Friday, June 1, 2007

Letter from the Editor, June 2007

Everyone talks about those proverbial "beach reads," and while I think it a positively alluring idea, I can't say that I have the attention span or gumption to actually read on the beach; there is always hot sun glaring off my pages, sand working its way into my crevices (books and body), and who can concentrate with scantily clad beach bums about?

However, in the spirit of summer reading, June's theme is "heat." I was particularly pleased with the writers' interesting takes on the theme this month. We have pieces on sports, lesbian fiction, independent publishing and a hot Book Tour of my favorite city--Wilmington, North Carolina. Not to mention several pieces about the hottest authoress since Colin Firth's codpiece, none other than Jane Austen, a summer staple for readers everywhere.

Sit back, grab a cool glass of lemonade and usher in the summer with Estella's Revenge.

Happy reading!

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Author Interviews





Author Interview: Cathleen Schine

Interviewed by Andi

My regard for Cathleen Schine's new novel, The New Yorkers, prompted me to seek her out and ask for an interview. Much to my delight Cathleen agreed, and I can't tell you how wonderful it has been corresponding with her. She is just as warm and friendly as her work is intriguing.

AM: Your new novel, The New Yorkers, chronicles the daily lives of a number of quirky characters who live on a single Manhattan block. Ultimately, they come together by the hand of fate and the help of dogs (love that). Would you mind explaining to our readers a bit about the inspiration for the novel?

CS: In 2001, my girlfriend Janet and I got a little rescue dog named Buster. It was a heartbreaking experience, which I wrote about in The New Yorker. But when I finished that piece, I realized I still had so much more I wanted to write about: about what I had discovered about New York since getting a dog. I have lived here for over 30 years, I never imagined living anywhere else when I was growing up in Connecticut, I loved New York, but I don’t think I ever really knew the city until I got a dog. And after September 11th, I felt so protective of New York. There’s something that Barbara Pym wrote to her sister when she was working on an early novel—the first one, I think—and she was describing the characters and then said something like, “There ought to be something there to provide comfort for someone.” I found that idea weirdly inspiring.

AM: The New Yorkers is a delightfully intricate, character-driven work, and the individual characters are some of the most lovingly fleshed-out that I have read in a very long time. How did the characters come to you? Are they rooted in reality at all?

CS: First of all, thank you. As to the characters being rooted in reality, not really. Not the main characters. I did notice among my aquaintances a number of very, very close brothers and sisters in their twenties, and I found that relationship very compelling and wanted to write about it. That’s where Polly and George came from. But the others just grew out of that fictional street, which in turn grew out of a real street that we lived on for a few years. And a number of the minor characters were friendly nods at people I know from that street and from walking the dog. I started to think of my block as if it were an village in a 19th century English novel. And I wanted something daily from these characters, not the oversized kind of lives associated with fiction about new York. But I always use some things from real people, behavior or language that strikes me. One is a scavenger first and foremost. There was one thing I wanted to use in the book but just couldn’t find a place for. We went to the Metropolitan Museum and the volunteer at the desk , a very well dressed East Side lady of around seventy, had on a beautiful Lalique ring, which I admired. She said, “Oh, thank you so much. I have a lot of them. Well, you know, I’m constantly breaking them… Applauding.” Oh, it was beautiful. A detail that said so much about her life. I wanted to kiss her! I still may use it somewhere.

AM: How long does it generally take you to write a novel? Is it tough for you to get into the swing of writing a new piece?

CS: It varies with every book. For the first book, Alice in Bed, I wrote a page a day. Every day. No matter what. It was less intimidating that way. It took a year. It was 365 pages—and rather episodic. The second, To The Birdhouse, took seven years. I had babies then, and whenever I tried to work, I got jealous of the babysitter and joined her. Since then, between two and five years, I think, depending on personal drama, apartment fires etc. It is hard to start something new, but it’s such a relief, too, because the instant I hand in a manuscript, and usually well before that, I start worrying that I’ll never have another idea for a book ever again.

AM: In addition to your work as a novelist, you are also an accomplished journalist with publications in The New Yorker and The New York Times, to name just a few. What is your favorite non-fiction piece you have written and why?

CS: Undoubtedly the piece about Buster, our poor departed little dog. For one thing, it is objectively the best piece of nonfiction writing I’ve done. For another, the actual writing of it meant a lot to me personally. I also like a humor piece I did many many years ago for the New Yorker about roving bus herds in Manhattan. And the column I did in the Times Mag was fun—sort of proto-faux-blogging.

AM: What is your writing process like? Do you have any rituals? Unbreakable habits?

CS: I’m very undisciplined, which is bad. But I’m flexible, which is good. I have fantasies of getting up early and working for five hours or so, taking a walk, working a little more, taking a nap, working…But really I usually get up later than I meant to, drink coffee and read the paper and go online, realize I have to walk the dog, realize it’s time for lunch, go to the coffee shop, get home, sulk because I haven’t worked or gone to the gym, realize it’s time to walk the dog again, write for two hours and then, Gosh! It’s cocktail time.

AM: How do you know when a work is finished? Do you have trouble walking away from a piece, or are you looking ahead to the next one?

CS: Some poet, I can’t remember who, said, "You never finish a poem, you just abandon it." An editor said that to me, and I’ve always remembered it. You know when you’ve gotten to the end of the narrative, but a book is really never finished--there’s always more you want to do to the beginning, the middle and then…you’re back at the end, and you see that the end needs work too. I could do that forever I think. The only time I get tired of the book I’ve just written is when I have to read from it on a book tour. You hear every mistake, every repetition, every dead passage. I hate each book for about two years after that, really hate them, find them humiliating. Then for whatever reason, I am forced to look at them again after two years or three, and I think, Hey, not so bad. Not so bad at all, although this new one…now this really sucks… I refused to go on a book tour with The New Yorkers. So I still like it.

AM: Do you allow anyone to read your work in progress?

CS: I do. I beg people to read it. Certain people. Certain gifted people, and I’m lucky in my friends that they are gifted editors and readers.

AM: You are an author who has embraced blogging (much to the delight of publications like Estella's Revenge). What is it that attracts you to blogging? Do you have any favorite author blogs that you read regularly?

CS: I resisted blogging at first because it was hard for me to wrap my brain around the concept of writing without even the hope of getting paid. I started as a journalist, and I cling to that craftsman attitude. It keeps my raging vanity in check. Trollope is my idol. And I hate writing letters, I don’t keep a journal, so I thought I wouldn’t like blogging. But I spend so much time poking around on line. And I began to understand the community aspect of the whole thing, which I like very much. I look at book blogs like yours, but mostly I go to design blogs like Design Sponge and One Good Bumble Bee (which is also a literary blog; she’s a poet). I also like stuff. There’s a lot of stuff on line. That’s why I decided to make my blog about stuff. Of course, most of the stuff is books. There are also things that are not quite big enough for a published piece, but that I would love to have a place to put. So I’ll use the blog for that too. It’s a comfort blog, for when it’s too late at night and you don’t want to get riled up by the injustice of the world by reading The Huffington Post. And it’s a place where I can just say—This is good. I like this. It’s called The Enthusiast. It’s a relief to be able to say: “I love Elizabeth Strout’s book Abide by Me. It’s brilliant. Buy it! Read it!” and, because it’s my blog and I get to do whatever I want, I don’t have to write a whole review. It’s like talking to a friend, which is what it’s supposed to be like, I guess. But I didn’t realize that until I started. And by the way, I love Elizabeth Strout’s book Abide With Me! Buy it! Read it!

AM: You state in your alternative "official" bio that you once dreamed of being an intellectual and attended the University of Chicago as a graduate student in medieval history, eventually giving up the dream and freelancing. As one who has recently walked away from academia, I have to ask: What were the most challenging parts of adjusting from an academic setting to freelance writing and eventually work as a novelist and journalist?

