Young Writer of the Year Shadow Panel

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I’m on it! Hooray!

This is going to be a short and probably flippant post, written at work in between deep-breathing sessions and feeling like my heart is about to leap up through my throat and strangle my brain, a la that terrible poet in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Work is a lot.

Anyway, the announcement embargo has been lifted now, though the shortlist is still under embargo until the 29th because reasons. I can tell you that it’s a diverse and exciting bunch of books in terms of genre and technique, that I haven’t read any of them so far, and that I’m anticipating some great discussions with the other members of the shadow panel.

(They are: Annabel Gaskell of Annabookbel.net, Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck, Dane Cobain of Social Bookshelves, and Clare Rowlandson of A Little Blog of Books.)

For more information, plus complete biographies of the shadow panel’s glamorous selves, check out the official website: http://youngwriteraward.com/#

And keep your eyes peeled for the shortlist announcement and reviews! This is the prize that recognised Andrew McMillan, Max Porter, Benjamin Wood and Jessie Greengrass, amongst others. (So, you know, all the cool kids are paying attention.)

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September Superlatives

Quite a lot going on in September, all of it good—more writing, more walking, more singing, more seeing dear friends whom I don’t see often enough. Work is very busy, and I have two new colleagues to help me in the bookshop, and I have just started working on our bespoke subscription service, with new clients of my own. Not many reviews this month, but 17 books read, and a sense that, going into winter, I may just preserve my sanity. An unexpected gift, that: I don’t fare well in the dark season.

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most uneven: Mark Twain’s travelogue Roughing It, which is partly set in Nevada, Utah and California Territories (where he originally went to accompany his brother, who was appointed to a government position in Nevada), and partly in Hawaii. Twain is amusing as ever (if a little distressingly casual) on Mormon society and the surreal bubble of Western gold prospecting, but he’s also breathtakingly racist about Chinese labourers in California Territory, and things don’t improve when he meets native Hawaiians. Worth reading, but hardly essential.

most incendiary: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, longlisted for the Booker Prize, which retells Sophocles’s Antigone with a British Muslim family front and center. Dutiful daughter Isma, bold and beautiful Aneeka, and radicalised, immature Parvaiz play out a story that feels inevitable, but ought to be read by everyone interested in current debates about the West’s role in creating a new generation of terrorists. (review)

best fun: K.J. Whittaker’s False Lights, the tagline of which is the intriguing “What if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo?” Featuring Cornish separatist rebels, Napoleon’s brother Jerome on the English throne, and a mixed-race heroine (not to mention another particularly wonderful depiction of a working-class woman whose capacity for military strategy wins her the Duke of Wellington’s respect), it’s like a glorious mashup of Frenchman’s Creek and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (but without the magic.)

most stylish: My Cat Yugoslavia, the debut novel from Pajtim Statovci. Examining the psychic fallout from the war in Kosovo through the eyes of Bekim, a Kosovan Muslim resettled in Finland as a child, it’s an elegant, if sometimes slightly self-conscious, treatment of the lingering traumas of conflict. (review)

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best atmosphere: That of immediately post-war London in Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress. It’s set in the notoriously cold winter of 1947, and follows Joan Grice, who runs the wardrobe department at the Beaumont Theatre, as she mourns the death of her famous actor husband, known to all as Gricey. The revelation that Gricey had a secret life—one that was almost diametrically opposed to his domestic life with her—drives Joan to the brink of madness. McGrath writes with beautiful restraint and finely calculated tension; it’s a masterpiece.

sheerest delight (and most inspirational protagonist): Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. This is not exactly news to anyone who reads Naomi’s blog, but good Lord is this novella ever charming, cheering, and a bit of a kick up the ass. Dr. Morayo da Silva, Manyika’s protagonist, is in her eighties and still lively, sharp, and sexy. (A young chef, seeing her dancing, gets a little hot under the collar, despite knowing she’s his grandmother’s age.) Manyika doesn’t ignore the painful elements of aging, but she has also written the only elderly female protagonist I’ve ever read whom I wouldn’t actually mind becoming. What a gem.

most addictive: Munich, Robert Harris’s new book. I had never read a single Harris book until July, when I finally bought the paperback of Conclave because I was going to be on a train and what if I happened to finish the book I already had in my bag OH NOES. It turned out to be great, and Munich is even better. While sticking to the historical record of what happened in 1938 when Chamberlain and Hitler met and signed the Munich Agreement, Harris also gives us the perspective of two men—one in the British government, one in the German—who try to persuade Chamberlain of the real danger. Harris succeeds as no other novelist has in conveying Britain’s desperation not to start another war, and somehow, knowing from the start how it will end doesn’t diminish the tension.

