I wanted to leave something festive up here for the next few days and thought I’d find something by the wonderful Sulamith Wulfing, the German artist and illustrator whose paintings have strong mystical and fairy tale influences. There were so many to choose from and they were so gorgeous that I decided in the end to put several up. Whatever you are celebrating this winter, I hope you have a lovely time. I won’t be posting until the end of the week, but I do hope to be visiting. Happy holidays in the meantime, dear blog friends!
When this book arrived for review I had a mixed reaction. I thought, Elizabeth Gilbert, yay! Because I very much enjoyed Committed and think she is generally a Good Thing. But then I read the blurb and I thought, a 19th century epic novel about botany? Well, hmmm, maybe. It didn’t seem a likely topic somehow for an author who has always seemed to have such modern concerns. And it is a very big book and I can be lazy about big books sometimes. So imagine my pleasure to find, in the closing pages of this novel, that I was really sorry to see it end. This was altogether a much more convincing and and enjoyable riposte to the 19th century novel than Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, and I think Elizabeth Gilbert has pulled off something quite special here.
The story belongs to Alma Whittaker, first born daughter of an lowly English thief turned pharmaceutical giant in Philadelphia and his education-crazy, strict and starchy Dutch wife. Alma inherits Henry’s passionate, determined genes and her mother’s love of order and reason. Crammed with a classical education, obliged to dine with collectors and specialists every evening at her parents’ table, and free to wander around her huge family estate, full of prime botanical specimens shipped in from all over the world, Alma grows up with science in her blood and a knowledge of botany to rival any expert. This turns out to be useful as she grows up big, strong and not terribly attractive, with a shock of red hair. When her parents adopt the beautiful orphan, Prudence, Alma is forced to realise that she is lacking something terribly important. But look, in this excerpt, what Elizabeth Gilbert does with such choice material:
One winter’s day, when the girls were about fifteen years old, an old friend of Henry’s from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens came to visit White Acre after many years away. Standing in the entryway, still shaking the snow off his cloas, the guest shouted, “Henry Whittaker, you weasel! Show me that famous daughter of yours I’ve been hearing so much about!”
The girls were nearby, transcribing botanical notes in the drawing room. They could hear every word.
Henry, in his great, crashing voice, said, “Alma! Come instantly! You are requested to be seen!”
Alma rushed into the atrium, bright with expectation. The stranger looked at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. He said, “No, you bloody fool – that’s not what I meant! I want to see the pretty one!”
Without a trace of rebuke, Henry replied, “Oh, so you’re intrested in Our Little Exquisite, then? Prudence, come in here! You are requested to be seen!”
Prudence slipped through the entryway and stood beside Alma, whose feet were now sinking into the floor, as into a thick and terrible swamp.
“There we are!” said the guest, looking over Prudence as though pricing her out. “Oh, she is splendid, isn’t she? I had wondered. I had suspected everyone might be exaggerating.”
Henry waved his hand dismissively. “Ah you all make too much of Prudence,” he said. “To my mind, the homely one is worth ten of the pretty one.”
So, you see, it is quite possible that both girls suffered equally.
This is what I loved about this novel. So many historical novels have these anachronistic heroines in order to portray strong women. But Gilbert takes a situation which happens to create a strong woman, one who is not endowed with the beauty that was a woman’s main marketable skill, and she gives her a brain instead, and a robustness that is wholly organic, and a plausible passion for science. Then she tells her story in a wonderful voice: straight, entertaining, informative, cunning. Alma is unlucky in love, but she’s prepared to take that on the chin. She settles down to a life devoted to the study of mosses until, nearing fifty, a visitor to White Acres turns her life upside down, and not in a way she could have predicted. I think this was the best, most original, most surprising love affair I’ve read this year. It’s also a battle between science (the word ‘scientist’ being coined during the course of the story’s history) and romanticism, a battle which of course no one wins. But it sets Alma off on a voyage to the other side of the world, and towards what might be considered her greatest triumph and her greatest tragedy.
