Sunday, 28 February 2010

Book of the Week - Rose Tremain, Trespass

Trespass is the first novel from Rose Tremain since she won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2008 for The Road Home, the story of an Eastern European immigrant to the UK. Tremain was born Rosemary Jane Thomson on August 2, 1943 in London and attended Crofton Grange School from 1954 to 1961; the Sorbonne from 1961-1962; and graduated from the University of East Anglia in 1965 where she then taught creative writing from 1988 to 1995. She married Jon Tremain in 1971 and they had one daughter, Eleanor, born in 1972, who became an actress. The marriage lasted about five years. Her second marriage, to theatre director Jonathan Dudley, in 1982, lasted about nine years. She lives in East Anglia. Her first novel, Sadler's Birthday, was published in 1976. Music and Silence won the best novel in the 1999 Whitbread Awards, building on the recognition she received in the award of the 1989 Sunday Express Book of the Year for her novel Restoration, and the 1992 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Sacred Country. Tremain also won the Prix Femina √Čtranger in 1994 for Sacred Country. Tremain is an historical novelist who approaches her subjects "from unexpected angles, concentrating her attention on unglamorous outsiders."[ She has judged the Booker prize twice, first in 1988 and again in 2000. Trespass is published as a hardback by Chatto & Windus.

“In a silent valley stands an isolated stone farmhouse, the Mas Lunel. Its owner is Aramon Lunel, an alcoholic so haunted by his violent past that he's become incapable of all meaningful action, letting his hunting dogs starve and his land go to ruin. Meanwhile, his sister, Audrun, alone in her modern bungalow within sight of the Mas Lunel, dreams of exacting retribution for the unspoken betrayals that have blighted her life. Into this closed Cevenol world comes Anthony Verey, a wealthy but disillusioned antiques dealer from London. Now in his sixties, Anthony hopes to remake his life in France, and he begins looking at properties in the region. From the moment he arrives at the Mas Lunel, a frightening and unstoppable series of consequences is set in motion. Two worlds and two cultures collide. Ancient boundaries are crossed, taboos are broken, a violent crime is committed. And all the time the Cevennes hills remain, as cruel and seductive as ever, unforgettably captured in this powerful and unsettling novel, which reveals yet another dimension to Rose Tremain's extraordinary imagination.”

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Book of the Week - Neel Mukherjee, A Life Apart

Neel Mukherjee was born in Calcutta and educated in Calcutta, Oxford, and Cambridge. He reviews fiction for the Times and TIME Magazine Asia and has written for the TLS, the Daily Telegraph, the Observer, the New York Times, the Boston Review, the Sunday Telegraph and Biblio. He is also a contributing editor to Boston Review. He divides his time between London and the USA. A Life Apart (Constable & Robinson, London, 2010) was originally published in India and the US as Past Continuous (Picador India, 2008), and was joint winner of the Vodafone-Crossword Award, India’s premier literary award for writing in English, for best novel of 2008 (along with Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies). Neel also won the GQ (India) Writer of the Year award in the magazine’s first Men of the Year awards in September 2009. Reviews have been very positive, and novels set in India have a strong tradition of performing well in the Booker Prize. Signed firsts are currently available from Foyles at £12.99, which seems very good value.

"A Life Apart tells two stories. The first is of Ritwik’s; a story of a young man’s escape from a blighted childhood of squalor and abuse in Calcutta to the edge of what he considers to be a new world, full of possibilities, in England, where he has a chance to start all over again. But his past, especially the scarred, all-consuming relationship with his mother, is a minefield: will Ritwik find the salvation he is looking for? Could it arrive in the form of the second story that comprises the novel, the one he is writing himself, the story of an Englishwoman in the old world of Bengal on the eve of India’s first partition? Or could it be in the figure of the eighty-six-year-old Anne Cameron, fragile and damaged, who gives shelter to Ritwik in London in exchange of the care that she needs? And then one night, in the badlands of King’s Cross, Ritwik meets the suave, unfathomable Zafar bin Hashm. As present and past of several lives collide, Ritwik’s own goes into free fall.
Set in India during the 1970s and ’80s, in England in the ’90s and in Raj Bengal in the 1900s, this award-winning first novel from one of India’s most acclaimed new writers is about dislocation and alienation, outsiders and losers, the tenuous and unconscious intersections of lives and histories, and the consolations of storytelling. Unsentimental yet full of compassion, and written with unrelenting honesty, this scalding debut marks a new turning point in writing from and of the Subcontinent."

