Shiny Summer!

Shiny New Books Edition 6 is now live, hurray!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245It’s a packed programme over there, as always, with loads of reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reprinted books, as well as the BookBuzz section which has all kinds of intriguing interviews and features.

Okay, where to send you first? Well, given I’ve been so absent from this blog, I’ll link to a few reviews of my favourite books this time.

Probably the most moving and engaging book I read for this edition was One Life by Kate Grenville, a biography of her mother and a deft social history of the 20th century in Australia.

But you should definitely check out Threads,  Julia Blackburn’s quest for the lost painter and embroiderer, John Craske, a fisherman whose experience of chronic illness turned him to art.

As for fiction, I probably enjoyed most Paradise City by Elizabeth Day, a four-handed narrative between disparate London-dwellers whose lives interact in surprising ways.

I’ll also mention Early Warning by Jane Smiley, second in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. I loved it, but you really do need to read the first volume first.

As for my own section, BookBuzz, there’s so much there that I really loved. Check out Anne Goodwin’s fascinating account of creating her unusual main protagonist in her debut novel Sugar and Snails.

And oh, choices! How about Tony’s account of being on the shadow jury for this year’s IFFP?

Finally, the book we’ve chosen for book club in August is Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, so now you’ve got six weeks to read it if  you’d like to join in with our discussion on the 20th August. Do hope you will!

 

 

 

 

The Inconvenient Past

I have been such a bad blogger lately and I do apologise. I just have too much on at the moment, and when something has to give, it has to be the least work-related activity. Also, the last couple of months I’ve reviewed books a lot less here in order to write reviews for Shiny New Books. Instead, I’ve enjoyed writing more personal pieces on this blog. However, there are plenty of weeks – and I call them good weeks – when nothing much happens of interest to tell you about. Having just written that, I should confess that I was at the Cambridge literary festival on the weekend, which theoretically is a good blogging topic but I can’t quite work the enthusiasm up for writing about it. It was good! Really, writers talked about their work, they were witty and clever, the audience enjoyed themselves. You get the picture.

Instead, let me tell you about a couple more of the books that didn’t quite make it into Shiny and my probably very contentious reasons for not putting them there: two historical novels from debut writers, The Tutor by Andrea Chapin and The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester.

Okay, so here’s a question: why set a novel in the past? Ostensibly there’s a simple answer to that – Andrea Chapin is writing about a part of Shakespeare’s life for which there is no actual historical record, Lucy Ribchester about the Suffragettes. Historical characters, in other words, for whom we still have a measure of curiosity. But I found myself wondering about the heroines of these novels and the role they served.

the tutorIn Chapin’s lushly romantic novel, young widow, Katherine de L’Isle lives with her uncle and his family, having lost two families of her own. They are Catholics at a time of great persecution and all sorts of disturbing events occur, beginning with the murder on their grounds of the family priest. Katherine’s uncle, fearing his presence as the main cause of persecution flees to France, leaving a power vacuum behind in his family. Into this chaos comes the young Will Shakespeare, occasional player, unconventional tutor to the family’s young children, and would-be poet. This Will is a shameless flirt and a charmer, constantly on the lookout for opportunities to weasel his way into rewarding relationships. Realising Katherine is a keen and astute reader, he ends up sending her his poem on Venus and Adonis for Katherine to critique, and as the poem proceeds, so Katherine begins to fall for Will and to imagine that their responses to one another are echoed in the verse. More fool Katherine, for Will is a tease and too interested in his own aspirations to care for her; she is about to hit a rocky end.

the hourglass factoryIn The Hourglass Factory, Frankie George is a rookie reporter for the London Evening Gazette, determined to make her name despite her gender. At present she is a reluctant ‘odds and sods’ columnist, teamed up with the overblown and demanding Twinkle, so when she is asked for a profile of infamous trapeze artist, Ebony Diamond, Frankie leaps at the chance. Particularly when she is quickly made aware that Ebony, with her Suffragette leanings, is swimming in dangerous waters. Following her to the London Coliseum to pursue her investigation, Frankie is as astonished as the rest of the audience when Ebony seems to disappear into thin air, the mystery compounded by an escaped tiger from an earlier act – which may or may not have eaten her. Frankie risks the ire of her boss, the vengeance of corrupt police officers and a variety of reckless and dangerous characters around her to pursue the truth.