CS: Earning a living? That was a difficult concept that grad school protected me from. But other than that little snag, I ask you, would you rather be in Chicago sitting in a class on hermeneutics and not understanding anything, or would you like to be in Greenwich Village hanging around the Village Voice, when it was really good, pretending to work there? Much more fun at the Voice, which is where I started. And now I can still, and do, read about scholarly subjects, but I don’t have to remember anything. Very liberating. I have a horrible memory.

AM: Do you often have the opportunity to read for pleasure? What are you reading now?

CS: I always read at night. I feel too guilty reading during the day, because reading is such a pleasure, and the daytime is for work or procrastinating. I read a lot at night because I have insomnia. I just finished an authobiography written in 1789 by a slave named Olaudah Equiano. It was remarkable, a tragic slave narrative, and an exciting adventure tale—beautifully written, a lot of stuff about the African village he was kidnapped from, about African customs, and then the hideous passage, and then plantation work, and then life trading and having battles on board various ships, when it becomes a kind of sea-faring adventure story. I just started a book called Color by Victoria Finlay. It’s a history of color and paint. It’s fascinating. And I’m going to read a biography of Goya by Evan S. Connell, (one of the best living writers in the United States, I think,) because we’re going to Spain and I like to read about places I’m going to and I found this book in our bookcase. God knows when I bought it. I read a lot of non-fiction. (I like your nonfiction posts on Estella’s Revenge, by the way). Although, I have also just gone through a delightful E.F. Benson phase. Oh, and I just read A.N. Wilson’s Eminent Victorians. I read a lot about Victorian England. He’s a wonderful novelist, also. I don’t read enough contemporary fiction.

AM: What advice would you give to a budding, unpublished author?

CS: Don’t think about being published. Don’t think about your readers. Don’t think about yourself. Don’t think about “writing.” Don’t think about writing great art. All of that is paralyzing, and it’s irrelevant. Think about the work itself. Do the work. That’s where the joy is, that’s where the art is hiding, that’s why readers will read it, that’s why a publisher will publish it. Wow…that sounds so pompous. But I really believe that.

AM: Do you have any projects on the horizon with which to tempt our readers?

CS: Well, I hope it’s tempting. It’s certainly odd, for me. But I’m very excited about it: I’m writing a mystery. I wanted to work within a very specific form, and to force myself to pay attention to the aspects of narrative, the essential aspects, of plot and suspense. After I started, The New York Times Magazine called and asked if I would write a serialized novel. Normally I would have had to say no, because the restrictions would have made what I do impossible. I could never have written The New Yorkers like that. It needed time to meander. But part of the fun and pleasure of writing this particular novel, of writing a mystery, is doing it within certain boundaries, like writing a sonnet or a haiku, all proportions kept. And I am a Trollope maniac, so the idea of a serialized novel has always intrigued me. Perfect timing for me. I think it will appear after Labor Day. And it turns out to be very suspenseful, indeed, for me, anyway: Will I… finish by the deadline?

My extreme thanks to Cathleen Schine for her time and thoughtful answers. Visit her web site (including her blog) HERE.

Author Interview: Shannon Hale

Interviewed by Melissa

If you mentioned the name Shannon Hale to a pre-teen girl (or someone like me who follows young adult fiction), they would probably know who you were talking about. After all, she's the author the massively popular Princess Academy, which received a Newbery Honor, as well as having created the fantasy world of Bayern, in which she set her series The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, and River Secrets. So now it's time for the rest of the adult world to figure out who she is. Her first grown-up fiction book, Austenland, a Jane Austen-fan-inspired work, was published on May 29th. I managed to catch her before book tour craziness started, and she graciously found time to answer my (kind of long) list of questions. Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting....Shannon Hale.

MF: I'm curious: did Colin Firth ever write back ?

SH: Not yet! But I won't give up hope.

MF: How did you come up with the idea for Austenland? You said on your blog that you never expected Austenland to be published. Why? How do you feel about it now that it is?

SH: I answer this question here: I'm terribly pleased with the book. I won't let any of my manuscripts out of my hands and into publication until they’re exactly what I want them to be. Now whether or not any readers will agree with me is another question…

MF: If I remember right, you never described what Jane looks like. Was that intentional? Why?

SH: I rarely physically describe main characters unless it’s important to the story. As a reader, I find it easier to slip into the role of main character if unencumbered by physical description. And it bothers me. Physical description, generally, is more important for minor characters than main characters. I like to give one or two keys, physical traits, and let the reader create the person in their own mind.

MF: There's no sex (though I felt that sex was implied in places), and very little swearing in Austenland. That's impressive, considering the market out there. Why keep the book so clean? Did it make it harder to sell to the publishers? How do you think it'll effect the book's sales?

SH: Bloomsbury was never concerned about lack of sex or gratuitous language. I don't know if other publishers would have been. I didn't think the story needed it. There’s no sex in Austen novels, and I wanted to feel transplanted. And it’s more of a challenge, more rewarding to make something sexy without sex. Besides, I find it belittling to readers. I think smart readers want a story, first and foremost. Swearing is often a cop-out, too. The challenge is finding a better word. In one scene, I originally had the main character spray paint the word “asshole” on the car of a guy who'd been a real jerk. In a later draft, I changed that to “she-male.” I think you'll agree, the latter was a much better choice.

MF: I wasn't expecting to laugh as much as I did. Why make it so funny?

SH: Thank you! Making someone laugh is harder to do than making someone cry. I'm often shocked that humor isn't venerated more in our culture. Why don't the funny books win the awards or get put on high school and college reading lists? Why don't the comedies garner Oscars? Why is tragedy considered deeper and more real than comedy? I think the only way to get through this life is laughing hard and constantly. Mostly at myself.

MF: What's your favorite Austen novel? Movie adaptation?

SH: Persuasion has become my new favorite of the novels, closely followed by Pride & Prejudice. I love the BBC adaptation of the latter (of course), and I adored the Mansfield Park adaptation even though it deviated from the book. Now you know­I’m not an Austen purist. But I just love that gal.

MF: All your books up to now have been geared toward the YA crowd. How was it writing a book for adults? Easier? Harder?

SH: I truly just write books for myself and let my agent figure out if they’re YA or adult. The contemporary setting for Austenland was tons easier to write than doing period fantasy. In general, I would say YA is more demanding than adult. Adults will put up with rambling; kids won't.

MF: Do you read a lot? What's your favorite book? How does that reading effect your work?

SH: I do read as much as I can. I love it! That’s why I'm in this biz, after all. I'm always reading 2-3 books. I find reading too many similar books in a row or books by the same author affects my writing, so I mix it up.

MF: You've got two books coming out this year; I'm impressed. Was it difficult getting two books ready for publication in one year? How are you going to manage (are you managing) the book tours for each of the books?

SH: Austenland has been a long time coming. I've been slowly writing it over the past seven years, so I didn't rush either book to completion. The dual-publicity is going to be a piece of work. I have a new baby and will be taking her everywhere I go this year (yay for nursing mamas!) and my toddler as well on most of the trips. Yikes. We'll see how it goes.

MF: Where do you get your inspiration for stories? Is story telling a natural thing to you or do you have to work at it?

SH: Inspiration comes from everywhere. There is an incredible amount of work for me in telling a story. I have to do the labor and sweat and bleed and cry to get it to a point where a reader will think it is natural.

MF: Do you have a writing routine? When is your best time to write? How do you manage to find time, with two small kids?

SH: It’s tough. I have daily writing goals. I used to write during my toddler's nap time, but that is no more. We’re still figuring this one out. (My baby is squirming on my lap at this moment and toddler is playing a computer game, so I'm rushing through this.)

MF: Do you work in longhand first, or do you do everything on the computer? Do you tend to complete drafts ahead of time, or work right up until the last minute?