Thematically, this novel is immensely clever. The 19th century is understood to be a time dominated by what we now call ‘grand narratives’; that’s to say this era believed that we were still heading towards the perfection of mankind and that there were various ways to tell the story of human history that stitched it up neatly and coherently – religion and science in particular were thought to hold the key to understanding all human life. All the strands of this well-organised novel come together in the theory intended to explain the development of biological life on the planet: Darwin’s theory of evolution. But Alma identifies the problem with that theory, and she is left holding it to the end of the book, ready, as it were, to give one big tug and watch the whole thing unravel. It seems so appropriate that, as an anomaly throughout her life, she should hold this awareness, but equally appropriate that, as an anomaly who has happily found her place and her purpose, she should be too respectful to apply it.
Apparently, it took Elizabeth Gilbert three and a half years to do just the research for this novel, and it shows. There were times when I wished her zeal for non-fiction had been curbed just a little. But there is so much entertainment in this novel, so much that is beautifully observed and well written that I forgave her. After all, any reader who approaches a contemporary version of the 19th century novel is going to have to expect a few digressions and be prepared to settle down to enjoy them. This is definitely the kind of book you want to get lost in; give it time, take it slowly and just enjoy the treat in store. This is character-driven fiction of the best sort.
I’ve been reading as much as ever but writing very little about it here – a most unusual turn of events! What it means, though, is that I can cherry pick the best of my reading to tell you about, three novels by these fantastic writers: Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson and Siri Hustvedt.
Instructions for a Heatwave
We’re in London in the heatwave of 1976, when Robert Riordan tells his wife, Gretta, that he’s going round the corner for a newspaper and doesn’t come back. Robert is recently retired, but there’s been no indication he’s unhappy. In the first flush of the crisis, Gretta – one of the candidates, surely, for the great ongoing list of hypnotically awful fictional mothers – summons her three grown children home for support. The Riordans are an Irish family, a rambunctious lot who grew up with a lot of yelling and flouncing out at mealtimes, which has led them in consequence to hold their real adult problems very close to their chests. Michael Francis is a history teacher with a rocky marriage, Monica the over-loved daughter who can’t get a purchase on her life and is sleepwalking through a second marriage and awkward stepchildren. And Aoife is the black sheep, a severe dyslexic (though no one knew enough to name it, back in the 70s) who is working in New York as a photographer’s assistant and living in fear that the blue file will be discovered where she’s hidden all the paperwork. Family tensions flourish in the heat and the confusion, but it’s a crucible where some old, treacherous issues can finally meltdown and assume new shape. This is such a warm, kind, generous novel, unflinching in its analysis of families and their foibles, but endlessly forgiving and full of love. I didn’t want it to end (happily, of course, all you doom-merchants be warned).
One Good Turn
I know Jackson Brodie is high on most people’s list of ideal male heroes, but I’ve been slow in getting around to reading Atkinson’s novels. Better late than never, though, as I loved this. The novel opens at the Edinburgh Festival where crowds queuing for lunchtime shows are made witness to a shocking road rage incident. Present at this scene are most of the characters whose lives will intertwine over the course of the next three days in surprising, sometimes alarming, ways. There’s Martin, the wimpish novelist, Gloria, late middle-aged wife of a very dodgy property developer, the two mysterious men involved in the road rage and Jackson himself, in Edinburgh accompanying his girlfriend, Julia, and her dreadful avant-garde production. Atkinson draws some more eccentric types into her convoluted web – a firm of Russian cleaners-come-call girls, a woman police detective with a troublesome teenage son and Graham, the property developer, who is hooked up to life support for most of the novel but has been the offstage cause of many of its problems. Quite unlike O’Farrell, Atkinson is not at all kind to her characters. In fact, she makes dreadful things happen to them, and proceeds to be very, very funny about it. This is a novel of chance and coincidence as lives collide and no one is quite what they seem, but it’s all so well done and enjoyable – apart maybe from the ending which gets a bit mad. But that didn’t matter to me when the journey there had been so entertaining.
