Friday, September 01, 2006

September 2006

In this month's blog

Explanation of change
A bestseller? I hope so
The Thirteenth Tale...
...and Rebecca
Jumping To Conclusions
Using other people's titles
Adrian Weston re Mary Stewart
Untouched, box-fresh, new?
Libraries in danger
Banagi Hill
The first million sales

Do you agree with my view that, with blogs, regularity is more important than frequency?

For example Grumpy Old Bookman blogs from Monday to Friday so his regular readers don't mind his absence at weekends.

Other bloggers, who shall be nameless, write excellent but erratic blogs. To my mind nothing is more maddening than to visit a blog which is usually daily and to find that, without warning or explanation, no new blogs have been posted for the past week.

When Bookworm on the Net was a column in The Bookseller it was quarterly. Readers told me that, if they were reading a copy passed around a large office, they photocopied the list of links to the websites reviewed and visited them in spare moments.

Some individual subscribers to the magazine who shared my enthusiasm for the Web - which far fewer publishing industry people did back in 1998 when the column started - clipped the column for future reference.

Since it was reinvented as a blog in May 2005, Bookworm has been Sundays-only until the summer close-down in July and August. From now on I'm planning to post it on the first Sunday of every month. These monthly blogs will run to around 3,000 words which can be read at one gulp, or in sips, according to taste.

A bestseller? I hope so

George Alagiah is one of the most - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say one of the few - engaging presenters on British TV. Recently, in an online edition of the Daily Mail, I read, "Mr Alagiah, 50, is one of the BBC's most senior journalists and is the main presenter of the Six O'Clock News. His family were Sri Lankan Tamils who moved to Ghana when he was six to avoid persecution before settling in Britain five years later. He makes his controversial assessment of multiculturalism in a book to be published next month.

In A Home from Home, published by Little Brown and serialised in the Daily Mail, he stresses he is not attacking the idea of a multi-cultural society or immigration in general. He likens it to 'a garden that has been allowed to run wild'. "

Like many of the people who commented on the article at the Mail's website, I feel George Alagiah's assessment sounds more commonsensical than controversial.
One of the Amazon UK reviewers of his earlier book A Passage To Africa writes, "Being a South African, I am more than just averagely interested in books on Africa. I knew George Aligiah from news reporting on UK TV only - I had no idea of his roots or his African adventures. I found his writing exceptionally easy to read and personal. He writes of HIS experiences, and makes no apologies for not trying to write a full history of a situation. He lets you know of the wonders of Africa, as well as some of its horrors, and gets the balance right. I finished the book wanting more, and feeling prouder of Africa than I had in a long time. Don't miss it!"

Because I did miss it when it came out in 2001, winning the
Gwobr Madoc
- otherwise known as The Madoc Award, a travel writing prize named after Madoc, a 12th century Welsh prince - at the 2002 Hay Literary Festival, I popped into one of the island's bookshops to order it and also his new book. Read more about George Alagiah here.

The Thirteenth Tale…

Last month The Independent ran a story, headed "Teacher secures £1.3m advance for her debut novel", which included these extracts.

"Yet these accomplishments pale by comparison with a new novelist. After a marathon, 10-day auction, Diane Setterfield, a French teacher from Harrogate, has been paid £800,000 by UK publishers and a further $1m from a US publishing house for her debut novel The Thirteenth Tale"
"The writer, who is in her forties, was spotted by the novelist Jim Crace on a writing course she took up to move from academia, where she specialised in the works of André Gide and other 19th and 20th century French writers."

In another newspaper Jane Wood, Orion Books editor-in-chief, was quoted as saying: "I knew from the very first page it was special - she creates a wonderful fictional world. It's a book for book lovers, but also a real page turner."

Jane Wood is one of the nicest publishers I have met in my long writing life. Nearly 20 years ago, when she was with Arrow, at the end of a long day in London she took me out for a delicious smoked-salmon-and-scrambled-eggs supper at Le Caprice.
I have followed her career with admiring interest ever since.

When a review copy of The Thirteenth Tales reached me, I was delighted by the jacket. Had I known nothing about the book before seeing it displayed in a bookshop, that cover would have made me pick it up, as would the heading on the back cover blurb. "A dark and compelling mystery in the timeless vein of Daphne du Maurier…"

…and Rebecca

[Daphne du Maurier's most famous novel Rebecca was published by Victor Gollancz in 1938 and the movie with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as Maxim de Winter and the unnamed heroine was released in 1940.]