SH: All computer. My editor and I have a wonderful relationship, and while I usually make deadlines, sometimes we adjust them if life and family just won't permit.

MF: Does anyone read your work before you send it to your publisher/editors?

SH: Indeed. My husband reads all my books at least three times during the writing process. I do many drafts before my editor sees it, and usually one or two others read my books and give feedback besides my husband and editor. I rewrite obsessively (except for interviews, which I rush through!).

MF: What are you working on right now?

SH: This interview! And a sequel to a graphic novel. The first will be out next year. My husband and I co-wrote it, and it’s going to rock. The illustrations by Nathan Hale (no relation) are incredible.

MF: What's your favorite part of the writing process? What's the most stressful?

SH: My favorite parts are the serendipitous moments where I find just the right word, right sentence, right scene, that makes all the work worth it. The most stressful is writing a first draft. Terrifies me every time.

MF: From my almost-11-year-old daughter (who loves both Goose Girl and Princess Academy): What's your favorite part of being an author?

SH: Hi cute girl! My favorite part is meeting sweet readers like you. I also love living in a story while I'm writing it, becoming so intimate with the characters, living in that place (writing a book is even better than reading one for pure carry-me-away-ness!) and the unbeatable satisfaction I feel when I finish a final draft.

MF: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

SH: Never stop reading what you love. And have fun with it! Don't stress about the publication part until you have to.

MF: What sort of feedback do you get from your readers? (Do you like getting feedback from your readers?) Is what you get from mostly teens or adults?

SH: My readers are so kind, so smart and genuine. Mostly I get requests for sequels or books about favorite characters (i.e. Finn). About half my readers are adults.

MF: When did you start blogging? What inspired you to do it?

SH: I started in 2002 because my husband made my website and told me I should blog. I didn't get what it was all about at the time. Now I blog to be helpful to aspiring writers and also to reach as many readers as I can, since I can't answer emails anymore or travel enough to meet everyone in person.

MF: What's your favorite joke?

SH: ”How do you find the time to write with a toddler and a baby?” That one always makes me laugh.

Thanks, Shannon! (And good luck with the book tour!)

Book Tour: Wilmington, NC

By Andi

When I moved to North Carolina in 2003, I immediately fell in love with Wilmington for its history, creativity, and general sense of artsiness. Located on the Cape Fear River and the North Carolina coastline, it’s the perfect getaway for families, students, beachcombers or landlovers with a taste for culture and cuisine. As I continue to settle back into life in North Carolina, I took some time to re-visit Wilmington, this time with a particular goal in mind: to find the best of the best bookstores.

A quick glance through the yellow pages revealed several independent booksellers in the downtown area, as well as several outside downtown and nearer the campus of the University of North Carolina – Wilmington. With my trusty camera in hand, I set out to see what these booksellers had to offer, and although I had high hopes for these literary hovels, they managed to surpass even my wildest expectations.

Two Sisters Bookery is located in the historic Cotton Exchange at 318 Nutt Street, right downtown at the edge of the river and downtown’s quirky shopping scene. Downtown is a shopper’s dreamscape, and Two Sisters Bookery is no exception. The store reminded me a bit of a hobbit hole and a medieval castle all at once, with its brick walls, wooden arches, comfy chairs and bulging stacks, I immediately felt my bibliophile’s heart go all aflutter. The store is jammed with interesting books and assorted goodies like bookmarks, bags and other pretties. Of all the sections of the store, I was most intrigued by the gorgeous Children’s area, which left me all but helpless to snap away with my camera and nose through the offerings.

In addition to the Children’s section, Two Sisters offers a special section on Southern authors and the shelves are peppered with handwritten staff recommendation cards. While I usually have no trouble finding something to buy in a bookstore, I know Two Sisters’ recommendations would keep me buying on even the darkest, dankest, poorest grad school salary day.

While I wasn’t able to meet the owner, Cathy Stanley, I did take a few minutes to read her account of how she came to own the store in, “I Never Meant to Own a Bookstore…”

My next stop on a bookish tour of Wilmington took me just down Front Street from Two Sisters to Daughtry’s Old Books on Front Street, and what a treat! I have been inside the store many times over the years because the pull of an authentically bookish bookstore is too strong for me to resist. Old Books on Front Street is not fancy. You won’t find any candles or greeting cards—or those comfy chairs that we all love—because that would take away from the available space for books! Mr. Dick Daughtry, the store owner for over a decade, sits just inside the doorway behind an old wooden desk and greets every customer who enters the shop. At age 87, with over a decade of bookselling experience under his belt, this is a man that loves people, loves books and has found a perfect balance of both. Mr. Daughtry is quick to tell the patrons that over 30 motion pictures have been filmed inside the store, including A Burning Passion: The Margaret Mitchell Story. When I asked him why people are so attracted to Old Books on Front Street, he replied, “Because it looks like a book store!” And indeed it does. With books piled as far and wide as the eye can see, it certainly does look like a book store. The kind where you have to hunt and scramble and discover treasures—and that is part of the fun.

Mr. Daughtry and his wife Lucy recently chose long time patrons, the Rohler family, to carry on the legacy of Old Books on Front Street, so be sure to visit their spiffy new website.

Finally, after a leisurely lunch and a multitude of shopping, I left the downtown area and made my way past the UNC-W campus to a truly delightful gem of a bookstore, Pomegranate Books, located at 4418 Park Avenue. Owner Kathleen Jewell, a former physician, describes her foray into bookselling as her “midlife adventure.” A progressive bookstore, this shop has much more than just books to offer. Pomegranate Books is strikingly active in the Wilmington community as an active supporter of the Cape Fear Literacy Council, Dreams of Wilmington and NC Arts for Health just to name a few. Pomegranate also sponsors a new charity every month. When you donate to the Charity of the Month you receive a free book from the designated stacks.

As if this socially conscious, community-oriented attitude was not enough, the store is a feast for the eyes and the wallet. Located in a little white house, the store boasts lovely décor and an extensive collection of books and merchandise in its limited space. The store offers membership to patrons at household and student rates, which means discounts of 10% off of all titles and 25% off of books on the bestseller tables. Additionally, book groups ordering five or more copies receive a 15% discount off of the chosen title for all members.

There is no end to the offerings of Pomegranate Books, from the book-friendly atmosphere to the socially conscious currents running through the establishment, Pomegranate Books is full of treasure. To learn more, visit their website.

My bookish tour of Wilmington yielded all of the things I adore most about the city: history and tradition blended with an overarching sense of creativity. I can only say that my already high opinion of Wilmington was further heightened by the discovery of its independent bookstores. These establishments enrich the city, its residents and those of us lucky enough to pass through.

Snazzy Stuffs

The ultimate reading experience? Sure looks amazing, doesn't it? Everything you need, right there at arm's reach. That chair just begs for reading.

Too Hot to Read

By Jodie

Sometimes it seems too hot to read. The day is long, there is ice in your glass, sun overhead and nothing but free time to indulge in words, pages and endnotes. Yet after several pages you grow listless, too lazy to cast your eye on the next syllable and you create some excuse about reading in sunlight deepening fine lines. The book goes under your chair and you spend autumn and winter hiding from the thought that given unlimited free time you actually stopped reading voluntarily.

But what if it was your reading material that made you reluctant? It is amazing what bookshops will try to pass off as "perfect for a lazy afternoon" when actually it would be better used in winter, as fuel for the fire. The first sunbeam appears and out come the 3-for-2 tables grunting under the weight of all the dubiously titled wonders with covers ranging through all the colours a mythical creature could possibly vomit. Badly written novels of every genre are tantalisingly half price and average books, 70% off with a free bookmark! We are all so excited to be allowed time to read pleasurably for pennies that we load up hopefully and dive in as soon as we have tugged the sun lounger open. Once settled it quickly becomes clear that what we have brought home is not "a gallumphing work of genius comparable to the glory of the Northern Lights" which "even Stalin would have liked". Instead it is a piece of stodge the publisher thought we should make an effort with because they are sure the author tried very, very hard.

