Never Too Young to Be Published

As my final year as an undergraduate at university comes to a close, I’ve begun to think over my time here and what I’ve managed to accomplish over the past three years. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had the most wonderful time and, personally, I wouldn’t change a moment of it, but a recent spate of panic-inducing C.V. workshops and careers events has left me thinking that maybe I ought to have spent my time at university more proactively.

In today’s fierce and ultra-competitive job market, it’s important to stand out, to have something on your C.V. that’s a real achievement: it’s not all about good grades anymore, you have to show that you’re a versatile and interesting character rather than just a number-cruncher. What better way then to prove your individuality and attest to your creativity by writing a novel and, more importantly, getting it published in your teens before you’ve even graduated? Well, whilst I’m floundering to fill out job applications and personal statements, that’s exactly what James Bartholomeusz, a second year student at my University, has done.

People often say that there’s a novel inside all of us and many would-be writers will spend their entire lives trying to access that creative spirit, but for some, inspiration strikes a little earlier and the literary world is starting to take young authors more seriously. I was surprised to learn that the world’s youngest published author, Meleik Delaney, is just four years old. For James Bartholomeusz, his first book The White Fox, a fantasy adventure across dark worlds clearly inspired by the likes of Philip Pullman, is part one in a trilogy of novels for Medallion Press’ YA-YA (Young Adults writing for Young Adults) range. Medallion Press launched the YA-YA scheme in 2010 and Bartholomeusz’s book is the first publication from the imprint. The CEO of Medallion Press, Helen Rosburg, started the scheme with the intention of reaching out to younger generations through the creative voice of their peers and giving young writers a chance to showcase their work.

Medallion Press aren’t the only ones noticing the potential in young writers; nowadays, plenty of major organisations, such as the BBC and the Royal Court Theatre, offer opportunities for fresh, creative talent to get involved. Indeed, Litro Magazine‘s International Young Person’s Short Story Award is a fantastic chance for young people to start writing and earn some recognition.

Some may argue that as a teenager, you haven’t refined your literary style, that you aren’t yet mature enough to be able to grapple with complex ideas. Personally, however, I believe that young writers ought to be encouraged; even if you haven’t had decades to plan, draft, and redraft your work, publishers can often spot promising talent even in the roughest teen scribbles.




Reading List: War Correspondence – from Crimea to Iraq

The dangers of reporting the news from the frontline have become all too apparent (though perhaps the term frontline is inappropriate, since many of today’s conflicts appear, to the outsider, to be singularly lacking a frontline). In this era of satellite phones and 24-hour news, it has become even more important for reporters, photographers and cameramen to get into the heart of the action, bringing us the news as it happens.

One of the first war correspondents was William Howard Russell, who reported on the Crimean War for The Times in the mid-1850s. Born in Ireland in 1820, he became famous for his uncompromising view of the conflict, in particular the hardships suffered by the ordinary soldier in contrast to the military and government mismanagement of the war; his reports were partly responsible for the fall of Lord Aberdeen’s government in 1855. Russell was always close to military action, having been present at the major battles of Alma and Balaklava and having witnessed the Charge of the Light Brigade. As an account of the conflict, Russell’s Despatches from the Crimeamake a fascinating read.

Some fine books also emerged from journalists who followed the wars of the first half of the 20th century, amongst them African Trilogy by Alan Moorehead. Born in Australia, Moorehead became a foreign correspondent for the Daily Express in the 1930s and closely followed the campaigns in North Africa, Italy, and Normandy. Mediterranean Front, A Year of Battle, and The End of Africa were first published in 1944, when the war in North Africa was largely concluded, and offer the general reader so much more than just the usual dry story of battles and generals. I was lucky enough to pick up an old copy in a second-hand bookshop but I’m glad to see that this riveting trilogy has been republished recently as The Desert War. Moorehead also wrote novels, a biography of Field Marshal Montgomery, and two captivating—and now only slightly dated—histories on the Victorian exploration of Africa, The White Nile and The Blue Nile, both immensely readable and beautifully illustrated.

It was during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s that the number of war correspondents on the ground escalated. Technology had advanced sufficiently to enable a short report to be dispatched by a correspondent to the many competing studios and newspapers whilst the action was going on all around. Although Dispatches by Michael Herr, about his life as a journalist in Vietnam, is often mentioned as the best book to come out of the Vietnam War, I still prefer the more conventional memoir—for example, Live from the Battlefield: from Vietnam to Baghdad by Peter Arnett. A New Zealander by birth, he worked for a number of newspapers—initially reporting from Vietnam—and was one of the last reporters in Saigon when it was finally overrun by North Vietnamese forces in 1975. In the 1980s and 1990s, Arnett was employed as a correspondent by CNN, covering wars across the world, including Afghanistan and the first Gulf War, reporting from Baghdad as the city was bombed by US forces.

Be warned though, these books do not make easy reads; though often exhilarating, they can also be extremely tense and harrowing. I find the ones written about more recent wars even more depressing because they don’t have that protective cloak of history, unlike Moorehead’s books, which were written over sixty years ago. Books such as My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd about his experience as a journalist during the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya, The Forever War: Dispatches from the War on Terror by Dexter Filkins about Afghanistan and Iraq, and War Junkie by Jon Steele, a cameraman who has covered many war zones in the last thirty years, are certainly remarkable and probably essential reads, but you are left wondering: what it is that drives these correspondents to cover such dangerous events from the frontline?

Read, and find out. And please leave your suggestions, if any, for other great books on war correspondence.




The Author as Murderer

Last year, there were more than a few cries of anguish when viewers of Game of Thrones, the first television series of George R. R. Martin’s mighty multi-volume fantasy epic, discovered that one of the main characters had been surprisingly killed off. Those of us who had read the books were already aware of this, and could, of course, look on smugly and say, “Oh yeah, we knew that!” Having now finished the rest of the series written to date, I can tell you, without really spoiling anything, that Martin is not averse to bumping off the odd major character, in an often gruesome way, just as you’re getting into them.

Last year, J. K. Rowling revealed that she had been tempted to terminate Ron Weasley towards the end of the final book. Would it have been an act of great courage to kill off a popular character? It’s not such a problem with a one-off novel but it can be a serious business if this is the fifteenth book in a long series as readers do tend to get very attached to their favourite characters. I know of people who, having just started a book, soon turn to the back pages to check if the character they like is still around. If he or she is still alive, then they’ll carry on reading; otherwise, they might put it down.

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), in The Final Problem, published in 1893, killed off Sherlock Holmes after his dramatic fight with Professor Moriarty, both of them plunging down the Reichenbach Falls. For the author, however, and particularly for Strand Magazine, which published the Sherlock Homes stories, that wasn’t the final problem: a reader outcry erupted, and 20,000 of them cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine. Although The Hound of the Baskervilles was published eight years later, it was made clear that these events predated that terrible day at the Falls. Only in 1903 did Conan Doyle finally publish an entirely new story, bringing Holmes back to life in The Adventure of the Empty House, in which the returned hero explained to Watson his miraculous escape from certain death.

Conan Doyle was not alone in becoming bored with his most famous creation. Agatha Christie eventually found the character of Hercule Poirot tiresome and resolved to kill him off. In the early 1940s, Christie wrote Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, in which the pompous Belgian detective meets his end; in the end, however, she locked the book away. It was only published in 1975, towards the end of her life, by which time Poirot had already appeared, fit and well, in another dozen books.

Then there is Ed McBain (a.k.a. Evan Hunter), best remembered for his long series of crime novels, set in the 87th precinct of the fictional town of Isola, based on New York. The first few books were written in the late 1950s and were the forerunners for many police procedurals that we see today either in print or on screen, with television series such as NYPD Blue. He originally intended the books to work as an ensemble piece, as he describes it “conglomerate hero in a mythical city”, with major characters drifting in and out of books, sometimes not appearing at all and with some, inevitably, getting killed in the line of duty. By the third book, The Pusher, readers had already taken to Detective Steve Carella, the undoubted hero of the first book, even though, in keeping with McBain’s ensemble idea, he barely featured in the second. McBain, however, decided to end the third book with Carella’s death and duly sent the “completed” book to his agent. The next day, however, his editor called him, refusing to accept Carella’s death and pleaded with McBain to revive the detective. McBain yielded and rewrote the ending, with Carella miraculously surviving three bullets to the chest, and by the time the 55th book in the series appeared in 2005, Carella was still fit enough to be solving crimes, 49 years after his near-death experience.