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Book of the Week and bibliography - Jon McGregor, Even the Dogs

February has been a strong month for literary fiction, with a number of novels very likely to feature in prize lists later in the year. Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor should certainly be included in that category. McGregor has an excellent website, which provides a comprehensive background to the writing of this book, along with a lot of other interesting information. I have thoroughly enjoyed both of his previous novels, and it seems likely that he will make an important contribution for many years to come, so for a collector now would also be a good time to pick up his earlier novels. The subject matter of Even the Dogs may be grim, but it will probably turn out to be one of the books of the year. As a footnote, it is also the first bendyback to be published in the UK, a format is mid-way between hardcover and paperback, with a very thin board binding (0.42mm) and a cover design printed onto 150gsm linen. This firm but flexible style of binding is popular in Europe, and in Germany is called a “smartcover”.

Jon McGregor was born in Bermuda in 1976. He moved with his family to England and spent his childhood in Norwich and Thetford, Norfolk, later studying at Bradford University for a degree in Media Technology and Production. He started writing seriously during his final year at University, contributing a series entitled 'Cinema 100' to the anthology Five Uneasy Pieces (Pulp Faction). He has had short fiction published by Granta magazine, and a short story entitled 'While You Were Sleeping' broadcast on Radio 4. He left Bradford for Sheffield, then Nottingham, taking a series of shift-jobs to support his writing, and wrote his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, in Nottingham, while living on a narrowboat. This novel received much press attention, as he was the youngest contender and only first novelist on the longlist for the 2002 Man Booker Prize. The novel is set on an unnamed inner-city street on 'the last day of summer', and tells two parallel stories: one of the residents on the street on that day, ending in tragedy; one set a year later, telling of a former resident's attempts to unravel the facts of the tragedy. The Sunday Times named it a ' … triumphant prose-poem of ordinariness …', celebrating ' … the miraculousness of the everyday.' It went on to win the Betty Trask Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award and to be shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best First Book) and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. His second novel, So Many Ways To Begin, was published in 2006, and also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

“They break down the door at the end of December and carry his body away”
On a still and frozen day between Christmas and New Year, a man’s body is found lying in his ruined flat. Found, and then taken away, examined, investigated and cremated. As the state begins its detailed, dispassionate inquest, the man embarks on his last journey through a world he has not ventured into, alive, for years. In his wake, a series of fractured narratives emerge from squats and alleyways across the city: the short and stark story of the man, and of his friends who look on from the shadows, keeping vigil as the hours pass, paying their own particular homage. As they watch, their stories unfurl layer by layer; stories of lives falled through the cracks, hopes flaring and dying, love overwhelmed by a stronger need, and the havoc wrought by drugs, distress, and the disregard of the wider world.
Intense, exhilarating, and shot through with hope and fury, Even the Dogs is an intimate exploration of life at the edges of society; littered with love, loss, despair and a glimpse of redemption.”


Cinema 100 - in "4 uneasy pieces", Pulp Faction, 1998.
If nobody speakes of remarkable things - Bloomsbury, 2002.
So many ways to begin - Bloomsbury, 2006.
Even the Dogs - Bloomsbury, 2010

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Man Booker Prize bibliography - 1975

In 1975 only two novels were shortlisted, the smallest number of novels to feature in the prize list in any year.


Heat and Dust, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. John Murray, London, 1975. Easily available at £15-20.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, CBE (born May 7, 1927) is a Booker prize-winning novelist, short story writer, and two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter. She is perhaps best known for her long collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions, made up of director James Ivory and the late producer Ismail Merchant. Their films won six Academy Awards. Jhabvala was born in Cologne, Germany. Her father, a lawyer, was of Polish-Jewish origin and her mother was German-Jewish. Jhabvala attended Jewish segregated school before she emigrated in 1939 with her family to Britain. The family settled in Hendon, northwest London, where Jhabvala attended Hendon Country School. In her new home country she switched from German to English at the age of twelve. During the war years she read the works of Dickens; Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind she took with her during the bombings of London to an air raid shelter. Jhabvala's father committed suicide in 1948 after learning that the rest of his family had died in the Holocaust. In 1948 Jhabvala became a British citizen. She studied English literature at the University of London, receiving her MA in 1951 from Queen Mary College. In the same year she married a Parsee architect, C.S.H. Jhabvala, with whom she moved to India. For the next 24 years she lived in New Delhi. Increasingly disenchanted with India Jhabvala moved in 1975 to New York City, dividing in the following years her time between two countries. Later Jhabvala also became a US citizen.

Her first novel, To Whom She Will, appeared in 1955, and she has published almost twenty novels and volumes and short stories. She has also worked actively as a screenwriter, winning two Oscars. Her collaboration with Merchant and Ivory started in the 1960s, and she developed many of their screenplays, including A Room with a View.