There really is no experience as wasteful as beginning an average book. A badly written book may be tossed away perhaps accidentally bouncing off a wall, but readers often feel the need to complete an average title on the off chance that it might turn out to be a work of brilliance later on. There is nothing more underhanded and nasty than the deliberate hyping up of a blah reading experience because it forces the curious to see what the fuss is about and you often come away feeling poor and confuddled when the appalling sham is revealed. I’m sure many of you know this feeling and I’d love to hear you name and shame the dazzling disappointments you’ve recently encountered.

How to avoid the disappointment of half-assed literary attempts? Stricter publishers would be the ideal solution but that is a naïve idea. Stern lectures and extremely serious papercuts are the less utopian answer. Shut down the presses, there are quite enough books as there are, cries the cynic. The only word to help you is hope. Hope that the book you’ve selected with genuiness and deep thought will be a wonder. If instead it blunders around breaking plates and starting small fires heft it into a charity bag, they are always grateful for what they can get.

The Heat of the Contest Reheated

By Stuart Sharp

Cricket has tended to produce a stronger body of writing than most other British sports. It’s not on a par with some American sports perhaps, but there’s still a substantial body of writing out there. There are a few theories on why that is the case. Some people put it down to the age of the sport, some to an intellectual air artificially cultivated around it. A few think it’s just a coincidence. Personally, I think it’s down to rain.

If you have a sport that stops every time the heavens open, a sport that takes a while to complete at the best of times, then everyone from players to journalists are left looking for something to do. Sooner or later, one of them will start a book, if only to stave off insanity.

Whatever the reason, a fair number of books on the game of cricket have been written. I have copies of more of them than I ever intended buying. Looking through them, it’s easy to see that a lot of them fall into clear categories.

A quick comparison suggests those categories are pretty consistent across a lot of sports, even if I’m only going to discuss them in a cricketing context. Hopefully, even if you don’t follow this particular sport yourself, the types of books involved will be fairly familiar. Besides, surely the mark of a good sports book is that it can stand up as a piece of writing even if the reader would never willingly watch the sport in question.

Let’s get the ghostwritten autobiographies out of the way first. The endless, ENDLESS ghostwritten autobiographies. We all know why they exist. They are there because well meaning relatives are doing their best to think of presents for birthdays, Christmases, and other occasions. They know enough to know that you like a given sport, and that Tiger Woods is a golfer, Shane Warne a cricketer, and so on. Logic dictates that if they buy books with their names on, they’ll have bought a present you’ll enjoy. This is one of those cases where logic and common sense aren’t entirely the same thing.

The problem is that most of the ghostwritten sporting biographies aren’t really that good. In theory, they combine the candor of an autobiography with the professional writing of a biography. In practice, you get a book chained by the “star’s” desire to show themselves in a good light, yet also devoid of the personal voice of the autobiography.

Much of the time, we’re all better off with a simple biography, particularly for cricket. Many modern players are a bit too careful about what they let slip for really interesting autobiography, and a lot of the most interesting names of the past suffer from the minor difficulty of being dead. While I could make some sort of pun about ghost writing, I’d rather just point out that it tends to make autobiography a bit difficult.

Of the cricketing biographies around, one of the best is Gideon Haigh’s Mystery Spinner, about relatively obscure Australian player, Jack Iverson. The story of someone who in his mid-thirties went from hardly playing the sport at all, to being one of the best in the world, and then back to obscurity all in the space of a few years is strong enough that you don’t really need to like or understand the sport for it to be worth reading. As I suggested above, that has to be the best measure of success.

A few histories of the sport don’t take the form of biography. It’s a more specialized field, and a less popular one, because cricket has always been more interested in the mythology of great players than the social context in which it was played. Derek Birley’s Social History of English Cricket is one of the better examples of those that do exist.

Most readers will probably be less interested in old instructional books, master classes with greats of the game who are now long dead. They’re worth a note here though, if only to mention the friends I have who swear by them. Rather than go within a mile of the current ECB coaching manual, a friend of mine learnt his cricket out of a book called MCC Masterclass, featuring hints from cricketers of the nineteen-seventies and eighties. Something must have worked, because he quickly became a mainstay of the team we both played for at the time.

I suppose I’m even worse, since I’ve been known to leaf through Headly Verity’s book Bowling Em Out, which he wrote in the mid nineteen thirties, when looking for inspiration.

I suspect that might be the point. The modern coaching manuals almost certainly come from a sounder biomechanical basis, but somehow they’re not as inspiring as something that’s come from the experiences of one of your sporting heroes. Just as importantly, you know that what’s being described has already worked for someone.

To give us the experiences of more modern sporting heroes, we have the sporting diary. Former Australian captain Steve Waugh seemed to churn one out every other season, swearing that the discipline of the writing was good for his game. Current Middlesex captain Ed Smith expressed similar sentiments in his book On and Off the Field, his diary of the 2003 season.

But in some ways, the most interesting cricketing diaries are those written by players lower down the ladder. Simon Hughes, who never made it into an England team, nevertheless produced a good account of county cricket in A Lot of Hard Yakka, and followed it with Morning Everyone, his account of life as a writer and commentator on the game.

My personal favorites are the not very serious diaries sometimes produced by players in the club game. Books like Marcus Berkmann’s Rain Men are designed to be funny, and manage it easily, but they occasionally make me wonder whether the writers had hidden cameras trained on a couple of the teams I’ve played for. Given the theme of “heat”, I suppose I should also mention Harry Thompson’s book Penguins Stopped Play at this point.

Moving past the diaries we get to the ephemera, the apparently random collections that suggest that either the writing was so good it simply had to be preserved, or that someone woke up a week from a deadline and realized they had to throw a book together. Normally it’s the latter.

So we get the A-Z guides to the sport that only really became workable once Shane Warne came up with his “zooter”, the collections of sporting obituaries that don’t have the space to tell us much of anything about the people concerned, and the collections of articles that have already appeared in other places.

It’s the last of these that are probably worth reading. The main difficulty lies, as with sports writing everywhere, in avoiding the vitriol that makes good news copy but less effective books. While there are certainly collections from the big names of cricket writing, like Neville Cardus and Jim Swanton, for more modern writing my personal vote goes to Gideon Haigh’s collection Game for Anything.

I’ve deliberately left my last two categories for the end, because they are probably the most under populated categories of cricket books. Literature and cricket have only mixed sporadically, even if we note that apparently J.M. Barrie was a very useful slow bowler when he wasn’t writing.

It says a lot about that paucity that the best example I can think of is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, “Spedague’s Dropper,” rather than anything longer. There’s always the realm of cricket poetry, but most of it is so saccharine no one would want to read it.

The other area for which there isn’t much to be found is books that look outside the confines of the sport to others. Since that’s just the sort of comparison I’ve avoided making throughout this article, I suppose I can’t complain, but it’s such an obvious gap that it’s strange more people haven’t filled it. Again, only a single example springs readily to mind, Playing Hard Ball, by Ed Smith, which compares cricket and baseball.

So, after a brief trawl through cricket’s literature, what have we learned? Maybe it’s that sports writing falls into categories that are pretty universal, and that some themes cross the boundaries of particular sports. Maybe it’s that there are still some cricket books worth reading even if you have no interest in the sport. Hopefully, it’s something more than the fact that I’m a little obsessed by cricket, because I would have admitted that anyway.

Personally, I’ve learned what I’m going to be doing the next time a match I’m in gets rained off.

I’m going to be writing.

