Sunday, 11 December 2011

Book of the Week - Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory

Michel Houellebecq is a controversial writer, but one who is unlikely to be forgotten and who is capable of greatness. He was born on the French island of Reunion, but lived in Ireland for many years and is currently based in Spain. The Map and the Territory is his fifth novel, although he has published a number of volumes of poetry and non-fiction in addition. It was published in France in 2010 and was well received, winning the Prix Goncourt.

In typical Houellebecq fashion, it was not without controversy, in this case because he used a number of passages taken directly from the French version of Wikipedia without acknowledging these. In tribute, therefore, let me quote directly the Wikipedia plot summary: “The novel tells the story of the life and art of Jed Martin, a fictional French artist who becomes famous by photographing Michelin maps and painting scenes about professional activities. His father is slowly entering old age. Jed falls for a beautiful Russian executive from Michelin but is unable to hang onto this relationship. He becomes extraordinarily successful and therefore suddenly rich. He meets Michel Houellebecq in Ireland in order to ask him to write the text for the catalog of one of his exhibits, and offers to paint the writer's portrait. A few months later Houellebecq is brutally murdered.”

The Map and the Territory was published in the UK simultaneously in hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions. The first of the three is the one to go for – I have yet to see signed editions. I strongly suspect I would not like Houellebecq as a person, but he is an important French writer and his views are significant so I am sure that this is worth reading.

“Part thriller, part satire, Houellebecq's prize winning new novel will be a publishing sensation. If Jed Martin, the main character of this novel, was to tell you its story, he would perhaps begin by talking about a boiler breaking down, one 15th December. He would certainly recall Olga, a very pretty Russian he met at the start of his career. At the end of his life he will find a certain serenity, and utter only murmurs. Art, money, love, death, work, and France are some of the themes of this novel, which is resolutely classical and openly modern.”

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Book of the Week - Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

New book releases slow down at this time of year, so I want to highlight a first novel which I picked up a few months ago and which remains available signed for around cost. Kevin Barry is an Irish writer from Limerick. In 2007 he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for his short story collection There are Little Kingdoms. City of Bohane was his first novel, released in paperback only, a futuristic story set on the west coast of Ireland. It received very good reviews and has been shortlisted for the Costa first novel award. A very good read, once you adapt to the extensive use of slang and dialect, and a good buy.

The once-great city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland is on its knees, infested by vice and split along tribal lines. There are the posh parts of town, but it is in the slums and backstreets of Smoketown, the tower blocks of the Northside Rises and on the eerie bogs of Big Nothin’ that Bohane really lives. For years, the city has been in the cool grip of Logan Hartnett, the dapper godfather of the Hartnett Fancy gang. But there’s trouble in the air. They say his old nemesis is back in town; his trusted henchman is getting ambitious; and his missus wants him to give it all up and go straight - and then there's his mother. City of Bohane is a unique and visionary novel that blends influence from film and the graphic novel, from Trojan beats and calypso rhythms, from Celtic myth and legend, from fado and the sagas, and from all the great inheritance of Irish literature. A work of mesmerising imagination and vaulting linguistic invention, it is a taste of the startlingly new.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Books of the Year, Part 1 - Amazon UK

I am always interested in the lists of books of the year which begin to appear around now, although it seems that "around now" becomes a little earlier each year.  Almost inevitably the lists are in categories, and of course it is the fiction section where I look first.  One of the first to appear in my inbox this year has been the Amazon UK list, which seems to be based on the editors' selections (although I am sure informed by sales).  If nothing else these lists provide a few pointers for Christmas presents, and perhaps in some cases future collectibility.  The Amazon top ten is provided below, along with links to my previous recommendations where relevant.  I have picked five of their top ten previously, and also have copies of a couple of the others - I am not sure whether to be pleased or depressed by this.......

1. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
Jennifer Egan's novel circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Egan weaves the details of their past and secret lives together in what is something between a novel and a collection of short stories.

2. Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton
After a devastating fire tears her family apart, Grace is determined to find the person responsible and protect her children from further harm. Each page in this emotionally-packed book radiates with the strength and depth of Grace's love for her family.


3. When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
Spanning four decades and moving between suburban Essex, the wild coast of Cornwall and the streets of New York, this is a story about childhood, eccentricity, the darker side of love, the pull and power of family ties, loss and life.

4. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. Laced with trademark precision, dexterity and insight, it is the work of one of the world's most distinguished writers. Winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2011.


5. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: devotion, passion, and love. But for Victoria Jones, after a childhood spent in the foster care system, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. Unable to get close to anybody her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.


6. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides creates a contemporary and fresh story.


7. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
In a jazz bar on the last night of 1937 there were certain things Katey Kontent knew: the location of every old church in Manhattan; how to sneak into the cinema; how to type eighty words a minute, five thousand an hour, and nine million a year; and that if you can still lose yourself in a Dickens novel then everything is going to be fine.


8. Wall of Days by Alastair Bruce
In a world all but drowned, a man called Bran has been living on an island for ten years. He was sent there in exile by those whose leader he was, and he tallies on the wall of his cave the days as they pass. Until the day when something happens that persuades him to return, even if it means execution. An Amazon Rising Stars finalist in 2011.

9. On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry
Narrated by Lilly Bere, On Canaan's Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. The story then goes back to the moment she was forced to flee Dublin, at the end of the First World War, and follows her life through into the new world of America, a world filled with both hope and danger.

10. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
The year is 1984. Aomame is in a hurry to carry out an assignment and, with the traffic at a stand-still, the driver proposes a solution. Meanwhile, Tengo is leading a nondescript life but wishes to become a writer. While their stories influence one another, at times by accident and at times intentionally, the two come closer and closer to intertwining.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Book of the Week - Emma Donoghue, The Sealed Letter

Emma Donoghue is a well established Irish writer currently living in Canada, and best known here for her Booker prize shortlisted novel Room. The Sealed Letter was originally published in Canada in 2008 where it was joint winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, longlisted for the Giller Prize and was a NOW Magazine Top Ten Book of the Year. However, I don't think it was published at that time in the UK. It has now been released as a hardcover by Picador and is receiving excellent reviews. Room may well turn out to have been Donoghue’s breakthrough book and it is certainly interesting to see her previous novel appear now with a strong publicity campaign. It has been added to my reading list I will be picking up a signed copy I can get one at cost.

"After a separation of many years, Emily 'Fido' Faithfull bumps into her old friend Helen Codrington on the streets of Victorian London. Much has changed: Helen is more and more unhappy in her marriage to the older Vice-Admiral Codrington, while Fido has become a successful woman of business and a pioneer in the British Women's Movement. But, for all her independence of mind, Fido is too trusting of her once-dear companion and finds herself drawn into aiding Helen's obsessive affair with a young army officer. 

When the Vice-Admiral seizes the children and sues for divorce, the women's friendship unravels amid accusations of adultery and counter-accusations of cruelty and attempted rape, as well as a mysterious 'sealed letter' that could destroy more than one life . . .

Based on blow-by-blow newspaper reports of the 1864 Codrington Divorce, The Sealed Letter, full of sparkling characters and wicked dialogue, is a thought-provoking mystery and gripping drama of friends, lovers and marriage."

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Costa Book Awards 2011

The shortlists for the various Costa Book Awards have just been announced, and several of my previous recommendations feature.  Four books have been shortlisted in each of the categories.  In the Novel category, both The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) and Pure (Andrew Miller)  have been shortlisted, along with A Summer of Drowning (John Burnisde) and My Dear I Wanted to Tell You (Louisa Young).  In the first novel category I am particularly pleased to see City of Bohane by Irish writer Kevin Barry, which I hope will do well.  Category winners are announced on Wednesday 4th January 2012 and the Costa Book of the Year awards presentation ceremony is on Tuesday 24th January 2012.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Alice Oswald, Memorial

Among my other reading, I try each year to cover some new poetry. Memorial is a sixth volume from Alice Oswald, born in 1966 and a previous winner of the TS Eliot prize in 2002.