“This novel tells the parallel stories of two young English women, living in India at different time periods. Anne visits the country in the 1970s, well after Indian independence in 1947, but long before India became the economic power it is today. Anne is there to learn more about her grandfather's first wife, Olivia, who lived there in the 1920s, during British colonial rule. Olivia ran off with the Nawab (a Muslim prince), bringing scandal down upon the family. The novel alternates between the two time periods and points of view. Anne deciphers Olivia's story from her letters, written primarily to her sister. She visits places Olivia used to live. Houses have become places of business; only the British cemeteries are left standing as a memorial to earlier times.”

Gossip from the Forest, Thomas Keneally, John Collins, London, 1975. Readily available at £10 – 20.

Thomas Keneally was born in Sydney, in October, 1935, and educated at St Patrick's College, Strathfield, where a writing prize was named after him. He entered St Patrick's Seminary, Manly to train as a Catholic priest but left before his ordination. He worked as a Sydney schoolteacher before his success as a novelist, and he was a lecturer at the University of New England (1968-70). He has also written screenplays, memoirs and non-fiction books. Keneally was known as "Mick" until 1964 but began using the name Thomas when he started publishing, after advice from his publisher to use what was really his first name. He is most famous for his Schindler's Ark (1982) (later republished as Schindler's List), which won the Booker Prize and is the basis of the film Schindler's List. Many of his novels are reworkings of historical material, although modern in their psychology and style. Keneally has also acted in a handful of films. He had a small role in the film of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and played Father Marshall in the Fred Schepisi movie, The Devil's Playground (1976). He is a strong advocate of the Australian republic, meaning the severing of all ties with the British monarchy, and published a book on the subject Our Republic in 1993. Several of his Republican essays appear on the web site of the Australian Republican Movement. Keneally is a keen supporter of rugby league football, in particular the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles club of the NRL.

“The unimaginable slaughter that has become the First World War has continued unabated since August 1914, and now, in the late fall of 1918, on an obscure railway siding at Compi√®gne, France, a group of intractable old men gather to negotiate an armistice. With Allied victory a certainty, monumental old Marshall Foch, flanked by Maxime Weygand and British Admiral Wemyss, seeks to crush the enemy at the negotiating table. With the Kaiser in seclusion, idealist Matthias Erzberger has been dispatched to pick what shards of mercy he can from the wreckage of the old order. As the Allied leaders press for total submission, Erzberger, haunted by the prospect of famine and revolution in the gathering German winter, angles for better terms. And so they talk on and on, as the guns roar and men continue to die. With the acute historical sensibility that is the hallmark of his work, Thomas Keneally has re-created the forging of the armistice in an illuminating and intimate portrayal of personal prejudice and political obstinacy."

Monday, 8 February 2010

February 8th

Happy birthday to all 8th February people! A day shared by, among others, Robert Burton (born 1577), Jules Verne (born 1828) and Mary Queen of Scots (executed 1587).

Burton is best known as the author of “The Anatomy of Melancholy”, published in 1621, and probably the last book written in English which successfully summarised all learning up to that date. The narrator of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time (Nick Jenkins) wrote a book about Burton, and Powell uses a typically torrential passage from The Anatomy of Melancholy at the conclusion of the twelve novel sequence. In his Life of Johnston, Boswell wrote: "Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” However, probably not a book to be read nowadays, more a book to be dipped into, where you will always find phrases and ideas of interest.

"Like dogs in a wheel, birds in a cage, or squirrels in a chain, ambitious men still climb and climb, with great labour, and incessant anxiety, but never reach the top."

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Book of the Week - Andrea Levy, The Long Song

The Long Song is Andrea Levy’s first novel since Small Island, which won the Orange Prize and was voted “The Best of the Best” of the Orange Prize winners in 2005. The Long Song, which has just been released in both softcover and hardback (illustrated boards) has been very strongly reviewed and will certainly do well in this year’s prize lists. Signed copies have not appeared as yet, but should begin to appear later this month, and would be well worth picking up.