Both of these novels are very well-written and carefully plotted with swooping stories. They’ve got everything: corpses, love affairs, mysteries, famous figures from the past, exotic locations. They have, in other words, a wholly 21st century mentality, nowhere more evident than in their female heroines who rush into the heart of the action without a backward glance.

So I get it; a lot of readers find it hard to forgive the past for its ideologies and don’t want to read about the sort of mindset women of those ages might likely have had. But why, in that case, write historical fiction employing such 21st century characters? Why not place them where they belong, in the current day? And weirdly, what’s the trend in popular contemporary novels but women struggling against their own weakness and dissolution, like the dreadful The Girl on the Train. If we still like the women-in-peril novel, if we are fascinated by women as their own worst enemies, why are we so insistent that women in the past should behave with autonomy and ambition? Is it only me who thinks that odd?

For my money, the only reason to write about the past is to inhabit the strange otherness of the past, the way it differed so profoundly from life as we know it. And for sure, we see that in the backdrop of both of these novels. Are we to think, then, that history is only used as intriguing scenery? A particularly attractive backcloth? If I go down this track, then I become cynical. Are authors latching onto these famous names – Shakespeare, the Suffragettes – just because they will sell? The reader gets a little bit of a history lesson from the details, and can enjoy a rambunctious story with lots of strong characters?

It’s the current style, and I am out of step. But in my heart, I find myself uneasy with this sort of falsification of history. This is not how it was. And it’s important we remember how it was, the reasons human beings chose eventually to live and think differently and the reasons why we do not wish to go back to those old habits. The past was not a nice place and women certainly did not think as if they were free. And the world today is not a nice place, with all sorts of self-serving ideologies still doing the rounds and holding us hostage. I hope future writers will not spare us by prettying it up and pretending we valiantly rose above it all.

In all fairness, Lucy Ribchester does give a very vivid portrait of what Suffragettes went through at the hands of the police and the jailors and Andrea Chapin makes it clear how brutal persecution of Catholics was in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. As I said, they are very good books on their own terms, with a lot of verve and colour. You will probably enjoy them! You should certainly try them to see what you think.

 

The Almost-Made-Its

I’ve read a lot of books over the past couple of months, not all of which proved quite right for Shiny. The following are two very gentle, very undemanding novels that work well on their own terms and only missed the cut because they were a little too sweet and cosy for a general recommendation.

 

Francesca and the Mermaid by Beryl Kingston

francesca and mermaidThis is a romantic fairy tale in modern day dress. Francesca is on a holiday cruise with her partner, the intolerably bumptious Jeffrey, when she spots a mermaid splashing in the waters. Surprised by the sight, she finds herself confiding in a fellow passenger, Agnes Potts, who is older and a little infirm, but sprightly in spirit and a straight talker. As the days pass it becomes clear to Francesca that the mermaid is a harbinger of great change and a sign that she should put her life in order. Jeffrey is behaving even more obnoxiously than ever, and by the end of the holiday she decides to leave him. Agnes invites her to stay with her in Lewes, offering Francesca a wonderful retreat from the world in her untidy house, and while recovering the lost shape of herself, Francesca decides to start painting again, taking the mermaid as her first subject. This painting will introduce her to widowed Henry Prendergast who owns the local potteries, and who has plans to alter Francesca’s life in all possible ways.

