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the arrival

I was recently given a copy of The Arrival by Shaun Tan. I’ve never come across Tan’s work before, but after reading this thoughtful, beautifully-illustrated book – which is poised somewhere between a graphic novel and a children’s picture book – I’m an instant fan.

The Arrival is a universal story of migration and displacement, told through a series of wordless images. A man leaves his wife and child behind in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country of unknown customs and behaviours, mysterious objects, peculiar animals and indecipherable languages. Luckily many of the strangers he meets in this new metropolis have shared his experience, and transcending barriers of language and difference, are keen to help him on his way.

Tan’s exquisitely detailed illustrations in sepia tones evoke old family photographs and histories, creating a powerful nostalgic quality: this could easily be a story from some forgotten lost time gone before. However this hopeful, wistful tale is also peculiarly contemporary on its take on the universality of migrant experience, and the importance of communities and belonging. As Tan himself suggests in this interesting commentary on how the book came to be written, ‘we might do well to think of ourselves as possible strangers in our own strange land.’

a somewhat polemical princess

I was surprised to discover this week, via the Guardian Books Blog, that Hodder plan to publish a sequel Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 children’s classic A Little Princess, this September.

A Little Princess is one of my all-time favourite children’s books, with a fabulous riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches narrative arc. Sara Crewe, “the odd little girl with the big solemn eyes” is the wealthy but unspoilt heroine with a lively imagination, who travels from her home in India to London to attend Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies where her good manners and intelligence lead her to quickly become the “show pupil”. But when her beloved father’s sudden death leaves Sara unexpectedly penniless, the unpleasant Miss Minchin (surely one of the best ever children’s book baddies) forces her into drudgery, revealing a much nastier side of Victorian London life. However, with the help of a little courage and fortitude – not to mention a few loyal friends – just when things are at their very worst, magical things begin to happen. A Little Princess has a fantastic ending, and regardless of whether you’ve warmed to Sara, or found the whole thing a bit on the twee side, it is impossible to read it without melting into a happy, warm and sentimental Victorian mush.

The planned sequel will be entitled Wishing for Tomorrow (which I am afraid really is twee) and has been written by Hilary McKay, the author of a number of bestselling children’s books including Saffy’s Angel. The new story will not follow Sara herself, but some of the other characters we meet at Miss Minchin’s establishment, in particular Sara’s friend Ermengarde – the “monumental dunce of the school”, “a fat child who did not look as if she were in the least clever.”

Now I have to admit, A Little Princess is certainly a book that leaves the reader wanting more – but the prospect of Wishing Tomorrow fills me with dread. Partly that’s because of McKay’s decision to reject the style of the original, which she felt would not appeal to contemporary readers, to “make the children more childish” and to include “a few more jokes.” All of this seems to me to be based on a total misunderstanding of what makes the original book so charming and distinctive: after all, Sara is a brilliant heroine precisely because she isn’t childish or cutesy, but solemn, thoughtful and a little bit quirky – a young person to be reckoned with. And A Little Princess is far from being without humour, but it is a humour which is always subtle and rather arch – I can’t imagine why anyone would think chucking in a few “jokes” to liven things up would be a fitting tribute. Mostly, I think I just generally resent the notion that the book’s style needs “improving” for today’s audience – as if it isn’t bad enough that we’re already subjected to dire re-visionings of beloved childhood books in the form of Hollywood movies (see Northern Lights; The Secret of Moonacre; and also the grim new film of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, featuring Ian McShane – yes, that’s Lovejoy – as Merriman Lyon) we now find writers, who might be expected to know better, imaginatively “polishing up” our favourite childhood fictions into glossy, bland 21st century shadows of their former selves.

What is more, much as I love A Little Princess, I can’t help feeling that there’s something a little bit disappointing about the very notion that writing a sequel to a book published over 100 years ago is the best one of our leading children’s writers can come up with. I can absolutely see the appeal of the project, but wouldn’t it be better if we could see contemporary children’s writers creating fictional worlds as exciting, compelling and delightful as Burnett’s, but for our own times? Alternatively, rather than just continuing the story, wouldn’t it be more interesting to do something a little more challenging and different with A Little Princess as source material – perhaps as Eva Ibbotson does in the excellent Journey to the River Sea which is undoubtedly in part a tribute to Burnett.