Levy was born in 1956 in London to Jamaican parents, growing up black in what was still a very white England. This experience has given her a complex perspective on the country of her birth. She did not begin writing until she was in her mid-thirties. At that time there was little written about the black British experience in Britian. After attending writing workshops Levy began to write the novels that she, as a young woman, had always wanted to read – entertaining novels that reflect the experiences of black Britons, that look closely and perceptively at Britain and its changing population and at the intimacies that bind British history with that of the Caribbean. In her first three novels she explored - from different perspectives - the problems faced by black British-born children of Jamaican emigrants. In her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Every Light in the House Burnin' (1994), the story is of a Jamaican family living in London in the 1960s. Never Far from Nowhere (1996), her second, is set during the 1970s and tells the story of two very different sisters living on a London council estate. In Fruit of the Lemon (1999), Faith Jackson, a young black woman, visits Jamaica after suffering a nervous breakdown and discovers a previously unknown personal history. Small Island was her fourth novel, and examines the experiences of those of her father's generation who returned to Britain after being in the RAF during the Second World War. But more than just the story of the Jamaicans who came looking for a new life in the Mother Country, she explores the adjustments and problems faced by the English people whom those Jamaicans came to live amongst. Immigration changes everyone's lives and in Small Island Levy examines not only the conflicts of two cultures thrown together after a terrible war, but also the kindness and strength people can show to each other. The Second World War was a great catalyst that has led to the multi-cultural society Britain has become. For Andrea Levy acknowledging the role played by all sides in this change is an important part of understanding the process so we can go on to create a better future together.

“You do not know me yet. My son Thomas, who is publishing this book, tells me it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages. As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed. July is a slave girl who lives upon a sugar plantation named Amity and it is her life that is the subject of this tale. She was there when the Baptist War raged in 1831, and she was also present when slavery was declared no more. My son says I must convey how the story tells also of July's mama Kitty, of the negroes that worked the plantation land, of Caroline Mortimer the white woman who owned the plantation and many more persons besides - far too many for me to list here. But what befalls them all is carefully chronicled upon these pages for you to peruse. Perhaps, my son suggests, I might write that it is a thrilling journey through that time in the company of people who lived it. All this he wishes me to pen so the reader can decide if this is a book they might care to consider. Cha, I tell my son, what fuss-fuss. Come, let them just read it for themselves.”

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Man Booker Prize - the missing year

In 1971, just two years after it began, the Booker Prize ceased to be awarded retrospectively and became, as it is today, a prize for the best novel in the year of publication. At the same time, the date on which the award was given moved from April to November. As a result of these changes, there was a whole year's gap when fiction published in1970 fell through the net. These books were simply never considered for the prize.

Now, 40 years on, a panel of three judges - all of whom were born in or around 1970 - has been appointed to select a shortlist of six novels from those books. They are journalist and critic, Rachel Cooke, ITN newsreader, Katie Derham and poet and novelist, Tobias Hill. Their shortlist will be chosen from a longlist of 22 books which would have been eligible and are still in print and generally available today. They are:

o Brian Aldiss, The Hand Reared Boy
o H.E.Bates, A Little Of What You Fancy?
o Nina Bawden, The Birds On The Trees
o Melvyn Bragg, A Place In England
o Christy Brown, Down All The Days
o Len Deighton, Bomber
o J.G.Farrell, Troubles
o Elaine Feinstein, The Circle
o Shirley Hazzard, The Bay Of Noon
o Reginald Hill, A Clubbable Woman
o Susan Hill, I'm The King Of The Castle
o Francis King, A Domestic Animal
o Margaret Laurence, The Fire Dwellers
o David Lodge, Out Of The Shelter
o Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat
o Shiva Naipaul, Fireflies
o Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander
o Joe Orton, Head To Toe
o Mary Renault, Fire From Heaven
o Ruth Rendell, A Guilty Thing Surprised
o Muriel Spark, The Driver's Seat
o Patrick White, The Vivisector

The list includes many distinguished writers whose books have stood the test of time including J.G. Farrell, whose The Siege of Krishnapur won the prize in 1973; Iris Murdoch, whose The Sea, The Sea won in 1978 and whose novels were shortlisted in four other years; David Lodge, who was shortlisted in 1984 and 1988 and chaired the prize in 1989; Muriel Spark, who was shortlisted in 1969 for her novel The Public Image and in 1981 for Loitering with Intent; Nina Bawden whose Circles of Deceit was shortlisted in 1987 and Susan Hill, whose The Bird of Night was shortlisted in 1972 and who judged the 1975 prize.

The shortlist will be announced in March but, as with the Best of the Booker in 2008, the international reading public will decide the winner by voting via the Man Booker Prize website. The overall winner will be announced in May.

This is an interesting initiative, which closes a gap that many will have been aware of. However, it is very unlikely that the winner chosen today by this process would have been successful if the prize had been judged in 1970, as tastes and trends in literary fiction have changed significantly. It will also create quite a problem for collectors, since a number of these books are likely to be very expensive or difficult to obtain in first edition.

This is the third time that a celebratory award has been created for the prize. The first was the Booker of Bookers in 1993 - the 25th anniversary, and then in 2008 with the Best of the Booker to mark the 40th anniversary. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children won both awards.