Oswald read Classics at Oxford and has worked as a gardener at Chelsea Physic Garden. She now lives with her husband and three children in Devon. Her first collection of poetry, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (1996), won a Forward Poetry Prize (Best First Collection) in 1996, and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize in 1997. Her second collection, Dart (2002), combined verse and prose, which tells the story of the River Dart in Devon from a variety of perspectives, and won the TS Eliot Prize in 2002. In 2004, Oswald was named as one of the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation poets. Her collection Woods etc., published in 2005, was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year). In 2009 she published both A Sleepwalk on the Severn and Weeds and Wildflowers, which won the inaugural Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize.


Memorial is based on the Iliad, and commemorates the minor war dead recorded in Homer’s great work – “All vigourous men/All vanished”.. An unusual subject, perhaps, but one that has attracted fantastic reviews. As well as the standard trade edition there is a 100 copy limited edition from Faber which is relatively expensive but likely to be a good investment if you are so inclined.

"Matthew Arnold praised the Iliad for its 'nobility', as has everyone ever since -- but ancient critics praised it for its enargeia, its 'bright unbearable reality' (the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves). To retrieve the poem's energy, Alice Oswald has stripped away its story, and her account focuses by turns on Homer's extended similes and on the brief 'biographies' of the minor war-dead, most of whom are little more than names, but each of whom lives and dies unforgettably - and unforgotten - in the copiousness of Homer's glance. 'The Iliad is an oral poem. This translation presents it as an attempt - in the aftermath of the Trojan War - to remember people's names and lives without the use of writing. I hope it will have its own coherence as a series of memories and similes laid side by side: an antiphonal account of man in his world... compatible with the spirit of oral poetry, which was never stable but always adapting itself to a new audience, as if its language, unlike written language, was still alive and kicking.""

Bibliography

The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile - 1996, Oxford University Press, Paperback.  £35-40.
Dart - 2002, Faber and Faber, Paperback in French Wraps.  £35-40.
Woods etc. - 2006, Faber and Faber hardcover. £12-15.
A Sleepwalk on the Severn - 2009, Faber and Faber, paperback. £15
Weeds and Wildflowers - 2009, Faber and Faber, hardcover. £15-20.
Memorial - 2011, Faber and Faber, Hardcover. £15.   100 copy signed limited  hardcover in red boards, quarter black leather and slipcase.£125.

Friday, 11 November 2011

A story from Mr.Murakami

A cat met up with a big male rat in the attic and chased him into a corner. The rat, trembling, said, "Please don't eat me, Mr.Cat. I have to go back to my family. I have hungry children waiting for me. Please let me go." The Cat said, "Don't worry, I won't eat you. To tell you the truth, I can't say this too loudly, but I’m a vegetarian. I don't eat any meat. You were lucky to run into me." The rat said, "Oh, what a wonderful day! What a lucky rat I am to meet up with a vegetarian cat!"

But the very next second, the cat pounced on the rat, held him down with his claws, and sank his sharp teeth into the rat's throat. With his last, painful breath, the rat asked him, "But Mr Cat, didn't you say you're a vegetarian and don't eat any meat? Were you lying to me?" The cat licked his chops and said, “True, I don't eat meat. That was no lie. I'm going to take you home in my mouth and trade you for lettuce."

- Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones is a second novel from Jesmyn Ward. It has just been shortlisted for a National Book Award in the United States and received a very strong review in the Times on Saturday. Ward's first novel (Where the Line Bleeds) received a number of awards in the United States and it seems that she may be a significant new voice in American fiction. Ward grew up in relative poverty in a small black community near New Orleans and writes about an environment that she knows well - Salvage the Bones is set around Hurricane Katrina. Signed copies of her books seem relatively uncommon at present, and if you can pick them up at cost value may do well.

"A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker largely absent, he doesn’t show interest in much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fifteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pit bull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting.

As the twelve days that make up the novel’s framework yield to a dramatic conclusion, the unforgettable family at the novel’s core — motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce — pulls itself up to face another day."

Bibliography

Where the Line Bleeds - Agate, Chicago, paperback only, 2008
Salvage the Bones - Bloomsbury hardcover, 2011

Murakami 1Q84 limited edition - the final details

The limited edition of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami has now been sent out and has made its way to the lucky owners (or sellers).  It was greatly oversubscribed, and while not the rarest of Murakami's limited editions, it may turn out the be the most desirable.

The final edition size was exactly 111 copies. The book was shipped in a cardboard box with the edition number on the top, sealed with a gold coloured adhesive sticker. The three volumes of the book are contained in a perspex case, with 1Q84 in a black handwritten font on both front and back. The perspex case is wrapped in net. In the case of the books themselves, both front and back covers are printed on Somerset, a 10 per cent cotton archival paper, using a Swiss-made 1963 Gietz Art Platen hand-fed letterpress. The limited edition is a collaboration between Simon Rhodes, Kristen Harrison at The Curved House and designer Stefanie Posavec. Text design by Jim Smith. Covers printed by Justin Knopp at Typoretum in Great Britain. Textpages printed and bound by Graphicom, Verona. Published by Harvill Secker in 2011. Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN 9781846554902.

What was the inspiration behind the design? The designers saw parallels in Murakami's idea of interweaving narratives and obscured realities and the work of Bridget Riley and her contemporaries - complexity and confusion from perfectly constructed simplicity. The cover designs for the three books consist of overlapping circles, symbolizing the two moons which inhabit the sky in 1Q84, and the overlapping of the two stories and separate realities in the novel. The colours used for the three covers echo the change of seasons, and the exposed stitching and the section markers on the spines represent the stairs that Aomame, the book's protagonist, descends when she enters the parallel reality.

The books are accompanied by a numbered certificate of authenticity carrying the Harvill Secker limited edition seal. The author has signed every set by hand and each time with a slight variation on where the signature is situated or what pen has been used. This, along with the hand production techniques, means that every copy is subtely different.

Most of those lucky enough to have obained a copy from source will have received it by now. The cheapest secondary market copy at present is at £2950.......

**As of 11th December several secondary market copies are available at £2400 and above, and one has just sold on ebay for 3000 USD (no.38/111, just under £2000).

Monday, 31 October 2011

Book of the Week and UK Bibliography - William Ryan, The Bloody Meadow

I like to support Irish authors were possible, and this week's choice is The Bloody Meadow, the second novel by William Ryan to feature Aleksei Korolev, a detective Working for the Moscow Criminal Investigation Division in 1930s Russia. It follows on from The Holy Thief which was very well reviewed and shortlisted for a number of crime fiction awards. The Bloody Meadow could be read as a stand-alone novel, but I would recommend that a reader starts with The Holy Thief, as it provided some of Korolev's background; he continues to grow as a character through the second novel. The books are supported by a very fine website.

I think I can claim Ryan as Irish, for though some interviews indicate that he was born in London both of his parents are from Limerick – his father was an artist and poet, his mother an architect. His parents separated, and though he grew up in Limerick, he spent a lot of time in London, California and Saudi Arabia. He went to St Gerard’s in Bray and Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, then “stumbled” into law at Trinity College. When he graduated, he did what many self-respecting young Irish job-seekers did in the 1980s – he bought a one-way ticket to London, where he quickly found gainful employment, not as a barman or a brickie, but as a barrister. Now he is a full-time writer.

Both of his books have been set in Stalin’s Russia, and display a strong knowledge of the historical period and the ability to convey the atmosphere of living in an oppressive society. Having read both, I think that they are distinctly superior examples of detective fiction and that Ryan is a writer with considerable promise. If you look around, signed copies of both can be picked up at close to cost and represent a very good investment as well as a good read.