However, ultimately the fundamental problem I have with Wishing for Tomorrow is simply this: I am really not a fan of sequels. On the whole, they are just a Bad Idea. As I am sure anyone who has read Emma Tennant’s Pemberley (or any of the other dire Pride & Prejudice sequels – though strangely, the new “zombie” version looks quite appealing) will attest, there are times when (unless you are Jean Rhys) it’s best to leave well alone. Admittedly, Susan Hill’s Mrs de Winter, which follows on from Rebecca was slightly less painful, but I’d much rather have just left the story where it was – with a question mark. More often than not, a little bit of mystery is so much more appealing than tidy resolution.

I’m aware all this is not particularly fair or objective: after all, the poor woman hasn’t even published her book yet, and I’ve already decided it isn’t worth reading. For all I know, it might be brilliant. But right now, I have to say that I definitely won’t be rushing down the shops to get my hands on McKay’s Little Princess continuation when it comes out in September. Instead I might just happily re-read my old Puffin copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original, complete with evocative and nostalgic illustrations by Margery Gill:

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father …

a kind of intimacy (or how jenn ashworth tried to make me late for work. twice.)

On Tuesday, I went over to the Deaf Institute for March’s No Point reading night, which was also the launch for Jenn Ashworth’s novel, A Kind of Intimacy. I was flagging slightly after a long and weary day, and had to go home to my bed before the end, but I did get to hear Jenn’s excellent reading, and even more importantly, to buy a copy of the book which Jenn signed with her special fountain pen in her special rose-scented book-signing ink.

I started reading A Kind of Intimacy on the bus home, and continued reading it on Wednesday morning when I woke up. An hour later, I realised it was half past eight, I was still in bed, and I was now in serious danger of being very late to work. I went to the theatre on Wednesday (Macbeth at The Royal Exchange, well worth going to see if you get the chance) but when I got home, I found myself reading again. And Thursday morning was pretty much an exact repeat of Wednesday, except this time I did manage to avoid the temptation to read in bed, but ended up picking up the book half way through putting my make-up on, and thus was late leaving the house for the second day in a row – also with slightly weird mascara.

Now, I’ll admit I am very easily distracted when it comes to books – but even for me, that’s impressive stuff. The thing is that A Kind of Intimacy is just very, very difficult to put down. Stevie Davies, writing in today’s Guardian, describes it as “compulsively readable” and I would certainly concur with that.

A Kind of Intimacy is the story of overweight Annie – lonely but determinedly optimistic – who moves to a new home, seeking to leave her troubled past behind her and build a new life for herself. In an attempt to ingratiate herself with the local community, she arms herself with a selection of hilariously-titled self-help manuals and romance novels borrowed from the local library in order to gain new social “skills” that she diligently misapplies to every social situation she finds herself in – from a truly horrific house warming party to cringe-inducing dinners with the neighbours. At first it’s difficult not to feel pity for Annie’s clumsy and ill-fated attempts to build relationships with those around her, but increasingly it becomes clear that in gaining our sympathy, Annie has been duping us just as adeptly as she dupes and deludes herself. Far from the wholesome, decorous image she seeks to project, she reveals herself to be scheming, malicious and disturbed: instead of befriending her neighbours she spies on them, works up a series of imagined grudges and then enacts a series of bizarre and increasingly grisly acts of revenge.

As events unfold, it soon becomes clear that Annie is an out and out monster with gruesome secrets to hide; yet she remains far from a cartoon stereotype. Her chatty, mundane, cliche-ridden narrative voice is weirdly compelling: every now and then, you almost can’t help sniggering along with one of her malicious observations, thinking that perhaps yes, next-door neighbour Lucy really is a little bit smug and annoying. Of course, as Annie’s behaviour spirals out of control, she becomes far from sympathetic, but she is a tragic as well as a monstrous and grotesque figure, both in her fantasy of achieving “a certain kind of intimacy” with kindly neighbour Neil, and through the history which is gradually revealed to us – a murky past characterised by violence, secrets, self-delusions and bizarrely comic sexual mishaps, from which ultimately, she cannot escape.

