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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.



The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Keri Hulme’s 1985 Booker Prize winning book The Bone People is one of those novels for which the word unorthodox would be a woefully inadequate description.

TheBonePeopleRejecting the exhortation frequently heard in creative writing courses that novice writers should focus on just one narrative point of view, Hulme switches perspectives between her three principal characters. She mixes poetry and song with prose, mingles English with the Polynesian language of the indigenous Maori population of New Zealand and even creates new words where she believes a standard lexicon simply doesn’t adequately capture the meaning she wants to convey.

The result is an extraordinary novel that was 12 years in the making and rejected by most publishers who thought it unwieldy and too different. Even those who were interested would publish it only on condition she made severe edits (she refused). It  saw the light of day only because of a small publishing firm in New Zealand whose owners came from the same Maori tribe as Hulme.

The Bone People went on to become of the most controversial winners of the Booker Prize, deeply dividing critical opinion between those who felt Hulme had broken new literary ground and those who considered its quasi spiritual aspects pretentious and its prose barely comprehensible.

With that background in my head, I approached The Bone People with trepidation.  The mystical tones of the opening didn’t do much for my nervousness level but I persevered and eventually the book began to take hold. Yes there were many times when I was completely bewildered as tenses changed mid paragraph, punctuation was omitted and interior monologues were introduced without any preamble to indicate which character was actually speaking. Without the helpful glossary there were many sections of dialogue that would have been completely meaningless. And yes there was a higher quota of pseudo mysticism than I can normally tolerate. But — and it is a big but — there was a quality about this novel that kept drawing me back to it, making me want to keep reading even if I wasn’t sure exactly what I was reading.

The Bone People is essentially a tale of three broken, battered and bruised individuals and how they try to build a family out of their pain and suffering. Kerewin Holmes (note the resonance with the author’s name) is a painter who has cut off all connections with her family, She lives in solitude in a beachside home called The Tower, spending her days fishing and trying, but failing, to paint anything worthwhile. Her life is  fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol. Into her home and her life stumbles Simon, a deeply disturbed and mute six year old boy whose anti social habits of stealing and violence against classmates have made him notorious in the small island community. Yet Keri warms to him and to Joe, a Maori who informally adopted the boy when he found him washed ashore after a yachting accident.  Joe is contending with his own demons having lost his own child and wife shortly after Simon’s appearance.  Slowly the trio form a bond but its strength is tested when Holmes learns the truth about the scars on Simon’s body. Her discovery has devastating consequences.

The question Hulmes poses in the novel is not simply whether the rupture between the members of this trio can be healed, but whether they can each find peace with themselves and with the world. Each, she seems to suggest, must endure more suffering before they can be made whole again. Home and the ties of family are twin pillars  of hope for these three sufferers.  As Simon says at one point late in the book:

He had endured it all. Whatever they did to him, and however long it was going to take, he could endure it. Provided that at the end he could go home.  ……if he can’t go home, he might as well not be. They might as well not be, because they only make sense together. We have to be together. If we are not, we are nothing. We are broken.

It’s a disturbing book with some shocking moments of violence. Counter-balancing the tension are moments of pure comedy and moments of reflection in which Hulme’s writing takes on a more poetic tone. It was unfortunate that in the last quarter of the book she introduced some semi-mystical figures and mysterious potions to help get towards a resolution.  It’s such a shame that Hulme resisted all advice to edit the text because her book was strong enough without  these contrivances.

Hulme has achieved something however that is remarkable. It will either leave you captivated or completely bewildered and frustrated. What you won’t do is to forget it since this is one book that leaves a lasting impression.



Sunday Salon: literature from around the world project

blog globe small 1Last year I created a personal challenge to read more literature from parts of the world outside the UK and North America. The World Literature challenge started with countries along the Equator and the Prime Meridian and I made these part of an overall challenge to read books from 50 different countries by the end of 2018.

I changed the course somewhat a few months ago and decided I wanted this to be more of a project and a general direction rather than a challenge with a set target and a deadline. That way it would feel less that I was reading something simply to meet a goal.

I’m so glad I made that switch. It’s been much more rewarding to pick up a book knowing I wanted to read it rather than feeling compelled to read it just because it was the next country on my list. And I can mix up that reading with my other projects on reading more classics and reading the Booker prize winners.

The past few weeks have seen me read novels from Somalia, New Zealand and India. All three were by authors I had never read before. All three have given me insights into cultures and issues outside my own experience. Maybe it’s a cliche to say that they’ve broadened my horizons but it’s nevertheless true.  Nurradin Farah’s The Fractured Rib dealt with the problems of being a woman in Somalia including that of arranged marriages and circumcision; Keri Hulme’s The Bone People introduced me to Maori legends while also highlighting the issue of child abuse and Amitav Ghosh brought the history of Burma to my attention in The Glass Palace.

So far I’ve read books from 13 different countries, six of them from Equatorial countries.  Not all of them have been remarkable or particularly rewarding of course but I did find some authors whose work I now know I want to further explore.