Bibliography

The Holy Thief, MacMillan, 2010
The Bloody Meadowm, MacMillan, 2011

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Who will win the Man Booker Prize 2011?

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced this week on 18th October.  There is some controversy around the prize most years.  Inevitably, when a panel of judges attempt to select the literary novel of the year many readers are likely to disagree with their choice.  This year’s panel (chaired by Stella Rimington, former MI5 chief) have mainly been criticized for being too populist.  The shortlist they have chosen certainly includes books which in previous years would have been unlikely choices (the first Western to be shortlisted in the history of the prize, and a post-communist Moscow thriller).  The panel have indicated that they place a high value on readability and probably less value on the traditional indicators of literary excellence – whether or not you agree with this is likely to depend on your personal perspective.  In the last week a proposal has emerged for a new prize (The Literature Prize) to uphold more traditional values.  This appears to have the support of a number of prominent authors and it will be interesting to see what comes from it.

So what about this year’s shortlist?  I suspect that the winner will come from The Sense of an Ending, Pigeon English or Jamrach’s Menagerie, and I would rank the likelihood in that order.  If any of the other shortlisted books win it really would be a surprise.  However, as usual we will see on Tuesday night...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Book of the Week and UK Bibliography - Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

“There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.”

Three novels in 18 years is not a prolific literary output but if quality matters more than quantity (as it surely does) then Jeffrey Eugenides is an important author. He was born in Detroit in 1960, and is of Greek and Irish descent. The Marriage Plot is his first novel since Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, but to many people his previous novel (The Virgin Suicides, 1993) will be more familiar as a result of the Sofia Coppola film of the same name. He has also published a number of short stories and edited an anthology of love stories (My Mistresses Sparrow is Dead).

The Marriage Plot is published in the UK as a hardcover by Fourth Estate – I expect a large print run and little long term collectible value, unless you can find a signed copy*. But books are for reading.....

*I have now discovered that there are 2000 first editions signed on a tipped in sheet.  So even signed firsts are unlikely to hold much financial value.  Firsts signed on the title page without the tipped in sheet will be preferred, but in these circumstances added value is likely to be small.

“It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they have learned. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.”


UK Bibliography

The Virgin Suicides, Bloomsbury, 1993, £50-75.
Middlesex, Bloomsbury, 2002. £10-15.
My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead, 2008. Harper London,£10-15 in decorated boards.
The Marriage Contract, 4th Estate, 2011, cover price.

Haruki Murakami - 1Q84: Foyles' limited editions

The release of Murakami's 1Q84 will be the highlight of  the autumn in the world of literary fiction.   A number of bookshops are planning late night openings so that the cognoscenti can get their hands on a copy at the magic hour of midnight, or at least a copy of the first two volumes (combined in one for the UK and US release). A bit like the Harry Potter days, but with a much more refined (and shorter) queue I would imagine.  The third volume will be released one week later.

There should be a very large print run given Murakami's prominence and the anticipation and publicity for this book.  I have highlighted the high end perspex-boxed limited edition previously.  Originally this was intended for release to the UK market only, but it has now been made available world wide and demand considerably exceeds supply (surprising given its price, but indicating the strength of interest in Murakami among serious collectors).

Now Foyles bookshop in London have announced the release of a more affordable limited edition (perhaps more accurately described as a variant of the standard UK edition available from Harvill).  This is identical to the hardcover trade edition, but with red edges, and numbers are limited to 1500 copies.  It is not signed by Murakami.  True completists will need to seek a copy of  this variant out - it is available now from the Foyles' website.  You can also read the first chapter of 1Q84 there, and enter a short story competition inspired by a line from the book.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Book of the Week - Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table

I'm rather looking forward to my retirement, although I still have quite a while to go. Until then, I have to continue to fit my interest in books around the day job and unfortunately this will occasionally result in gaps in my blog, which is my rather long-winded way of apologising for the hiatus since my last book of the week. The Cat's Table is the sixth novel from Sri Lankan born Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, probably best known for the Booker prize winning The English Patient, the basis of the Oscar-winning film of the same name. Ondaatje has published more poetry than prose, and like many poets who also write novels his use of language is one of the most attractive features of his writing. The Cat's Table is set on a boat sailing from Sri Lanka to Britain in 1954 and is narrated by an 11-year-old boy called Michael, events taken from the author’s own life. However, events very quickly diverge from reality.

The Cat’s Table is published in the UK by Cape. I doubt if this would be a good investment for a collector, but I recommend it as a book to read.

“In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England – a ‘castle that was to cross the sea’. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly ‘Cat's Table’ with an eccentric group of grown-ups and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys become involved in the worlds and stories of the adults around them, tumbling from one adventure and delicious discovery to another, ‘bursting all over the place like freed mercury’. And at night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner – his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.
As the narrative moves from the decks and holds of the ship and the boy’s adult years, it tells a spellbinding story about the difference between the magical openness of childhood and the burdens of earned understanding – about a life-long journey that began unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage, when all on board were ‘free of the realities of the earth’.
With the ocean liner a brilliant microcosm for the floating dream of childhood, The Cat’s Table is a vivid, poignant and thrilling book, full of Ondaatje’s trademark set-pieces and breathtaking images: a story told with a child’s sense of wonder by a novelist at the very height of his powers.”

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Book Trailers - 1Q84, Haruki Murkami

Book trailers are a relatively recent phenomenon which seem to be becoming more popular.  They generally make use of youtube or similar technology, not unlike the path taken by cinema trailers.  I remain uncertain about what sort of impact they will have.  Cinema presents the trailer in the same medium as the final product.  Publishers have done this in the past with sampler chapters, a concept which I never liked.  You have to invest some time in reading a sample chapter (often the first), and it can't contain the highlights in the way than a cinema trailer can do.  Video trailers for books take a different approach - they are quick and are mainly aimed at increasing awareness rather than providing a sample of the product.  They let you know about the existence of a book, but provide lttle sense of what the book will be like to read.  Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing how this sort of marketing will develop.  In the meantime, check out one I am looking forward to - 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Man Booker Prize 2011 Shortlist

Time for the 2011 Man Booker prize shortlist. The one previous winner (Alan Holinghurst, who was the bookies favourite), has not made it, and only one of this list has been shortlisted before. Julian Barnes, therefore, is likely to be the favourite for The Sense of an Ending (which I have reviewed recently).  He is the only "heavyweight" on the list and success would reward his career, although I do not think this is his best book.  Many would say that something similar happened last year with Howard Jacobson.  Of the others, I have read Snowdrops (an excellent thriller, which I expect to be an outsider) and Pigeon English.  It is a topical book with a very strong narrative voice, and I think is a possible winner.

For a collector, the main feature of interest is limited editions of both The Sense of an Ending and Snowdrops (see the links below).  I will update the shortlist with estimated prices in the next few days.

Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House)
Carol Birch - Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt - The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan - Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail - Profile)
Stephen Kelman - Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
A.D. Miller - Snowdrops (Atlantic)

Price update (9/9/11)
All of  the books are available fairly easily in first edition.  The Sisters Brothers and Half Blood Blues can both be picked up for £20 approx, along with Pigeon English (all paperback only).  Jamrach's Menagerie (again paperback only) is around £35.  Of the two hardcovers, The Sense of an Ending is around £20, though either of the two limited editions will be £200 up to £800 for the fully leather bound edition (of which I can find only one copy).  Snowdrops seems  the least common at present, with the ordinary hardcover at £80 or above and the limited edition £125 or above.  As always, prices are likely to fall for all except the winner once the result is announced. 

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Book of the Week - Belinda McKeon, Solace

Solace is a first novel from Irish author Belinda McKeon. She was born in 1979 and grew up on a farm in Co. Longford. She studied English and Philosophy in Dublin, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York and in Ireland. Her writing has been published in a number of literary journals including The Paris Review, The Dublin Review and Irish Pages, and has been included in a couple of anthologies (Fishamble Firsts: New Playwrights (New Island, 2008) and The News from Dublin: New Irish Stories (Faber, 2011)).