So, does the preservation of a popular character keep the reader or viewer happy? Definitely. Aren’t there times though, when we wish a character had been killed off just a little earlier? I was watching Goldfinger on TV recently, when James Bond was about to be cut in half by a laser and manages to say to his captors, through gritted teeth, “Do you expect me to talk?” The evil Auric Goldfinger replies: “No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die!” Well, another time perhaps.




The Biographies of Crime Authors

Whenever I get a book—new, secondhand, or borrowed from the library—the first thing I do is read the blurb on the back, assuring me how great the book is and what a good choice I’ve made. The second thing I do is read the biography of the author, though this can often be dull and disappointing. All too often, there follows a list of other books the author has written, mentioned with any awards won. Worse, perhaps, is the brevity of some entries, sometimes just, “This is his first novel.” Not even, “He lives in Wiltshire with his beautiful wife and two cats.”  So, you see, what I really want is some biographical detail; it sets the scene for the pages to come.

Some of the best biographical details seem to be from that favourite genre of mine: the American crime novel. Open a book by Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), one of the fathers of the genre, with such classic novels as The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man, and you’ll find that the author left school at 14 and became a newsboy, a clerk, a timekeeper, a yardman, a stevedore, and an operative for the famous Pinkerton’s Detective Agency, turning to writing only after serving as a sergeant during the First World War. Rex Stout, another “Grand Old Man” of American crime fiction, who has written over 40 novels featuring the ever-idle Nero Wolfe and his sidekick Archie, including Fer-de-Lance and The League of Frightened Men, claims to have been a store clerk, a book keeper and a hotel manager, and also served in the US Navy as a Yeoman aboard President Roosevelt’s yacht.

Robert Lewis writes some of the blackest crime noir novels recently published, such as The Last Llanelli Train and Swansea Terminal, in which the hopeless private investigator Robin Llewellyn is not only a chronic alcoholic—not unusual for the genre—but also dying from cancer. In Lewis’s biography, he claims he’s been through nearly 20 jobs before becoming a writer, including high-voltage cabler, housing officer, silver service waiter, banker, and welder’s assistant, before saying that he is now 26 and studying as a “mature” student at the University of Wales. Six months in one of his jobs must have seemed like an eternity to him.

As a crime writer you would, however, be hard pressed to have a better, or more frightening, biography than Edward Bunker. Author of realistic and violent novels such as No Beast So Fierce and Dog Eat Dog, often written from the criminal’s point of view, Bunker writes from experience. One of his biographies on his novels proudly boasts that, following a childhood in various boarding homes and military schools, he became the youngest ever inmate of San Quentin jail in California at the age of 17. Following a parole violation, he became a fugitive, appearing on the FBI’s most wanted list before being recaptured and sent to Folsom prison—you see, that’s the sort of information about an author I want; it certainly beats Wiltshire and the cats. Bunker turned to writing whilst in prison and some years after his release, he came to the attention of film director Quentin Tarantino, and was cast as Mr. Blue in the film Reservoir Dogs. His autobiographies, Mr Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade and Education of a Felon, are certainly enough to persuade you to avoid spending too much time in American prisons.

If you’ve just come off a creative writing course and you’ve really just written your first novel, then fair enough, you’re going to find it hard to beat some of these biographies. But please, tell me a little about yourself. Neil Gaiman, the author of such masterful and intriguing fantasy works as Neverwhere and American Gods, claims in one of his author biographies to be “a messy-haired white male author trapped in the body of an identical white male author with perhaps even less-tidy hair”. It’s not a lot to go on, but at least it’s a start.




Famous Literary Characters Inspired by Real People

If you are writing a short story or a novel, you’ll probably need a little inspiration to build your characters. Of course, you could always rely on a high-speed, plot-driven, edge-of-the-seat thriller and generally make characterisation a secondary aspect but, even then, you’re going to want to fill out the main ones. How best to go about it? Some authors will look to their friends for inspiration, though it’s not generally a good idea to expose too obviously some of their less savoury traits, if you want them to remain as friends.

With 7 February 2012 being the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, there has been a lot of discussion recently about the inspiration for some of his major characters—for example, how much of his father is in Mr Micawber? Further research from a recently published book, Dickens and the Workhouse by Ruth Richardson, has found some similarly named characters to those in the novels by looking at people living near where Dickens himself lived as a youth in north London. This is probably agreeable for some people, but I wonder how William Sykes, a shopkeeper and tallow trader, would like to have been remembered as the inspiration, in name if not in character, behind the general rotter Bill Sikes.

Also, this week I read that part of the San Luis Obispo Film Festival is to be held at the bizarre and ostentatious Hearst Castle, built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean in southern California. In the 1920s and 30s, kings and movie stars dined in the “medieval” refectory and Errol Flynn swam in the “Neptune” pool. The Hearst family has agreed to the festival screening the film Citizen Kane, in which the main character, Charles Foster Kane, played by Orson Welles, is thought to have been based on William Hearst. Given how unflattering the portrait was, you can see why it’s taken the family over 70 years to even be associated with the film.

However, it needn’t all be bad news if you find yourself portrayed in a book or on film. Ian Fleming’s character of James Bond was probably a combination of a number of his colleagues encountered in the Second World War, but the name itself, said by Fleming to be a brief, masculine-sounding name, was taken from an American ornithologist called James Bond, whose book Birds of the West Indies Fleming possessed.

I’ve just finished reading an excellent book, The Napoleon of Crime by Ben Macintyre. This recounts the extraordinary life of Adam Worth who, apart from personally robbing banks, jewellers and art galleries, was probably responsible for organising much of the criminal activity in London and Europe in Victorian times, generally getting the better of both Scotland Yard and the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the United States. He is thought to be the principal inspiration behind the criminal mastermind, Professor James Moriarty, in the Sherlock Holmes books. One of Worth’s crimes, for example, involved digging a tunnel into a bank vault from the shop next door, similar to that written by Conan Doyle in The Red-Headed League. Other Holmes books with links to the life and deeds of Adam Worth include The Valley of Fear and The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.

So, if you know of a friend who’s writing a novel, you may just want to ask if you’re in it at all. If they say yes, then you might need to start worrying, though I suppose this is one way of getting famous and finding your name or your deeds in print and on the shelves of your local library.




Reading List: This Sporting Life

In the last few weeks, there have been a lot of column inches in the review sections of weekend papers dedicated to the new US bestseller The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach‘s debut novel. I haven’t read it yet but I know it’s been mentioned as the next “Great American Novel” and has received generally excellent reviews from the press. I’m sure it’ll be a multi-faceted book with the usual helpings of love and life-changing experiences, but what I find interesting is that the background to the novel is baseball. Now, I certainly don’t understand the finer points of what looks like an upmarket game of rounders even though it’s always on screen in almost every American bar; however my point is more general: given how much sport seems to dominate our lives, it strikes me that there are relatively few novels in which sport features to any great extent.

I’m not saying that there aren’t any. In fact, in recent years, a couple of novels with a background sport story have been very successful. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill is mainly a novel about the strangeness of New York and showed cricket in possibly the last city in the world where you’d expect to find it. The Damned Utd by David Peace featured a fictionalised Brian Clough struggling to maintain his high standards of football management when thrown the challenge of looking after Leeds United. I know this book divided opinion, written only two years after Clough’s death, but I thoroughly enjoyed both the book and the subsequent film starring Michael Sheen.

Looking further back, there have been novels or stories about rugby league (This Sporting Life by David Storey), golf (The Clicking of Cuthbert by PG Wodehouse), and pool (The Hustler by Walter Tevis). If you like your crime novel with a horserace as a setting (and you’ve read every Dick Francis book), you can’t beat the Saratoga series (Saratoga Longshot, Saratoga Swimmer etc.) by the American writer Stephen Dobyns, featuring the private detective Charlie Bradshaw. Moreover, if The Art of Fielding has given you the urge to read even more about baseball, you could try Ring around the Bases by Ring Lardner or any collection of his short stories, such as Round Up or Selected Stories. Lardner was a sports journalist in the American midwest and wrote his stories between 1915 and his early death in 1933, at the age of 48. Although not so easy to get your hands on today, his books capture the Prohibition Era and the American obsession with sports usually neglected by other countries.