As the narrative moves resolutely towards its gruesome climax, the comedy becomes blacker, yet somehow Ashworth’s writing always feels surprisingly light and sprightly. Jenny Diski has described the book as “an intense and intriguing novel that never quite lets the reader get comfortable” and on the whole I’d agree with that, but what really strikes me is the bouncy good humour of this book. With its hints to violence, sexual abuse and infanticide, the novel could risk being just too dark and too disturbed, but in fact, reading it is an enormously enjoyable experience – both in its outrageous comedy moments, and as a result of the very evident pleasure that Ashworth takes in unravelling her monstrous creation in all her surreal glory before our eyes.

Altogether, A Kind of Intimacy is a beguiling debut, skilfully mixing up the recognisably ordinary, mundane aspects of suburban life with the dark, abnormal and downright bizarre. What is more, unlike so many first novelists, Ashworth manages to avoid pretension, self-conscious literary language or purple prose: I love her carefully-poised descriptions and observations. Max Dunbar provides a perfect summing up of the novel, describing it as “tightly plotted, exquisitely paced, every word on trial for its life… a story of provincial unhappiness, bad company in small rooms, the awful consequences of not being loved.”

I can’t wait to read whatever Jenn has got up her sleeve next. Only this time, I think I’d really better save reading it for the weekend.

(Just in case you’re interested, in spite of Jenn’s best efforts, by some minor miracle, I wasn‘t actually late to work on either Wednesday or Thursday, but managed to squeak in the door with about a minute to spare. A point to ponder: perhaps the Magic Bus truly does have magical powers after all?)

a visit from fiona robyn

Throughout March, writer Fiona Robyn has been travelling from blog to blog to celebrate the publication of her first novel, The Letters, in her very own blog tour.

The Letters is the story of Violet Ackerman, who has “drifted through a career, four children and a divorce without ever knowing who she is or what she wants. After moving to the coast, she starts receiving a series of mysterious letters sent from a mother and baby home in 1959, written by a pregnant twenty-year-old Elizabeth to her best friend. Who is sending Violet these letters, and why?”

It also features a cat called Blue, an unexpected twist in the tale, and (according to Aliya at Veggie Box at least) an impressive number of references to vegetables. What’s more it has already won praise from everyone from Scott Pack at Me and My Big Mouth who described it as ‘an accomplished and promising début novel‘ to Vulpes Libres who admired Fiona’s ‘wonderfully descriptive writing‘ to Caroline Smailes who described how she ‘devoured [The Letters] within a couple of days‘.

Fiona has already visited 16 other blogs as part of the tour (you can read the full list here, including where she is going next). As it’s now Day 22 I reckon she’s probably getting a little weary, so I suggested she put her feet up and then asked her a few questions:

Firstly… it’s Day 22 of your blog tour, and you’ve already visited 16 other blogs. Are you getting at all tired of answering questions about yourself and The Letters yet?

You’d think I would be, but nobody is asking the same questions! It’s really interesting how different people have approached the book in different ways, and are interested in different things…

Do you have a favourite question you’ve been asked on the tour so far?

‘Tell us what you grow in your veggie patch’ by Aliya at the Veggie Box and Lane asked me lots of good questions about cats. Caroline also asked me some good questions, one involving Mr. Men. You can see that I like to take things very seriously…..

You’ve already been asked a lot of questions about The Letters: the idea for the novel, the characters, and how it came to be written. To make a change I thought I’d ask you a few questions about the three blogs you write as well as your novels: a small stone; a handful of stones and your personal blog, planting words. How do your blogs fit in as part of your overall writing practice?

I try not to let them interfere with my novel-writing – if I’m writing, then I’ll always do that before I do anything else (including checking Facebook). a small stone usually only takes a few minutes a day, and a handful of stones maybe takes half an hour a couple of times a week. I only write Planting Words when I feel the urge, and again this can take a few minutes or up to half an hour. I do sometimes wonder if three is a bit excessive, but it’s been ok so far!

What first got you started writing blogs?

I started writing a blog called Creating Living when I was working as a coach, as a way of promoting my services. It was a little bit like Planting Words, and resulted in my book A Year of Questions: How to slow down and fall in love with life. a small stone came next.

What gave you the idea for your blog project a small stone?