The heroine of The Thirteenth Tale is named. She is Margaret Lea, the daughter of an antiquarian bookseller. The story begins with Margaret, who tells us [this is a first person story] she has written a number of biographical studies, receiving a letter from a famous novelist, Vida Winter, who will send a car to meet her off the train to Harrogate.

For years, when I lived in the UK, reading catalogues from antiquarian booksellers was an almost daily pleasure. Consequently I warmed to Margaret's father but began to have reservations about his daughter when, on page 26, she discovers she was born a twin but her sister died and this is the reason Margaret has never had close relationships with other people.

The second Mrs de Winter lived in an era when well-bred but uneducated women were far more at the mercy of circumstance than they are today. So one could forgive her for being a bit of a wimp, particularly as her wimpishness was counterbalanced by the glamour of Manderley and a large cast of interesting characters including that splendid "rotter" Jack Favell, Colonel Julyan, Frith the butler, Maxim's sister Bea, Mrs Danvers and of course the dead but ever-present Rebecca.

With The Thirteenth Tale, we have to wait until page 100 for Margaret's first meeting with the hero, Dr Clifton, and it isn't clear that he is the hero. Indeed by the end of the book their relationship has gone no further than his taking her arm during a walk by a river. So this is not a passionate love story. The emphasis is on the dark and dismal aspects of human nature, often with the kind of gruesome details I can do without. For example -
"In the bath was a dark swill of bodily effluence, the stink of which sent John and I [sic] racing to the door, back through the rat droppings and the flies, out into the corridor, down the stairs, and out of doors. I was sick. On the green grass, my pile of yellow vomit looked fresh and clean and sweet."
"I squeezed through the brambles and hanging growth that masked the entrance into air sweet with rottenness, and there, in the gloom, I found him. Slumped in a corner, gun by his side, face half blown away. I recognised the other half, despite the maggots. It was Charlie all right."

Apart from Margaret's book-dealing father, there is one other attractive character in this novel, a six-footer called Aurelius who can cook. But my hope that he might be the hero soon fizzled out.

In fairness, my disappointment with this story wasn't shared by another bookworm, Liz Fielding, who loved the book, as did her husband. On August 10, Liz's comments included, "What can I say about The Thirteenth Tale that adequately expresses my pleasure in every page?... Last night I finally reached the last page and, yes, I was crying."

I've no doubt the book will sell well because of the publicity generated by the huge advance but, as Helen Dunmore, chair of the Society of Authors, wrote in The Bookseller recently, "Too many books are bought in hope and read with increasing glumness. Too many imitations of successful books are published."

Virago Press edition of Rebecca

Having read The Thirteenth Tale, I asked a local bookseller to order the Virago Press paperback of Rebecca, published in 2003 [nine reprints], 2004, 2005 [two reprints] and 2005.

I'm glad when I first read Rebecca, long ago, it didn't have the Introduction by Sally Beauman who, back in the Eighties, used to write for Mills & Boon before turning to blockbusters with Destiny and Rebecca's Tale.

As innocent as most of my generation of teenagers, I shouldn't have understood Ms Beaman's allusions to du Maurier's bisexuality. Today there is much in her introduction to the novel with which I disagree. For example, she writes, "There is a final twist to Rebecca and it is a covert one. Maxim de Winter kills not one wife, but two. He murders the first with a gun, and the second by slower, more insidious methods. The second Mrs de Winter's fate, for which she prepares herself throughout the novel, is to be subsumed by her husband. Following him into that hellish exile glimpsed in the opening chapters, she becomes again what she was when she first met him - the paid companion to a petty tyrant. For humouring his whims, and obeying his every behest, her recompense is not money, but 'love' - and the cost is her identity."