best surprise: This year’s Booker Prize dark horse, Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. Initially this seemed rather Cormac McCarthy Does Yorkshire, but in the end it’s much more than that: a siren song of violence and independence and rage. There are shades of Winter’s Bone and My Absolute Darling and the queasy individualism of Paul Kingsnorth’s novels in the story of bare-knuckle fighter John and his children, gentle Daniel and hard-as-nails Cathy. It’ll be interesting to see what Mozley does next.

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biggest disappointment: Dunbar, Edward St. Aubyn’s reimagining of King Lear for Hogarth’s Shakespeare project. In this case, the failing is partly that of the utterly mediocre prose, but mostly due to a lack of moral scope: Dunbar isn’t a tragic figure because he isn’t an Everyman. (Neither is a king, you might say, to which I would reply that Lear is humanised through his madness, and also—crucially—through subtle choices made by every actor who plays him. Dunbar, meanwhile, is simply an aggressive and deeply unpleasant media mogul who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break: a bizarre choice on St Aubyn’s part that utterly removes his protagonist from our sympathy.) I may write a full review of this, if my brain ever stops feeling like a wrung-out dishtowel every evening after work.

best short story collection: And only short story collection, but it’s difficult to phrase what I want to say about 2084, edited by George Sandison, which is that it’s an almost flawless assembly of stories, all explicitly set in the eponymous year as part of a project conceived as a response to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. From the ultimate assimilationist technique among refugees to haute couture-induced lunacy, from drowning cities to a bonkers future youth dialect that draws on Doge memes (“Such approach! Very arriving!”), these stories are never less than fully committed to their visions of the future, and the writing is never less than sterling. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

most thought-provoking: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, an Afrofuturist novel(-la?) about genetically modified speciMen (the book’s word). I liked it okay, but not more than that, and the reason that’s thought-provoking is because my lukewarm response had a lot to do with the rhythms of the prose. Okorafor’s sentences are shaped in a way that clearly owes much to African and oral storytelling beats, and I find that hard to deal with in written work. The fact that The Book of Phoenix has revealed this prejudice means, of course, that it’s done its job.

most LUSH: John Banville’s new novel and sort-of sequel to The Portrait of a Lady, Mrs. Osmond. It follows Isabel Osmond, née Archer, as she tries to free herself from the horrendous, controlling marriage to which Henry James condemns her. As a technical achievement it’s stunning; attempts to mimic late-C19 prose often end badly, reading as parody or pastiche, but Banville’s control and intelligence means that he manages precisely to ventriloquise a Jamesian style (albeit a slightly less thicket-y one). I’ve never seen anything like it.

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most quietly devastating: The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s fictionalisation of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. It would read well in conjunction with Do Not Say We Have Nothing; Barnes is more interested in his ideas than his plot, whereas Madeleine Thien manages to integrate the two, but Barnes has equally interesting things to say about how artists (specifically musicians) survive under tyranny, and the intellectual compromises that survival requires.

most surreal: I’ll Sell You a Dog, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Set in Mexico City and narrated by foul-mouthed, cheekily lecherous pensioner Teo, it covers mid-century Mexican art, Marxism, young love, disappointment, intellectual pretension (embodied by his apartment complex’s reading group, who pay a young boy to ferry their copies of Proust around in wheelbarrows), and tacos. I read it in a day and walked around feeling a bit cross-eyed for a while afterwards.

warm bath book: Every month must have one, apparently. It’s often a reread. This month there were two: one was Lirael by Garth Nix, which was about 99p on the Kindle store, so I bought it and read it on my phone. I’ve loved Nix’s Old Kingdom series from childhood, and I especially love Lirael because, for the book’s first half, its painfully shy heroine works in an enormous magical library. Swoon.

The other was Alanna: the Song of the Lioness, which is part of the new Puffin Originals series of “classic” YA. It’s actually the first two books in Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet, bundled together. The story of a girl who wants to be a knight in the fantasy realm of Tortall, and disguises herself as a boy for eight years to do it, is also a childhood favourite. As an adult, it’s easier to see where Pierce relies on heroic exceptionalism and a wide-eyed “who, me?” attitude in her heroine, but they’re still great stories.

