Friday, 29 January 2010

A début and a departure

I've just read When I was Joe. Keren David's first novel (Frances Lincoln). It was one I resented having to put down in order to do other things and always returned to with a sigh of relief. And - this is rare for me - I didn't know what was going to happen next in the plot.

The subject already interested me. Ty has had to enter a witness protection programme after being present at a fatal stabbing in a park. Exactly what happened and what part Ty had in it is only gradually revealed, most skilfully, by the author.

I've sometimes mused about writing a book where the as it were second character turned out to be in such a programme, because there must be a fair old number of them about now.

Anyway, Ty and his young mother, Nicky, become Joe and Michelle, with the usual hair dye, scissors and contact lenses and move to a new town and a new school. Here Joe becomes a new person, discovering that he is attractive to girls, good at athletics and altogether a much cooler guy than Ty. (Wow, I thought; they should market those lenses!)

It's not long before Joe discovers he's not the only one with a secret and it's the most unlikely girl who stirs his interest. On the way he ends up in a lot of trouble and has to be moved and reinvented again. David is particularly good at showing how easy it is to be seen as the culpable "bad boy" if the chain of circumstances goes a certain way.

I have only two reservations about this fine début. One is Joe's occasional adoption of "Gangsta" argot; it may be accurate (I'm sure David did her research) but I found it embarrassing and it made me uncomfortable. The other is that the book doesn't exactly have a proper ending: you know you have to wait for a second book to resolve the story - indeed the publisher prints the first chapter of the next book at the end of this one.

I particularly dislike that marketing ploy, even though I've sometimes had to accept it in my own books. There's no doubt it works: I bought Jodi Picoult's The Pact because its first chapter was printed at the end of My Sister's Keeper. But it works only once - I've never bought another of hers, having decided she just isn't good enough.

And it's no substitute for a proper resolution to the existing novel.But when I was Joe is a terrific read and I await the next novel eagerly.

I know that Keren David is an admirer of J D Salinger and of course he has just died at 91. I expect the equivalent of the Cormac McCarthy supporters who jumped on my blog for my having wondered why he didn't use a computer will be equally vocal when I say I don't share David's admiration for this writer.

At least, I don't admire The Catcher in the Rye, which I think is one of the most overrated novels of the 20th century. Influential yes, too much so. One can't blame Salinger for all the many Holden Caulfields it spawned, any more than Tolkien is to blame for the mountain of sub-LOTR fantasy that followed his work.

CITR is the opposite of Leanne Shapton's book reviewed earlier this month in that it is eminently imitable.

The obits tell me that his short stories are worth reading so I'll give him another go but I think that CITR has a position in 20th literature quite out of proportion to its merits. However, if it speaks to a reader then it earns its place in their emotional and literary development.

Maybe you need to be a 16 year old boy to think it's a masterwork. Perhaps Joe will read it but I rather think he doesn't need to.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Costas 2009

The Costa Awards for 2009 are announced and given in 2010 and this year, instead of the customary dinner for category winners only, there was a champagne reception at Quaglino's for all the shortlisted authors and their +1s. Hence the Book Maven was there. (If you look very closely at the picture you may just be able to spot Troubadour lying on its side 4 books from the top).

The scene that met our eyes as we, like Duchamp's Nude (only with more clothes on) descended the staircase, was something like the second picture above. It was a relief to see Patrick Ness at the bottom, who won the children's category with The Ask and the Answer. It wasn't long before we were chatting to William Nicholson, who was one of the judges.

In search of champagne, we saw Ian Hislop wandering through the crowd; Presumably he, like Michael Howard, dodged several times later, was there in capacity of husband. Sandra Howard was one of the judges.

Around the room big screens displayed the five winning books, which were up against each other for the overall prize. Standing in front of one of these were Helen Lederer and her doctor husband. She was sweet enough to claim to remember when I told her she had read my book Special Powers as an audiobook.

It was our proximity to Helen that resulted in the bizarre situation of introducing my husband to Jerry Hall! (Of course he had no idea who she was). I was struck by how familiar she seemed, then realised of course she is a copy of the glamorous Sarah Odedina, children's Publisher at Bloomsbury.

