Friday, June 01, 2007

"Ghastly 'chicklit' covers"

Also in today's blog

More on Katie Fforde's book jackets
Madame Arcati self-publishing her novel
Lorna's comment

As a matter of courtesy, I try to let people know when I blog about them. Recently I emailed three men, a best-selling American author, an historian whose TV programme I had enjoyed, and the economics editor of a national newspaper.

How long does it take to hit the reply button and type, "Thanks"?

But only one of these three did the polite thing. Which one?

The journalist, Jeff Randall.

First I received an Out of Office [until May 30th] reply. No doubt his Inbox was full when he got back, but at 9.53 a.m. on the day of his return, I received the following message – "Anne Many thanks for letting me know. JR"

"Ghastly 'chicklit' covers"

I am indebted to Transita author Jane Gordon-Cumming for steering me to an interesting discussion about Katie Fforde's book jackets.

On May 31, Jane G-C posted the following comment on my blog about Katie's covers. She wrote -
"Funnily enough Elaine Simpson-Long blogged about the very same subject on her
'Random Jottings' a few months ago: I commented that I too much prefer Katie's older covers, but a young friend much prefers the new ones."

So off I went to Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover, sub-titled "A commuting book and opera-aholic personal assistant living in the oldest recorded town in the UK, Colchester."

Here are a couple of quotes from the discussion.

"I've never read Katie Fforde because the current covers put me off while the old style would not have done."


"Katie Fforde used to be published by Penguin and the books were beautifully designed with lovely covers which caught the eye. She then moved to Michael Joseph who kept up the high standard, but then moved again to Century who immediately started to produce the books in the most ghastly 'chicklit' covers. They were the usual candy pink, orange and pale green with which publishers seem to be obsessed in this genre, and I really feel they do these books a disservice. Whereas the first books looked classy, the later ones look, well, just ordinary really."

Other comments suggest that the Century covers are more attractive to younger readers.

But as we are frequently told that oldies now have more cash to spend than their children and grandchildren, I wonder why publishers court the young to the exclusion of middle-aged readers and those like myself who are long past normal retirement age but still working full-time and firing on most of their cylinders?

The answer seems to be that most publishing people, except at the highest level, are under 40. But CEOs are not. Gail Rebuck head of Random House – they publish 1500 books a year - is 55. Marjorie Scardino, head of Pearson, is 58. Doesn't it ever strike them that their minions are neglecting a lucrative market?

Madame Arcati to self-publish her novel

Thanks to Grumpy Old Bookman [see link in sidebar] I learn that Madame Arcati has written a novel and is publishing it herself.

She writes, "It astonishes me how potent still is the glamour of commercial publishing to writers of fiction, as if a freely hatched chicken would choose to live in a battery, behind its bars. How sad.

Far better to synchronise with technology's liberating applications and produce a book that matches or exceeds the production values of orthodox publishers. Readers can decide whether it was worth reading."

I agree with Madame A that commercial publishing presents a pretty dismal prospect these days. On the other hand DIY publishing demands huge amounts of energy which most writers would rather reserve for writing.

Lorna's comment

Lorna, if I may I'll reply to the question in your comment on Thursday's blog in Monday's blog because I need to look up some links.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Butlers : real and fictional

Also in today's blog [at the end]

Checking the comment situation
Liz Calder interview

The third leader article in yesterday's Daily Telegraph was about butlers.

"The world faces a worrying shortage.
As the number of wealthy households expands, so does the demand for butlers. Those who keep a tally of these things say as many as two million are needed around the globe. Can there be enough suave imperturbability to go round? A butler - not to be confused with his inferior, the valet - is a multi-talented beast whose duties may range from ironing the morning copy of The Daily Telegraph to managing dozens of staff in a number of houses.
Rock stars love them, so do Russian oligarchs, and at least one Labour minister couldn't possibly function without his gentleman's gentleman. They may be redolent of a bygone age, but they are, as a species, natural-born survivors.
Whatever the modern world throws at them, they ensure that good order reigns with a murmured "very good, sir" issuing from the stiffest of upper lips."