Solace was published in the US by Scribner earlier this year, but the UK edition has just been published by Picador. It has been named a Kirkus Outstanding Debut of 2011 and has been nominated for the Newton First Book Award. Reviews are positive – I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but will review elsewhere when I get a chance. There is a genre of Irish literary fiction typified by Colm Toibin and John Banville into which Solace seems to fit and which I enjoy very much. It is much too early to say whether McKeown will have a successful future, but I think this is a book well worth picking up at £12.99 (signed).

“Mark Casey has left home, the rural Irish community where his family has farmed the same land for generations. He is a doctoral student in Dublin, a vibrant, contemporary city full of possibility. But to his father, Tom, who needs help baling the hay and ploughing the fields, Mark’s pursuit isn’t work at all, and they are set on a collision course, while Mark’s mother negotiates a fragile peace.
To escape the seemingly endless struggle of completing his thesis, Mark finds himself whiling away his time with pubs and parties. His is a life without focus or responsibility, until he meets Joanne Lynch, a trainee solicitor whom he finds irresistible – and who he later discovers happens to be the daughter of a man who once spectacularly wronged Mark’s father, and whose betrayal Tom has remembered every single day for twenty years.
Joanne too has escaped the life circumscribed by her overbearing father, and she is torn between the opportunities to succeed in this new wealthy Dublin and the moral dilemmas it presents. But for a brief time Mark and Joanne are able to share the chaos and rapture of a love affair, an emotional calm, until the lightning strike of tragedy changes everything.”

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Book of the Week - Ross Raisin, Waterline

Waterline is Ross Raisin’s second novel, after the very well received God’s Own Country. Like its predecessor, it follows the downward spiral of an isolated male figure who becomes dislocated from his usual world. In this case Mick is an ex-shipyard worker from Glasgow whose wife dies from an asbestos related cancer, almost certainly a consequence of Mick’s work. Following her death, he moves to the south of England and drifts into homelessness and alcoholism. The arc of the storyline is downwards, but ultimately it takes an upward turn (perhaps a little unrealistically).

One of the characteristics of God’s Own Country was the use of some fairly dense Yorkshire vernacular – in Waterline this is replaced by the Glaswegian equivalent. Raisin’s strength lies in getting inside the heads of his characters. He clearly has a particular interest in those on the edge of society, and a concern about social divides which is very topical. I think he is a writer to follow. Waterline is published as a paperback only (always a little disappointing) by Viking.

"Mick Little used to be a shipbuilder on the Glasgow yards. But as they closed one after another down the river, the search for work took him and his beloved wife Cathy to Australia, and back again, struggling for a living, longing for home. Thirty years later the yards are nearly all gone and Cathy is dead. And now Mick will have to find a new way to live: to get away, start again, and try to deal with the guilt he feels over her death.

In his devastating new novel Ross Raisin brings vividly to life the story of an ordinary man caught between the loss of a great love and the hard edges of modern existence. Tracing Mick's journey from the Glasgow shipyards to the crowded, sweating kitchens of an airport hotel, to the streets and riversides of London, it is an intensely moving portrait of a life being lived all around us, and a story for our times."


Sunday, 14 August 2011

Book of the Week: Daniel Polansky - The Straight Razor Cure

I thought I would take one of my occasional forays into the world of fantasy fiction this week, an area with a very enthusiastic core of collectors. The Straight Razor Cure is the first book is a projected series by Daniel Polansky set in the fictional world of Low Town, and is a blend of noir crime and science fiction/fantasy. It has received very positive reviews and I a sure will be a good holiday read. I don’t know what the first print run will be, but my guess is that a signed copy has a reasonable chance of proving to be a good investment. The US edition is released under the title Low Town and is available from 16th August, with the UK edition available officially from 18th August, suggesting that the US edition is officially the true first. However, Goldsboro Books have some signed, lined and dated copies which predate the US release. The difference in titles and cover is interesting – the US title seems more neutral, with the UK title and cover giving a more obvious indication of the fairly violent content. Presumably this reflects marketing concerns, although there may be another explanation.

"Welcome to Low Town.

Here, the criminal is king. The streets are filled with the screeching of fish hags, the cries of swindled merchants, the inviting murmurs of working girls. Here, people can disappear, and the lacklustre efforts of the guard ensure they are never found.

Warden is an ex-soldier who has seen the worst men have to offer; now a narcotics dealer with a rich, bloody past and a way of inviting danger. You'd struggle to find someone with a soul as dark and troubled as his.

But then a missing child, murdered and horribly mutilated, is discovered in an alley.

And then another.

With a mind as sharp as a blade and an old but powerful friend in the city, he's the only man with a hope of finding the killer.

If the killer doesn't find him first."

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending, including limited editions

Julian Barnes is a well established and successful writer, shortlisted on three previous occasions for the Booker Prize. The Sense of an Ending, which has just been released, has already been longlisted for this year’s Prize. It is a short novel (only around 150 pages) which is about the impact of memory (or forgetting) on the chain of events that give us our sense of self. Unlikely to be an easy read, but certain to be thought provoking.

Barnes was born on January 19, 1946 in Leicester and has written numerous novels and other books (details on his very good website). The Booker shortlisted novels were Flaubert's Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005. He has also written crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Barnes is one of the best-loved English writers in France, where he has won several literary prizes, including the Prix Médicis for Flaubert’s Parrot and the Prix Femina for Talking It Over. He is an officer of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

The Sense of an Ending is published by Jonathan Cape as a hardcover. The London Review Bookshop is offering a signed, limited first edition of The Sense of an Ending, published in association with Jonathan Cape, comprising 100 copies, 75 of which have been quarter-bound in Tusting Chestnut fine grain leather with Rainforest cloth sides, numbered 1 to 75, and 25 copies fully bound in the same leather, numbered i to xxv. All books have head and tail bands, brushed green tops and green Bugra Pastell endpapers, and are housed in suedel-lined slipcases. Edition of 75: £150 (£170 after 4 August). Edition of 25: £260 (£280 after 4 August).

“The story of a man coming to terms with the mutable past, The Sense of an Ending is laced with Barnes’ trademark precision, dexterity and insight. It is the work of one of the world's most distinguished writers.

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian's life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget.

Now Tony is in middle age. He's had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He's certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer's letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths?”

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Sebastian Barry - On Canaan's Side, including limited edition

I have written about Sebastian Barry previously, as one of a number of Irish authors whose fiction I like a great deal. On Canaan’s Side is his eighth novel, and follows the very successful Secret Scripture, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and Costa Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, narrowly losing out to Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. On Canaan’s Side has already been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize ahead of publication, but it would certainly have been my choice for this week in any case. It is published in hardcover only by Faber and Faber on 4th August (although interestingly the Kindle edition was released on 22nd July, making this the true first. However, not much use to a collector!). There will also be 100 signed and numbered copies quarter bound in calf skin and contained in a matching slipcase, at £100 each.

"Narrated by Lilly Bere, On Canaan’s Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. The story then goes back to the moment she was forced to flee Dublin, at the end of the First World War, and follows her life through into the new world of America, a world filled with both hope and danger.
At once epic and intimate, Lilly’s narrative unfurls as she tries to make sense of the sorrows and troubles of her life and of the people whose lives she has touched. Spanning nearly seven decades, it is a novel of memory, war, family-ties and love, which once again displays Sebastian Barry's exquisite prose and gift for storytelling."

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Man Booker Prize 2011 Longlist

The long list for the 2011 Man Booker prize has been announced. The list contains more than a few surprises, along with the usual omissions. This year, seven of the books were issued as paperbacks only which I think must be a record. The 13 books on the list include one former Man Booker Prize winner (Alan Holinghurst, the bookies favourite), two previously shortlisted writers, one longlisted author, four first time novelists and three Canadian writers. The list also includes three new publishers to the prize - Oneworld, Sandstone Press and Seren Books.