The phrase literally arose in my mind one day when I was driving back from the sea. I was thinking about starting another blog for my poetry at the time, but I didn’t even know what it meant, and it felt a bit boring as a blog title. It was persistant, and then I happened upon the idea of picking a small stone up and carrying it home from a long walk – something little that you could save from every day.

Which other blogs do you read regularly?

I’ve always been a big fan of whisky river and have recently found lassie and timmy, both of which have a strong zen flavour. Sarah is always finding good stuff.

I recently wrote a post about how much writers enjoy the actual process of writing, which provoked a bit of discussion. Is the process of writing itself something you find pleasurable?

I find parts of it pleasurable – and parts of it horrid. It’s hard to sit down and get started, especially with first drafts. I’m sometimes struck by terrible doubts. But I love reading back a sentence and thinking ‘ah, that’s a good sentence’, or finding something new out about my character. Intensely satisfying. Really, nobody is holding a gun to my head – I’m a writer because it’s supremely important to me – and things that are important aren’t necessarily fun all the time.

What inspires you? Where do you go to find inspiration when you need it?

Being outside in my garden is good for me – whatever the weather – but I do prefer sunshine! I’ve been lucky enough to wait for inspiration to find me so far, rather than going out and looking.

Tell us a little bit about what you’ve got coming up next…

The Blue Handbag is out in paperback in August, and then Thaw in February next year, both with Snowbooks. I’m currently working on a novel about a young boy that goes to stay with his aunt in Amsterdam – I’m off for a research trip this summer. What a life, eh?

And finally (just because I had to ask) do you own any red shoes?

I’m afraid I’m not much of a shoe person – black trainers is pretty much it… I do think they look nice on other people though – I’m sure yours are lovely!

Perhaps you’re just more of a handbag person, since your next book is called The Blue Handbag? Anyway, thanks very much, Fiona (for visiting and for complimenting me on my shoes!) and enjoy the rest of the tour!

can independent publishers beat the recession?

I was interested to read Hirsh Sawnhey’s piece on The Guardian blog this week, How Independents will save literature from the recession. Writing from New York, Sawney reports that the city’s commercial publishing scene is already beginning to feel the effects of the “credit crunch” (“sales are flagging… some predict 2009 will be the worst year the industry has seen in decades”) and increasingly look likely to be shifting resources away from riskier, innovative titles from new writers towards “safe investments” like the ghost-written celebrity novels and autobiographies that are already so ubiquitous on the shelves of high-street bookshops.

The extent to which the same will be true here in the UK is currently hard to say. We can only hope there won’t be quite such a dramatic effect: according to this post on Litfest’s blog, Tim Waterstone has recently been speaking about how, historically at least, UK book sales actually increase in times of recession. That does make some sense to me: after all, a £7.99 paperback looks like a pretty good investment compared to a couple of pints, especially if you’re like me and you can easily read a single book three, four five (ten…twenty…two hundred) times. And if you’re in the mood for a treat, a book feels like a relatively reasonable and sensible impulse-buy compared with splurging on, for example, a pair of frivolous shoes (not that I would be at all inclined to do that, of course… hmmm… anyway…) So perhaps the credit crunch will see us all spending more evenings curled up with a good book and a cup of cocoa? It certainly looks likely to herald happy days for local libraries, second hand bookshops and the like.

However, even if the picture for the big commercial publishers does look a little bleak, it may be that literary culture will not be significantly affected. Sawnhey suggests that it will in fact be safeguarded “through the dark economic days ahead” by a core of small independent publishers, who are uniquely placed to weather the financial crisis, and I think he might just be right. After all, there’s no doubt that smaller, more flexible independents are all ready well used to continually innovating and adapting their businesses, working with narrow profit margins, delivering a lot from only limited resources, and coping without expensive businesses lunches, glossy marketing staff and hefty PR budgets. And all this whilst building strong personal relationships with their writers, prioritising artistic experimentation and innovation and playing an important role as ‘talent scouts’ identifying and developing the most exciting new writers.

Given all this, perhaps Sawhney is right to suggest that the current climate will provide an opportunity for small independents to thrive in comparison to their market-driven corporate cousins. Let’s hope so – because as Sawnhey himself rightly points out, “good things come in small, independently-owned packages!”