This comment strikes me as tosh, a view shared by Luiza, an customer reviewer of Ms Beauman's sequel Rebecca's Tale, who, under the heading "Straight out of the 1970s feminist fairy tale book", wrote, "What really annoyed me increasingly, mostly in the last part, is the cheap 1970s-style feminism and general air of political correctness of our own age retrojected onto the 1950s. Alright, so "the second Mrs. de Winter" had no other objective in life than to make her husband happy - so what? The original novel is from the 1930s and reflects the zeitgeist of its era. Beauman's sequel reflects the zeitgeist of HER era but the novel she wrote is set fifty years earlier - and that recipe simply doesn't work out... In short: a novel with 1970s sensibilities that already feel dated and boring today...Just for the record, I am an unmarried and childless academic myself but I wouldn't dream of glorifying these choices, or of ascribing them an ideological quality of being somehow "better" than other ways of living your life as a woman and human being."

Jumping To Conclusions

Among the public library books I read last month was Jumping To Conclusions by Sarah Challis. It's her fifth novel. The hardcover blurb starts "A couple of books bought secondhand from a village jumble sale; in the front, a name - Johnnie Bearsden - scrawled in a childish hand. This is all it takes for old wounds to open and rumours to begin swirling again. Rumours about little Izzy Haddon, whose mother, Jess, has kept the identity of her daughter's father a secret for seven years."

On page 146, Izzy's granny Belinda is attending an exercise class. "We're more like sea cows than swans, she thought, but I suppose we all nurse the secret hope that we'll turn into Xanthe [their tutor] if we try hard enough, and it struck her how it was always women who attended these self-improvement classes. Men either didn't bother, being quite content with themselves as they were, or did show-off, sweaty exercises in gyms, in tight shorts. Women seemed to be more humble about themselves. She couldn't imagine Victor doing anything like this in order to keep in shape."

I enjoyed the book, though I had to suspend disbelief to accept that an intelligent 18-year-old would be seduced by a man in his forties. When I was an 18-year-old junior reporter on a weekly, one of the unmarried senior reporters was considered no end of a heart-throb. He was about 30, but seemed middle-aged to me.

However there is such a dearth of novels appealing to women of my age that I'll buy Sarah Challis's latest, Footprints in the Sand, when it comes out in paperback. An Amazon UK reviewer writes "This is a wonderful novel. Along with the characters in the book, you are taken on a fantastic journey from Dorset to the depths of the Sahara. Sarah Challis' descriptions of the Mali, its romantic people (and camels!) are breath-taking. I felt as if I knew the main characters intimately and certainly recognised aspects of many of my friends and myself in them. The author writes with such warmth that I felt sad as I turned the last page and realised my Mali adventure had come to an end..."

Using other people's titles

The title Footprints in the Sand has been used by a number of other writers including Josie Varga, Anne Frost, Reshad Field, Louis Teeman, Chris Simons, Jan Carew…and Anne Weale.

When, in 1992, I used this title for a romance based on a real life schooner voyage in the Maldives, it wasn't easy to check that a title hadn't been used before. Now it's the work of moments, but few authors/editors/publishers seem to bother to key the proposed title into Amazon. [In passing, if you Google the title, the first page of links relate to some verses written by an American, Mary Stevenson, in the Thirties.]

Adrian Weston re Mary Stewart

Don't miss Adrian Weston's comment on Grumpy Old Bookman's post before GOB attended a luncheon in Edinburgh to honour three excellent novelists.

"I'll be damned if I publish you"

One of the long-postponed jobs I tackled last month was clearing files from a nine-year-old desktop computer.

In a folder called People N-Z, I found a letter written to Nicholas Wollaston after reading his piece in The Observer on 6 August, 2000.

He began "If your name is Amy, Freya or Tiffanie, publishers will snap you up. But when your name is Nicholas and you're in your seventies, they become decidedly cool…"

The article quoted the enthusiastic comments by a Random House editor on a book by Wollaston, followed by an apologetic rejection because "Crucially, as Sarah wrote to my agent: 'It would be difficult for us to publish, given all the standard arguments about it being late in the author's career etc. Therefore, I am going to have to be a philistine and turn down something which I know is of unusual and exceptional quality. I really hope that you find a publisher prepared to be braver that us - and please apologise to Nicholas Wollaston on my behalf.'"