By the time of the big announcement we were chatting to Nigel Roby, Managing Director of The Bookseller. He knew who had won but kept his counsel. The big screens were now telling us that John Derkach, MD of Costa was on stage. Quaglino's, he said, never closed during the war but had drinking and dancing while the bombs fell. There was to be no dancing tonight (and no bombs either, you could hear the room thinking).

Penny Smith (who she? I hear you ask - a GMTV presenter and according to Wikipedia the 92nd sexiest woman in the world) reminded us of the five category winners,then Josephine Hart (Damage, Sin etc) who was Chair of the judges, recapped their content, describing Colm Toibin (can't do accents in blog)as "a major novelist at the height of his powers".

But the surprise winner,"by a substantial majority" of votes, announced by Alan Parker, Costa's Chief Executive, was Christopher Reid, for his book of poetry A Scattering, published by Craig Raine at Arete. It's a memorial to his wife Lucinda Gane, an actor, who died of cancer in 2005.

It's a case of history repeating itself, since Douglas Dunn won the first overall Whitbread Prize (which is what the Costa used to be) in 1985 for Elegies, in memory of his own wife's death from cancer.

Josephine Hart said "out of a personal tragedy, Christopher Reid has written a master work which has universal power"

I don't actually agree, having read the book which was generously supplied in the goody bags - along with a drum of Costa's finest Espresso ground and a loyalty card for their cafés, already charged with £10 worth of credit. I found it moving as a personal memoir of grief but for me it didn't manage to transcend that private mystery. It's not In Memoriam or Adonais.

I must now read Brooklyn to see if that really was transcendent.

But over 100 books were submitted in each category - 150 in Novels - so it's a grand pinnacle Reid is standing on and it would be churlish not to congratulate him. My friend Philip Gross has just won the TS Eliot Poetry Prize with his The Water Table so I shall be reading more poetry this year than I have for some time. And if these prizes encourage the general public to to do too, then they are a very good thing.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Wise owl has a new barn

In 2000, when I was launching Armadillo magazine, Ann Jungman published her first four titles as Barn Owl Books. Both initiatives grew out of the writers' and artists' support group, Northern Lights, which we had founded together in 1995. We had our meetings mostly at illustrator Jane Ray's house because her husband is a conductor and finding babysitters was sometimes difficult.

Most of us lived in North London - hence the name, which I remember asking Philip Pullman's permission to use - but there was no hard and fast geographical rule. Other members included Georgia Byng, Kaye Umansky and the late Kate Petty. We shared news and views about publishing in general and our own writing and illustrating. Publishers trembled: "They've only gone and set up a union!" said one. But we hadn't. We were just trying to overcome the isolation and ignorance that can be felt by creative freelances working solitarily from home (this was before Facebook, Twitter and other such virtual forms of interaction).

Armadillo came about because I wanted to see more review space for children's books. Barn Owl because Ann, an ex-teacher, believed passionately that good children's books went out of print all too soon in a market increasingly interested only in quick and plentiful sales. It's even worse now but none of us knew that at the time.

Setting up a publishing house costs money and Ann had come into some from her grandfather's property in East Berlin after the wall came down. Most people in the insecure profession of writing would have put it into a pension or bought a modest house. Ann put it all into setting up Barn Owl Books.

The first four books were: Michael Rosen's You're Thinking About Doughnuts; Gwen Grant's Private: Keep Out; Jacqueline Wilson's Jimmy Jelly and Adèle Geras' Voyage. Two subsequent Children's Laureates, a distinguished Carnegie shortlisted author and a Guardian Lucy Mangan top pick for building a children's library. No-one could say Ann didn't have a good eye for a book.

Co-incidentally, another person was setting up a children's re-print house at the same time. Jane Nissen had retired from a distinguished editorial career at Hamish Hamilton and Penguin in 1998 and started her own list a few weeks after Barn Owl, Jane Nissen Books.