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most defiant of genre convention: Jane Harris’s third book, Sugar Money, which is out this week, tells the story of two Martiniquais brothers, slaves to the French priests who run the island’s hospital. They are charged with returning to Grenada and “stealing back” the forty-two slaves left there when the French were defeated by the English several years ago. Harris doesn’t saturate readers with baroque depictions of violence, as, say, Marlon James or Colson Whitehead do (though there is some); her time period is about a hundred years earlier, and what she conveys best is the way that coming to adulthood, as a slave, means a psychological reckoning with your own powerlessness.

up next: In general life, October holds a trip to Liverpool to sing at the cathedral there, a trip to Canterbury for my cousin’s hen weekend, and my housemate’s book launch. (He’s an academic and has just done a book on Bloomsbury’s cultural effect on the rest of London. Buy it!) In reading, I’m about to finish The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and I’ve got a million proofs from work, and I went book shopping over the weekend because I guess I’m some kind of masochist, and…you know, I’m definitely set.

Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, III

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“So, have you read all of these books?”

To begin with, a brief primer on humour: even the wittiest of witticisms (of which this comment is not one) wears thin after repetition. This is the sort of fact of which I had hoped most canny adults were aware, but, like so much about adulthood, the reality thus far proves disappointing.

Secondly: of course I have not read all of these books. You know that anyway; you are not asking because you actually care or think I might have, but either because you are uncomfortable with silence, or because you are doing that thing some customers do, where they know you cannot be rude to them up to a certain point of unacceptable behaviour on their part, so they torment you with banalities on purpose. More on this in an episode to come.

The interesting thing about working in a bookshop is that you do not get time to read books during the day. The corollary to the above remark (and perhaps the more annoying one) is “Oh, I wish I worked here! You must just read all day!” No, actually. It’s where I work. Bookselling is a job, therefore a bookshop is also an office. Waitresses don’t eat all day; bartenders don’t drink all night (well…); doctors don’t spend their surgery hours writing themselves prescriptions, and lawyers don’t sue their own ex-spouses. Booksellers don’t read at work. We’re busy doing other things, including but not limited to: unpacking daily boxes of deliveries from wholesale distributors and publishers; having meetings with sales reps; invoicing account customers; shelving stock; processing web orders; fixing our own mistakes; ordering special titles or reordering regularly needed titles; recommending titles to customers; processing sales through the till; and, of course, answering emails, seventy-five percent of which consist of queries the answer to which is easily found by spending two minutes on our website.

When a job description says of the ideal candidate for the role that they “will have passion and enthusiasm”, it is generally utter guff. You don’t need passion or enthusiasm to do most jobs, no matter what recruitment specialists say; the most that ought to be required of you in the majority of industries is competence and being alive. In bookselling, though, those qualities are essential. What other industry relies on you being able to speak knowledgeably on a range of subjects whilst denying you the ability to do your research during work hours? If you aren’t passionate about reading—really passionate, rabidly; if you don’t like it enough to read at lunch, before bed, and/or during your commute—you won’t have enough time to do it at work, during the day. And you’ll be demonstrably less good at your job, much of which (at least in the small indie where I work) involves giving personal recommendations to walk-in customers you’ve never met before. If you haven’t got an arsenal of recent reading to choose from, you’re lost, and if you’re relying on your work hours to give you the time to “just read all day”…forget it.

Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, II

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image credit: Heywood Hill

“Can you get it today?”

There are a lot of reasons to find Amazon unappealing. I know that they have done some valuable work in the sense that they provide a much bigger platform for self-published authors, and even through a veil of retained snobbery, I can recognise that that’s a good thing for a lot of people. It’s pretty clear, though, that they also engage in deeply unsavoury business practices (the Hachette price wars); depressing – though evidently unsuccessful – attempts to break into bricks-and-mortar bookselling; and services like Mechanical Turk, which lets you hire humans to do jobs that computers can’t do, which sounds great until you actually try to sign up for it as a worker, at which point you realise that the tasks are generally painfully menial, you have no way to negotiate with prospective employers, and you’d have to do six hundred of these tasks per day in order to make anything like a decent wage.

They contribute, in other words, to the service economy that we now have, which convinces consumers that anything, any commodity that you can possibly imagine, should be available to you within two hours. Services like Quiqup, Deliveroo and Uber are entirely reliant on this. Amazon drone delivery is a service designed with this in mind. It fosters the idea that you should never have to wait for anything, ever, if you can afford not to.