The novels from the two previously shortlisted authors (Julian Barnes and Sebastian Barry) have yet to be published. Of the remaining 10 novels, I have previously recommended three, including two of the four first novels. A number of the others passed me by completely during the year, but I suspect I am not alone in this.  Of the ones that missed out, I was particularly sorry about Ann Enright and Edward St.Aubyn - I think that the Melrose quartet of novels will probably stand the test of time well, and the Booker Prize would have been a fitting end (if indeed, the end has been reached!).


Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House)
Sebastian Barry - On Canaan's Side (Faber)
Carol Birch - Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt - The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail - Profile)
Yvvette Edwards - A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)
Alan Hollinghurst - The Stranger's Child (Picador - Pan Macmillan)
Stephen Kelman - Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
Patrick McGuinness - The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books)
A.D. Miller - Snowdrops (Atlantic)
Alison Pick - Far to Go (Headline Review)
Jane Rogers - The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
D.J. Taylor - Derby Day (Chatto & Windus - Random House)

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Book of the Week - Mark Lawrence, Prince of Thorns

I am travelling at the moment, and taking the opportunity to catch up on some holiday reading. This is a relatively slow time of the year for new book releases, but one that has caught my eye is Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. I mainly prefer to read literary fiction, with a smattering of crime and an occasional foray into fantasy. Prince of Thorns falls into the latter category, and is a first novel from a research scientist (bound to be good, therefore!). Lawrence has described the book as an homage (or sorts) to A Clockwork Orange - both feature an amoral antihero, which seems like a good starting point to me.

Prince of Thorns has sold to many countries, and there are few collectors more enthusiastic than collectors of fantasy. There is a dedicated website, and a quick search of the internet will reveal a lot of very positive reviews. Goldsboro books have an exclusive 250 copy numbered edition which seems very good value at £14.99, and this is the one that I would go for.

"Before the thorns taught me their sharp lessons and bled weakness from me I had but one brother, and I loved him well. But those days are gone and what is left of them lies in my mother's tomb. Now I have many brothers, quick with knife and sword, and as evil as you please. We ride this broken empire and loot its corpse. They say these are violent times, the end of days when the dead roam and monsters haunt the night. All that's true enough, but there's something worse out there, in the dark. Much worse."

Once a privileged royal child, raised by a loving mother, Jorg Ancrath has become the Prince of Thorns, a charming, immoral boy leading a grim band of outlaws in a series of raids and atrocities. The world is in chaos: violence is rife, nightmares everywhere. Jorg's bleak past has set him beyond fear of any man, living or dead, but there is still one thing that puts a chill in him. Returning to his father's castle Jorg must confront horrors from his childhood and carve himself a future with all hands turned against him.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Alan Hollinghurst - The Stranger's Child limited editions

Further to my previous post, The Stranger’s Child has received very positive reviews, so I thought it would be of interest to provide some further information on the limited editions. There seem to be two of these in the UK. The first is a signed, numbered slipcased edition of 500 copies available exclusively from Goldsboro books. I have not seen this as yet, so I am not sure if it is the trade edition with a tipped in page in a slipcase, or if there is some other variation. I will provide an update on this when I have seen a copy*.

The second limited edition, which I have seen, is 40 leather bound copies (in green) from Colm Toibin’s Tuskar Rock press - signed, numbered, dated and in a slipcase which I think is linen. In addition, there are 10 hors de commerce copies. This is a beautiful though relatively expensive book, but is likely to be a good investment for a serious collector.

*I have now seen the Goldsboro Books limited edition - this is in a green board slipcase, with silver lettering to the front.  The book itself is in black boards and green endpapers without dustwrapper, and appears to the trade edition with a tipped in limitation page in front of the titlepage.  The numbering (out of 500) is on the limitation page, and Hollinghurst has signed to the title page in blue pen.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Haruki Murakami - IQ84 limited editions

It is now a couple of years since IQ84 by Haruki Murakami was released in Japan, to great acclaim.  It has since been published in a couple of other countries, and the UK edition is due in October this year.  The book was originally published in three volumes - the UK edition will come in two parts, with volume 1 and 2 combined in a single book, and volume 3 separately. There will be both paperback and hardcover editions.

All of Murakami's recent books have also come as limited editions in the UK, sometimes more than one (see my bibliography for further details). Initial indications are of an unusual format for the limited edition on this occasion - an issue of 100 copies of three separate volumes in a single perspex slipcase, with the title and design printed on it. Each book will be handsewn with exposed binding and coloured thread, and will have an individual hand printed cover design. The third volume only will be signed by Haruki Murakami on the back page, and this will be visible through the Perspex slipcase. These details may, of course, change - and the price is to be confirmed, although initial suggestions are £750, which if confirmed would make this by far and away the most expensive Murakami limited edition to date.***

If there are other UK versions I will confirm these as and when I get details. At the moment I am also aware of a leather bound Australian edition from Random House, at 500 AUD, which will postdate the UK edition, but I do not have any further details*.

*As of 9/9/11, Random House Australia are saying that the leather bound edition will now not be available, and are listing a deluxe signed limited edition 3 volume set. I believe that this is the UK edition, which is now being advertised worldwide, but will keep this under review.

**1/10/11, Foyles are releasing an unsigned variant  of the UK trade edition with red edges, limited to 1500 copies.

***6/11/11, For final details of the perspex limited edition please see here.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Andrew Miller, Pure

Pure is the sixth novel from Andrew Miller, and is set in 18th century Paris around a cemetery. Miller is a good example of a novelist who has attracted considerable critical acclaim and success, including winning the IMPAC prize, but probably without reaching a huge readership. I have enjoyed several of his previous books, all of which can still be picked up very cheaply as first editions.

Miller was born in 1960 in Bristol, and has lived and worked in several countries, including Spain, France, Holland and Japan. He studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 1991 and finished a Ph.D. in Critical and Creative Writing at Lancaster University in 1995. His first novel, Ingenious Pain, was published in 1997. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Italian Grinzane Cavour Prize. Set during the eighteenth century, it tells the story of surgeon James Dyer and his extraordinary inability to feel pain. It was followed by Casanova (1998), a fictional portrait of the infamous libertine and writer. Both novels are currently being adapted for film. His next novel, Oxygen (2001), set in England in 1997, was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award. The book narrates two loosely connected narratives, those of a dying mother attended by her two sons and a Hungarian playwright living in Paris. The Optimists (2005), is the tale of a photojournalist who returns to Britain from Africa where he was involved in reporting on an atrocity, and One Morning Like a Bird in 2008. Pure is available now.

“A year of bones, of grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of friendship too. Of desire. Of love...A year unlike any other he has lived. Deep in the heart of Paris, its oldest cemetery is, by 1785, overflowing, tainting the very breath of those who live nearby. Into their midst comes Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, provincial engineer charged by the king with demolishing it. At first Baratte sees this as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long, he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own.”

Bibliography

Ingenious Pain Sceptre, 1997. Under £15.
Casanova Sceptre, 1998. Under£15.
Oxygen Sceptre, 2001. Under £10.
The Optimists Sceptre, 2005. Under £10.
One Morning Like a Bird Sceptre, 2008. Under £15.
Pure, Sceptre, 2011.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger's Child

Alan Hollinghurst is not a prolific author, and The Stranger’s Child is his first novel since A Line of Beauty won the Booker Prize in 2004. He was born in Stroud in Gloucestershire, England in 1954 and his early publications were mainly poetry. His first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), gives an account of London gay life in the early 1980s through the story of a young aristocrat, William Beckwith, and his involvement with the elderly Lord Nantwich, whose life he saves. It was followed by The Folding Star in 1994, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. The narrator, Edward Manners, develops an obsessive passion for his pupil, a 17-year-old Flemish boy, in a story that was compared by many critics to Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice. Spell (1998) has been described as a gay comedy of manners, which interweaves the complex relationships between 40-something architect Robin Woodfield, his alcoholic lover Justin, and Justin's ex, timid civil servant Alex, who falls in love with Robin's son Danny. The action moves between the English countryside and London where Danny introduces Alex to ecstasy and clubbing. The Line of Beauty (2004) traces a decade of change and won the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

The Stranger’s Child spans almost the whole of the 20th century, tracing the intertwined stories of two families. Advance notices suggest a very strong book, which will certainly come into consideration for the Booker Prize again. Amazon list both a hardcover and a paperback (as well as the now ubiquitous Kindle edition). I would expect a fairly large print run, and signed copies should be fairly easily available if you look around. A 40 copy leather-bound edition is  available, from Tuskar Rock press, and there is also a numbered and signed edition of 500 copies in slipcase availale from Goldsboro Books.