There’s an almost magical moral universe at work in this novel, in which Francesca’s fortunes just get better and better, despite the villainous Jeffrey’s rather weak attempts to derail her. Creativity, success, friends, love, security, money, all begin to shower down upon her, and we are told, often, that this was the happiest of all times for her. In fact, the insistance on paradise and good fortune ended up making me feel that some terrible sadness had been at work in the author’s life, this was a novel of such fierce wish fulfillment. And then I noticed that the dedication was to a lost son. There might be no connection at all; best to pay me no attention. In any case, this is the novel to give to someone going through hard times who wants uninterrupted comfort in their reading. The good characters are richly rewarded, their lives healed and their desires satisfied, whilst the bad characters get their comeuppance. It is charming, and sometimes touching but it can be a little overwhelming in its goodness.

 

The Whitstable Pearl Mystery by Julie Wassmer

whitstable pearlSet over the course of Whitstable’s annual oyster festival, this is the first in what I imagine will be a new crime series featuring Pearl Nolan, a seafood restaurant owner who has always harboured a desire to become a detective. Years ago, a teenage pregnancy prevented her from entering the police, but now that Charlie is grown up and away at university, Pearl has a little more time on her hands and she starts a fledgling private investigation agency out of a shed at the bottom of her garden. And then it just so happens that she stumbles upon a couple of corpses in quick succession, one of which is her old and dear friend, Vinnie, a local fisherman, the other the first ever client to call upon the services of her agency.

Curious and determined to become involved in the investigation, Pearl dogs the footsteps of the Chief Inspector assigned to the case, Mike McGuire, in a way that in real life might well earn her a charge of obstructing the course of justice. But eventually her knowledge of the local area, and the local people, provide her with some useful leads. The investigation is also easing Pearl over a difficult time in her family, as Charlie’s new and perfect girlfriend, Tizzy, is driving a gap between mother and son, and we’re given a hint that romance between Pearl and Mike McGuire is not entirely out of the question.

This is a very easy book to read (the author is a regular writer for Eastenders, in case you’re interested) with a strong sense of place and a neatly unspooling plot. The characters are lively and well-drawn, and it’s essentially one of those novels that feels as if you’re watching a good quality midweek television drama. I did enjoy it, and it’s well-constructed, so it’s hard to say what holds me back from a full appreciation. I think it lacks a bit of spark, something to make it more memorable than it is. But in all honesty, I hardly ever read the first book in a crime series as I tend to think they are never as good as the ones that follow subsequently. If you enjoy relatable, cosy crime then definitely consider giving this one a try, and I’ll certainly be curious to see where the author takes her characters as the series continues.

A Double Anniversary

SNB-logoYes,  it’s our first year anniversary at Shiny New Books and we’re celebrating with our 5th edition. Please do go over and check out our reviews, features, interviews and articles. Plus, we’ve got a special announcement about our new Shiny Book Club.

And on the 2nd April, this blog marked its 9th anniversary. That’s scary, isn’t it? It doesn’t feel as if nine years have gone past, though a lot has happened, admittedly. Nine years ago, I had just come off work on sick leave from the university, my son’s voice hadn’t even broken, and Mr Litlove was working for a different company. We were all quite different people, I think; there’s been a lot of changing and growing and developing going on here in all that time.

But the main constant – and the loveliest gift of all from blogging – has been the company of many dear virtual friends. So many of you have been visiting here faithfully for years, and I can’t thank you enough for that. And it’s been an extra delight to have good friends from the Reading Room become good friends at Shiny, too.

So a special thank you to Annabel, Harriet, Simon and Bookgazing, who are all on the Shiny Adventure.

And I am so pleased to direct you towards some of the fabulous reviews and articles in our 5th edition by these wonderful people:

Danielle picks us Books for Spring

Jean encourages us toward Reading in Translation

Arti considers the role Stefan Zweig played in Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ingrid interviews American giant of letters, Phillip Lopate

Stefanie reviews Orlando and The Waves

Susan reviews the new Patrick Gale, A Place Called Winter

Denise reviews Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

Karen reviews The Man In A Hurry by Paul Morand

And now that Shiny no.5 is finally out, I catch up with my email correspondence! If I owe you an email, a thousand apologies – I’ll be writing very soon!