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.


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 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.”