“In the late summer of 1913 the aristocratic young poet Cecil Valance comes to stay at ‘Two Acres’, the home of his close Cambridge friend George Sawle. The weekend will be one of excitements and confusions for all the Sawles, but it is on George’s sixteen-year-old sister Daphne that it will have the most lasting impact, when Cecil writes her a poem which will become a touchstone for a generation, an evocation of an England about to change forever.

Linking the Sawle and Valance families irrevocably, the shared intimacies of this weekend become legendary events in a larger story, told and interpreted in different ways over the coming century, and subjected to the scrutiny of critics and biographers with their own agendas and anxieties. In a sequence of widely separated episodes we follow the two families through startling changes in fortune and circumstance.

At the centre of this often richly comic history of sexual mores and literary reputation runs the story of Daphne, from innocent girlhood to wary old age. Around her Hollinghurst draws an absorbing picture of an England constantly in flux. As in The Line of Beauty, his impeccably nuanced exploration of changing taste, class and social etiquette is conveyed in deliciously witty and observant prose. Exposing our secret longings to the shocks and surprises of time, The Stranger’s Child is an enthralling novel from one of the finest writers in the English language.”



Bibliography

Isherwood is at Santa Monica, Sycamore Press Broadsheet, 1975. £125-150
A Florilegium for John Florio, Sycamore Press, Oxford, 1981. £125-150.
Confidential Chats with Boys, Sycamore Press, Oxford, 1982. £125-200.
The Swimming-Pool Library, Chatto & Windus, 1988. Under £20.
The Folding Star, Chatto & Windus, 1994. Under £10.
The Spell, Chatto & Windus, 1998. Under £10
The Line of Beauty, Picador, 2004. Under £15.
The Stranger's Child, Picador, 2011. At cost.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Book of the Week - Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke

Some of the finest writing in English comes from Indian authors, who seem to me to value and champion an elegance of style which has become uncommon in native English writers. There are many fine young Indian authors, some of whom I have highlighted previously – Amitav Ghosh should now probably be considered a senior statesman among Indian authors writing in English, and has increasingly been recognised internationally as an important literary figure.

Many years ago, when I had a little more time, I taught a module on medicine and literature to undergraduate students which featured one of Ghosh’s earlier novels, The Calcutta Chromosome, which dealt with the tension between western and traditional Indian views of science. His previous novel, The Sea of Poppies, was the first in a trilogy set against the background of the Opium wars. It was a blockbuster of a novel, with a rich cast of characters, and was both an exciting and entertaining read. In addition, it managed to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a tribute to the elegance of the writing. The second novel in the trilogy, River of Smoke, is published by John Murray this week and will be high on my list for the summer. This is a simultaneous hardcover and paperback release – collectors should pick up the hardcover, signed as usual if possible.

Ghosh was born in Kolkata, India in 1956 and attended Delhi University and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he was awarded a D.Phil . in social anthropology.His first job was at the Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi. His wife, Deborah Baker, is a senior editor at Little, Brown and Company and they have two children, Lila and Nayan. He has been a Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. In 1999, Ghosh joined the faculty at Queens College, City University of New York as Distinguished Professor in Comparative Literature. He has also been a visiting professor to the English department of Harvard University since 2005. In 2009 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

“In September 1838 a storm blows up on the Indian Ocean and the Ibis, a ship carrying a consignment of convicts and indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius, is caught up in the whirlwind. When the seas settle, five men have disappeared - two lascars, two convicts and one of the passengers. Did the same storm upend the fortunes of those aboard the Anahita, an opium carrier heading towards Canton? And what fate befell those aboard the Redruth, a sturdy two-masted brig heading East out of Cornwall? Was it the storm that altered their course or were the destinies of these passengers at the mercy of even more powerful forces?

On the grand scale of an historical epic, River of Smoke follows its storm-tossed characters to the crowded harbors of China. There, despite efforts of the emperor to stop them, ships from Europe and India exchange their cargoes of opium for boxes of tea, silk, porcelain and silver. Among them are Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant out of Bombay, his estranged half-Chinese son Ah Fatt, the orphaned Paulette and a motley collection of others whose pursuit of romance, riches and a legendary rare flower have thrown together. All struggle to cope with their losses - and for some, unimaginable freedoms - in the alleys and crowded waterways of 19th century Canton. As transporting and mesmerizing as an opiate induced dream, River of Smoke will soon be heralded as a masterpiece of twenty-first century literature.”

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Book of the Week - Ali Smith, There But For The

Ali Smith is one of my favourite writers – intelligent, funny and usually with a slightly quirky or experimental approach in her books. “There but for the” is her most recent novel – it is divided into four sections (There, But, For, The), but is a unified whole. Smith has a good track record in the Literary Prizes and I have always enjoyed her work, so I am looking forward to this one very much. There will be hardcover and paperback releases, which tends to mean a relatively modest print run for the former.

Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. Her first book, Free Love and Other Stories (1995), won the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award and a Scottish Arts Council Award. Her first novel, Like, was published to critical acclaim in 1997. A second collection of short stories, Other Stories and Other Stories, was published in 1999. Her second novel, Hotel World (2001), won the Encore Award, a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the inaugural Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award. It was also shortlisted for both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Booker Prize for Fiction. Set during the course of one night, the narrative follows the adventures of five different characters, one of whom is the ghost of a chambermaid killed in a bizarre accident. Her most recent collection of short stories is The Whole Story and Other Stories (2003). In 2004, her novel, The Accidental (2004), was published, and won the 2005 Whitbread Novel Award. Girl Meets Boy (2007) was published in 2007. She has also published a play, The Seer (2006), and her most recent collection of short stories is The First Person and Other Stories (2008). The Book Lover (2008) is a personal anthology of favourite pieces of writing gathered over the course of her life.

“Imagine you give a dinner party and a friend of a friend brings a stranger to your house as his guest. He seems pleasant enough. Imagine that this stranger goes upstairs halfway through the dinner party and locks himself in one of your bedrooms and won't come out. Imagine you can't move him for days, weeks, months. If ever. This is what Miles does, in a chichi house in the historic borough of Greenwich, in the year 2009–10, in There but for the. Who is Miles, then? And what does it mean, exactly, to live with other people?

Sharply satirical and sharply compassionate, with an eye to the meanings of the smallest of words and the slightest of resonances, There but for the fuses disparate perspectives in a crucially communal expression of identity and explores our very human attempts to navigate between despair and hope, enormity and intimacy, cliché and grace. Ali Smith's dazzling new novel is a funny, moving book about time, memory, thought, presence, quietness in a noisy time, and the importance of hearing ourselves think.”