Earlier this week I mentioned that Mr Bookworm had brought home two second-hand books: A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley which he has read and enjoyed, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro which I have read and was bored by.

I long to know what Mr B thinks of it. It's possible he will find it as enthralling as did the judges who awarded it the 1989 Booker prize, and the people who filmed it with Anthony Hopkins in the starring role.

On page 8 of the Tiscali bio of Hopkins, I found this –

"In Merchant/Ivory's The Remains Of The Day, he was superb as James Stevens, butler for James Wilby and a man so repressed that duty has become everything to him. Thus he loses a chance at happiness with housekeeper Emma Thompson and looks away when Wilby foolishly sympathises with Hitler. With realisation comes torment, and Hopkins is in his element, seemingly dormant then suddenly on the verge of a volcanic emotional eruption. He well deserved his Oscar nomination."

Maybe the film moves faster than the interminably slow novel. If our public library has the video, I'll be interested to compare it with the book.

For those who have neither read nor seen The Remains of the Day, it's a long-winded reminiscence of a life spent in the service of the late Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall, now owned by an American, Mr Farraday. The principal characters are the butler, Stevens, and the housekeeper Miss Kenton. The action takes place over six days, but it seemed to me like six years, so slow was the pace.

On Saturday [June 2nd] Kazuo Ishiguro is the subject and star of a conference at Liverpool Hope University.
On the conference page of the university's website, I read this –

"Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the finest writers of his generation. Although primarily a novelist, he has also written short stories, television scripts and a screenplay. Ishiguro’s work explores issues of class, ethnicity, nationhood, place, and the functions of art itself. As a Japanese immigrant coming to Great Britain in 1960, Ishiguro has used his unique perspective to write international novels that contain ‘a vision of life that is of importance to people of varied backgrounds around the world.’ This diversity is underscored by the surreal masterpiece, The Unconsoled (1995), and his latest novel, Never Let Me Go (2005), a stunning affirmation of Ishiguro’s ability to investigate moral dilemmas without compromising the art of fiction."

Is it possible for a first class piece of fiction to leave an enthusiastic reader unmoved?

The book has 137 reviews at Amazon UK and 174 reviews at Amazon US, all but a few wildly enthusiastic. Clearly I am out of step here. Or are the reviewers writing what they think they should rather than what they really feel?

Checking the comment situation

First, a word to Gloria who noticed the strange times at which I appear to be posting blogs. I'm a lark, not a night owl, Gloria, and I used to post between getting up at six-ish and breakfast at eight-ish. But I found that when I did that the posts would often appear under yesterday's date. So now I post after breakfast around nine-ish.

Why the times shown are not accurate I have no idea.

If the people who made comments on Tuesday's blog will scroll down, they will find that their comments are now where they should be.

On investigating, I found ten comments suspended in limbo. I hope this won't happen again, but will make a point of checking.

Liz Calder interview

Much as I wanted to hear this, downloading Real Player seemed to involve downloading a lot of other programmes I was unlikely ever to use. In the end I decided to play safe and not download any of them.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Book jackets past and present

In today's blog

Katie Fforde
Pamela Kay

On a Sunday morning in May 2001, I went to look round the rastro [flea market] on the public car park of the village in Spain where I spend part of the year.

On a stall selling books, my eye was caught by a painting I recognised as being by Pamela Kay.

You can see the original jacket on Katie Fforde's novel Stately Pursuits on the left, and the style of jacket she has nowadays on the right.

Stately Pursuits, hardbacked by Michael Joseph in 1997, was Katie Fforde's fourth book, her first, Living Dangerously, having come out two years earlier.

She now has 13 titles listed at Fantastic Fiction, and is a well-known name in the book world.

I paid 750 pesetas for Stately Pursuits. The story opens with 24-year-old Hetty Longden arriving at her lover Alistair's cottage for what she expects to be a blissful weekend. Instead she finds him in bed with another woman, a circumstance he explains by saying, "I'm sorry to spring this on you, Hetty, but there was never anything serious between us, and all good things come to an end. This seemed the best way to tell you."