Wollaston continued, "Do they mean old or old-fashioned? My agent, after many years in publishing, lamented: 'What is publishing becoming?' Falling deeper into the hands of the marketing people is the answer. But what, I wonder, are 'all the standard arguments'? The notion that fortune - in the shape of a huge advance and a lot of hype for an unwritten first novel - favours the young? That the winner, so long as he or she has no literary record, takes all? That what sells a book is a pretty face on the jacket? No publisher would dare reject a book because the author was the wrong colour or the wrong gender, but to be the wrong age is unforgivable."

Nicholas Wollaston's latest book, My Father, Sandy, has been published by Short Books, launched in 2000 by former journalists Rebecca Nicolson and Aurea Carpenter to bridge the gap between publishing and journalism. The blurb reads "Nicholas Wollaston was four years old when his father Sandy was killed in 1934 - shot dead by one of his Cambridge students. In this memoir, 70 years on, Nicholas finally confronts his loss and goes in search of the father whom he hardly knew. Sandy Wollaston, doctor, botanist, explorer, lived in the last great age of discovery. On extraordinarily tough expeditions to New Guinea, the Sahara, and the Himalayas, he collected new flora and fauna of lasting importance; and in 1924, in tweeds and leather shoes, he accompanied Mallory on his first trip to Everest. "My Father, Sandy" is a son's tribute - a voyage of discovery - part memoir, part travel history, but above all a moving love story."

Untouched, box-fresh, new?

Last month, at the Crockatt and Powell Booksellers blog, Adam Powell posted "I like my books untouched, box-fresh, new. I don't want someone else's cast-offs….When I woke up this morning the first title my eyes fell upon was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book I've been meaning to get round to for ages. In fact I even picked it up in the shop the other day to 'borrow' when I remembered my old secondhand copy. So I opened this edition and on the inside cover page was an inscription, 'To Katie from Gordon, 18.8.1985'. It was exactly 21 years to the day that this book was first given. It made me instantly despondent."

This comment interested me because I have a habit of pasting press cuttings and other snippets about authors onto the flyleaves of their books, partly for my own pleasure and partly in the hope that these additions will be enjoyed by future owners of the books.

For example, in my copy of John Pearson's The Life of Ian Fleming [published by Jonathan Cape in 1966] there are five press clippings with the following headings -
"Holiday snaps reveal the original Bond girl"
"Ann Fleming" [an obituary marked Telegraph 14/7/1981]
"Licence to tell"
"In her majesty's service"
"A power for good, Mr Bond?" [about Fleming's house in Jamaica]
"Sir Peter Smithers" [obit of the Tory MP, botanist and intelligence officer who provided inspiration for James Bond].

I first heard of Ian Fleming while reporting for the Yorkshire Evening Press at York. Like many other provincial newspapers, the YEP serialised his book Casino Royale, published in 1953. Alas, my copy is a 1957 reprint, not part of the first edition, one of which sold for £21,000 in 2005.

Libraries in danger

A recent poll in The Bookseller asked "How should libraries find more funds for books?"
To my horror, 49% of those who voted said this should be done by "demanding more government cash". Governments have no cash. The money they spend comes from their country's taxpayers,
If, like me, you have spent some of your happiest hours in public libraries, read the August 24 post at Tim Coates' blog in which he writes -
"When the public library service has closed down completely in five or ten years time, I hope somebody takes the steering committee of the supply review, the entire MLA and project team at Price Waterhouse Cooper and dangles them from Tower Bridge.
Let me explain again. Firstly, about one quarter of the money given by Government to run the public library service is wasted on inefficient practice. That is £250m per annum, which if divided equally between more books and more redecoration of buildings would provide a wonderful public library service. The inefficient practices were identified last year by PKF in a government report and not one jot of action has been taken to correct them."

Banagi Hill

A much-travelled friend who came to dinner the other night lent me Banagi Hill : A Game Warden's Africa by John Blower published by Librario Publishing Ltd in 2004.

After serving with the Royal West African Frontier Force in Africa and Burma during WW2, John Blower took a degree in forestry and applied for the job of Assistant Conservator of Forests in Tanganyika, entering the salary scale at £620 a year with a £30 allowance for essential kit. For senior officials there was a twice weekly air service to East Africa but he travelled by sea.