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Book of the Week - Chris Morgan Jones, An Agent of Deceit

Anyone who follows this blog will know that while my preference is for literary fiction, I occasionally dip into other genres for a little variety. An Agent of Deceit is probably best described as a thriller, and is a first novel by Chris Morgan Jones. Jones was born in Aberystwyth, and for eleven years worked for the world's largest business intelligence agency (Kroll). During his time there he specialised in dispute work, helping clients win legal battles and corporate contests, and in reputation work, gathering information about their competitors and acquisition targets. He has worked for Middle Eastern governments, Russian oligarchs, New York banks, London hedge funds and African mining companies, but in particular had an interest in Russia. The experience he accumulated in his work has undoubtedly contributed to the realistic feeling of this book. It is well written, with a good plot, and has received favourable reviews. There is a 500 copy signed and numbered edition from Goldsboro Books which is the one to go for from a collector’s persepctive.

“Ten years ago, journalist Ben Webster had his investigation into a corrupt Russian business in Kazakhstan crushed, the cost of his scrutiny a terrible tragedy. Now employed by a private London intelligence agency, Webster’s interest is piqued when a client asks him to expose the dealings of shadowy Russian oligarch Konstantin Malin. Before long Webster finds himself fixated by Malin and by his front man Richard Boot. But how far is he willing to risk the wellbeing of his family? And that of Boot himself? Meanwhile Boot finds himself under pressure to explain to the world how he – a simple lawyer – came to be one of Russia’s largest investors. And when one of Malin’s former protégées is found dead after meeting with Webster, begins to realise that he too may be at risk. Desperate to seek a haven with the wife he lost years before, Boot realises that he must now take action – but his options are fast running out.”

Friday, 13 May 2011

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Edward St. Aubyn, At Last

The book of the moment in the world of literary fiction seems to be At Last, by Edward St. Aubyn, the fifth in a series which began in 1992 and features the character Patrick Melrose. The previous volume in the series, Mother's Milk, was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2006 and At Last may well be in the running again this year. Reviews have been universally positive; signed copies are just beginning to appear and I will certainly be picking one up.

Edward St Aubyn was born in 1960, and was educated at Westminster School and Oxford University. In some respects, his life has been very privileged. He is a cousin of Lord St Levan, whose home is St Michael's Mount, and he is godfather to Earl Spencer's son, Louis. However, as a child, he was raped by his father, and at 16, he was a heroin addict. He began taking drugs while he was at Westminster, a habit he continued at Oxford (best friend: Will Self). He turned up for his finals immaculately attired, but with heroin secreted about his person and the empty tube of a Bic biro through which to snort it.

At 28, St Aubyn decided that he would kill himself if he did not finish writing a novel. He initially wrote a semi-autobiographical trilogy: Never Mind (1992), winner of a Betty Trask Award; Bad News (1992); and Some Hope (1994), subsequently published together under the name of the last volume, Some Hope (2006). Mother's Milk (2006) is a loose sequel to the trilogy, also featuring Patrick Melrose, and was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. In addition, he is also the author of On the Edge (1998), shortlisted for the 1998 Guardian Fiction Prize; and A Clue to the Exit (2000), about a hack screenwriter given six months to live.

"For Patrick Melrose, ‘family’ is more than a double-edged sword. As friends, relations and foes trickle in to pay final respects to his mother, Eleanor – an heiress who forsook the grandeur of her upbringing for ‘good works’, freely bestowed upon everyone but her own child – Patrick finds that his transition to orphanhood isn’t necessarily the liberation he had so long imagined.
Yet as the service ends and the family gather for a final party, as conversations are overheard, danced around and concertedly avoided, amidst the social niceties and the social horrors, the calms and the rapids, Patrick begins to sense a new current. And at the end of the day, alone in his rooftop bedsit, it seems to promise some form of safety, at last.
One of the most powerful reflections on pain and acceptance, and the treacheries of family, ever written, At Last is the brilliant culmination of the Melrose books. It is a masterpiece of glittering dark comedy and profound emotional truth."


Bibliography


Never Mind Heinemann, 1992
Bad News Heinemann, 1992
Some Hope Heinemann, 1994
On the Edge Heinemann, 1998
The Patrick Melrose Trilogy (contents: 'Never Mind'; 'Bad News'; 'Some Hope') Vintage, 1998
A Clue to the Exit Chatto & Windus, 2000
Mother's Milk Picador, 2006
At Last Picador, 2011.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Anne Enright, The Forgotten Waltz

The Forgotten Waltz is a novel chronicling an affair in Dublin, set against the background of the peak of the Irish economy and its subsequent crash. It is Enright’s first novel since The Gathering won the Booker Prize in 2007. The urban affluent setting is somewhat of a departure for Enright, but the themes of the novel will be familiar to those who know her work – many of her books and stories deal with family relationships, love and sex, Ireland's difficult past and its modern zeitgeist.

Anne Enright was born in Dublin in 1962, studied English and Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, and went on to study for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Enright was a television producer and director for RTÉ in Dublin for six years, producing the programme Nighthawks for four years. She then worked in children's programming for two years and wrote at the weekends. The Portable Virgin, a collection of her short stories, was published in 1991, and won the 1991 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Enright began writing full-time in 1993.

Enright's novels are The Wig My Father Wore (1995), shortlisted for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize; What Are You Like? about twins separated at birth who meet when they are 25, winner of the 2001 Encore Award and shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Novel Award; The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002); and The Gathering (2007) about a large Irish family gathering for the funeral of a wayward brother. The Gathering won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She has also published a book of humorous essays, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004). She lives in Ireland.

The Forgotten Waltz has just been published as a hard cover by Jonathan Cape, and reviews are strong. A 100 copy signed and numbered limited edition is due, quarter bound in leather and in a slipcase or box. I will update with details when confirmed.

"The Forgotten Waltz is a memory of desire: a recollection of the bewildering speed of attraction, the irreparable slip into longing. In Terenure, a pleasant suburb of Dublin, in the winter of 2009, it has snowed. Gina Moynihan, girl about town, recalls the trail of lust and happenstance that brought her to fall for ‘the love of her life’, Seán Vallely. As the city outside comes to a halt, Gina remembers the days of their affair in one hotel room or another: long afternoons made blank by bliss and denial. Now, as the silent streets and the stillness and vertigo of the falling snow make the day luminous and full of possibility, Gina waits the arrival on her doorstep of Seán’s fragile, twelve-year-old daughter, Evie – the complication, and gravity, of this second life.

In this extraordinary novel, this opening book of secrets, Anne Enright speaks directly to the readers she won with the success of The Gathering. Here, again, is the sudden, momentous drama of everyday life, the volatile connections between people; that fresh eye for each flinch and gesture; the wry, accurate take on families, marriage, brittle middle age. The same verve and humour and breathtaking control are evident; the ability to merge the ordinary and the beautiful. With The Forgotten Waltz Enright turns her attention fully to love – you might even call it romance – as she follows another flawed and unforgettable heroine on a journey of the heart. Writing at the height of her powers, this is Anne Enright’s tour de force, a novel of intelligence, passion and real distinction."



Bibliography

• The Portable Virgin (1991) – Secker and Warburg hardcover £100-150
• The Wig My Father Wore (1995) – Jonathan Cape hardcover £10-15
• What Are You Like? (2000) – Jonathan Cape paperback £10-15
• The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002) – Jonathan Cape hardcover £25-30
• Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004) – Jonathan Cape hardcover. Rather uncommon but can be found at £10-15
• The Gathering (2007) – Jonathan Cape hardcover £50-60
• Taking Pictures (2008) - Jonathan Cape hardcover £10-15 (Published in US as Yesterday's Weather (2009), with slight differences)
• The Forgotten Waltz (2011) – Jonathan Cape hardcover £16.99

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Philip Hensher, King of the Badgers

Philip Hensher is very much part of the literary establishment – a regular contributor to two national broadsheets, an ex-judge of the Booker Prize and also shortlisted for his last novel. Nonetheless, I suspect that he remains largely unknown to most of the reading public, who themselves constitute a small minority of the whole population. Almost all of his back catalogue can be picked up very cheaply (see below). However, he is an ambitious writer who is likely to achieve to greater literary success in the future. Certainly King of the Badgers (just published) has attracted a great deal of critical attention, and should provide a good read. It is a large novel, set in a fictitious Devon town, with a vast cast of characters interacting in a range of ways. Not all of it seems to work, but most does, and I await my copy with interest.

