie on TV. But as strength and interest returned little by little it was the old and familiar which I sought out – the literary equivalent of comfort food.

waugh bridesheadMy first choice was Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus Brideshead Revisited, a novel which has long been in my top five and to which I was returning for the fourth or fifth time – unwise perhaps in view of the old maxim ‘never go back’. Turning to the first page, I hoped my experience would not mirror that of the author who was reportedly “appalled” after re-reading the work, finding “distasteful” the book’s “rhetorical and ornamental language”.

On this reading I did find some of Charles Ryder’s internal monologues a bit overcooked and descriptive passages occasionally a tad florid – but those are mere quibbles. Overwhelmingly I was once again dazzled by the beauty and clarity of the narrative. Testimony to its potency is plain when viewing the impeccable 1983 11-episode TV series based on the book in which large passages of Ryder’s narrative, together with countless dialogue exchanges, are lifted verbatim from the pages of the novel.

The story arc, from sunlit carefree days in 1920s Oxford to the spirit-sapping gloom of the 1940s war years, is superbly handled by the author through a central character who is invested with qualities of detachment sufficient to lend an objectiveness to the first person storytelling.

Though how anyone without a good shorthand note or a tape recording can set down all those conversations in such detail is a mystery. But the suspension of disbelief is a necessary requirement when reading first person fiction – all narrators, it appears, being blessed with perfect recall!

The butler didn’t do it

That suspension becomes trickier when an unreliable narrator enters upon the scene, as happens in my follow-up choice of sick bay reading. This was my third encounter with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. An art gallery ticket tucked into the pages revealed that I last read it on holiday in August 1999. (The find instantly brings back a memory: witnessing a total solar eclipse from a Bavarian hillside, the sudden gloom silencing the chattering birds.)

Twenty years is a long time between readings but I’d always thought of this novel as a reliable favourite. This time though, I was a little less enchanted. On previous readings I was clearly not irritated by the narrator’s fastidious, very correct, rather Edwardian style of writing. This is of course deliberately and cleverly done by Ishiguro to paint a picture of the anachronous and insular nature of Stevens, the central character, who knows very little of ordinary life outside the confines of the great house in which he serves as butler.

Stevens is not at ease with himself as a human being, preferring to live as a virtual automaton. He has suppressed emotion and personality, shunned close relationships and excused himself from most kinds of normal life in favour of a Quixotic crusade to become the ultimate man servant – the personification of his interpretation of ‘dignity’.

kazou remainsThe preservation of dignity, according to Stevens, is akin to “not removing one’s clothes in public”. It’s an odd remark but it tells us that Stevens isn’t comfortable stepping outside his professional persona for fear of losing respect; he has locked himself inside his ‘dignity’ and can’t find a way out – even if he wanted to. This detachment has built up a cold shield around the butler – one which Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, tries in vain to penetrate. Her timid romantic overtures – bringing flowers to his pantry, teasing him about the sentimental novel she finds him reading – freeze and snap in the permafrost of Stevens’s aura. Miss Kenton gives up, leaves service and marries.

Years later Stevens, still serving at Darlington Hall, Oxfordshire, travels to Cornwall to seek out Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn) in the hope of luring her back into service and – though he cannot admit this to himself – reignite his relationship with the housekeeper on an altogether more personal level.

When Stevens writes: ‘No doubt, she is pondering with regret decisions made in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and desolate’, it is quite early on in the book and the reader has yet to discover his true nature. But we are being misled – as we find later – for here he is unconsciously considering his own position. Further into the novel, when Stevens’s achingly poignant backstory has been revealed, we are quite sure that when he quotes Mrs Benn as writing in her letter: ‘The rest of my life stretches out as an emptiness before me’, it is a misattribution and it is his own bleak future which is being contemplated.

