Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Man Booker Longlist

The longlist for this year’s Mann Booker prize was announced this week. The list of thirteen books is somewhat shorter than in recent years, and includes five first novels and (unusually) a thriller. I was very pleased to see three of my recent “Books of the Week” on the list – The White Tiger (Araving Adiga), The Secret Scripture (Sebastian Barry) and Netherland (Joseph O’Neill). I have also read (and bought) Sea of Poppies, The Northern Clemency and Child 44 this year, so all in all I have done quite well in identifying the candidates.

The book that surprised me most on the list was Child 44, which I think is a very well written and enjoyable thriller, but an unusual Booker choice. It was readily available signed at publication price when released, but quickly went into reprints and is now quite difficult to obtain. In previous years, prices of Booker novels tend to rise significantly at the short listing stage, only to fall back again in the few months after the winner in announced. Now is a reasonable time to buy if you are confident you can spot the books which will be shortlisted.

The longlist in full

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Atlantic)
Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold (Tindal Street Press)
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (Faber and Faber)
From A to X by John Berger (Verso)
The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser (Chatto & Windus)
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray)
The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant (Virago)
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate)
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (Fourth Estate)
The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Simon & Schuster)
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (Hamish Hamilton)

Monday, 28 July 2008

Ten things you didn't know about Haruki Murakami

This is taken from The Times - but I thought it was worth reprinting.

Haruki Murakami is quite possibly the most successful and influential cult author in the world today. The 59-year-old sells millions of books in Japan. His fifth novel, Norwegian Wood, sold more than 3.5m copies in its first year and his work has been translated into 40 languages, in which he sells almost as well. Last year’s novella, After Dark, shifted more than 100,000 copies in English in its first three months. His books are like Japanese food — a mix of the delicate, the deliberately bland and the curiously exotic. Dreams, memory and reality swap places, all leavened with dry humour. His translator, Professor Jay Rubin, says reading Murakami changes your brain. His world-view has inspired Sofia Coppola, the author David Mitchell and American bands such as the Flaming Lips. He is a recipient of the Franz Kafka prize, has honorary degrees from Princeton and Li√®ge, and is tipped for the Nobel prize for literature.

In June 2000, the panel members of German television’s literary review show Das Literarische Quartett disagreed so violently about his writing that one of them quit after 12 years on the programme. Opinion is equally divided in Japan. While younger readers adore him and even choose to study at his alma mater, Waseda University, in the hope of living in the dorm he describes in Norwegian Wood, he is viewed as pop, trashy and overly westernised by Japan’s literary establishment, who prefer the formal writing of Mishima, Tanizaki or Kawabata. Born in Kyoto in 1949, he studied theatre arts at Waseda — although the course didn’t interest him hugely and he spent much of his time reading film scripts in the library. He was hugely influenced by the student rebellions in 1968, which find their way into many of his novels. As a result, he’s a typical baby boomer — openly critical of Japan’s obsession with capitalism. He finds Japanese traditions boring. This doesn’t go down very well.

As well as countless Japanese novelists, the plot and style of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation were partly inspired by Murakami’s novels. David Mitchell — twice nominated for the Booker prize — owes a huge debt to him after reading him while teaching in Japan. Indeed, the title of his second novel, Number 9 Dream, is a veiled tribute to Norwegian Wood — both were named after Beatles songs. Among others, the Complicite theatre company adapted The Elephant Vanishes in 2003; Robert Wyatt reads from Murakami’s books on Max Richter’s 2006 album Songs from Before; and the Grateful Dead-style jam band Sound Tribe Sector 9 soundtracked a 2007 film version of the story All God’s Children Can Dance.

Imagine that JD Salinger and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had collaborated on a manga version of The Maltese Falcon. Norwegian Wood is the Japanese equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye — required reading for every troubled adolescent. Curiously, Murakami translated The Catcher in the Rye into Japanese and found it good but incomplete. “The story becomes darker and darker, and Holden Caulfield doesn’t find his way out of the dark world,” he argues. “I think Salinger himself didn’t find it either.” Murakami balances the mundane — intimate descriptions of preparing and eating simple meals feature regularly — with the fantastic. His protagonists are usually ordinary people trying to get by in life, until some type of ethereal male guide steers them into a new direction, sometimes quite literally. In All God’s Children Can Dance, Yoshiya, a young man working at a publishing company, wakes up with a crushing hangover and heads to his office hours later than usual. On the train coming home that night, he sees an older man who has the distinguishing features of his absent father. Yoshiya follows this man on the train, then through darkened, empty streets, to find himself in a deserted baseball diamond at night. The man vanishes, and Yoshiya stands on the pitcher’s mound in the cold wind and simply dances.