Small Presses Can't Take Heat

By Charles Dodd White

Crappy news this week. Soft Skull Press, a beacon of independent publishing for several years, is being bought out and folded into an imprint. There’s a reason for this. They can’t take the heat of competition. They get squeamish when it comes to profit margins. They are slave to their own anxiety about satisfying the needs of the book-buying public.

Now, there’s a big problem with this. Publishers who merely consider the bottom line are flouting their obligation to provide the public with literary art. Most people have already given up on the big conglomerate houses. We have the healthy skepticism of corporate entities. But the small houses, they were supposed to be there for us, even if it meant meeting operating costs through government grants. Profit was nice but never expected in this niche.

But somewhere along the way small presses have forgotten this. They began thinking like Putnam and Penguin, the only difference being that editorial meetings were conducted in flannel, not Armani. They tried to grow their lists—they tried to pick slick, appealing books. The truly unique book was marginalized. Increasingly the literary “genre” became the favored pick. And whenever a book can be classified in any genre, it has lost its aesthetic value. Truly challenging books disappear from the lists. Instead, we get bad pornography that reads like Maggie: A Girl of the Streets gone to hell.

But interesting books are still being published, though not by small presses. It’s getting even smaller. Micro publishers -- often only one or two people -- are the new hope. Often, these houses sell their books primarily through the Internet, relying on word of mouth. Many use digital print-on-demand printing so they don’t incur large overhead costs. They publish books because they are dedicated to literary art. Many barely make enough money to cover their costs, but they still keep up the good fight.

Because of the instability of the reading market today, many of these micro houses fold after a year or two of operation. However, new houses spring up like hydra heads. It’s an affordable venture, and those with the passion for putting out decent books can get going with almost no capital. This is the democratic press in action. This is Ben Franklin on anabolic steroids.

So, Soft Skull might be dead, but I challenge each of you who care about independent media to research the Internet and find another struggling micro house and buy one of their books. Kill your dependence on mediocre reading.

Pump Up the Volume

By Chris Buchner

When seasoned comics readers discuss comics, there are two ways they usually identify an issue besides the obvious number: by an event, or a volume number.

So, what’s up with that?

A volume is essentially a break in any series that results in a new set of similar numbers. That means of any given title, two completely different sets exist from issue number 1 to infinity. It’s the same character, it’s the same book, it’s even most likely the same company, but it’s a completely different volume.

Volumes come about for a variety of reasons. Whenever the decision comes down to cancel a series, and then later on to bring it back based on either a great story pitch or because a recent event created new interest in a character (the current example being Marvel’s Nova whose 4th volume had just begun after his appearance in the popular Annihilation event), most often they’ll start the new series back at number one to symbolize the new beginning of the book. In recent years, the additional reasoning has been added that high numbers intimidate new readers, so starting back at 1 will attract them more than if a series resumed at, say, 243 where it left off. It symbolizes less continuity needed to be followed and less backissue needed to be purchased to do it, even though most often that really isn’t the case as the story continues from that particular point in the character’s life.

This also implies to reinvigorating a character mid-run. Sometimes a current volume will be ended at a point only to return next month with a new numbering and the character(s) completely retooled or moved over to an imprint line. Such is the case with the Punisher comics by Marvel. Upon returning Frank back to basics after a brief stint with angel powers, Punisher ran for a 12 issue mini-series before running over 30 issues under Marvel’s now defunct Marvel Knights banner. The series ended only to immediately begin under the MAX imprint which allowed for more adult content and graphic violence, a move which has proven popular with fans. Spider-Man titles also attempted this when they retooled the line down to two titles and restarted them at #1, but the biggest change in those books was the canonization of John Byrne’s Chapter One tweaks to his origin (which due to severe unpopularity was reversed back to the original). Gen13 from DC’s Wildstorm imprint was also recently re-launched with a brand new series (volume 4) which, despite similarities, is in a brand new continuity all it’s own with no ties to the previous incarnations of the series.

Mini-series also jack up the volume count for a given series. Sometimes, a company will release a mini-series under the same name as an ongoing. To keep it straight in catalogues, these minis are assigned a volume and there you have it. There have also been instances when to increase the number of spin-offs for a character, a company will rename a current series and kick off a new series under the old name. An example of this was the Superman comic from DC, renamed Adventures of Superman in the 400s and a new Superman was started soon after. Marvel had a unique variation of this situation when they decided to end their Marvel Knights banner, either simply removing the banner from a book, canceling titles that sported it, or in the case of Marvel Knights Spider-Man, renaming it. They chose to call it The Sensational Spider-Man with #23. Almost a decade prior a book ran for 35 issues under the same title, creating a mid-run volume 2.

A new trend has started to develop within the industries regarding volumes. The plan to attract new readers having, for the most part, failed and continuity growing heavy once again in the re-started books, Marvel had decided at first to do dual numbers on all their rebooted series: one was the current number within the volume, the other what the series WOULD have been up to had it not restarted for the sake of collectors within their collections. Ultimately, the original numbering was restored (in the case of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four around their 500th issue anniversary) and the volume number removed from the copyright, or indicia, of the book. DC made a similar move by restoring the original Superman title by removing Adventures from it and canceling the new book that came as a result. They, too, have also removed the volume indicators from their copyrights.

It should also be noted that during the Golden Age of comics, sometimes a series would run for a year and then begin the next year with a whole new numbering and volume; much like a pulp or novel series. The Shadow Comics is a prime example of this trend, having 9 volumes between 1940 and 1949, each one 12 issues long. It should also be noted that because of the word “comics” in the title, when DC began to publish the book in the 70s the omission of that word made it a whole new series, and thus a brand new volume 1. That’s why Captain America and other revived Golden Age properties were able to start off at volume 1 even though it would be decades after their very first issues.

Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? How can you possibly tell one volume from the other? Well, the easiest ways are to either open up a book and check out the copyright (as every pre-2005 book was published with a volume number after the issue number) or do some research. Most price guides will list the volumes of a book as well as the years in which they were published. But the best way is to always be familiar with the material. Pick up a title and just read it. There’s no great mystery to how come comic fans can name stories off the top of their heads right down to the issue and volume number, it’s not because they’re uber geeks with nothing better to do than memorize stats; it’s because those stories stood out so much for them that it’s forever imbedded within their memory.

Now you know the deal about volumes. Read and discuss comics with confidence, and don’t be so intimidated by such fancy terminology. The world of comics is very easy to navigate once you get started. And, if you ever get lost, there’s always a fan nearby ready to help you find what you need.

Feeling the Heat?: Reading Under Pressure

By The Good Girl

All of us can remember, (or are still experiencing) the dubious pleasure of what I might call "forced reading" at school. I might say, being an eternal book lover, that reading, and encouragement to do so, could never be a bad thing. Lately the anticipation of receiving the reading lists for my up-coming A level courses (for those across the pond: that’s when English High-Schoolers start to specialize, at about 16) is sending me over the edge with excitement. But can reading under pressure actually hinder the love of reading that the practice, I have no doubt, is intended to engender?

Experience has shown me that books read in class are divided, in the minds of their students, into two categories: the first, “Dear God, why was this book ever written, surely all this symbolism is only in my teacher’s head, and anyway, who even cares?” and the second, “I love this book so much and would never have read it if not here, thank you, thank you, oh brilliant English class!” The latter can cause the student to be truly inspired – a plus, I’m sure you’ll agree, but the former can put the student off the usually worthy book forever.

After all, how many of us have revisited books we read at school and found them not to be quite as mind-numbing as we had originally thought? For example, I read Jane Eyre at the age of 9 and loved it, until we read it in class when I was 14 and came to loathe the very paper it was written on; after all, the nine year-old me had not seen symbolism or metaphor or hyperbole, just a damn good story, and 5 years later I was pretty upset to have it replaced with all this other stuff. However, I recently read it again with both narrative and "features" in mind and found that it wasn’t so bad after all.