Hardy, Chandler and back to Waugh

So The Remains of the Day stays in my top five and I will one day again revisit Brideshead, though, by that time, I will probably need to have it read to me! Number three, currently on the nightstand, is Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to which I return for the umpteenth time. It’s my favourite Hardy novel (with Tess close behind) and it never fails me. At root I suppose I have fairly unsophisticated  tastes when it comes to entertainment. With books, plays or movies, I like a beginning, a middle and an end – and a cracking good yarn in between. The Mayor of Casterbridge delivers on all counts.

There’s some snobbishness about Hardy’s novels (the author regarded himself as a poet first) which I fail to understand. Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray all get the nod of approval. Even Stevenson and Conan Doyle are lauded. But for some reason Hardy gets the raspberry. Well let them sneer. I shall continue getting great enjoyment from rereading the Wessex novels whether in sickness or in health.

I reckon I’ll need two more ‘comfort food’ books to see me back on my feet. So after Hardy it will be a complete change: Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, another of my top five and my favourite Philip Marlowe novel. The film of the book (released as Murder, My Sweet in the USA) features the excellent Dick Powell as the down-at-heel Shamus. Forget Bogart – for me, Powell was the best Marlowe to grace the screen. A great book and a fab movie!

Leaving LA, it’s back across the pond to Britain for my final restorative read – The Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh. When I first read these wartime novels I had to buy them separately – and I still have the copies. But now Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender are available in one volume and if you haven’t read them, plan to do so. You won’t be disappointed.

mayor philip sword

Love is in the air

love-3061483_640

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

Since today is Valentine’s Day what better opportunity can there be to talk about how fiction represents romance and love? St Valentine is traditionally associated with courtly and romantic love but authors through the ages have shown different facets of the emotion. So today I’ve picked ten fictional couples whose relationships represent different dimensions of love.

Since the course of true love doesn’t always run smoothly, let’s start with a few examples of troubled relationships.

Pip and Estella

We begin with an example of unrequited love via Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip, the humble blacksmith who gains wealth from a mysterious benefactor, falls in love with the glamorous Estella though she is aloof and hostile towards him. Dickens’s ending makes it ambiguous whether the two ever marry.

The Butler and the Housekeeper

Remains of the day

Still from the film of The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker prize winning novel The Remains of the Day, gives us an example of love that is never declared.  Stevens the butler at Darlington Hall has practiced restraint for so long that he cannot ever allow himself to relax enough to show his true feelings. His relationship with the young housekeeper Miss Kenton at times comes close to blossoming into romance but even when Miss Kenton tries to draw closer to him, his stunted emotional life holds him back.

Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder 

Love of a different nature is shown in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, where two young men meet as students at Oxford. Charles Ryder, who comes from a sterile, loveless home, is mesmerised by the glamorous and wealthy Flyte family and their stately home at Brideshead. He spends idyllic summers with Sebastian but is powerless when his friend descends into depression and alcoholism. Bruised by the experience, Charles falls into a loveless marriage and then finds temporary solace with Sebastian’s sister Julia. The question readers have to decide for themselves is whether Sebastian was simply the appetiser for the real deal of Charles’ love for Julia or is she second best to Sebastian?

Elizabeth Bennett and Lord Darcy

Sometimes love happens between the most unlikely of individuals. The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is one that has delighted readers since Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813.  Jane Austen gets them off to a rocky start however.  In their first encounter Darcy thinks Jane”…tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

“From the very beginning— from the first moment, I may almost say— of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

Frank Doel and Helene Hanff

You could argue that isn’t strictly a romantic  relationship since the author Helene Hanff and the antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel never meet. But I’d challenge anyone to read the letters that fly from New York to London in Hanff’s memoir, 84 Charing Cross Road, and not come to the conclusion that there is something more going on than just a mutual affection for books.