Both his parents taught Japanese literature, but he preferred reading second-hand pulp-fiction novels picked up in the port city of Kobe. He is a devoted fan of western music and hates the formalism of Mishima. In 1987, the huge success of Norwegian Wood made him an overnight celebrity, which terrified and annoyed him. In December 1988, he left the country, becoming a writing fellow at Princeton. A Japanese weekly magazine reported his departure under the headline “Haruki Murakami has escaped from Japan”. Published in 1994, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle picked apart the cultural groupthink that led Japan into the second world war, a theme he revisited in his first nonfiction book, Underground (published in 1997), about the Tokyo subway attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. He worries about Japan’s tendency to forget wartime atrocities. Even so, he says: “Before, I wanted to be an expatriate writer. But I am a Japanese writer. This is my soil and these are my roots. You cannot get away from your country.”

He owned it from the end of his university years until 1981, when he was able to support himself with his writing. The experience may have contributed to the negative role of drinking in his books. He uses alcohol as a signifier of the petty, the negative and the evil. That is not to say he is teetotal. He loves beer, rewarding himself with a cold one for feats of writing or sporting endurance. Perhaps it was the crushed, social blend of booze and crowds that made Murakami uneasy. He once said: “When I had the club, I stood behind the bar, and it was my job to engage in conversation. I did that for seven years, but I’m not a talkative person. I swore to myself, once I’ve finished here, I will only ever talk to those people I really want to talk to.” As a result, he refuses to appear on radio or television.

On April 1, 1978, he was watching a baseball game at the Jingu Stadium, in Tokyo, on a warm, sunny day — the Yakult Swallows against the Hiroshima Carp. An American player for the Swallows, Dave Hilton, stepped up to bat and hit a home run. In that instant, Murakami knew he was going to write a novel. “It was a warm sensation. I can still feel it in my heart,” he told Der Spiegel earlier this year. He started work that night on his debut novel, Hear the Wind Sing. It has many Murakami themes: there are animals; the hero is a young man, rather isolated, laconic, operating on cruise control and jobless; his eventual girlfriend has a twin (Murakami likes doppelg√§ngers); cooking, eating, drinking and listening to western music are described often and in detail; and the plot is both incredibly simple and bafflingly complex. Writing while running a jazz bar proved difficult, however, and it is a fragmented, jumpy read. The unpublished manuscript won first prize in a competition run by the influential Japanese literary magazine Gunzo, but Murakami himself doesn’t like it very much and didn’t want it translated into English.

His jazz bar was called Peter Cat, and cats appear in many of his stories — usually indicating that something very strange is about to happen. It’s a missing cat that starts off the whole surreal chain of events in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, while Kafka on the Shore features a confused and possibly brain-damaged pensioner called Nakata, who, after a mysterious incident involving a strange silver light at the end of the second world war, fell into a coma and woke to find that he had telepathic communication with cats. This, it turns out, is fortunate, as a conversation with an unusually bright member of the species, who is on the run from a strange cat-catcher called Johnnie Walker, ultimately leads to Nakata preventing the living embodiment of pure evil from destroying the planet.
As I said, something very strange.

Many of his book titles are musical references: Norwegian Wood after the Beatles song, South of the Border, West of the Sun after a Nat King Cole track and Dance, Dance, Dance after the Beach Boys tune. The three books in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle are named after a Rossini overture, a piano piece by Schumann and a character in Mozart’s Magic Flute respectively. In Kafka on the Shore, the hero’s contact with the spirit of a dead woman who has obsessed him throughout the novel finally comes about when he discovers a cache of vinyl records in a desolate library on the outskirts of a regional city and plays Beethoven’s Archduke Trio. In Pinball, 1973, revolutionary students occupying a university building find a classical-music library and spend every evening listening to records. One beautifully clear November afternoon, riot police force their way into the building while Vivaldi’s L’Estro armonico blares at full volume. One interviewer visited Murakami’s flat and found a room lined with more than 7,000 vinyl records.