These are companies that are built on hundreds of thousands of backs, mostly belonging to people who provide unskilled and low-paid labour. It is the only way this particular business model works; the only way that you can get a pizza, or a pair of shoes, physically delivered to you in under an hour is to have an army of people standing by, just waiting for you to order it.

Small, independent businesses do not work like that, and so it always baffles me when a customer – piqued that we cannot, in fact, special-order something for delivery in under an hour – chooses to vent their distress by informing us that they “only shop here to support small businesses and fight Amazon.” You cannot support a small business if you expect it to be doing what Amazon does. If you support a small business, you have to understand what you are sacrificing, and what you will receive in return. As a consumer, you sacrifice a lot of your power: you can only walk out of a small business with whatever is on the shelf at the time; if you order something, you will need to wait – probably no more than 24 hours, because deliveries happen once a day, but waiting is an anomaly for consumers now.

But what you get in return is something magical: people who love what they’re doing. People who will spend half an hour with you, if you are friendly and interested, picking out books that they think you would like. People who will talk to a regular customer about her dog, her kids, her holidays, what she’d like to read next. (Although this deserves a caveat: we’re at work, and just like you in your office, we don’t always have all the time in the world for a catch-up, particularly if you’re regular, but not always a regular customer, if you see what I mean. More on this in another post.) People who know what’s over-hyped and what’s underrated; people who can size you up the second you walk in the door; people who, on their best days, can pluck exactly what you need from a shelf you didn’t even notice. If you have a good independent bookshop nearby, that’s what you’ve got: a building full of witches, of knowledge and instinct and experience. That’s the edge we have over Amazon: you should buy books here not because it’ll make you feel better about your lifestyle, like a smug purchaser of farmer’s market aubergines, but because the results in the long-term are generally better. We can introduce you to authors and books that an algorithm might never have shown you; that sort of thing can change a person’s life.

If you’re not willing to give up immediacy, that’s okay! Some people don’t need or want a high level of personal attention; they want what they know they like, right away, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s exactly what Amazon is good for. But if you do earnestly want to support local independent businesses, understand what that means.

(Endnote: I should tell you that there has been one occasion, as far as I know, in the history of the shop, where we exerted ourselves on someone’s behalf to get them a surprising quantity of the same title in the same day. The only way it was possible to do this was to literally walk to Waterstone’s and buy twelve of their copies, walk them back to our shop, and charge the customer. The customer was entirely content with this arrangement. As you’ll have gathered, this was a pretty unusual interaction.)

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  1. Today I went to the hospital for a diabetes clinic appointment. I have them every three months or so. I try not to think about them too much. I try not to think about being diabetic too much. It’s been the case for twenty-one years, so there’s not much point in dwelling on it. Clinic appointments stress me out, especially in a large hospital instead of the smaller outpatient centre I attended as a kid. They’re often embarrassing or frustrating, or both: navigating the brusque guy on the ward desk; peeing in a cup; answering inane NHS questionnaires on an iPad; waiting in an ugly, humid room with a bunch of other broken humans; all these things make me want to claw my skin off. That’s even before we get to the part where I have to be weighed, or where a diabetic nurse has the chance to scold me for lax attitudes to medicating, or where a dietitian tells me, for the seven thousandth time, about food groups.

This time, I didn’t get a nurse; I got a consultant. She was young, and kind, and smart, and she didn’t push me. At some point, when she went away to check something with the phlebotomist, something new happened: I started crying. When she came back, I tried to stop, and to apologise. “I’ve had this for twenty-one years,” I said. “I should be able to—” and then stopped. The doctor looked at me and said, gently, “Do you know how common depression and anxiety are amongst diabetics? Especially ones who’ve had it since they were children? I see this all the time.”

And to my own surprise, I looked up and said, “I’m so angry.”

The long and the short of it is that there’s counselling available, and I’ve asked for a referral. The NHS may be cumbersome and bureaucratic, but it came through for me today. It’s taken me this long, but it’s time to sort some things out. If you feel the same way, but you’re scared or uncertain, take this story as a good omen. People pay their taxes for this; for you; for me.

2. Relatedly: I hope you all voted Labour.

3. You know that “one like = one fave book” Twitter meme that’s been going around? I did it through my work Twitter account (@HeywoodHill). It was what you might call successful.