What a rat!

Although readers of a certain age will probably think, as I did, "Well, if he had never said he loved her, she was a bit of an idiot to embark on an affair with him."

Another book of Katie Fforde's I missed when it came out is Wild Designs. "After losing her job, Althea decides to develop her passion for gardening. When she wins the opportunity to design a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show - with the unexpected help of gorgeous architect Patrick Donahugh - it looks as though she may have unearthed a new man as well as a new career."

The jacket I'm showing, borrowed from Amazon UK, is the original one. Again, in my view, much more attractive than the one which has replaced it.

A book I'm greatly looking forward to borrowing from my public library is
The Art of Pamela Kay, published by David & Charles in 1993 when I must have been overseas, cut off from news of the book world.

From the Amazon UK synopsis : "Pamela Kay is known for her regular appearances in national painting magazines and the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibitions. She first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 19, and her popular appeal is such that, in the years when a prize was awarded by the Royal Watercolour Society to the artist whose painting was voted best by the public, she won every year. This celebration of Pamela Kay's life and work includes more than 100 of her paintings, covering still life, gardens, flowers and interiors."

Comment problems

Two Transita authors who wanted to comment on yesterday's blog had problems leaving comments. One of them, after entering her password several times, thought she had succeeded but hadn't. I've had problems leaving comments at Susan Hill's blog. When time permits, I'll go to Blogger's help files and see what they have to say about this apparently widespread difficulty.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is there a market for novels about older women?

Also in today's blog
Professor Patricia Duncker
Transita website
Mr Bookworm's book bargains

My diary for 22 September 2004 records that, during a crowded week in London, lunching and dining with book world people, I had a morning coffee date with two interesting newcomers to the publishing scene at the Royal Overseas League.

They were Giles Lewis and Nikki Read, MD and ED of Transita, a new publishing house specialising in fiction for women over 45.

At the time I would not have bet serious money on their survival, and one or two early Transita titles I read added to my doubts. Although I have to concede that my idea of a good novel is not in line with the fiction that reaches today's bestseller lists.

Someone else with doubts about the new publishing venture was Professor Patricia Duncker of UEA, who, in an article in The Guardian by Michelle Pauli in May 2005 was reported as having little time for Transita.

Indeed she was quoted as saying, "An imprint aimed solely at middle-aged women is a waste of time. That's what women's interest fiction is there to do: pulp fiction to feed your fantasies. There are plenty of wicked books by women that should be celebrated. What about Alison Fell's Tricks of the Light, which is about being middle-aged and as passionate as ever? The heroine of my next novel, Miss Elizabeth Webster, is 70, smart and aggressive. Bring back Miss Marple: the older woman is often a detective. Experience, intelligence and cunning are strong elements in their characters".

Seven Tales of Sex and Death

You can listen to Professor Duncker talking about her "adults only" book Seven Tales of Sex and Death at Meet the Author. It seems she suffers from insomnia and watches the late night horror movie which inspired the book. It was paperbacked by Picador in 2004 and, according to details at Amazon UK, a Financial Times reviewer wrote, 'This collection of stories confirms Patricia Duncker as one of Britain’s leading fiction writers . . . She should be required reading’.

The Duncker title which interests me is Miss Webster & Cherif which Bloomsbury published last year and paperbacked earlier this month.

The Amazon UK synopsis describes it thus –

"Elizabeth Webster is a cantankerous spinster pushing 70. Forced out of her old school teaching job, she unleashes her sharp tongue and dogmatic opinions on everyone in the English village of Little Blessington. Then one cold spring night, sitting on the sofa alone, she grinds to a dead halt. To recover from this mysterious, near-fatal illness her doctor sends her on a journey to a North African country where she ventures into the desert and has a brush with terrorism. But Miss Webster no longer cares about anything, least of all Islamic politics and suicide bombers. Three weeks after her return there is a ring on her doorbell. Standing there in the gusty darkness is a young Arab man of astonishing beauty. Worryingly, he is carrying a large suitcase. But who is Cherif? Why is he there and what does he want? Entertaining, intelligent, provocative, Patricia Duncker's new novel is a comedy of errors set in the aftermath of 9/11, in a darkening world moving towards war. This engaging tale about friendship, trust and liberation is full of reversals and surprises, tenderness and humour."