"Built in the 1920s the S.S. Matiana was a ship of a mere 9000 tons, carrying cargo for Port Sudan and the East African ports; her 120 passengers were obviously a secondary consideration, and had therefore to put up with her leisurely 13 kinots, and delays of several days at various ports of call to discharge cargo. Impatient as I was to get started on my new job, the 28-day voyage seemed rather a waste of time. But with some congenial companions among my fellow passengers, and since I was now actually being paid, I accepted the delay philosophically."

At the end of the book, dedicated to his fourteen grandchildren, Blower writes, "Those of us, black and white, who knew East Africa or the Sudan during the final years of the Pax Britannica were fortunate indeed. Apart from a brief outbreak of barbarism confined to a single tribe - the Kikuyu in Kenya - the entire region had, with few exceptions, enjoyed half a century of peace and relative prosperity under benign British rule. By no means perfect, it had nevertheless brought justice, security and freedom from oppression to millions of ordinary Africans."

Lavishly illustrated, this book would make an excellent Christmas present for anyone interested in Africa's wild life and its recent past.

The first million sales

One of the nice things about blogging is unexpected feedback. On Friday I received an email which I very nearly zapped because the subject line was "Desmond" and I had forgotten that on 26 June 2005 I wrote a piece about literary agent Desmond Elliott.

Here's the email. "Dear Anne, My son, Robert, living in Cape Town, alerted me to your site. He is constantly sweeping the galaxy for mention of anything remotely connected with his old man's literary/theatrical past.

My heart stirred when I opened your piece on Desmond. It brought back so many quaint memories. As I write, I am looking at a photograph of Desmond, posing with Alwyn Birch of Granada, an extremely young Patrick Janson-Smith, my wife Linda, and myself, on the occasion of a presentation, in Desmond's office, to me of a gold pen, commemorating the first million sales of my Russ Tobin novels. In another photo, at the same occasion, a smiling Leslie Thomas stands with Linda and myself, equally smiling. Lovely day. So well remembered.

I have posted a comment on your site, inviting any and all to have a look at my 'fansite', a remarkable undertaking by Rob Fleay, a dedicated fan of my literary hero Russ Tobin. I truly did not know of the site's existence until it was well-established. Thereafter I added some material and interviews to it, but initially it was all Rob's work, and he is still adding to it on a regular basis.

The most recent addition is my new thriller Trance, published by Twenty First Century Publishers. Now there is a site you may care to look at . A most interesting development in POD publishing. I am delighted to make your acquaintance, albeit electronically, and would be most pleased to hear from you. Very best regards, Stanley

Until next time

I've already overrun the intended length of 3,000 words. All being well, Bookworm will be back on Sunday, 1st October. Until then…good reading.


At 03 September, 2006, Blogger Stephen said...

Welcome back, Anne.

As an erratic blogger, I recognise that my habits may at times be frustrating, but help is available. RSS tools can tip readers off about any new posts on any blog to which they subscribe. I use the Sage extension to Firefox to keep track of around two dozen blogs. Many other RSS tools are available (and they are usually free).

At 03 September, 2006, Blogger Jessica Raymond said...

Welcome back, Anne. Hope your work on your project went as planned. In Sally Beauman's foreword to 'Rebecca' she also suggested that Rebecca herself was bisexual, but upon finishing the book I hadn't seen anything that would suggest this. Perhaps I missed it?

At 05 September, 2006, Blogger Adrian Weston said...

Hooray - I have missed bookworm during the summer. As a reader I admire the regularity of your postings, knowing to log on every monday and read your thougts. As a very random blogger I just can't manage regularity - my postings only ever come when there is an odd 5 minutes spare or something so burning that I have to make the 5 minutes - I suspect that puts people off my blog as sometimes quite long intervals elapse between postings. I wish that it could be otherwise... however I'm very glad you are more disciplined. Welcome back!

At 16 September, 2006, Blogger Liz Fielding said...

Welcome back, Anne and thank you for a thoughtful and involving blog. Lots of food for thought and good reading.

At 19 September, 2006, Anonymous Jane said...

Welcome back Anne, I have missed your weekly discussion. I have read a number of the books that you have mentioned, one of my favourites "Don't Sweat The Aubergine". I shall look forward each month to the next installment

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At 08 November, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Anne,

Enjoyed your comments. I'm afraid I am Liz Fielding's camp on The Thirteenth Tale. I loved every single word and everyone I have recommended it to has felt the same.

Look forward to reading your next installment.

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