Some of the best books about sport are the straightforward biographies or autobiographies, once you cut your way through the large number of ghostwritten “why I’m so great” books. Try It’s Not about the Bike by Lance Armstrong on cycling (and his battle with cancer) or the excellent King of the World by David Remnick about the rise of Muhammad Ali. Both books shed light on sports that don’t always get as much exposure as others. As for football, where lack of exposure certainly isn’t a problem, I’ve found the most enjoyable books have taken a more offbeat view of the sport. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby is a good example of this, focusing on a die-hard fan’s obsession with Arsenal, though to be honest, compared to those of us who support a League One team, he can consider himself lucky. Another book in this vein is A Season with Verona by Tim Parks, a gripping story, part travelogue, part social history, where the author journeys around Italy with the often terrifying fans of Hellas Verona during one of its forays into the top division of Italian football. I couldn’t put the book down, desperate to discover the outcome of their battles, with the might of Milan and Juventus.

So, there’s quite a wealth of sports-related fiction; I’m certainly not saying the shelf of sporting novels is empty or of a low standard, just that compared to the number of novels featuring romance, for example, there are very few. It’s possible that the relative dearth of sports-based novels is because of the difficulty of capturing the sheer thrill and excitement of actual sporting events, whether in watching or participating—and with that in mind, I suppose it’s about time for my daily jog around the local park.




The New Literary Dissertation

As I write this, there’s many a final year English student in a library in every university town, panicking about their upcoming dissertations. For many of us, January means sales, snow and sticking to our new year’s resolutions but for the student, January brings with it the dark cloud of looming deadlines and, consequently, panic often begins to set in.

Billed as the ‘pinnacle of one’s academic career’, most English dissertations can be up to 20,000 words and ought to be focussed on a particular aspect of literature, the more specific the better. Gender in Victorian literature, for example, is far too broad a topic, whereas corseting the female body in the works of Margaret Oliphant is much more appropriate. As a final year student myself, I had my own dissertation-induced troubles just before Christmas, when it was time to submit initial ideas and choose a specific focus. As someone who enjoys the broad spectrum of literature, how does one go about choosing just one single area to focus on?

Perhaps you might assume that most third-year literary dissertations would target the big guns – Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen – classic authors that many will study at school and whose work is never out of print or off the screen and stage. At my university, however, this has not always been the case. There are many examples that I know where Shakespeare has been side lined, Dickens disdained and Austen avoided:  my fellow students were turning away from the ‘great classics’ of the literary canon, choosing to focus instead on modern authors, such as Margaret Atwood and Stieg Larsson. Indeed, there were plenty of unexpected choices, with one student deciding to study the stories of Roald Dahl, whilst another chose David Nicholls’ recent bestseller, One Day. Many people, however, would be quick to rank the literary merits of King Lear over The Twits. So what is it that attracted my friends and classmates, the latest generation of English Literature students, to pick a novel more likely to be found on the bestsellers’ table rather than on a traditional University reading list? Why boycott the canon?

First and foremost, when it comes to writing a dissertation, it has to be unique. With such a vast body of criticism in existence already on authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen and, with much of it easily accessible via the Internet, it’s tricky to find something to say which hasn’t already been said before. Books like Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, although not yet typical fare on the school curriculum, offer an ambitious undergraduate some uncharted territory and a chance to write an entirely original thesis.

Nicholls’ One Day has probably been influenced by classics such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and this might allow the dissertation’s author to provide some interesting comparisons between them. There would be an opportunity to explore how Nicholls has managed to reinvent the old love story that we’ve read so many times before and yet provide a fresh and original take on it. Relevance is another key reason why I believe modern books have become such a popular choice for final year students. A dissertation is one’s contribution to present-day academia and so it’s important that it can reflect current issues, rather than rehash old ones. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a dissertation topic ought to be chosen because it’s something you enjoy and can be truly passionate about: Roald Dahl might be no James Joyce and The BFG is far from being Ulysses, but if I’m going to devote the next few months of my life to this project, slavishly working away every night in the library and missing out on all kinds of fun social events, I think it’s preferable that I write about some books that I find enjoyable to read.  After all, I’ll be reading them more than once over the next three months.

It’s often said that it’s a mistake, as a student, to choose a degree because you feel you ought to, rather than one that you are going to enjoy studying for months and years. So, even before I start typing out a first draft of my dissertation, I’d like to offer an apology to William, Jane and Charles – we are sorry and we still really do like most of your works and promise to return to them later this year.  In the meantime, across universities throughout the country, Roald and Stieg await.




Reading List: The Bestsellers of 2011

Well, it may be 2012 already but many of the recent weekend papers took the opportunity to look back at the bestselling books of 2011. I always find it good fun to try and spot trends and make a note of a book or two that may have passed me. Previous years and, in fact, much of the last decade has been dominated by the mighty works of Dan Brown and JK Rowling. Love them or loathe them, you can’t deny the sales success. If you look at the overall sales in the UK from 1998 to 2010, Dan Brown occupies top spot (4.5m copies of The Da Vinci Code sold), as well as 4th and 11th  position, with Harry Potter occupying 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th with only Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight disrupting their dominance at No 9. In terms of value, though, because some of those Harry Potter books were hardback versions, JK Rowling trumps everyone and my quick calculation shows that the boy wizard has brought in around £200m in sales over that 12-year period in the UK alone.

This year, however, it seems that British homes must be saturated with Dan and Harry, as neither has any book featuring in the top 10. I guess that if you haven’t bought Potter yet, then you’re probably not going to. Top of the list in 2011 was One Day by David Nicholls, a book published nearly two years ago but given a boost last year with the release of the film, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess.  This did seem to be the book that everyone was reading on the train or on the beach this summer, so I’m not too surprised about its success.

Also no surprise to find the usual cookbooks, with Jamie Oliver at 2nd and 12th and solid contributions elsewhere in the list by Lorraine Pascale, Linda Collister and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Similarly, plenty of the multimillionaire regulars feature on the 2011 list, with John Grisham (8th and 36th), Patricia Cornwell (29th) and James Patterson (40th, 52nd, 55th, 57th and 65th).  Previous years have seen the successes of the celebrity autobiographies of Peter Kay and Russell Brand, for example, but the 2011 list did seem a little light in this area, with Lee Evans at 30th and the paperback edition of Michael McIntyre’s 2010 book at 42nd, although Dawn French’s first novel from 2010, A Tiny Bit Marvellous, is still as high as 3rd.

From a personal point of view, I’m pleased to see the fantasy epic A Game of Thrones featuring in the top 100 (with Book 1 in 13th place and Book 2 at 76th), no doubt propelled by the wonderful series on TV, starring Sean Bean. I have a particular soft spot for well-written fantasy sagas, and have read all five books published in the series so far (with two more to come). As the number of characters expand, the series does tend to sag a little but don’t let that put you off. If you don’t mind 1000-page epics of swords and sorcery, then these could be the books for you, even though you might find that you are continually flicking to the 50-page list of characters at the end of each book just to remind yourself who’s who and whether they met with an untimely end in the previous book.

The feature on the list that really stands out for me, however, is the continuing success of Scandinavian crime novels. Again, no doubt helped by film success, along with the TV success this year of The Killing and two versions of Wallander, we find the late Stieg Larsson occupying 7th, 9th and 10th in the 2011 list, with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series and five of Jo Nesbo’s books in the top 100, featuring Norwegian Detective Harry Hole.  Now, I have read two of the Stieg Larsson books recently and I did admire them, without quite liking them. Perhaps, and I wonder if I’m alone in this, it was just the wrong time of year. Maybe the winter months are not the time for settling down to read a Scandinavian crime novel, set in a cold climate with simply too many hours of darkness. I love crime fiction but with Britain currently lashed by wind and rain, there’s much to be said for reading of dark deeds happening on the sunny beaches and in the sunlit hills of southern California.




Book Cycle: Superheroes of the Literary Community

Exeter is a wonderful place to study: it’s a beautiful city with plenty of history, an ever-expanding shopping centre and only a 15 minute train ride to some of Devon’s most glorious coastline. Exeter is quirky, small enough so you always feel safe and able to go most places on foot but large enough that even after three years of living here, I’m still discovering new places to go every week. This week I discovered Book Cycle, and I only wish I’d discovered it sooner!

Think of Book Cycle as the superheroes of the literary community, trying to save the Earth one book at a time! A UK volunteer-based charity, Book Cycle aim to empower communities in developing countries through the provision of educational resources, as well as encouraging the reforestation of the UK, achieved through their unique and, frankly, fabulous ‘free bookstores’. No, there’s no need to adjust your screen, you read that correctly – in an age where everything has a non-negotiable price, Book Cycle actually do run free bookstores.