Hensher was born in London in 1965 and was educated at Oxford University. His doctoral thesis, at Cambridge University, was on 18th-century English painting. He is the author of several novels and a collection of short stories and he wrote the libretto for Thomas Adés' opera Powder Her Face, based on the life of the Duchess of Argyll. He is a regular broadcaster and contributes reviews and articles to various newspapers and journals including The Spectator, the Mail on Sunday and The Independent. vHis first novel, Other Lulus (1994), set in Vienna, centres on a young girl's discovery of a family connection with the composer Alban Berg. His six years spent working at the House of Commons in London provided the backdrop to his second novel, Kitchen Venom, published in 1996. The book combines a story of murder and intrigue at the House with a deft account of the eccentric relationships and rituals that have been played out for centuries. It won a Somerset Maugham Award and sparked controversy when it was revealed that the author had been sacked from his job as a parliamentary clerk after giving an interview to the gay magazine Attitude. Pleasured (1998), his third novel, is set in Berlin on the eve of the fall of the Wall. The Bedroom of the Mister's Wife, a collection of short stories, was published in 1999. Many of the stories had previously been broadcast on radio or published in newspapers and magazines including Granta, The Independent and the Erotic Review. The Mulberry Empire (2002), is a love story and an account of conflicting imperial ambitions during the first Anglo-Afghan war. In 2003, Philip Hensher was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 'Best of Young British Novelists'. The Northern Clemency (2008) was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book). He lives in South London and is a member of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature.

Bibliography

Other Lulus Hamish Hamilton, 1994. Hardcover in dustwrapper, £10-15.

Kitchen Venom Hamish Hamilton, 1996. Hardcover in dustwrapper, £10.

Pleasured Chatto & Windus, 1998. Hardcover in dustwrapper, £5-10.

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (includes short story 'Dead Languages' by Philip Hensher) Oxford University Press, 1998

The Bedroom of the Mister's Wife Chatto & Windus, 1999. Paperback original in wraps. Uncommon, but should be available at £10.

The Mulberry Empire Flamingo, 2002. Hardcover in dustwrapper, £5 – 10.

The Fit Fourth Estate, 2004. Hardcover in dustwrapper, £5-10.

Selected Essays Fourth Estate, 2006. I cannot find an available copy at present!

The Northern Clemency Fourth Estate, 2008. Hardcover in dustwrapper, £12-20.

King of the Badgers Fourth Estate, 2011

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Book of the Week - James Frey, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible

This is a book which will strongly divide opinion, much like James Frey himself. Frey is a controversial figure, who came to prominence as a result of a critically acclaimed autobiography (A Million Little Pieces) which was eventually revealed as having significant fictitious elements. Oprah Winfrey was among those who felt they had been defrauded by Frey, who was dropped by his agent, and his publisher was forced to offer compensation to readers who felt they had been cheated by subsequent revelations about the book. Nonetheless, many agree that Frey is a talented writer (A Million Little Pieces was voted book of the year by Amazon.com editors), and he has remained prominent on the literary scene (for instance, contributing to I am Four by Pittacus Lore, which did well last year).

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is a reinvention of the Gospel story in which the Messiah figure is born in contemporary New York. This is by no means an original concept, but Frey’s approach is typically provocative and sure to offend many. Critical responses are widely at variance (see for instance, strongly negative and positive reviews from the Guardian on successive days). Frey had difficulty finding a US publisher, perhaps not surprising given the nature of the book, so the book is self published (appearing on Good Friday) with a trade edition and a 1000 copy signed and limited edition at $150 from the Gagosian art gallery. In the UK, John Murray agreed to publish and the UK edition appears to be the true first. There is a 1000 copy signed and slipcased edition available on Amazon UK for £21 which seems very good value. Frey has the talent to be a significant literary figure for years to come, but I suspect this book will not be for everyone.

"James Frey isn't like other writers. He's been called a liar. A cheat. A con man. He's been called a saviour. A revolutionary. A genius. He's been sued by readers. Dropped by publishers because of his controversies. Berated by TV talk-show hosts and condemned by the media. He's been exiled from America, and driven into hiding. He's also a bestselling phenomenon. Published in 38 languages, and beloved by readers around the world. What scares people about Frey is that he plays with truth; that fine line between fact and fiction. Now he has written his greatest work, his most revolutionary, his most controversial. The Final Testament of the Holy Bible.

What would you do if you discovered the Messiah were alive today? Living in New York. Sleeping with men. Impregnating young women. Euthanizing the dying, and healing the sick. Defying the government, and condemning the holy. What would you do if you met him? And he changed your life. Would you believe? Would you?

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible . It will change you. Hurt you. Scare you. Make you think differently. Live differently. Enrage you. Offend you. Open your eyes to the world in which we live. We've waited 2,000 years for the Messiah to arrive. We've waited 2,000 years for this book to be written. He was here. The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is the story of his life."

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist 2011

The shortlist for this year's Orange Prize for Fiction was announced earlier this week, highlighting some of the best literary fiction in English by female writers over the last year. The gender specificity of the prize has always been a little controversial, but I have followed it with interest from the beginning and have picked up copies of the UK firsts of each of the books on the shortlist, although because of the international scope of the prize the true firsts have been in many cases issued in other countries. In terms of collecting, the list has never approached the popularlity of the Booker Prize, and it would still be possible to assemble a complete set at reasonable cost. The possible exception is Wolf Hall, which is readily obtainable but rather expensive, although prices have fallen significantly over the last years and I expect them to continue to do so. One or two of the others are uncommon, but should not be expensive if you can find them.

Of the six books on this years shortlist, I have featured four previously in my Book of the Week section (links below). The Tiger's Wife seems to be the favourite at present - current prices for the UK editions are given below.


Orange Prize shortlist 2011


* Emma Donoghue (Irish) - Room; Picador, 2010; 7th Novel. Hardcover in dustwrapper. The trade first is around £10-12, with the 250 copy numbered and signed edition £125 or above.

* Aminatta Forna (British/Sierra Leonean) - The Memory of Love; Bloomsbury, 2010; 2nd Novel.  Hardcover in dustwrapper. £18-20.

* Emma Henderson (British) - Grace Williams Says it Loud; Sceptre, 2010; 1st Novel.  Hardcover in dustwrapper uncommon, but around £20.

* Nicole Krauss (American) - Great House; Viking; 3rd Novel. Hardcover in dustwrapper £20-25.

* Téa Obreht (Serbian/American) - The Tiger’s Wife; Weidenfeld and Nicolson; 1st Novel. Hardcover in dustwrapper £20-25.

* Kathleen Winter (Canadian) - Annabel; Jonathan Cape; 1st Novel. Hardcover in dustwrapper £10-12.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Book of the Week - Tea Obreht, The Tiger's Wife


Téa Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, has made a significant impact, with reviewers using words like brilliant and spectacular to describe it. Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia, and spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt before eventually immigrating to the United States in 1997. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. She currently lives in Ithaca, New York. Unusually for a writer based in the US, the UK edition published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson is the true first. This has been very rapidly reprinted, and all of the hardcovers I have seen in bookshops have been second printings. Given that there is also a UK paperback release, I strongly suspect that the first print run of the hardcover was modest. I expect this book to feature on prizelists this year (it has already been longlisted for the Orange prize), and if you can find a hardcover first at close to cover price I suggest picking it up now.

'Having sifted through everything I have heard about the tiger and his wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in April of 1941, without declaration or warning, the German bombs started falling over the city and did not stop for three days. The tiger did not know that they were bombs...' A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic - Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book. Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather's death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realises he may have died searching for 'the deathless man', a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger's wife.”