The problem is that reading for academic purposes can be utterly different to reading for pleasure. For those so inclined, the need to analyze, evaluate and, if you like, nit-pick, tends to override the desire to get caught up in the prose or narrative; for those who cannot abide the idea of dissecting a perfectly good book, (much in the manner of vegetarians in a biology class), the pressure to do so can interfere with their liking of said book. On the other hand, one could argue that both types of reading are equally valuable, and indeed, interdependent. A dilemma indeed, and one that English lessons have no foreseeable chance of solving. Until such a time as they do, we might all benefit from revisiting our previous "forced reads", perhaps to find meaning and beauty where there once was none, perhaps to find that, yes, they are in fact still incomprehensible drivel.

The Appeal of Jane

By Melissa

For as long as I can remember, I've been familiar with Jane Austen. For my mother, she was a source of wisdom and humor. Mom would often comment that Jane had it right: while women want to be, and aspire to be, as patient as Anne Elliot, we are most often just as petty as Emma Woodhouse. (That, and the bit about the silly, ignorant girls from Pride and Prejudice.) I'm sure there were others, but that's what sticks in my mind the most.

My mom suggested I read Pride and Prejudice when I was about 14. I was looking for something to read -- probably in between English class assignments -- and my mom said that I'd love Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.

I didn't.

Maybe it was because I wasn't old enough, hadn't read enough, couldn't get past all the wordy descriptions to connect with the characters. Or maybe it's just that I wasn't interested in character-based period romances. (Or period books in general; I refused to read anything by Dickens, except for English assignments. Even then I didn't enjoy it.) But, whatever the reason, I didn't crack open an Austen novel for years.

So, what is the appeal of Jane? People who don't necessarily think of themselves as readers have read (or at least heard of) her books. People who do think of themselves as avid readers, for the most part, adore her books. I think the easy answer is to say that they are books written by a woman about women for women, and we enjoy it because women are basically the same over the centuries. But, it's also more than that. Like the best classics, what you get out if it really depends on the person.

For some, it's the strong female protagonists. Emma, Elizabeth, Anne, Elinor and Marianne, Fanny -- they're strong and intelligent, but sometimes silly, never truly perfect women who are trying their best to deal with their situations in life. In short, they're human, and easily identifiable, even if their main goal in life is to get married. It is honorable that they would rather marry for love than money, that they do not succumb to pressure to marry the first rich man that proposes.

"You are then resolved to have him?"

"I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me."

"It is well. You refuse, then, to oblige me. You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world."

"Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude," replied Elizabeth, "have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment's concern­ and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn." -- Elizabeth speaking with Lady Catherine de Bourg when the rumors of an impending marriage to Mr. Darcy reached Lady Catherine's ears

"'Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection.'" -- Jane to Elizabeth on her engagement to Darcy

"It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;-- it is disposition alone. seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others." Marianne speaking to Elinor after
meeting Willoughby

For others, it's the humor. Austen's books have been called irreverent and witty, but not "funny". She's not a comic writer; she doesn't write comic scenes that are there purely for laughs. There are comic characters -- the Mrs. Bennets and Mr. Collinses and Mrs. Eltons and Miss Bateses -- whose primary function is to make us laugh (or cringe). But her biting wit strikes everyone, from the main characters on down.

"She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me." Mr. Darcy to Mr. Bingley about Elizabeth Bennet

"Lizzy is not a bit better than the others: and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference."

"They have none of them much to recommend them," replied he: "they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more
of quickness than her sisters."

"Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.""You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least." -- Mr. and Mrs. Bennet

"Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society." -- from Persuasion

But she doesn't just poke fun at the characters; nothing is safe from Jane Austen's wit. She also pokes fun at the society, and it's restrictions and mores, in which the characters exist.

"'Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match. Anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking. A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man.'" Captain Wentworth to his sister Mrs. Croft

"It was a delightful visit­ perfect, in being much too short." -- from Emma

"Nothing amuses me more than the easy manner with which everybody settles the abundance of those who have a great deal less than themselves." -- from Mansfield Park

"A woman of seven and twenty," said Marianne, after pausing a moment, "can never hope to feel or inspire affection again."

". . . provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all." -- from Northanger Abbey

Another reason her books are so beloved is that they are so family-centric. There is little or no mention of the wider world, though she piles on descriptions of things relevant to the world that the book revolves around. For some that is seen as a fault in the books, for others it is the main appeal. Austen shows the world of women in minute detail, points out their pettiness and still manages to illustrate how deeply moving and important the "small things" of life can be: marriage, children, sisterhood, parenthood, friendship.

"I might as well inquire," replied she, "why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you­ had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?" -- Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy when he first proposes

". . . indeed, Mary, I cannot wonder at your husband. Nursing does not belong to a man; it is not his province. A sick child is always the mother's property: her own feelings generally make it so.'" -- Anne Elliot, on Charles's wanting to go to dinner at the great house in spite of the fact that little Charles was still recovering from his bad fall.

"'You are in a melancholy humour and fancy that anyone unlike yourself must be happy. But remember that the pain of parting from friends will be felt by everybody at times, whatever be their education or state. Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience; or give it a more fascinating name: call it hope.'" -- Mrs. Dashwood is speaking to Edward Ferrars, who is loathe to leave them after visiting Barton Cottage for a week (and generally distraught about having no occupation or

At some point during college, I realized that Austen was not just an author whose books my mom liked, but a real honest-to-goodness respected author that gets studied and taught in college-level English classes. Embarrassed by my ignorance, I bought her four best-known works, and finally re-read Pride and Prejudice.

This time, I got it.

What changed? My age, for one; I appreciated Austen more when I had actually experienced a little bit of love and life and loss. But, I have to admit, it was also the movies. There was something about removing the narration, the excess Regency Englishness and having just the bare bones of the story on the screen that appealed to me. Because, for me, Jane Austen is all about the love stories: Darcy and Elizabeth, Emma and Mr. Knightly, Anne and Captain Wentworth (and I will forever contend that his letter to Anne is absolutely the most romantic thing ever written), Elinor and Edward.

In Shannon Hale's Austenland, the main character, Jane, puts it this way:

"It wasn't until the BBC put a face on the story that those gentlemen in tight breeches had stepped out of her reader's imagination and into her nonfiction hopes. Stripped of Austen's funny, insightful, biting narrator, the movie became a pure romance. And Pride and Prejudice was the most stunning, bite-your-hand romance ever, the kind that stared straight into Jane's soul and made her shudder."

I have to admit: what I really like is a happily-ever-after story, where everything works out for the best, even if there are bumps in the way. And Austen always delivers a good ending (even if she never goes as far as writing "and they lived happily ever after"). I cheer when Captain Wentworth and Anne get together. Though I cry with Marianne when she loses Willoughby, I'm happy that she's at least content with Colonel Brandon. I'm excited when Elinor and Edward get past their misunderstandings and his mother's prejudices. I rejoice with Emma as she and Mr. Knightly finally figure out that they were meant for each other. And I just adore how Elizabeth ends up with Mr. Darcy (and that Jane ends up with Mr. Bingley just adds to that).

In the end, Austen delivers whatever it is we're looking for. Romance? Check. Strong heroines? Check. Humor and wit? Check. Wisdom and insight? Check. Regency England? Check. The beauty of her work is that the stories seem to change with us as we grow older. What we get out of the books (or didn't!) when we are teenagers is different when we go back to them as we get older and have experienced more. That is what keeps us coming back to them time and time again. And, maybe, that's the real appeal of Jane.

Snazzy Stuffs

For the little reader in your life, how about a pair of that most awesome Pigeon's pajamas! Mo Willem's delightful story, brought to life and to be read every night right there, in the bed. Too cute!