His latest book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is the closest thing he’s written to an autobiography (although some fans suspect Norwegian Wood has more than a little of his own life at its core).
In this extended monologue, Murakami reminisces about his life as seen through the prism of the sport.
He began running at the age of 33 to lose weight after giving up smoking. Within a year, he had run his first marathon. He’s also run the original marathon, between Marathon and Athens — albeit in reverse, because he didn’t want to arrive in Athens during the rush hour.
His personal best time for a marathon is 3hr 27min, in New York in 1991. In 1995, he ran in a 100km ultramarathon. It took him more than 11 hours and he nearly collapsed halfway through. He describes his second wind as a religious experience, but decided that he wouldn’t run another one. He believes that “a fortunate author can write maybe 12 novels in his lifetime. I don’t know how many good books I still have in me. I hope there are another four or five. When I am running, I don’t feel that limit. I publish a thick novel every four years, but I run a 10km race, a half-marathon and a marathon every year”. He gets up at 4am, writes for four hours, then runs 10km. On his tombstone, he would like the phrase “at least he never walked”.

His protagonists are usually transformed by exquisitely tender physical unions with unusual, beautiful and often confused or mysterious women. He describes love with delicate wonder, and his hero is driven by passionate need once the woman of his life is revealed. “I have to talk to you,” Norwegian Wood’s Toru Watanabe tells the emotionally troubled Naoko. “I have a million things to talk to you about. All I want in this world is you. I want to see you and talk. I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning.”
Yet it usually doesn’t work out. Murakami’s women are often spirits or extremely fragile. They write the hero long, rambling letters from afar and either attempt suicide or manage to kill themselves during the course of the novel. In one case, the love interest turns out to be the ghost of the hero’s mother, captured when she was a teenage girl. Murakami himself has been married since 1971 to Yoko, although he has speculated in interviews about whether this was the right thing to do. “Unlike my wife, I don’t like company. I have been married for 37 years and often it is a battle,” he told Der Spiegel. ”I am used to being alone. And I enjoy being alone.”

Book of the week and Bibliography - Harry Sidebottom, Warrior of Rome - Fire in the East

I have a fondness for novels set in Roman times, and this week's book of the week is another first novel (though not a first book) which has attracted good reviews and which will be the first in a series. For more details about Harry Sidebottom, please refer to his website. In this case the novel, is set late in the Roman Empire, a period which has featured relativfely little in fiction. The author is an historian, and the historical accuracy of the detail of the novel has been praised by many reviewers. It has been highlighted by many of the UK modern firsts dealers and is definitely recommended.

AD 255 - the Roman Imperium is stretched to breaking point, its authority and might challenged throughout the territories and along every border. Yet the most lethal threat lurks far to the east in Persia, where the massing forces of the Sassanid Empire loom with fiery menace. AD 255 - the Roman Imperium is stretched to breaking point, its authority and might challenged throughout the territories and along every border. Yet the most lethal threat lurks far to the east in Persia, where the massing forces of the Sassanid Empire loom with fiery menace. The far-flung and isolated citadel of Arete faces out across the wasteland, awaiting the inevitable invasion. One man is sent to marshall the defences of this lonely city - one man to shore up the crumbling walls of a once indomitable symbol of Roman power - a man whose name itself means war, a man called Ballista. Alone, Ballista is called to muster the forces and the courage to stand first and to stand hard against the greatest enemy ever to confront the Imperium.


Ancient Warfare : A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Warrior or Rome Series
Fire in the East (Michael Joseph, 2008)
King of Kings (Michael Joseph, 2009)
Lion of the Sun (Michael Joseph, scheduled July 2010)

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Various updates

The copy of the Mount edition of Shadowmancer sold on Ebay for £103, close to my predicted value and far off its peak. I expect prices to fall further.

The Best of the Bookers (as voted by the general public and predicted here) was Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. You can currently pick up an unsigned copy in dustwrapper on ABEbooks for £400, which seems good value.

Staying on the topic of the Booker Prize, The Oak Tree Press have issued the sixth volume in their First Chapter Series - The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, with illustrations by Yoko Ono. It is a very attractive production in a good cause, and highly recommended. They have a number of other interesting volumes currently available, and the site is well worth a look.

Seth Hunter is indeed a pseudonym, for "the author of a number of highly acclaimed and prize-winning adult and children's novels. He has written and directed many historical dramas for television, radio and the theatre and adapted and directed films by playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Michael Bulgarov". The writing style reminds me of Jonathan Lunn, author of the Killigrew novels - if anyone has any definite information please let me know!

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Book of the week - Ben Kane, The Forgotten Legion

The Forgotton Legion is the first novel by Ben Kane. I brought it with me on holiday, and having just finished it I can recommend it as an engrossing and fast paced holiday read. It is the first in a proposed trilogy, and there seems a good chance that the sequence will become collectible. Ben Kane was born in Kenya and raised there and in Ireland. He studied veterinary medicine at University College Dublin but after that he travelled the world extensively, indulging his passion for ancient history. Now he lives in North Somerset, where he researches, writes and practises as a small animal vet.