Started in May 2007, The Book Cycle store works on donations – all the stock is donated by enthusiastic volunteers and members of the community, replenished regularly, and when it comes to picking up something new to read you can donate as much or as little as you wish, whatever you feel the books are worth to you. You can choose three books a day and once you’ve left the store, they’re yours with no need to return them; indeed, Book Cycle recommends once you’ve read them, you ought to pass them on to a friend, spreading a love of literature wider and in-keeping with the Book Cycle ethos. After taking a small percentage to cover running costs, all the donations, as well as plenty of free books, are sent to charities working in developing countries, providing much needed relief and support.

Book Cycle intrigued me, and after a little bit of googling, I found that they aren’t the only literary-loving folks who want to play their part in making the world a better place. There are all kinds of book-based charities one can get involved in across the UK and internationally. Bag Books, for example, prides itself on being the only organisation in the world publishing multi-sensory books specifically for people with learning disabilities, with over 35 tactile books reaching 15,000 adults and children a year. On the other hand, The National Literary Trust works to transform lives through literacy, helping those who struggle to read and supporting those who work with them, whilst Readathon runs the UK’s biggest sponsored reading campaign, stimulating focus in recreational reading as well as raising money for seriously ill children.

With December now upon us, it’s important to remember that Christmas is also a time for giving. Thanks to the World Wide Web, it’s easy to donate to these literary charities and get involved in a good cause. Or, if you want to take more affirmative action, why not follow Book Cycle’s excellent example and set up a free bookstore in your community, even if it’s just for a day. They offer a ‘how to run your own mini book cycle’ guide, which not only gives you plenty of tips and tricks, but also access to a whole wealth of posters, pamphlets and letters to help advertise your campaign: you too can be a literary superhero, even if it’s just for a day.




The Case for Second Hand Books

I was intrigued to read this week that Oxfam was expanding the number of shops it runs in France to include ones that sell second-hand clothes. Apparently, the French are supposed not to wear second-hand clothes, which I find hard to believe. Until now, Oxfam had tended to operate mainly second-hand bookshops in France. In Britain, Oxfam shops have become a familiar resident on the high street, with over 750 shops, most of them selling second-hand books. In fact with 12 million books sold every year, Oxfam claims to be the largest retailer of second-hand books in Europe.

There have been some complaints from traditional second-hand booksellers and from small independent bookshops that Oxfam has damaged their business. I would like to think, however, that there is room on the high street for well-run bookshops of all types. Personally, I like Oxfam bookshops: the books are clean, generally in good condition, easy to find and reasonably priced but there is just something missing, isn’t there?

I don’t think there is anything better than finding an old-fashioned second-hand bookshop. One of those in an old building, where the rooms are all shapes and sizes and you wander through them wondering whether you’re in the politics or the gardening section. Tripping over books on the floor and then spotting the book you want, tantalisingly out of sight on a distant and unreachable shelf.

As you might have gathered, not only do I frequent book fairs but I’m magnetically drawn to second-hand bookshops too. Maybe it’s the smell – that musty, almost smoky, smell that you get around old books. But I can’t resist it. In my home town, we’re still lucky enough to have, alongside Oxfam and innumerable charity shops, two pretty decent second-hand bookshops. I usually purchase a book every time I visit and, in these shops, I don’t mind if it’s not ‘nearly new’ – sometimes, I actually want the book ‘very used’ indeed.

Recently, one of these shops must have acquired a consignment of science fiction books from somewhere. Not the flashy covered blockbusters that you get today, weighing in at over 1000 pages but slim novels, almost novellas, many of them published by Panther between the 1950s and 1970s. I couldn’t resist and, breaking my “just one book per visit” rule, staggered out with about twelve of them. I can see them on my shelf now – First Lensman by EE ‘Doc’ Smith, The Voyage of the Space Beagle by AE van Vogt and The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LeGuin, all with wonderfully dated covers, with the future of humanity destined to be outside of Planet Earth.

I can remember visiting a second-hand bookshop in a nearby town. I was a regular purchaser, though clearly not enough to keep him solvent. The owner said to me that if I, or anyone else, came through the door with £200,000 then they could have the lot – shop, stock, everything. Was I tempted? Of course, though as I had barely £200 in the bank, I reckon my offer would have been rejected. The next time I went past the shop, it was all empty and locked-up, with a notice to say that trading was being continued on the internet. It’s not the same, though, and I still miss it and, sadly, can tell you which of the books on my shelves were bought there.

As for the French, well, they may not like second-hand clothes but they certainly like second-hand books, though I doubt their shops are thriving any better than ours. If you’re a fan of crime fiction, I recommend the series of books written by Claude Izner, set in the Paris of the late 19th Century. Novels like Murder on the Eiffel Tower and The Predator of Batignolles, feature the amateur sleuth and, more importantly, second-hand bookshop owner, Victor Legris. Nice covers, too! Interestingly, Claude Izner is a pseudonym of two sisters, Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefèvre, who, as you might hope, are both booksellers in the centre of Paris.

So, next time that you want a book and fancy some fresh air, try visiting your local second-hand bookshop instead of reaching for the laptop. If you’re not sure if there’s one near where you live, a website like The Book Guide will help. There’s also plenty of information here about fairs and auctions, as well as lists of second-hand bookshops by town, county and region. The last time I looked, there was even one for sale. But don’t leave it too long – it might not be there for ever.




Pippa Gets Published

In the Chinese Lunar Calendar, 2011 has been the Year of the Rabbit, whilst the United Nations designated it the International Year of Forests and the International Year of Chemistry; all very well and good but I would argue, however, that it would be more appropriate to call 2011 the year of the born-again royalists.

On Friday April 29th, the union of Prince William and Kate Middleton melted cynical hearts across the globe and ‘monarchy-mania’ set in: fast-forward a couple of months and the younger members of the royal family seem to have re-conquered the country, regularly making headlines in both national newspapers and gossip magazines. They are stars of countless documentaries and one, albeit low budget, Hollywood film, and influence fashion’s most eminent designers and popular high-street brands. And, if that wasn’t enough, it seems that the royal family are set to make a splash in the publishing world as well, after it was announced today that Pippa Middleton, Kate’s younger sister, has secured a £400,000 book deal with Penguin’s commercial imprint, Michael Joseph.

Unfortunately for the Duchess of Cambridge, all eyes were not exclusively on the bride on the day of the Royal Wedding as April 29th saw bridesmaid Pippa Middleton make a splash almost as great as her sister. If the love between Wills and Kate captured the hearts of the nation, then Pippa’s rather excellent bottom caught their imaginations and she became a celebrity in her own right. The new book will be a ‘how-to’ manual on hosting parties and entertaining. This deal certainly seems to confirm Pippa’s currently immovable position on the celebrity radar.

Despite the recent fawning over the royal family, however, not everyone seems to be happy about Pippa’s publishing success. The main grievance of the global users of the World Wide Web seems to be the £400,000 advance Miss Middleton has secured before she has even written the book. As any writer will know, times are hard and money is tight in the publishing industry, with very few books receiving payouts even close to Pippa’s near-to half-a-million fee. Experienced authors who have been struggling for years, whose ideas are unique and stories sensational can only dream of a pay cheque so large, whilst Pippa Middleton sat back and watched leading publishers engage in a fierce bidding war for the rights to her writing debut, a book that was nothing more than a concept about becoming the perfect party planner. To be fair, Pippa does have an English Literature degree and a background in party-planning, so it would seem she’s adequately qualified to write a book on the topic but, for many people, it’s the fact that her name alone guarantees her success and a smooth ride at the publishers. That the book will probably be a best-seller too might seem a little unfair.

Celebrity authors have become a phenomenon in publishing over the last decade and they can be a force to be reckoned with. As of January 2007, Katie Price’s first autobiography had sold over a million copies, whilst her second autobiography reached number 2 in the hardback charts in 2006. She’s currently on her fourth autobiography, published in 2010. The glamour-model-turned-businesswoman has also branched out into fiction – at least, she works with a ghost-writer – and has published six novels, surpassing even J.K. Rowling in the speed of her UK book sales.

Katie Price is a perfect example of a celebrity having enormous success in the publishing world based solely on her name alone and she certainly isn’t the only one. Madonna, Ethan Hawke, Julie Andrews, Geri Halliwell are all famous names who have penned successful stories whose publication can only have been aided by their brand-like names.