Would the two go head-to-head in finding great books whose rights had reverted to their authors? No. The two women amicably decided that Jane would take pre-1970 titles and Ann those originally published after that date.If they ever strayed into each other's territory, they sorted it out by mutual agreement, meeting regularly and supporting each other's ventures.

Over the last ten years Barn Owl has published nearly a hundred titles, including more by Mike Rosen, others by Malorie Blackman, Joan Aiken and Quentin Blake, Gillian Cross and many by "the Two Steves" (Barlow and Skidmore).For most of its lifetime Barn Owl has had its books distributed by Frances Lincoln. Now after ten years of hard work, Ann Jungman has sold the stock to that publisher. She will remain as consultant and the Barn Owl imprint will publish more books in the future, if finances permit.

But the climate for print publishing is pretty dire currently. The loss of the bookshop chain Borders just before Christmas has not helped to improve the picture. Many people, including Ann Jungman and the Maven, opposed the purchase of Ottakar's by Waterstone's in 2006, believing it would lead to a monopoly on the High Street. And this has come to pass.

But even Waterstone's while, virtually unopposed, is struggling against online sales, ebooks and illegal pirated downloads of books.

So one small barn owl has had to fold its wings. Ann will go back to thinking of herself primarily as a writer, rather than a publisher, and has many irons in the fire. Best know for her humorous books for juniors, like the very successful Vlad the Drac series, Ann is currently writing a serious novel called Red Ribbon, set during the Gold Rush in Australia, a country where she lived for many years and visits regularly.

Jane Nissen won the Eleanor Farjeon Award for services to children's books in 2007. The Book Maven thinks that Ann Jungman deserves at least a special mention for service above and beyond the call of duty.

Monday, 11 January 2010

The Lure of things

The full title of the book whose jacket is illustrated here is "Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry" by Leanne Shapton. It's one of the many books I asked for and got for Christmas and you'll be hearing about several of them here.

If ever a book had a USP it's this one. An affair, ultimately unsuccessful, between the two people named in the long title, is commemorated or recorded through photographs of significant objects to both or each of them. It would be unfair to say the book has no narrative but it certainly has no continuous text - only the captions to each object as it appears in a catalogue of items for sale. And that sale takes place on Valentine's Day 2009.

It's a very smart little book indeed and I "read" it excitedly - keen to pick up clues as to where it all went wrong and why. It is, from that point of view a tour de force. I take my hat off to Ms Shapton and she can label it "green knitted type known in the UK as a "beanie" much used in periods of inclement weather"$5-$10.

BUT. It makes no sense. However much a couple is keen on the material manifestations of their shared life, neither one of them gets rid of everything when the affair is over! "That's a lovely cashmere sweater Harold gave me; I think I'll keep it" or " Lenore gave me that book; I've always loved it" are more common reactions.

And no-one in a relationship has ALL the items.I was also irritated by the woman's being a "cake columnist" while the guy was a photojournalist or something, because when she accuses him of not taking her work seriously I think "nor do I" even though Lenore comes across as more loving and altogether nicer than Harold. (He's a big old commitment freak 13 years older than her).

So I loved the book but think it's essentially sterile: a dead end. You can't have any more such catalogues.

And then i read about Orhan Pamuk's Museum of innocence. He apparenty also uses iconic objects to tell of a man's obsession with a woman, but, being a Nobel-winning novelist and all, he gives us text and plenty of it.

I'm thinking of writing my autobiography in objects. Hey, we can all do it - we all have stuff, right?

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Quick blog to present award

Ah, thank you, Lucy Coats at Scribble City Central, for this nice Blog Award! Trouble is I must pass it on to ten other blogs and you've chosen most of the ones I follow. Here are some others:

1 All my SAS friends at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure
2 Lynn Price at Behler Blog
3.Candy Gourlay at Notes From the Slushpile
4. Kath Langrish at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles
5. Colleen Lindsay at The Swivet
6. Jackie Morris at Ginger Darlings
7. Mary Kole at
8. Jane Smith at How Publishing Really Works
9. Scott Pack at Meandmybigmouth
10.? at Editorial Anonymous

I know I should really have made all those links but it would take forever!