Next on my horizon will be Afghanistan via And the Mountains Echoed, the third novel by the Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini and then possibly Uganda with Moses Isegawa’s first novel, Abyssinian Chronicles. The first is a definite since I’m reviewing it for Shiny New Books magazine. But you never know where my wanderlust will take me after that and I may change my literary travel plans in favour of Latin America or China or Italy or ……….. 


Sunday Salon: Plans go Adrift

sundaysalonThis was a week which didn’t quite turn out the way I had planned.

It did start on a high note as the first edition of Shiny New Books plopped into my in box. Many of you will have already seen this but for the uninitiated I should explain that this is a new quarterly on line bookish magazine created by four UK based bloggers (Annabel, Victoria, Simon and Harriet). I was thrilled to be invited to contribute to the first issue with a review of Jim Crace’s Harvest. I knew this would be a good quality magazine because the four people are seasoned reviewers of some 30 years experience between them and know a lot about the literary world. I wasn’t prepared for just how good it would be however – scores of reviews and articles and all high quality. Do take a look and sign up for the newsletter (I warn you now that your reading wish list will likely get longer as a result.)

After that high spot, things went a little downhill.

Firstly, the magazine I’d bought which promised to show me many smart techniques for improving this blog using WordPress, turned out to be a mistake. Not the publishers’ fault, I should have studied it more closely. The tips were good, but the problem is that they seemed to work only if you have the self-hosted version available at not the fully-hosted version which is what I have. So the plug ins which you need to do cool things with images and tagging are not available. Which meant all my plans to get this blog into better shape went out of the window. 

And then, despite promising myself that I would devote time to catching up on all the reviews I have yet to write, how many did I actually do? None. Procrastination was one factor (I do seem to take an inordinate amount of time to actually decide what to write). The other was that I only had the use of an iPad since I was away from home and the WordPress system doesn’t seem to be that compatible with iPad. Text jumps around and if you try and do copy paste, you can’t seem to get the cursor to land exactly where you want to paste the text. I gave up…..

On the plus side though instead of blogging and writing, I could spend the time reading and finishing both the Guernsey Literary & Potato Pie Society (if this hadn’t been a book club read I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it) and Keri Hulme’s The Bone People which was much better than I expected it to be.

Next week I’ll be starting to think what books to take with me on a short holiday to Italy jus after Easter. Ideally I’d like something set in Italy but I don’t seem to have anything on the shelves that fits the bill and I haven’t come up with anything yet that I can go out and buy. Any suggestions/recommendations from you would be welcome – if possible of something set in Verona/Milan or that region…….

Sunday Salon: Looking back Looking ahead

sundaysalonAs Spring has officially given way to summer time in the UK, it seems a good time to think about the year so far and take a peak at what’s next on my reading horizon.

Let’s start with the good news. My TBR pile is shrinking (round of applause please). I’ve read eight from the list of 139 books that were on my shelves or on the e-reader as of January . Despite many temptations I’ve bought only one book so far this year. My wish list has exploded however.

Of all the books I’ve read so far this year only two really stand out for me: L’Assommoir by Emile Zola and the 1999 Booker prize winner Disgrace by J. M Coetzee. If I was the sort of person that used a star-rating system they would be in the 5 star category.  They couldn’t be more different in terms of setting or themes – Zola’s focus is on the miserable condition of the poor in nineteenth century Paris whereas Coetzee looks at the issue of life after the ending of apartheid in South Africa. What they have in common is the way they make you pause from whatever else is going on in your life and to think instead about the condition of the human race.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Zola was so good because I’ve enjoyed three other novels by him (Germinal is one of my all-time favourites) but I’d never read anything by Coetzee. Based on this experience I was getting fired up to read two of his works that I already have on my shelves − his 1983 Booker Prize winning Life & Times of Michael K and Summertime published in 2009. On closer inspection however I found that the latter is the third in a series of “fictionalised memoirs” so isn’t going to make much sense until I read the first two. I’ll have to check whether I can get them from the library.
Looking back over the last few months I think I’ve neglected my Booker Prize project a little. I’m not following any deadline for this project but since this was what prompted me to start blogging, I feel I should be making rather more progress than I have of late.  So I am rectifying that right now by starting  The Bone People which won the Booker Prize in 1984 for the New Zealand author Keri Hulme.


It’s a story of relationships in which Maori myths and folk traditions are blended with a modern day setting of life. The mystical tones of the opening didn’t give me great hope:

It is all silence.
The silence is music.
He is the singer.

They were nothing more than people by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change.

Fortunately we’ve had less of this as the story got underway though I sense it will not go away entirely. Interesting to note in the author’s introduction that she refused her publisher’s guidance about editing the book, declaring she would rather have the book “embalmed in Perspex” than re-shaped.

After that, it’s a toss up between Graham Swift’s 1996 winner Last Orders or the 1992 winner— Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. 

Any of you read either of those and can give me a recommendation?

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