Transita website

Transita's website is excellent, although while I was there I started to read the opening chapter of Redemption by Kay Langdale and felt that the third paragraph would alienate an awful lot of happily married readers, of whom there are many in the age group this imprint is aiming at.

The site includes a good blog. I was interested to see that a reference to Mary Stewart had nine comments.

Mr Bookworm's book bargains

Returning from one of his cross-island walks, Mr B unloaded a beautiful aubergine and two second-hand books from his pack. One was Mary Wesley's A Sensible Life of which we already have a copy, the other Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day.

Rather to my surprise, he has since read and enjoyed the Wesley novel. But as he pointed out, three of the reviews quoted on the cover are by men.

'As usual she made me both laugh and cry.' Philip Howard, The Times.
'It is delicious…she writes with the knowledge and wisdom of serene old age and the emotional exuberance of glowing young womanhood.' Patrick Skene Catling, The Daily Telegraph.
'Such good company that in more than one sense it's hard to put down.' David Hughes, The Mail on Sunday.

I had never thought of Mary Wesley as an author appealing to both sexes before, but clearly she was and is. I'll write about the other book tomorrow.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Using Chelsea Flower Show as book background

Also in today's blog
Children's Laureate has 15,000 books in her private library

It's 21 years since my only visit to the Chelsea Flower Show which last week I watched on TV.

The reason I went to Chelsea in 1986 was to set a scene in a novel at the show.

Although, today, many writers seem to be satisfied with second-hand information for their backgrounds, I have always felt that it's essential to visit places and experience events at first hand.

One of the principal characters in my first mainstream novel All My Worldly Goods [Century 1987, Arrow 1988] is a 50-year-old widow, Penelope Carlyon, who in that book spent her days trying to keep in order gardens which, like the house they surrounded, had once been run by a large staff.

So it was not as myself but in the fictional shoes of the Countess of Carlyon that I toured the 1986 Show and later wrote –

"When the marquee filled to the point at which Pen began to feel stirrings of claustrophobia, she slipped out by the nearest exist, which was close to the stand of Chatsworth Carpenters.

The shirt-sleeved, green-aproned figure of the Marquess of Hartington, only son of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, caught her eye. As she passed he was wrapping a black tray for a small white-haired woman with a plastic rain bonnet protecting her perm.

There was no sign of Deborah Devonshire whom Pen knew slightly, not well. Perhaps she would be there later. Chatsworth Carpenters had grown out of the Duchess's involvement in enlarging an inn on her husband's Yorkshire estate. Much of the furniture needed for the additional bedrooms had been made in the building yard at Chatsworth. From that initial project had grown the garden furniture business, all the seats, tubs and trellis pillars being solidly made and based on classical designs.

As she walked on Pen wondered if a more enterprising woman than herself could have instigated something similar at Longwarden, in the days before the maintenance staff had dwindled to one desperately overworked handyman."

If I hadn't been to the show, I should not have seen the present Duke of Devonshire, then in his early forties, serving a customer.

It seemed reasonable to suppose that Pen Carlyon would have met his mother, well-known to all Nancy Mitford fans as one of the author's five younger sisters.

Life-long hobby and obsession

I haven't read any of her books, but I've always admired Jacqueline Wilson's style : the boyish silver hair, the rings. There was an interesting First Person Singular column by her in the Review supplement of Saturday's Daily Telegraph.

It begins -
"I've always loved books: that's why I collect them…As I grew older, I discovered second-hand bookshops. My Dad took me for long hikes in the hills around Guildford, and if I was good he let me browse in a second-hand bookshop before we went home.
It was a long, dusty shop, with rickety steps and odd little rooms. A round room in the middle was crammed to the ceiling with children's books. I saved up my pocket money for months so I could buy some E Nesbits or Noel Streatfeilds."

Wilson says her library is now up to 15,000 volumes.