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.""


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."


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).