Gabriel Oak and Bathseba Everdene

In Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy shows love can endure despite many challenges. Gabriel Oak (his name is a big clue as to his nature) doesn’t give up when the uppity Miss Everdene rejects his marriage proposal. He becomes a servant on her farm while she embarks on a disastrous relationship with a solider. But when she needs him most, he is ready to forgive…. Hardy is careful to show that the love that Gabriel and Bathsheba share is not the passion of a first love but a sadder and wiser connection born out of trials and tribulations. 

Sapper Kip and Hana the nurse

I can’t talk about love without mentioning my favourite Booker prize winner, The English Patient by Michael Ondatjee. It shows that sometimes love flourishes in the most unlikely of situations. In this case, in a bomb-damaged Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II, where four people are thrown together unexpectedly.  Hana, a troubled young Canadian Army nurse, is caring for a man severely burned in a flying accident. The death of her lover causes her to believe that she is cursed and that all those around her are doomed to die. The arrival at the villa of a Sikh British Army sapper, reawakens her emotions. But their affair is shortlived. Kip is horrified when he learns about the Hiroshima bombing, leaving the villa to return to his native India. He never sees Hana again though he never stops recalling the effect she had on his life.

Dexter and Emma

How long can you be in love with someone and yet never realise it? For the couple in David Nicholls novel One Day, it takes almost 20 years for them to get together after they spend the night together on their graduation from Edinburgh university.  The novel visits their lives and their relationship on that date – 15 July – in successive years in each chapter, for 20 years. Does it all end happily?  Not quite. But you’ll have to read the book to discover why not.

Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson

The Graduate

Still from the ending of the film The Graduate

I can’t end without an example of what many people would consider to be the ultimate romantic gesture. In The Graduate, Benjamin, a new college graduate with no idea what to do with the rest of his life,  is seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson. But then realises it’s her daughter Elaine that he loves. Slight problem: she is about to marry another boy. Queue a desperate race to get to the church before Elaine says I do. If you’ve watched the film starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, you’ll know there is a dramatic ending involving a bride and a bus. I’m not cheating here by the way – the film is in fact based on a novel of the same name written by Charles Webb and published in 1963.


So there you have 10 couples who each, in one way or another, reflect love in many forms. Are there any couples you think of instantly when the subject of love crops up?

Crystal ball gazing for Booker prize 2015

Tomorrow sees the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2015. I was hesitating from making some predictions of what we might see since a) my previous attempts at anticipating the winners and losers have not exactly been stellar and b) I’m struggling to think of 13 titles which is the traditional number on the longlist.

But having scratched my head for several hours I’ve come up with a few that meet the stipulation that only novels written originally in English and published in the UK (regardless of the author’s nationality) can enter. The book has to have been published between October 2014 and September 2015.

First up are two novels I hope don’t win. I know that sounds a bit mean and disrespectful to the author if either is truly considered the best of the last 12 months. But neither of these books interests me and if it wins I will have to read it as part of my Booker Prize project.

Buried GiantI do expect to see The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro on the longest, and probably on the shortlist, given his stature and the fact this is his first novel for 10 years. It’s attracted widespread acclaim. I had planned to read it and even to see the great man at the Hay Festival but then discovered that much of it was a fantasy and it contained non human creatures that talk (a bug bear of mine). My library reservation was cancelled.

 

A God in RuinsAnother prediction I hope doesn’t materialise is Kate Atkinson’s A God in RuinsThis is another book I’ve not read but since it’s a companion to her earlier novel Life after Life which I could not finish (I got completely bored with it ) I’m not keen to read this one. I may be lucky here since she hasn’t made it to the longlist in the past and she’s written far better novels.

 

 

And now to the books I would like to see at least long listed.

Flood of FireFlood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh. This is the third novel in the Ibis Trilogy which began with Sea of Poppies set against a background of the Opium Wars in China. His latest novel Flood of Fire returns to the outbreak of that time and follows a cast of characters through to China’s devastating defeat and Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong. Ghosh is someone who meticulously researches his novel and brings the historic period to life through some well-drawn characters. I’m relatively new to his novels but have enjoyed everything I’ve read so far.