Judging a Book?, June 2007

By Fence

When I first started to read Terry Pratchett’s books I really wasn’t impressed by the cover art. They were too, I don’t know, noisy. So much seemed to be going on, and more than a few seemed to have women with enormous breasts and very little clothes on. But back then I was more concerned with devouring the stories as quickly as possible and so didn’t pay too much attention to the design. I then stopped reading Pratchett for a number of years, and when I came back to them I made the discovery that the covers were fantastic. Just take a look at this one for Reaper Man:

Isn’t it fantastic?

Yes, there is a lot to take in, but if you actually look at it, instead of having a quick scan as I used to, you can see much detail. And unlike many fantasy covers. this actually depicts a scene from the book.

In Reaper Man, Death, that’s him in the dungarees, takes a break from the whole reaping souls business. And what job could be more perfect for this expert with a scythe than helping to bring in the harvest?

You may spot a smaller skeleton on Death’s knee? That’d be the Death of Rats, he may only say SQUEEK, but he gets his point across.

What I love about Josh Kirby’s work is the sense of fun. Look at Death’s eyes, and the fact that he is having tea with a little child. The scene is totally incongruous, and yet at the same time could be viewed as pastoral and restful. These covers fit Pratchett’s books perfectly. Pratchett after all writes humorous fantasy novels, set on a world that sits on top of four elephants, who in turn stand on the shell of the great turtle who swims through space. And yet, despite the seeming light and frothiness of his books, Pratchett writes more about what it is to be human than many more “literary” novelists. Kirby’s covers do a similar job. They have a sense of whimsy and comedy about them, yet if you look a little closer you can see how much detail and effort has gone into producing them. Pratchett and Kirby really had a perfect mix, and up until his death in 2001 Kirby created the covers for all the Discworld novels published in the UK. If you get a chance you should take a look at some of them.

Recently a number of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels have been reissued in the UK, and so Corgi, the publishers, have given them all a brand new look. Gone is the wonderful clutter and comic magic of Kirby’s art, and instead we are a given a much more sober cover. For the most part, these new versions are all in black, with one or two items across the front. No doubt to appeal to the same sort of people who buy children’s fantasy book only when they have “adult” covers. If I am totally honest I do like these plain designs. But they don’t fit the books the way the Kirby ones do. Here is the new version of Reaper Man:

All very grown up looking, I think you might agree. Serious even.

As I already mentioned, in general, I do like this more simple cover design, I’m a fan of the plain, and these are very well done. Plain, but with just enough decoration to attract your attention. I’m sure that having all forty odd Discworld books on your shelves with this cover would look impressive. So I like the design. But, then again,I don’t like it. Not for Pratchett’s work. Not when I can compare it with Kirby’s art.

So I’m conflicted by them. They should work for me. And yet, they just don’t.

Kirby’s designs gave an indication of what was between the covers while these tell nothing. If anything, they lie. They hint at the serious. They are even slightly pretentious. They call attention to themselves by pretending to be serious and simple. Minimalist, but somehow, in all the wrong ways.

If given the choice I’ll take the glorious art of Kirby in preference to these over-designed exercises in simplicity. Yes, I am being harsh, especially considering that since Kirby passed on he couldn’t very well have come up with new designs, but, you know what, I’ll complain if I want to.

Hot Retro Reading

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

1857 – 150 Years Ago

For this novel of French bourgeois life in all its inglorious banality, Flaubert invented a paradoxically original and wholly modern style. His heroine, Emma Bovary, a bored provincial housewife, abandons her husband to pursue the libertine Rodolphe in a desperate love affair. A succès de scandale in its day, Madame Bovary remains a powerful and arousing novel.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

1907 – 100 Years Ago

This intense 1907 thriller–a precursor to works by Graham Greene and John le Carré–concerns a British double agent who infiltrates a cabal of anarchists. Conrad explores political and criminal intrigue in a modern society, building to a climax that the critic F. R. Leavis deemed “one of the most astonishing triumphs of genius in fiction.”

The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch

1957 – 50 Years Ago

The quiet life of schoolmaster Bill Mor and his wife Nan is disturbed when a young woman, Rain Carter, arrives at the school to paint the portrait of the headmaster.

Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

1982 – 25 Years Ago

Using the basic facts concerning the 1940s' notorious and yet unsolved Black Dahlia case, Ellroy creates a kaleidoscope of human passion and dark obsession. A young woman's mutilated body is found in a Los Angeles vacant lot. The story is seen through the eyes of Bucky Bleichert, ex-prize fighter and something of a boy wonder on the police force. There is no relief or humor as Bleichert arrives at a grisly discovery. Ellroy's powerful rendering of the long-reaching effects of murder gives the case new meaning.

Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell

1997 – 10 Years Ago

The "Sex and the City" columnist for the New York Observer documents the social scene of modern-day Manhattan. The reader gets an introduction to "Modelizers," the men who only have eyes for models, as well as a more common species, the "Toxic Bachelor." Reading like a society novel gone downtown and askew, Sex and the City is a comically sordid look at status and ambition and the many characters consumed by the sexual politics of the '90s.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

2002 – 5 Years Ago

Set in 1870s London, Faber's second novel (after Under the Skin) is a powerful portrayal of a young prostitute named Sugar. Intelligent and ambitious, Sugar yearns to escape from the livelihood forced on her at age 13. Enter William Rackham, a besotted philanderer and idle heir to a family perfume business, who installs Sugar as his secret mistress in a fashionable hideaway. When the incompetent William is forced into managing the family firm, he initially seeks advice from Sugar, who, fearful of losing his affection, schemes to gain closer proximity to the Rackham family. She succeeds by becoming governess to William's only child, young Sophie, who is cruelly ignored by her father and his insane and sickly wife, Agnes. As William's interest in Sugar wanes, she seeks to maintain her position both by earning Sophie's respect and by gaining possession of the intimate diaries that Agnes has foolishly discarded. Faber's mastery of character, evocative descriptions of Victorian England, and rich dialog, together with his weaving of enduring themes throughout a complex plot, creates a remarkable novel. Strongly recommended for most literary and historical fiction collections.

From the Bookshop..., June 2007

By Quillhill

With the removal of each page from the Book of the Day calendar, summer draws nearer. The temperature rises, and thoughts turn to light reading of fast-paced paperbacks, an escape from the care and special handling required with the rare tomes and modern first editions we so desire. Yet not everyone enjoys the beach. Where does one turn to escape the heat?

To the bookshop! Your Bibliothecary has five wonderful books to prescribe for a mind that needs a chill and a soul that needs a thrill.

Man has an insatiable need to explore his world, and not even the harshest conditions can deter him. Antarctica is stingy with her secrets, but for those who are willing to face her forbidding challenges, there is also incredible beauty to be found. One of the most determined of those men was Ernest Shackleton.

The Endurance, by Caroline Alexander tells the gripping story of Shackleton's legendary expedition of 1914-15. What was planned as a trek across the middle of the continent became an epic of survival. Ms. Alexander tells the amazing story, incorporating first-hand photographs and accounts, and keeps the reader breathlessly turning the pages. The sense of heightened conflict rises relentlessly until the incredible conclusion of what is perhaps the greatest adventure story ever.

South With Endurance: Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917 presents a handful of essays from different writers to supplement the photographs of Frank Hurley. Though much of his record had to be abandoned on the ice, a wealth of stunning still images survived and they are presented here in full glory. They reveal the incredible beauty that hides the uncompromising dangers of Antarctica.

Shackleton's plan to cross the continent involved another ship and crew to lay down supplies on the far side of the pole. Shackleton's Forgotten Men: The Untold Tragedy of the Endurance Epic, by Lennard Bickel, tells the story of the Aurora and her crew. Like their counterparts, they were stranded on the ice and faced astonishing challenges in order to survive. They also completed much of their mission. This book has far fewer photographs to support a somewhat drier written account of a similar story, but one that ends differently.