4. I did one from my personal account too. You know, if you want to.

5. Many congratulations to Naomi Alderman for winning the Baileys Prize with The Power! I can’t say that I’m surprised, or indeed disappointed, although my personal favourite was Do Not Say We Have Nothing, for the sheer high-level thinking that it displays at every turn. But The Power is a terrific, deserving, and very timely winner.

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Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is hosted by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous. Pop in, say hi.

Fireside Chats With a Bookseller: I

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“Why is it so expensive?”

It is that expensive because that is how much it costs.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is that things cost as much as people are willing to pay for them; that rarity and relative condition are important (and “relative” is often the key word); and that, yes, we are asking you to trust us.

I get asked this question much more frequently about our old and rare stock than about our new stock, and it’s a question I find hard to answer because I am not a trained antiquarian bookseller. I’m a new bookseller, with all of the reading and information bias that suggests. We are about to lose our antiquarian guy, and no one currently at the shop is really equipped to take his place. The amount of stuff it is possible to know about old books is almost endless: provenance, bindings, endpapers, condition, foxing, spines. I have considered getting a Masters degree in or around the subject, but there are people with lifetimes’ more experience than a year-long course will get you, and again: I’m a new bookseller. Old books are objects of intellectual interest to me, not of passion.

The one thing I do know, the one thing that our guy has impressed upon me, is the significance of trust in the old and rare books trade. Plenty of dealers are untrustworthy, in that they will take you for far more than something is really worth, just because it’s old and you look gullible enough to think that matters; or they will misdescribe something in a catalogue, in a way qualitative enough that you can’t really call them on it. In that sense, I suppose, it’s like any other business. So scoping out the place, and the people you’ll be dealing with, before you go in is smart.

But that’s not what this question is; this question never comes from someone who has done their research. This question comes from casual buyers, very rarely account-holders, and it’s designed to make us doubt ourselves. It’s a cheap trick used by cheap people, and like most cheap tricks, it only works on people who don’t really know what they’re doing.

We do. We do know what we’re doing. I did, just above, admit to not being an antiquarian bookseller, but that doesn’t make me an idiot; it means that my response to that question is going to be “The price is as marked”, until my colleague informs me otherwise. Because he’s my colleague and I trust his judgment. As, if you’re going to do business with us, should you.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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  1. Two and a half weeks into the new job, and I LOVE it. In week one, I handsold books I’d been raving about on this very blog to real people, which was such a great introduction to the many ways in which bookselling is essentially a practical application of reviewing. At the end of week two, I got the nod to manage our social media accounts on a trial basis until April, which is amazingly exciting. On Monday I went with two colleagues to sell books at an event with brilliant American philosopher Daniel Dennett. I am so bloody lucky.
  2. My grandpa had a mild stroke last week (he’s doing well, home from hospital, and recovering incredibly swiftly), so I went down to visit him and my grandmother over the weekend. They live in a village by the South Downs that’s so ridiculously lovely it’s practically fictional. Everyone there is either a retired brigadier or related to a duchess. My auntie came down too and we had some gorgeous walks with the (horrible little) dogs.
  3. On the other hand, it turns out that working a full week, then handling someone else’s ironing, recycling, dishwashing and phone contract admin for two days, then going back to work on Monday, is tiring.
  4. The other day I had to skip my morning coffee and by 11:30 a.m. had acquired a headache that lasted on and off until 5 p.m. This is Not A Good Sign.
  5. We’re going to France for four days on Friday and I don’t know which books to bring. I have two review copies, Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, and Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf, which I will definitely finish in four days. Should I bring them both, or bring one and then knock out one or two of the books on my phone? Or should I bring one of the books I’ve been allowed to take home from work because they’re damaged: Swing Time by Zadie Smith, The Dry by Jane Harper, and Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett? Or should I bring the proof I just got today from a debut author: Larchfield by Polly Clark? SO MANY CHOICES. (Seriously, if you have an opinion, let me know. I need help.)
  6. Right now I’m reading Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning Days Without End, as a buddy read with the indomitable Esther of Esther Writes. (You heard me! Stay tuned.) Holy moly. It’s so dense, the writing is so thick with imagery and none of it is strained or pathetic, and it reminds me of so many different things at once. It reads a little like a more poetic True History of the Kelly Gang, though there are also very light shades of Blood Meridian. It is really superb.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous. Link back, say hi.