 

god help the childThe change in rules which came about last year means that American authors can now enter the Booker Prize. Which means we could see Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and 1998 Pulitzer Prize, enter the fray with God Help the Child. Robinson is known as an author of epic themes and for raising the American consciousness. In her latest novel she explores how the sufferings of childhood shape the life of the adult, about the nature of beauty and veneration of being black.

I’m saving my favourite for last….

Norah WebsterNorah Webster by Colm Tóibín, a tremendous study of grief and the rebuilding of a life in 1960s Eire. Norah is recently widowed, left with four children, little money, no job and far too many people trying to tell her how best to organise her life from here on. It’s a story told in chronological order, following Norah’s consciousness as she shapes her new life inch by inch. Tóibín is no stranger to the Booker Prize – he’s been on the shortlist three times:  in 1999 for The Blackwater Lightship, in 2004 for The Master’ and 2014 for The Testament of Mary. Could this be his lucky year??

If you don’t trust my predictions and would like some alternative crystal ball views take a look at:

 

What to read in 2015

You’ve read everything on your ‘to read’ shelf (ok, I’m joking) And got through everything you were given as a Christmas gift. So now you’re in the mood to look ahead and start planning what to read over coming months. Naturally the authors and publishers know that no matter how many books lying unopened on your shelves avid readers always want more.

This year will see new issues from some of the foremost writers of our times (work from at least three Nobel Laureates) and a few second books from people whose debuts got them noticed.

The selection below is just a fraction of course of what will be published (they don’t include science fiction, YA or fantasy since none of those genres have appeal for me).  If you think I’ve missed something new and notable, do let me know.

And of course tell me what you’re most looking forward to reading.

February

This month sees the posthumous publication of the final book written by Iain Banks. It’s a collection of poetry written in collaboration with his childhood friend and fellow science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. Publisher Little, Brown will issue this to mark what would have been Banks’ 61st birthday

Neil Gaiman brings out his third collection of short fiction Trigger Warning which includes some previously published pieces of short fiction and a special Doctor Who story written for the fiftieth anniversary of the series in 2013. One story in the collection, “Black Dog,” is a new work of fiction that revisits the world of American Gods,

From  John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, comes  A History of Loneliness, a story of an Irish priest who has endured recent, founded outcries against the church. He’s forced to examine his role in this scandal.

TylerAnd if you love the work of Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Tyler, watch out for her 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, which she says will be her last. Like many of her previous books, it is a family saga set in Baltimore, as told by the aging Abby Whitshank and her husband Red, who will soon need to be cared for by her children and grandchildren. Tyler talks about this novel in a BBC interview 

SJ Watson aims to repeat the soaring success of Before I Go to Sleep  with a new novel. Second Life. It’s another psychological thriller featuring a woman leading a double life.

March

IshiguroArguably the literary event of the year happens on March 5 when Kazuo Ishiguro publishes his first nobel in 10 years.  The Buried Giant is set in Britain during the Dark Ages, opening as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years. Details are scarce but according to Ishiguro, this is a novel about  “lost memories, love, revenge and war”.

That’s enough to hook me, and anyway this is by Ishiguro so sure to be good. Hence why I’ve already put my name on the wait list at the library…

Two years ago, Huffington Post named Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees,  one of their Best Books of 2013.  I added it to my wish list though have yet to get to it. Now she returns with an epic tale of four talented but frustrated college friends trying to find their way in New York and how their friendships shift as the years pass.

One book The Guardian has suggested we keep an eye out for is an unusual work in translation due out in March by Máirtín Ó Cadhain.  They describe The Dirty Dust as an exuberant novel set in a graveyard and told entirely in the voices of the dead. Apparently it’s been labelled the most important prose work in modern Irish though by whom it’s not clear. Could be a good one though for people who like something different.