Antarctica: Journeys to the South Pole, by Walter Dean Myers, chronicles each of the major expeditions to the frozen continent. James Cook was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. James Clark Ross, Charles Wilkes, Carsten Borchgrevink, Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, and Douglas Mawson all led heroic expeditions to, around, and across the continent. Shackleton went three times. The most interesting and tragic story follows the race to the pole between Scott and Amundsen. The Norwegians set out twelve days ahead of the British, and reached their destination a full month ahead. What must it have felt like for Scott and his party when they came upon the Norwegian flag planted in the snow, the evidence that they had been beaten? Disappointment turned to depression, and all the men perished.

The Worst Journey in the World is the first-hand account of Scott's fateful expedition by its youngest member, and one of the search party that found Scott's frozen body, Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Unlike Shackleton's accounts of his own expedition, which present a limited viewpoint, Cherry-Garrard offers a much broader overview of Scott's expedition, offering general information and background, as Ms. Alexander does in her book, in addition to the personal details of their daily trials.

When Richard Evelyn Byrd led his expedition to the continent in 1928, technology had overcome many of the dangers that the earlier explorers had faced. Though he still sailed in a wooden ship, he now had full support of airplanes and radio. Today, most people who go to Antarctica are not explorers, but scientists, their mission to conduct experiments or study nature, living in permanent structures, and they are rarely, if ever, cut off from the rest of the world. Thankfully we have books filled with the personal accounts and detailed histories of the great era of exploration to allow us to relive the heroics of men like Scott and Shackleton.

Come in to the bookshop and enjoy the cool oasis, a respite from the outdoors. These books and more await, and the Antarctic ice never melts. Your mind and body deserve a vacation from the heat.

Sure, I Know the Queen, June 2007

By Jodie

This month I decided to share what some major mainstream women's magazines in Britain suggest we all read this summer.


Description: A complete trash fest. It’s a magazine that specializes in pictures of celebrities looking rough with a bad reputation for its intrusive paparazzi.

Books: Heat has a surprisingly large book selection for such a trashy mag, but then again it is an entertainment publication and so it allots the same amount of space to books as it does to films, music and DVDs.

The two books taking up the main space are How to Look Good Naked, by Gok Wan following the television show of the same name and Young Wive’s Tales, by Adele Parks. The description of the second makes it sound like a repellent vision of the destruction of sisterhood to me, but it gets a positive review in another magazine so it must have some good qualities. I don’t know if I would read it based on these reviews but if someone who had read it said they enjoyed it I might add it to my beach bag.

Then Heat has a list of their readers' top ten books. This features Simply the Gest, David Gest’s autobiography, at number four, so you can guess this list is pretty frothy yet strangely attractive. Three books (Young Wives Tales , Lucy in the Sky and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) turn up in the selection of other magazines, illustrating the sad fact that women's magazines use their power to back the blockbuster to the top rather than help lesser known books climb the ladder to commercial success.

My Pick: Love Life, by Ray Kluun. Just because I would be intrigued to see how a story of "how a man copes with his wife’s cancer by sleeping with other women" can be emotional and beautiful instead of repugnant.


Description: We all know Elle. Shopping luxury for the seriously wealthy with the added substance of interviews with designers and slight, fascinating features.

Books: Elle also suggests that Lucy in the Sky is a good read, but the way that they spin the description shows the different target audiences of this magazine and Heat. Elle relates the most edgy plot element of the book (that as Lucy gets on a plane for a 24 hour flight she receives a text telling her that someone has slept with her boyfriend four times this month) while Heat placidly describes it as "a fun slice of chick-lit".

Other books in Elle are You Don’t Love Me Yet, by Jonathan Lethem about a customer service worker falling in love with a complaining caller, and Joshua Spassky, by Gwendoline Riley in which two people go away to see if they have a real connection. Contemporary Footwear Design, by Rebecca Proctor, is full of pictures of shoes. Finally there’s a misery memoir called Abandoned, by Anya Peters which looks and sounds pretty standard. The book was generated by Peters's blog which Elle terms "compelling," although, judging by the excerpt, this does not translate into an intriguing book. I’d just like to make a little plug for a blog that I think is compelling enough to become a bookm which is 63 Days. This blog follows a woman who, as a teenager, was sent to an 80s "boot camp" for troubled children and the writing is masterful.

My Pick: Got to be the shoe book. I don’t even need shoes to have an intellectual backing to drool over them but when a handy theory about shoes being works of art or architecture is provided, that makes the book even more of a treat.


Description: Up market, classy but also high street friendly. Into pop and girls who look good. Glamour knows how to have fun, and now, since it’s always come in a small enough edition to fit in a fashionably boho handbag, I think it is my favourite magazine.

Books: Glamour has a book club now. It’s choice this month is The Caller, by Alex Barclay, which I have to admit sounded pretty creepy when I read about it in my book magazine; it freaked the book club members out. The benefit of having a book club in the magazine is that you get real opinions from several people -- not just those of the magazine’s book editor.

Although I love Glamour it does play it safe with its book section, predicting that Joanne Harris’s Lollipop Shoes and A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner, will be big hits. Who woulda thunk it? However, A Thousand Splendid Suns did get a dressing down in last week's Telegraph books section and the piece about Joanne Harris’ work in the Times was, although long, mostly indifferent with little to say except praise for her descriptions of food. Of course I strongly disagree with this as Joanne Harris is an amazing, if solidly established writer.

There are two other books making up the main content, Young Wives Tales (a la Heat), which when advertised here, sounds sappy rather than bitchy. The other is Riveria Cocktail a coffee table book of "off duty" celebrities taken by Edward Quinn.

There is a little something extra in the form of short blurbs about three books from brave women in the Middle East. All three sound fascinating. In The Prisoner of Tehran, a woman is
"sentenced to death for complaining that her math lesson had been replaced by Koran study." Kabul Beauty School is a book everyone has been talking about for some months now, the story of a woman who gives women hope and independence by opening Kabul’s first ever beauty school. The last one, In the Name of Honour, contains stories of rape and if written by a western author could have ended up edited and packaged as a misery memoir. It is instead the uplifting tale of a woman taking the positive step of speaking out against her attackers and winning.

My Pick: I’m torn between The Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat, and Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez. I’m drawn to quirky titles, so I think I pick the second book.

Marie Claire:

Description: Packaged as the women’s magazine with issues, Marie Claire is perhaps the most proactive of the mainstream magazines. The clothes are nice but more often at the pricey end of the market. However, it has great make-up tips, Spree vs Steal, spotlights on the key pieces for the month and great gift ideas at Christmas.

Books: Grrr urgh -- another magazine making safe choices. Again we get A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Lollipop Shoes as well as When We Were Bad, which, with its fashionable ethnicity, is bound to do well. You Don’t Love Me Yet is in there, and I’m beginning to wonder if this one was supposed to be big but just hasn’t quite made the right kind of splash. They’ve even gone against The Post-Birthday World, by the previously loved up Lionel Shriver, and that is certainly the safest bet ever after the flop of her tennis centred second novel. The Times was down on it as well and also highlights the strained cockney patter. Bad British accents have become unforgivable to the British audience so it is unlikely this book will do very well.

On the positive side, Marie Claire is running a section about the best books ever, highlighting a classic choice every month. Of course this is another example of them avoiding any risk as the staying power of classics is already proven but it should help encourage new people to read classic literature. This month they’re looking at I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou.

My Pick: Oh let’s go with The Lollipop Shoes. We all know it’s going to do well and I’m longing to buy it.

On a final note, Philippa Gregory is doing a big ad campaign this month. The Boleyn Inheritance had a full-page ad in three of the magazines I looked at. Please sir, could we have some help for the lesser-known authors?