Unfortunately, it’s just the way the world works today and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Celebrity books, whether they are how-to guides or a ghost-written novel, are big sellers, especially around this festive time of year when people are on a mission to find a fitting gift for an obscure relative. Perhaps I’m being unfair and too quick to criticise Pippa Middleton – as I have mentioned a couple of times, the book hasn’t even been written yet. For all I know, it may the best ‘how-to-host-a-perfect-party’ book ever written. And with a launch date set for autumn 2012, the book will come around just in time for my birthday: perhaps I’ll even put Pippa’s party guide to the test and plan my birthday using her expert tips. In my experience, however, as long as there’s good music, great company and lots and lots of alcohol, you pretty much have all the ingredients for a perfect party without Pippa’s help.




Never Judge A Book By Its Cover

Never judge a book by its cover, as the old saying goes. Well, I’ve been thinking a bit about book covers recently. It’s partly down to my last blog with all the many ways to turn a book into a must-have accessory. It doesn’t matter about the contents – just scoop out the middle and turn it into a bag or lampshade.

The other reason my thoughts turned to all things covers is that last week, at a local book fair, I bought one of those old-fashioned paperback Penguins, one of those lovely ones with the orange-white covers in three horizontal bands. The first Penguin paperbacks only appeared in the summer of 1935 and for 6 old pence, you had quality fiction in a relatively sturdy well-bound book. The colour-coded books (orange for fiction, blue for biography and green for mystery and crime) were a great success and, within a couple of years, over 3 million Penguin paperbacks had been sold.

The book I bought was a collection of short stories by William Saroyan: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. Now, I didn’t know much about the author – you see, I really was tempted by the cover alone – beyond that he was American. When I arrived home, I turned to read the back cover, expecting to find a biography of the writer, a synopsis of the book or some recommendations from other authors. Instead of which, I was quite surprised to find the whole of it taken up with an advert for Army Club – The Front-Line Cigarette. Seeing as this particular book was reprinted in November 1939, the advert was illustrated with a rakish-looking officer, complete with monocle, a fine moustache and with his greatcoat collar turned up – you probably know the type! According to the advert, “this is the cigarette for the fellow with a full-size man’s job to do”.

If anything, I believe that covers have become more important than ever for books. This is because the way a lot of us buy books has changed. Ten years ago, when we visited a bookshop (new or second-hand), most of the books were lined up on shelves, with only the spines visible. A few books may be turned with their fronts facing us and there were usually tables of 3 for 2 offers near the door or till, with covers upwards to tempt us. But, as a percentage of books for sale, we tended to see very few covers as we walked in. Now though, with more books being bought online, I see nothing but covers and as I scan through webpage after webpage, I often succumb to the temptation to buy more than I expected.

Some of my favourite covers are those featured in the Aubrey-Maturin series of books, written by Patrick O’Brian. Now, I’m not a great reader of sea adventures set in Napoleonic times but I was tempted to take the plunge after recently seeing Russell Crowe’s robust performance in the 2003 film, Master and Commander. Having now read the book, I still don’t know my mizzen topgallant staysail from my flying jib, but, to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. There’s action aplenty, the writing is often quite beautiful and the characters of Captain Jack Aubrey and the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, whose relationship is central to the book (and series) are wonderfully depicted. There are 20 books in the series, the first, Master and Commander, was written in 1970, with the final one, Blue at the Mizzen, written in 1999, a year before O’Brian’s death. I’ll admit to having bought a few more recently, now on my shelves and ready to read on those long winter evenings. But it’s still the covers that first tempted me. Painted by Geoff Hunt, a fine maritime painter and Past-President of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, these pictures perfectly complement the books. Apparently, if like me, you admire them, you can even buy prints on www.artmarine.co.uk.

In contrast, however, there is a set of prints I won’t be thinking of purchasing. That’s not to say the covers on Simon Morden’s Petrovitch series (Equations of Life, Theories of Flight, Degrees of Freedom) aren’t striking because they certainly are. Again, the covers alone make me want to investigate the books, science fiction thrillers set in a post-apocalyptic London. I think I’d just feel sorry for the person sitting opposite me on the train!




Literary Consumer: Books for Bags

When Natalie Portman walks into a room, I can only imagine the number of heads that turn: undeniably beautiful, she’s an Oscar-winning actress, a graduate of the prestigious Harvard University, face of Miss Dior Cherie and recently gave birth to her first child. But when I saw photos of her, a few months ago, at the New York Premiere of Black Swan, I barely glanced at her, nor did I bother reading the review of the film; instead, all I could look at was her clutch bag, a quirky and utterly gorgeous design by Olympia Le Tan made out of a hardback copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

For me, a known handbag-addict and bookworm, the Lolita clutch seemed like the Holy Grail of accessories. Of course, when I googled the clutch, it was retailing at a cool $1300, slightly out of my price range, to say the least. Luckily, I wasn’t the only literary fashionista inspired by the Lolita clutch and various clever, crafty types started to upload ‘how to’ videos, so that one could turn an old book into a beautiful bag in the comfort of your own home and for only a fraction of the price.

And bags aren’t the only option for book-lovers hoping to turn an old, mildewing classic into something new and useful! A little more research on Google provided me with a whole host of ideas of how to recycle and reinvent your old books. For the literature fanatic looking to redecorate their homes, why not try a unique paper lamp shade made out of the pages of your favourite tome (remember to use a low wattage bulb!) or create a book wreath just in time for the festive season? Indeed, with Christmas just around the corner, a couple of websites suggested hollowing out hardcover novels and using them as gift boxes – you could even use the discarded pages as wrapping paper for small individual gifts. For the home with too many books, and not enough space for them, how about putting up some original floating book shelves? It seems that old books can be turned into anything – necklaces, artwork, safe deposit boxes, tables, wall-clocks – just look for it on the internet and you’ll find a step-by-step tutorial.

It’s not a wholly new idea – altering books with impromptu artwork and cutting out clippings was prevalent in the Victorian period and, today, ‘altered books’’ has become an art form. The International Society of Altered Books Artists describes the processes that the artists use in order to create their sculptures, classifying an ‘altered book’ as: “Any book, old or new that has been recycled by creative means into a work of art. They can be … rebound, painted, cut, burned, folded, added to, collaged in, gold-leafed, rubber stamped, drilled or otherwise adorned …” Interest in this up-and-coming art form has increased and, in 2009, the Bellevue Arts Museum in the US held an exhibition, entitled The Book Borrowers, containing 31 works dedicated to ‘altered books’ artists.

So there I was, with an old hardcover edition of an E.M. Forster novel in one hand and a scalpel in the other, poised and ready to make my own fabulous clutch. But I just couldn’t do it: I couldn’t bring myself to hack at the delicate pages and tear them from the spine. Although many of my books have seen better days, in their own way, they are art – the work inside them is an art form at least, and pulling apart that carefully crafted narrative just doesn’t seem right. Destroying books, or bibliocide, is a sensitive topic – some would say that true bibliophiles would never dream of attacking literature in such a thoughtless way.

But in today’s society, where the new generation of readers clutch their Kindles and box after box of neglected books are dumped outside the charity shop, only to then fester on their shelves, isn’t using texts in this way a positive thing? The artists argue that altered books give the novel new cultural meanings and make them relevant in society again. Should we view book altering as recycling, rather than destroying? Could you make a handbag out of a hundred year old tome?

Personally, I love literary-inspired gifts and accessories. I own quite a lot of the Penguin Publishing merchandise – mugs, postcards, tote bag – and I can really appreciate the time, effort and craft that goes into turning a book into a sculpture or a beautiful wall lantern. Taking a knife, however, to an antique book is not something I am able to do myself. Don’t get me wrong, there a plenty of novels that I think aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on but I’m not sure I could even take the most poorly written story apart. Books are special and, in my view, ought to be treated with tender loving care.

So should books become bags or remain just books? I’m undecided but, I will say, that if anyone has a spare one thousand dollars lying around, I’d happily accept one of the beautiful Olympia le Tan clutches – if it’s good enough for Natalie Portman, then it’s good enough for me.

Briony Wickes




Genre Games

If you’re a regular user of your local library – that is, if you’re lucky enough still to have one – you’ll be familiar with the way the libraries categorise books for adults. If it’s anything like my fine county, Essex, their libraries separate the fiction from the non-fiction, with biography, probably appropriately in some cases, occupying a no-man’s land between the two. If you’re into non-fiction, then providing that you know your Dewey decimal classification system and can find the relevant shelves for The Technology of Biscuits, Crackers and Cookies by Duncan Manley (DDC 664.7525) as opposed to The Great Big Cookie Book by Hilaire Walden (DDC 641.8654), then you’re laughing.