April

Two Nobel laureates hit the bookshops this month.  God Help the Child by Toni Morrison is about race, family dysfunction and how past traumas reverberate to the present. Her publishers are keeping quiet so further details are hard to come by but just Morrison’s name will make it certain this book will be hard to miss the closer we get to the publication date.

it’s taken two years to translate into English but Mario Vargas Llosa‘s The Discreet Hero, finally gets some exposure outside his native country of Peru where it has been a best seller.  The narrative follows two businessmen – one the victim of extortion, and one whose children want to kill him.

JaneSmileyEarly Warning by Jane Smiley is the second instalment in her Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants from 1920 to 2020. The first book,Some Luck covered the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the midst of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era.

May

So successful was Kate Atkinson with her 2013 novel Life after Life (I disliked it so much I couldn’t finish it) that she’s chosen to go back to the same family for her next book A God in Ruins. It’s about the fortunes of Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula Todd (the girl who kept dying in Life after Life). He’s a RAF pilot and aspiring poet.

Amitav Ghosh, whose Glass Palace I reviewed recently will publish the final novel in a trilogy this month. Flood of Fire starts in 1839 when China bans the lucrative opium trade from British plantations in India.  An expeditionary force is despatched to try and reverse the decision but when they arrive in Hong Kong they get caught up in what became known as the first Opium War. Knowing Ghosh this will be as meticulously researched as his other historical novels.

This month sees the publication of the last novel written by Kent Haruf who died last year. In Our Souls at Night he returns to the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt with a story of a widower and a widow who come together and begin  sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. This could be one to cherish.

June

Judy Blume is an author who needs no introduction, having brought pleasure to millions of children and young adults during her 16 year career. With In the Unlikely Event she branches into a new field with her first novel for adults in which she tells the story of a community reeling in the wake of a series of freak plane accidents.

Love + Hate by Hanif Kureishi was meant to have come out in December to mark Kureishi’s birthday but for some reason publication was delayed. This is a collection of  short fiction and essays. One story features a Pakistani woman who has begun a new life in Paris, there’s an essay about the writing of Kureishi’s acclaimed film Le Week-End, and an account of Kafka’s relationship with his father. The book ends with a long piece of reportage from which the collection takes its title, about the conman who stole Kureishi’s life savings, a man who provoked the author’s admiration but also revulsion

Another offering from the Faber stable is The Festival of Insignificance by the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the French-Czech novelist Milan Kundera. It’s been fifteen years  since publication of his last novel, so his fans will likely be disappointed that his first book after so long is a very slim one indeed It’s a story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal).

July

 Benjamin Markovits, one of  Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists publishes You Don’t Have to Live Like This, a tale of two college friends who hit on a plan to revitalise poor neighbourhoods in Detroit. One friend is an ex Yale graduate now down on his luck and the other is a wealthy player in the dot com phenomena.  It seems like a foolproof idea but they soon find themselves in the midst of everyone else’s battles.

If you loved Captain Corelli’s Mandolin then you’ll be keen to get The Dust that Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernières which is another epic romance set around the first world war.

August 

August brings us a short novel by one of the biggest names in literary fiction. Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie is inspired by ancient traditions of storytelling. There’s a playful clue in the title but you have to do a bit of arithmetic to find it (hint: add up the numbers).

Attention on world conflicts of the twentieth century continues unabated and who better to help us reflect on the impact of  World War 1 than Pat Barker. She took a break from the 1914-18 period for a few years but returned in 2007 with Life Class, the first part of a trilogy about a group of characters in the London Blitz. Book 2 in the sequel, Toby’s Room, came out in 2012 and this year sees the completion with publication of Noonday in which she moves her characters forward to the early years of the second world war. One of the characters in the book was named by a reader who won an auction staged to raise money for Freedom from Torture, a charity that provides therapies and support to torture survivors.