Romulus and Fabiola are twins, born into slavery after their mother is raped by a drunken nobleman on his way home from a good night out. At 13 years old, they and their mother are sold: Romulus to gladiator school, Fabiola into prostitution, where she will catch the eye of one of the most powerful men in Rome, and their mother into obscurity and death in the salt mines.
Tarquinius is an Etruscan, a warrior and soothsayer, born enemy of Rome, but doomed to fight for the Republic in the Forgotten Legion.
Brennus is a Gaul; the Romans killed his entire family. He rises to become one of the most famous and feared gladiators of his day - and mentor to the boy slave, Romulus, who dreams night and day of escape and of revenge.
The lives of these four characters are bound and interwoven in a marvellous story which begins in a Rome riven by corruption, violence and political enmities, but ends far away, where Romulus, Brennus and Tarquinius find themselves fighting against the Parthians and overwhelming odds.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Book of the week - Anuradha Roy, An Atlas of Impossible Longing

Anuradha Roy is the Publisher of Permanent Black, an imprint in Delhi. She was shortlisted for the British Council International Young Publisher of the Year award in 2006. This is her first novel and reviews have been very positive. This is the sort of book which often features in the Booker Prize list - it has been added to my summer reading list! The story is of three generations of an Indian family, in which a sensitive and intelligent orphan boy who is casteless and without religion and Bakul, the motherless granddaughter of the house, grow up together. The boy, Mukunda, spends his time as a servant in the house or reading the books of Mrs Barnum, an Anglo-Englishwoman whose life was saved long ago by Bakul's grandmother. Mrs Barnum gives Mukunda the run of her house, but as he and Bakul grow, they become aware that their intense closeness is becoming something else, and Bakul's father is warned to separate them. He banishes Mukunda to a school in Calcutta, where in the years after Partition he prospers, and whence in time he will return to rediscover all that he has lost.The novel begins in 1907 with the founding of a factory in Songarh, a small provincial town where narrow attitudes prevail. Amulya and Kananbala have two sons and as their family grows, and the house and their garden too, a microcosm of a society develops.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

The Trajectory of Modern First Edition Prices

A couple of days ago, I noticed a first edition of Shadowmancer by GP Taylor (the privately published Mount edition) on Ebay, starting price of £9.99. Two days later it has reached £21.00, and I will be interested to see the final price. However, this reminded me that I had been meaning to write something about prices of hypermodern first edition fiction. Shadowmancer is a classic example of a book which was initially very cheap, but subsequently achieved very high prices on the secondary market in a short period of time (over £1000, which was extraordinary for a resently published paperback). Since then, prices have plummeted, and now you should not have to pay more than £100 or so if you want a copy. I do not mean to cast any aspersions on the quality of this book (which I haven’t read), but I will be very surprised if it retains any substantial value over the years to come, and it seems to me more likely that prices will continue to fall.

This phenomenon has become very much a trend with modern first edition, and it is easy to name other examples, perhaps less marked, where an initial short-lived surge in prices has not been maintained. This is the case even for well regarded books which will probably be read for many years to come - Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The English Patient fall into this category.

Of course, the first rule of collecting is only to buy what you like. If your judgement is good, at least some of your purchases will show a sustained long term rise in value. However, from a financial perspective, the key is to buy books as prices start to rise and to aim to sell at the peak. To do this successfully requires paying careful attention to the market, and even then it is easy to make mistakes. But overall, you will win more often than you lose if you aim to follow this strategy.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Book of the week - Seth Hunter, Time of Terror

Time of Terror is apparently the first novel in a trilogy by Seth Hunter, coming from Headline. It features Nathan Peake, British naval officer and spy during the war with Revolutionary France. It is 1793, and Peake, Commander of the brig-sloop Nereus based at Rye in East Sussex, is unhappy with his commission and is desperate for some real action. When revolutionary France declares war on England, he gets his chance. The French have killed their king and are about to embark on that violent period of bloodletting known as the Terror. Peake is entrusted with a vital mission to wreck the French economy by smuggling millions of French banknotes across the Channel and into the heart of Paris. But opposition to the Terror mounts and Peake is soon forced to leave Paris and find the storm-tossed British squadrons in the Atlantic.

The novel is being pushed as potentially collectible by most of the UK modern firsts dealers, and indeed Headline first printings in hardback are often relatively small. I can’t find anything out about Seth Hunter, which makes my wonder whether this might be a pseudonym – time will tell. Goldsboro books have a 100 copy stamped and numbered limited edition (signed and lined) at £25, or a simple signed copy should be available at around half that price. No reviews as yet that I can find, and how well it is written will be crucial!