It’s fiction that I find a little trickier. Years ago, I’m reliably informed by older relatives, fiction was all alphabetical. Daunting, perhaps, in a large library but you knew where to look. These days, fiction is subdivided into about a dozen categories, with its own coloured symbol on the spine of each book (red heart for Romance, devil for Horror etc.). In other words, you have to know more than just the author’s name to be able to find the book on the shelf. If you’re looking for Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks then try the Modern Fiction category. If you’re looking for The Mallen Streak by Catherine Cookson then try the Saga category. You would be correct in both cases. But try looking in either for The Founding by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, who has written 33 other books to date about the Morland Dynasty, definitely a saga, and you’ll find that in the Historical Fiction category (with a white castle tower on the book’s spine). Write about living in Roman times if you must (still Historical Fiction) but whatever you do, don’t investigate any wrongdoing. If you do, you’ll find yourself in Crime (black handcuffs on a blue background), along with Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey Davis, one of the many excellent books in the Marcus Didius Falco series. Similarly, Patrick O’Brian, author of more than 20 classic books set sailing the seas in the Napoleonic Wars and after, such as Master and Commander and The Fortune of War can be found not in Historical Fiction but in the Adventure category (little stick man running with gold background). I’m sure there’s a set of rules somewhere and, anyway, the exercise running around the library is probably good for me.

With library fiction categorised in this way, I find it also gives a clue to the changing habits of the reading public. Over the years, Crime seems to have expanded considerably, perhaps because of the popularity of the many TV detectives (Wexford, Morse, Dalziel etc.) but also because of the high quality of much of the writing. Fantasy (blue unicorn on the spine) also seems to have expanded its shelf allocation, again probably because of the film and TV success of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones but also because the books themselves usually weigh in at more than 1000 pages. Certainly in Essex, they seem to have won this space at the expense of Science Fiction (letters SF on pink background) but I’m sure the aliens will fight back at some stage.

Finally, a few words for the most embattled category of all – Western (cowboy hat and gun on bright yellow background). Every year, the shelf space shrinks for this category and worse, is often placed in an obscure and rarely visited part of the library, near the service lift. The days when books such as Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey filled shelves in the library may be over. I’ll admit now that I’m not a great reader of Western novels, perhaps not being of that generation when Western films dominated cinema schedules. But recently, I have read one or two books in the genre, admittedly after seeing an entertaining film that made me want to search out the book. But, here again, the library confused me. Following some admiration of Brad Pitt in the film of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I looked for the book, written by Ron Hansen, and found it not in Western but in Modern Fiction. Appaloosa by Robert B Parker is in Historical. Is this a conspiracy against the poor old Western category? I think I’m going to fight back and, in the spirit of High Noon, increase the borrowings of Western books from Essex libraries single-handed. I don’t expect you to join me. But looking at the offerings on the library shelves last week, how could anyone possible resist the books, regardless of content, when written by authors with names such as Skeeter Dodds, Curt Longbow and Colt Mahone?

Briony Wickes




Welcome to the Dark Side

Have you ever been seduced by a downright villain? I know I have. From Satan to Sauron, Dracula to Draco Malfoy, literary miscreants have been stealing the limelight and beguiling the reader for centuries. Most of us are, however, honest, law-abiding citizens so why is it that we are repeatedly drawn to fiction’s bad boys? What is it about monstrosity that is so appealing? And will we ever resist the lure of the dark side?

The word monster is often associated today with villainy, innate evil and horrific wrong-doings but originally, the word can be derived from the Latin ‘monstrum’ meaning something marvellous. For me, this could be a clue behind our fascination with the dark side: villains are marvellous. Always partial to a touch of the dramatic, many literary villains are also showmen; committing horrible crimes, yes, but often in such an ingenious way you cannot help but admire them. As journalist and literary villain-aficionado Kim Newman outlined recently in an article for flavorwire.com: “To be a great villain, it’s not enough just to be thoroughly evil – you have to be entertaining with it. A certain panache helps, especially for villains who fall into the category of arch-nemesis and have to prove themselves almost the equal of a flamboyantly brilliant hero.” Consider a character like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Moriarty, the self-styled ‘Napoleon of crime’ and arch-enemy of Sherlock Holmes: only such a ruthless villain could match Holmes and also be, according to Doyle, behind every evil deed that goes undetected in London.

Ever since the Renaissance, fictional rogues have been using underhand, Machiavellian tactics to outwit and outshine their heroic counterparts. One only needs to explore a genre like Revenge Tragedy to find heinous crimes enacted in extraordinary ways, often culminating in a grisly, yet dramatic tableau of slain bodies in the final scenes. Gruesome, yes, but it certainly leaves an impression upon any audience or reader – although we may forget over time the hero’s various virtues, bad guys are always more memorable.

My favourite literary villain has to be Shakespeare’s Richard III. Crafty, manipulative, murderous and cruel, he’s the kind of character one ought to despise, but I know I’m not the only audience member who has ever felt a strange fascination with this monstrous man. Unlike good Clarence or the heroic Richmond, Richard connects with the audience – he speaks in asides, making you complicit in his evil plans and eager to see how they will unfold. Furthermore, it’s Richard that gets all the good lines – many of us can remember the famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech, but when it comes to the other characters, our minds go blank. To a certain extent an underdog: facing many obstacles in his pursuit of Kingship at the beginning of the play, the audience almost cannot resist rooting for him. Richard is compelling, dazzling and complex – I want to figure him out and understand what makes him tick. Trying to piece together the puzzle behind a literary villain’s malevolence is a challenge for many readers and the reason why scoundrels like Mrs Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels remain so irresistible.

So what was Shakespeare thinking when he made Richard so appealing, or indeed any author who creates an unforgettable villain that we love to hate? Often it happens that the bad guys have to be seductive in order that the reader, as well as one or more of the good guys, is lured into their web of darkness. If villainous characters were simply clear-cut evil wrong-doers, it would be difficult for a reader to understand why other characters in the book may be deceived by them. They can certainly charm the reader too. Without them, think how anaemic some books would be. Oliver Twist without Bill Sikes, for example? Forced to make a choice, I’m probably not alone in preferring the book without young Oliver himself.




Strange Meetings

Having read some of the reviews, I’m looking forward to reading Craig Brown’s new book, One on One, where in short essays of only 1001 words, he tells of strange or chance meetings between famous people, from the 19th Century to the present day. In a way, although I’m sure that I’ll find all of it fascinating, I suppose that I really expect J.D. Salinger to come across Ernest Hemingway or Charlie Chaplin to play straight man to Groucho Marx. They are in the same line of work after all. You can even see Elvis Presley meeting President Nixon in the White House, though Nixon giving Elvis a Special Agent badge was probably unexpected. The ones that most intrigue me are the ones where you could ask yourself ‘How could that have happened?’. So I’m particularly looking forward to finding out about the meetings between H.G. Wells and Stalin and between Marilyn Monroe and Nikita Khrushchev, for example.

To meet famous figures from history is often the centrepiece of much historical fiction. Of course, some books may be just dramas set in a historical period, with not a famous character on any page, but in other books, well-known people are everywhere. If you’re in ancient Rome with Steven Saylor’s sleuth Gordianus the Finder in the excellent ‘Roma sub Rosa’ series, including books such as Roman Blood and Rubicon, you’ll come across Cicero and Julius Caesar. In Shakespeare’s historical plays, you’d expect to find Henry V and Richard III bestriding the stage. In Gore Vidal’s series of historical novels, such as Burr, Lincoln and Hollywood and now republished under the banner of ‘Narratives of Empire’, you come across Abe Lincoln and William Randolph Hearst at the height of their powers. The trouble I have with some historical fiction, though, is that if I’m familiar with the character, I start with a preconception, an idea of who they are and what they are about. Also, in many cases, I vaguely know the story and, in particular, how it ends. Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar – I just know it’s going to end in tears.