September

Jonathan Franzen’s Purity is the story of a young woman named Purity (or Pip) who is on a quest to uncover her father’s identity, with a “mythical undertone”. There have been hints that he’s adopted a different style for this novel, moving away from his usual realism to a more ‘fabulist’ style.

Novelists have been experimenting for the last few years with new media as a story telling device. The latest to tread the path of interactivity is Iain Pears whose novel Arcadia will be published both in traditional book format and as an interactive app. The idea apparently is to showcase the time-slipping narrative of a spy turned academic.  According to his publisher, Faber,  the novel’s characters’ lives will intersect in vivid ‘time-slip’ stories. As it mixes genres, periods and styles it can be read as a traditional linear story or episodically – reading and omitting sections as they choose.

PaulTherouxI couldn’t resist slipping one non-fiction book into the list though I very rarely read them. It’s a surprise to find Paul Theroux coming out with a new travel book – his last trip covered in The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola had to be abandoned because it was too dangerous to cross through the Congo. He’s in his seventies so he can be forgiven for wanting to be closer to home for his next travel. Deep South sees Theroux set out for the southern states of the US that he has never before explored.

October

A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk (Faber). The ninth novel from the Nobel laureate conjures the changes in Turkish society over the last few decades from the point of view of an Istanbul street vendor.

October marks the start of a major international project in which Shakespeare’s plays will be retold by acclaimed novelists. Jeanette Winterson‘s re-imagining of The Winter’s Tale launches the series this month.

Sebastian Faulks used to be one of my favourite authors though I found his latest novels rather disappointing. Maybe he will have found his winning formula with Where My Heart Used to Beat.  The title is taken from Tennyson’s In Memoriam and is an exploration of memory, desire and the madness of the 20th century.

November/December

These are both rather fallow months, presumably because publishers it’s too late for the Christmas market.  All I’ve found of interest so far is a new title by Kenzaburō Ōe , the Nobel winner, Death by Water is about an internationally acclaimed author’s investigation into the mysterious death of his father.

 Other notable issues

If you’re still hungry for more then keep an eye out for these second novels from authors whose debuts made a splash.

  • Belinda McKeon whose first novel Solace won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, comes out with her second book in April.  Tender is described by publishers Picador as “a dazzling exploration of the complexities of human relationships.”
  • AD Miller follows up his Man Booker shortlisted debut, Snowdrops (reviewed by Booker Talk here  with The Faithful Couple, a story of male friendship. Publishers Little,Brown say it’s a  ” story of a friendship built on a shared guilt and a secret betrayal… They clearly have ambitions for this novel since they consider it “a literary novel with mass appeal as well as the potential to win prizes”. We’ll see if that comes true when the book gets published later this spring.

Weekend bookends # 7

 A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed. 

Two long- awaited author returns

Her first (and most recent book) took sixteen years to write. Her second has taken nineteen years.  New Zealand author Keri Hulme won the 1985 Booker Prize with The Bone People, but there’s been nothing from her since. She recently told a literary festival in Aukland that she is going to publish her second novel in September this year. I wonder if she’ll have as much trouble getting this one published as she did with The Bone People  and whether she’ll similarly resist recommendations to edit her work. In case you’ve never read her, here is my review of her novel. 

Something that was announced a few months ago, but which I completely missed, was the news that Kazuo Ishiguro is to publish his first novel in a decade. The Buried Giant, due out in March 2015  is about ‘lost memories, love, revenge and war’. I was hoping it would be something in the vein of Remains of the Day which I love, but it’s apparently more akin to the dystopian future that he used in his last novel Never Let Me Go.

Amazon versus the publishers

In 2011 it was estimated almost one in every four books in the US was bought via Amazon. Last year, Forbes magazine said the figure had increased to one in two (50% in other words).  We readers can’t, it seems, get enough of the  online giant. But while Amazon may be good for consumers, giving easy access and fast delivery of hundreds of thousands of books, publishers are not so enamoured. In recent years we’ve heard mutterings from publishers about Amazon’s business model which required them to pay to have their books stocked and shipped and to offer ever-increasing discounts to Amazon. But most have stayed silent, fearing that they could effectively be blocked from the site entirely.