The Sorrows of an American
We take a stylistic left turn out of frantic Edinburgh into an elegant street of sophisticated if melancholy boutiques for Siri Hustvedt, who can write some of the most gloriously intelligent yet heartfelt sentences I’ve ever read. I have a taste for shrink lit in any case, and this is a fine example of it. Erik Davidsen is a New York psychoanalyst and a man grieving for his recently deceased father, Lars. Going through his papers, he and his sister, Inga, discover an enigmatic note referring to a secret their father kept for a woman named Lisa. When their mother turns out to know nothing about it, brother and sister decide to unravel the mystery, if they can. Both have other ongoing problems in their lives. Erik falls for the mother and daughter who move into the flat below his. Miranda is a book cover designer who makes it clear she has no interest in him, but is grateful for his support when her ex-partner behaves in stalker-ish mode. Her daughter, Eglantine, is altogether more drawn to the man she calls the ‘worry doctor’, exerting her charm in exchange for some security of her own. Meanwhile, Inga, who was married to a late, great novelist, Max Blaustein, is contacted by the actress who starred in the one film he made and who claims to have had a child by him. She also owns letters that could spoil Max’s posthumous reputation, and Inga is aware that a vindictive journalist is hunting for damaging material. What makes this book (what makes any book, really) are the voice and the vision. Hustvedt effortlessly evokes the complex life of the mind, and the multiple sorrows and fears that are the inevitable residue of living every day. Erik’s interactions with his patients are fascinating and disturbing in equal measure, but it’s clear that everyone in this novel, ‘normal’ or otherwise, suffers the way all humanity must from unexpected disappointments and not knowing what they want, or what will make them happy. If this sounds sad, it isn’t; Hustvedt makes something very beautiful out of the mystery of life, as is only right and proper.
For a while now, I’ve been speculating that what we need is a kind of sorting house for the wealth of self-published material that’s now available. There I was, wondering when someone would start one, and as chance would have it I happened to be put in touch with the Awesome Indies site when the thriller writer whose books I’ve been much admiring lately, T.V. LoCicero, asked me to stand as a guarantor for his work. So of course I was curious and rushed over to have a good look, and I have to say that Awesome Indies is pretty awesome and a properly exciting new development in the rapidly changing world of publishing. This is how they describe themselves:
We showcase quality independent fiction for the discerning reader. They have been evaluated by industry professionals against specific criteria for quality fiction & deemed to be of the same quality of craftsmanship as books published by mainstream publishing houses.
Wanting to find out more about the site, I asked its founder, Tahlia Newland, if she would be kind enough to agree to an interview, and the results were as follows:
1. So what prompted you to start up Awesome Indies?
As a reader I liked the price of indie books and also the fact that they were different to the mainstream, because I was a bit sick of the same old things, but I kept finding myself buying books that looked good and had high ratings, but were so badly written or edited that I couldn’t finish them. It’s really frustrating to get half way through a book and realise that you’ve wasted your time. I soon realised that reviews by readers without education in the specifics of writing weren’t that reliable. Everyone can say whether they like something or not, but not so many can say whether a book is well crafted or not. I always looked at the low starred reviews and was really grateful when someone mentioned problems with the writing, but though you see them more often now, a year ago, that kind of review was very rare.
2. I love the organisation of the site – how did you go about setting it up and finding people to read for you?
It took time. I started with just me. The idea was to share the books I’d read that were of the same standard as mainstream books, but I didn’t want to be the only one so I instituted the system where authors have to find reviewers who meet the qualifications I wanted, and submit reviews by them. That’s how I met the other reviewers and asked if they’d help out with the Awesome Indies. I also knew of reviewers whose opinion I trusted, so I added them to our recommended reviewers list. Other people came to help out as the site grew and people realised how important it is for readers and authors to have something like this.
3. You must have some stories to tell about the books you’ve had in – what’s been your overall experience of self-published books and their authors?