As a change, I’ve started to look into the subgenre of Alternate History, part historical, part science fiction. Here, you might know the characters but they didn’t die when you thought they did and the world they inhabit is often very different. It’s true, far too many of the books do seem to start with the premise that World War II ended differently but despite that, there is some excellent reading to be had. People have been writing about the ‘What Ifs’ of history for centuries, but acknowledged to be one of the earliest and greatest novels of the subgenre, Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore was published in 1953. In this novel, the Confederate South had won the American Civil War and is now one of the world’s superpowers, with New York, on the losing side, a backward and unsophisticated place, even 70 years on. Without giving too much away, enter a historian with a desire to find out more about the Battle of Gettysburg and the possibility of time travel and you have an intriguing novel. There’s plenty more to be read here, with authors like Harry Turtledove, in books such as How Few Remain and American Front, rewriting the history of the last 150 years with the two protagonists in the American Civil War on opposite sides in future world conflicts. There are many websites that will tell you more about alternate history, with uchronia.net a good place to start.

The danger, unless your historical knowledge is firmly grounded, is that you might get to the point where you begin to confuse historical fact from the alternate, fictional view. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed the ‘Flashman Papers’ series, written by George Macdonald Fraser. Here he takes a fictional character, the bully Flashman from Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes, and sees what happens to him after he left Rugby School. He joins the army but remains a bully and a coward, of course, with, these days, politically incorrect views about women, foreigners and, well, just about everyone. In the 12 books published, he romps through Victorian history, being promoted, knighted and awarded medals, all unjustly, and often managing to be present at pivotal moments in history from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Battle of Little Big Horn. Plenty of historical characters feature throughout the series, from Florence Nightingale to Buffalo Bill, but one strange meeting really sticks in my memory. In Flashman and the Tiger, the hero, already a character taken from another work of fiction, actually gets to meet Sherlock Holmes, the great fictional detective, in the middle of one of his own mysteries, The Adventure of the Empty House.

It’s a strange meeting indeed.




Travel Writing: Which Way to Go?

As the end of the year approaches, booksellers will be looking forward to increased sales as people start buying awkward presents for awkward relations—a book, perhaps? In recent years, some of the most popular Christmas purchases have been travel books, often those that accompany a television series—for example, Long Way Round by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman and its sequel Long Way Down. And before that, we could usually rely on something from Michael Palin, perhaps going Pole to Pole or Full Circle. This year, one of the biggest sellers will no doubt be Billy Connolly’s Route 66, as a tie-in to his TV adventures on his ridiculously large and conspicuous motorbike. It makes me wonder how travel writing has evolved over the 20th century.

Not that many decades ago, when long haul flights really were long haul, a holiday under the Mediterranean sun was adventure enough for most British families. Nowadays, the many places visited by Connolly and Palin have already been experienced by many television viewers and readers. Popular travel writing seems to have become a comparison of holiday notes between celebrity writer and reader.

Contrast that with the classic travel writing of the early 20th century. Books such as The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard told of horrendous privations in Antarctica at the time of Scott’s last expedition. The Southern Gates of Arabia, about the land now called Yemen, was written in 1934 by Freya Stark (she died in 1993 at 100 years old) is one of over two dozen books about her travels, mainly in the Middle East and often to places then rarely seen by Western writers, particularly women. These books are examples of true exploration in the planet’s wildest places.

Then there is one of my favourite books: A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, where, although the path he chooses is well travelled, he still manages to capture fascinating snapshots of a disappearing age. Fermor was a highly decorated soldier, fabled for his exploits in Crete during the Second World War, and died in June 2011 at the age of 96. A Time of Gifts, only written 45 years after his journey across Europe, tells of his travels when, in 1933 at the age of 18, he left the Hook of Holland to travel to Constantinople (now Istanbul), meeting a variety of people, sometimes sleeping in fields, sometimes in cheap hotels, or in the castles of central Europe’s fading aristocracy. This was a time of great change across Europe and his tales of life, the people he met, and his descriptions of the countryside in a world soon to be swept away by war are beautifully written. He ends up in Hungary at the end of his first book in a proposed trilogy, and his second book, Between the Woods and the Water, continues his journey to Romania. Sadly, the long-awaited final book completing his journey to Constantinople was never published.

In recent years, books by Sir Ranulph Fiennes such as Beyond the Limits and Mind over Matter, which detail his travels in the Arctic and the Antarctic, have kept up the tradition of brave adventures through inhospitable regions. But I wonder: are these sorts of travel books dying out? Not because the writing isn’t any good; far from it. A book such as Tim Butcher’s Blood River, for example, written in 2008 and shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize that same year, is a haunting tale of 21st-century horror in the Democratic Republic of Congo, beset by disease and war. However, most of the horror of the book comes from the evils of men rather than problems associated with the natural environment.

Perhaps it’s just inevitable that as the world gets “smaller” and there are fewer unspoiled and unknown wilderness to reach, modern travel writers have had to substitute natural hazards for man-made ones. It’s still travel to dangerous places, and just as unpredictable, but top quality travel writing has had to evolve.  So before you buy one of those glossy TV-series accompanying travel books this Christmas, as a last-minute present for cousin Tom, perhaps have a quick look along the shelf in the travel section to see what else is there.  Alongside the 20th century classics, you’re bound to find a more recently-written work too, where the author has suffered genuine hardship and danger to bring this book to you.  And I don’t mean room service being a little on the slow side.




The Only Way Is Essex

Before we begin, I ought to make this clear: I am an Essex girl. Recently, there’s been a great surge of interest in my home county, with reality TV shows and self-styled ‘Essex celebrities’ hitting our headlines daily and nowadays, the word ‘Essex’ is enough to turn some of us on, but a lot of us off. As counties go, it’s probably the most maligned and ridiculed in the UK and there’s no escaping the stereotypes: lager lout wide-boys with flashy watches and bleach blonde ‘glamazons’, complete with fake tans, false nails and fast morals.

Although some might think this ‘Essex-mania’ is a recent fascination, the ‘Essex Man’ cliché has been in circulation since the 90s, with journalist Simon Heffer labelling him “young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren”, more interested in his flash car and Rottweiler, than art or literature. And so, with Issue 110 of Litro Magazine focussing on Street Fiction and representing where you’re from, I thought it was high time I stood up for my home county and wrote a blog proving that Essex isn’t all about ‘vajazzles’ and mangled vowels. Far from being “culturally barren”, for art and literature lovers, Essex is an exciting place to be and below are just some of the things that ought to make us celebrate, rather than censure this home county. Who knows, maybe I’ll even convince you that perhaps the only way is Essex after all!

firstsite – Colchester, Essex

As you may have learnt in English History lessons at school, Colchester is Britain’s oldest recorded town and home to plenty of Roman, Norman and Saxon artefacts and sites of interest. Once upon a time, it was the capital of the country. When Luke Wright, in his hilarious poem The Company of Men, wrote the lines “You see, I grew up in Colchester/Where very little culture stirs”, he obviously hadn’t been lucky enough to visit firstsite, a brand new, innovative cultural and social space with contemporary art at its heart, reinventing the traditional art gallery and exhibition centre. The striking crescent-shaped building, inspired by its Roman heritage and covered with a unique golden alloy, is not only a cultural landmark but also home to many exciting new exhibitions from international contemporary artists Michaela Eichwald, Aleksandra Mir, Karin Ruggaber and Danh Vo, as well as pieces by Turner and Andy Warhol. As the name suggests, firstsite is the first of its kind and, currently, you’ll only get a cutting edge creative space like it in Essex.

Essex Book Festival – Various locations in Essex

Held in March, Essex Book Festival 2011 may be over, but anticipation for next year’s festival, one of the biggest literary festivals in the UK, is already mounting. Notable authors who have attended recent festivals include Sir Andrew Motion, Germaine Greer, Penelope Lively, Margaret Drabble, Rose Tremain, Alexander McCall Smith and Martin Newell. The writer and journalist, Francis Wheen is also a patron of the festival and, in an interview for Essex Life Magazine, he pledged his support for the festival, asserting “I go to literary festivals all over the country, and abroad, and I know of none which is as diverse as ours…It reaches an incredibly wide range of people. Outsiders have the idea that Essex is some kind of philistine, illiterate swamp. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s extraordinary how literary Essex really is.”

‘Constable Country’ – Dedham Vale and Stour Valley, Essex

Picturesque villages, rolling farmland, big skies, rivers, meadows, ancient woodlands and a wide variety of wildlife combine to create the inspiration for many of the most beautiful works by the English romantic painter, John Constable. For those lucky enough to have visited Flatford and its surroundings, you’ll know how tranquil and charming the area is and why Constable openly admitted that it was these Essex “scenes [that] made me a painter.” I defy anyone not to feel inspired by the lush scenery of this Essex countryside and I can think of no better place to take a good book to read or even a creative journal and craft your greatest work to date.