One of them however has recently broken the veil of silence. Hattchet Book Group, one of the leading US-based publishing groups, was in dispute over the level of discount Amazon was demanding. Then the publisher discovered 5,000 of its titles had ‘disappeared’ from the on-line site. Users can see the book but effectively can’t buy it because it’s marked out of stock even though it is widely available in many other outlets. Hattchet has gone public with a series of statements on their website about the dispute. House of SpeakEasy blog has just published a good commentary piece on the issue.

I know many bloggers have ‘banned’ Amazon because they don’t like their business model and the effect it’s had on independent booksellers and the publishing industry in general. I’ve long used it myself by default  because I hadn’t found anything as quick or efficient. But a recent experience has shown that there definitely is a strong alternative at least for people in the UK, via Waterstones. I first used them when I wanted a copy of Great Expectations as a mother’s day gift – the Amazon price was an astounding £16. I found it at just under £10 on the Waterstones site. Delivery was just as fast as Amazon and nicely packaged. So I tried them again recently when I wanted some books for gifts (I’m still restricting my own purchases) and again they came up trumps on the delivery. So I’m now sold on them – they may be more expensive than Amazon though not by much, and I can earn points each time I buy which gives me discounts and offers in the future. So I’m switching my allegiance.

The New Yorker has a good article about the progress of the Amazon phenomena and some of the issues raised about its business methods.

Time to Drool

Buying a book online may be convenient but I do miss the experience of walking into a real shop and browsing. The big chains do a fine job of organising the books efficiently and they’ve upped their game in recent years by adding coffee shops, sofas and squishy armchairs. But they don’t come anywhere near the ambiance of the independents.  Buzzfeed has just published a set of photos of independent stores that is certain to get you salivating. I just wish more of these were within my grasp. I could get to the Book on the Barge in London, and next time I go to Brussels I’ll have to go looking for Cook and Book but I can’t see me getting to Buenos Aires to see the theatre converted into a bookstore or to Sao Paulo to see the dragon-festooned Livraria Cultura.

There are 17 shops featured by BuzzFeed but I bet there are many more gems out there. Have any of you found something special on your travels?

An odd marketing concept

My current trainers (known as sneakers in USA) are losing their bounce so I’m in the market for a new pair. New Balance is one of the few brands that make a very narrow fitting so I was getting excited to hear they are about to launch a new author-inspired range.  They are meant to “pay tribute to some of the greatest American novels ever written” according to SneakerNews. My imagination immediately began working on which author’s face or inspiring quote I’d choose that would help me get through a gym session.  The first collection out next month is called “Bespoke Authors,” the second will be  “Distinct Authors Collection” out in August the third the “Connoisseur Authors Collection,” will go for $150 and be released in September.

Disappointment kicked in quickly however when I saw advance pictures of the new models. Was I missing some incredibly clever allusion? There seemed no obvious connection to either authors or books. Maybe there was something embedded on the insole or the outer sole? Were there some quotes running around the inside?  Sadly it seems not. There are no direct connections between authors and each pair of shoes. Instead, as New Balance’s head of lifestyle department (a rather grandiose job title) told the Boston Globe, the linkage really only comes from “color combinations, key touches of detail, and fabrics”. That’s a statement which has me totally perplexed —  I could see them picking blue for Hemingway given his association with the coastal location of Key West; maybe white and black to symbolise the slavery/racial tension of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, or red earth tones for Grapes of Wrath. But the advance pictures show a yellow tone shoe and a grey/blue one. Any clues which novel or novelist those are meant to represent. Seems like an idea dreamed up in a creative brainstorm session aided by a few too many margaritas.

 

 

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