Very mixed. Some are so brilliant that Jen Blood and I awarded them the Seal of Excellence as soon as we instituted it, but aprox 60% of books submitted to our reviewers are rejected, and that’s from those who think they’ve had their books properly edited. (We tell authors not to apply unless they have had them professionally edited.) So unfortunately there really is a lot of substandard books out there. The difficult ones are on the edge, and that’s why we have a group of back up readers to give us second opinions.
Most authors are very supportive but a few get a bit stroppy if you reject their book. I have a clear review policy that authors have to indicate that they agree with before I’ll review their book, and I haven’t had any problems since I said that I wouldn’t discuss my opinion with them. The judges’ decisions are final.
The worst thing is when an author has paid someone to edit their work and the editor clearly didn’t know what they were doing, or where it’s been partially edited, for example it has a copy edit but is sorely in need of a line edit. The copy editor didn’t tell the author that it also needed a line edit, or they had no idea that it did need one. Either way, the author thinks it all fine, but it isn’t. I feel very sorry for such authors, because they paid their money in good faith. Others don’t pay a thing and have a expert job because their sister or friend happens to be a professional editor. Publishing independently is very hard work and full of pitfalls. Authors need to do a lot of research before starting out.
4. The publishing industry is in such a huge transition right now. What do you think it’s doing right, and what is it doing wrong?
It’s hard to talk about the industry as a whole because there are so many aspects to it, but in terms of independent publishing, I think the freedom for all to publish is good, but the flood of poor quality books is the main issue facing independently published books today. I wouldn’t want to see Amazon or Smashwords evaluate books before printing, though, instead I’d like to see Amazon advertise a list of recognised evaluators like the Awesome Indies. I suspect that more evaluation systems like ours will emerge as the need becomes greater. If readers aren’t told what books are well written and encouraged to buy them, then the standard of acceptable written English will decline. Readers will look at the standard and think they can write as good a book themselves, then we’ll have even more badly written books and the downward spiral will continue.
5. What do you think the future of self-published books will be?
Once the existence of evaluation sites like ours becomes common knowledge, books listed on them should do well in the long term, so long as they are the kind of books people want to read. (A good book is not always a popular book) A lot of authors will give up, and their books will fade into obscurity, but, unfortunately, you’ll still get people ‘chucking their book out there to see how it goes,’ and such books will always be the Achilles heal of independent publishing.
Apparently the sales of SP books have leveled out and the challenge is to reach those readers who presently will not touch a SP book due to concerns about quality. It’s up to groups of authors like the Awesome Indies Approved authors to band together and present to the world the beauty of quality independent books. If this doesn’t happen, SP books will always be the poor cousins in many readers’ eyes, and the number of readers willing to read them won’t grow to match the volume of books coming onto the market.
6. I saw an article recently that said there’s been a huge shift, and now more people want to write than want to read – do you think that’s the case?
I don’t know, but anyone can make a home movie and it hasn’t stopped us going to the movies to see a proper one. Anyone can play around with music software, but they still download other people’s songs and not everyone wants to listen to little Jonny’s latest creations.
7. What kind of books do you find you are getting – do you receive as much literary fiction as genre fiction?
We get both genre and literary fiction submissions for the site, but we find that in most cases literary fiction books fit into one of the genre fiction categories as well, so authors don’t put themselves in the literary fiction category, we go by what the reviewers say. We also place cross-genre books in with the literary fiction, so it’s for anything that doesn’t fit any of our categories or that goes beyond what is expected of genre fiction. We have a lot of books that cross genres and some genre fiction that is also literary in its treatment; for example, we have literary fantasy and literary mystery. We also have a large metaphysical fiction category and a magical realism category, and many of those books could also be called literary.
8. Where would you like Awesome Indies to be in two year’s time?
It should be THE place for people to go to choose their independently published fiction. It should have hundreds of thousands of hits every day from people who are looking for new, interesting, quality fiction. Everyone who wants something a little more daring, a little outside the box, a little surprising without having to concern themselves with judging its quality before they buy will be visiting the site regularly. I would like to see our authors selling thousands of books a day through the site. I want to see them get the recognition and rewards they deserve for a well-crafted product.