Creative Writing Courses – University of Essex and other various locations 

For those with a keen, enquiring and creative mind, the University of Essex can boast an excellent undergraduate BA course in Creative Writing. Even more exciting, the Professor of Poetry is none other than Derek Walcott, the 1992 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and, more recently, the 2011 T.S Eliot Prize for White Egrets. For those who aren’t prepared to commit a full three years to the undergraduate course at the University, a quick search will bring up many other creative writing courses across Essex, aimed to inspire and help you on your creative path.

So, please, next time Essex is mentioned in the news, and a certain image forms in your mind, remember that there is much more in the county just waiting to be discovered.




Hot Coffee, Great Books

For many of us, the perfect autumnal night-in is to be curled up on the sofa, swaddled in blankets and the comfiest of clothes with a hot drink in one hand and a good book in the other. The combination of caffeine and literature is potent and the humble cup of coffee has long been the crutch for many great writers: Hemingway was supposedly addicted to the stuff, amongst his other vices, whilst Voltaire drank over 50 cups of it each day. Even Kurt Vonnegut demonstrated his passion for java by posing as one of the ‘Coffee Achievers’ in a 1984 National Coffee Association advertisement. If drinking coffee and writing has become fairly synonymous, it seems only natural that reading whilst drinking it ought to be encouraged too. And so, in order to cash in on our enduring love of coffee, many bookshops have introduced a café or coffee bar into their stores, both rewarding old customers and enticing new ones with the promise of a welcome pick-me-up beverage.

At first it seems to be a charming idea, the perfect hangout for book lovers: a place where literary types can go unmolested, browse the shelves, purchase works of fictional genius and then sit back, relax and furiously debate with like-minded souls, armed with a fortifying cup of tea. It sounds idyllic, my kind of heaven but then, perhaps is it too good to be true? What are the pros and cons of these coffee-cum-book stores – should coffee bars become a staple in today’s bookshops or should they be separated once and for all?

For many bookshop owners, the benefits of incorporating a coffee bar into their stores are obvious. Firstly, it encourages people into the store, people who perhaps might have passed by the bookshop but pop in to buy a quick cup of coffee and end up purchasing a book as well. Working people might come to the bookshop on their lunch break and buy a book they started reading over their sandwiches. It also creates a centre for students and writers, a cooler alternative to the library where they can focus on their work in relaxed surroundings. Having all these people in a bookshop too, whether they are nursing the same coffee for six hours or not, only helps to make it look busier. Nowadays, most remaining big chain bookshops come with a coffee shop attached, making the pressure on smaller, independent bookstores to follow suit even greater. In an interview for Inreads.com, Claudia Colodro, owner of an independent bookstore in Los Angeles claimed that without the café section, her bookshop would have folded, insisting “You can’t open up an independent bookstore with just new books; it’s too hard…we knew we needed more than one business to make it work, so we combined two and made it one”.

Other bookshop owners, however, have not had such a successful experience of combining all things literary with hot beverages. On bookshopblog.com, bookstore owners share complaints about café sections bringing in the wrong clientele – young teenagers mostly, prone to loiter, throw packets of sugar at each other and who don’t even cast a passing glance at any of the books, let alone purchase one. Some have found that customers who are in the shop purely for the coffee are often ruder and more demanding than the patrons who come for the books and ask for advice on the latest must-reads. The prattle of children, the blare of mobile phones and the roar of the cappuccino machine only work as a detriment to the bookstore ambiance, rather than creating a homely, intellectual environment. Worse still, others insist that, rather than earning extra profit, selling coffee and tea simply costs them more, blaming their cafés for their financial woes and are adamant that the space taken up would have been better dedicated to, quite simply, more books!

So what do you think? Are you a fan of the coffee/bookshop combination or do you believe in complete separation? Personally, I believe that introducing a café area into a bookshop, especially an independent bookshop, is a good thing. In a time when more and more libraries are being closed, it creates a space for the community, somewhere students, families, pensioners and businessmen alike can come to work, relax and, more importantly, enjoy literature. What better place to hold a reading circle or study group or even just to meet your friends? In this current economic climate, bookshops need all the extra support they can get. It’s these independent café-cum-bookstores that provide a safe haven for us bookworms; it’s there you’ll find an intellectually stimulating and buzzing atmosphere. Indeed, I feel now is the time to make a confession – I am currently in one, sitting in a very comfortable chair and writing this blog. I often feel stifled stuck indoors and these places give me the perfect spot for a bit of people watching, as well as allowing me a quiet area where I can think and focus in. And, of course, I get to enjoy a huge mug of coffee at the same time. Yes, for me, the combination of caffeine and literature seems ideal and, I believe that, quite frankly, if it’s good enough for Vonnegut, it’s good enough for me.

Briony Wickes




Best of the Best

Despite very rarely winning anything, I am a competitive person. Although my days of playing team sports at school are now a distant memory, rather than mellowing with age, my competitive side has only got worse and I’ve found myself focussing all my competing instincts on academic pursuits. I’ll admit it: I like to be on the winning team in debates, get the best marks in essays and even come top of the class in the end of term Christmas quiz. So when I saw a Facebook ‘app’ challenging me to see how many books I had read from the BBC’s ‘Big Read Top 100’ list and test my self-imposed label as a bookworm, I was intrigued. I had to give it a go.

I got mixed results – although I had beaten the average of 6, I had only read 39 out of 100 ‘must-reads’, trounced by some of my classmates who had posted their own totals to compare with mine. Rather than reaffirming my love of literature, the list left me feeling a little inadequate. And at the risk of sounding like a sore loser, I couldn’t help but disagree with some of the books that had made the Top 100. Meg Cabot’s ‘The Princess Diaries’ made the grade but E.M. Forster didn’t? Of course, it’s only my personal opinion but I was baffled by some of the choices in the top 100, as well as a little confused by the point of the actual list itself. Should we rate our favourite books and, if we should, how do you go about ranking them?

Literature has been ranked and listed for decades. Anyone who has studied English at secondary school will be aware of the existence of a literary canon, the great books that have shaped the way we read and write today and made their indelible mark on our culture. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Formalist critics were very keen to evaluate the worth of texts and rank them in order of greatness. Although slight changes have been made over time, the literary canon still stands strong and dictates a lot of what we read, watch and learn today. It probably always will, although some campaign for its abandonment.

The ‘Big Read’ list, on the other hand, is ranked by popularity.  Launched in 2003, the goal was always to find the nation’s best-loved book. Whereas the canon was chosen by intellectuals steeped in high culture, the BBC threw their ‘Big Read’ list open to the public, asking people to vote for their favourite book through SMS texting and the Web. You can see the results here. The public vote certainly does make this list more democratic than others but popularity doesn’t necessarily mean quality writing. The Guardian have gone one step further and created a ‘100 Best Books of All Time’ list, crowning Hans Christian Andersen’s  ‘Complete Fairy Tales and Stories’ the ultimate worthwhile read. Worse still, are the lists that claim you should read certain books BEFORE YOU DIE. Lists like these seem almost more akin to the Ten Commandments than a useful directory of friendly recommendations. Surely, reading ought to be a pleasurable pastime but by adding the concept of our own mortality, these lists create an uneasy pressure to complete all the books or face an afterlife of regret and bitter failure. The MLA’s ‘List of 30 Books Every Adult Must Read Before They Die’ is at least do-able, but the 1001 books variety is just plain depressing for the completist.

It brings me back to questioning what the point is of all these lists? Are they useful? Some would argue that lists like these direct you to new books and help you sift the wheat from the chaff. They give new readers, unsure of where to begin, a starting point. Even the ‘Read Before You Die’ lists give people a challenge or a goal to focus on. I can certainly understand why people would turn to these lists for direction but to me, all these lists do is create feelings of inadequacy. After looking at them, I feel ashamed that I haven’t read more than half of the books from the Top 100 and even guilty for picking up the latest Charlaine Harris book for my holiday reading, instead one of the chosen few. Many of us aren’t in school any more, no-one ought to tell us what we can and can’t read. How can you truly enjoy a book if you are forcing yourself to read it? For me, ‘lists of bests’ can be fun, some can even be useful but I would advise against following them to the letter: sometimes, it’s best just to leave the lists and keep an open mind.

Briony Wickes