Which Fiction To Uncover?

“We are living, in this country, through a golden age of fiction.”

John Sutherland, the Lord Northcliffe Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature at UCL

Last night, the eight titles selected for Fiction Uncovered 2012 promotion were announced, representing the best of British fiction.

The eight titles are

The idea behind Fiction Uncovered evolved after a period of discussions between the Arts Council England, numerous publishers, literary agents and other book professionals about how to help UK fiction writers find much wider audiences. Hopefully the eight titles selected will reach a much wider readership and gather a few more fans along the way. Foyles, Waterstones, iBookstore, Amazon and independent bookstores across the UK are all backing the promotion throughout the summer.

Chair of Judges, John Sutherland said that:

“The 2012 judges have found their work both pleasurable and instructive. Fascinating things are happening to British fiction – new evolutions of genre, of regionalism, of voicings. It has long been a truism that we are living, in this country, through a golden age of fiction. But British fiction is a living, changing thing. This, I think, is the conclusion all of us privileged to enjoy these titles are agreed on.”

Joining him on the judging panel were Katy Guest (Literary Editor, The Independent on Sunday), Jasper Sutcliffe (Head of Buying, Foyles Group) and the writer Matt Thorne.

So which of these will you ‘uncover’ first? I’ll be checking out the Dan Rhodes then move on to Crushed Mexican Spider I think…

Rob Chilver – @robchilver

Why Do We Read Violent Crime?

A number of authors have become as much renowned for the bloodiness of their stories as for the twists in their plots. But just what attracts us to these grisly novels and why do people choose to read violent crime?

Violent crime and horror books have a lot in common. Both can be challenging reads, testing the reader’s boundaries as much as their stomach. In addition, crime novels are also heavily focused on plot: who did it and why? Often with violent crime, we are asking how they did it and with how much blood… Unlike horror films, books are in one sense distancing us from gruesome events, as you are reading words and not seeing the images, but in another sense they become that bit more personal as you are complicit in creating the horrific experience. It is the thrill of being shocked that attracts many readers to the genre and it is one that is rooted in our own society.

Many crime novels are using violence as a way of analysing current issues or concerns in society around us. A number of the Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels use violence as a metaphor for the deterioration of society as a whole. Sidetracked deals with the seedier side of Swedish society, with human trafficking, self-immolation and victims who are scalped by a young boy with a psychosis.  The Fifth Woman investigates what might happen if a female killer took the law into her own hands, murdering to punish male abusers. In an interview with The Telegraph, Mankell describes how he wanted to use his detective for good: “Wallender was born in May 1989 out of a need to talk about xenophobia. So the story came first, then him,” he says. “I was writing the first novel out of anger at what was happening in Sweden at the time – the rise of xenophobia. That was my ambition. And, since acts of xenophobia are a crime, I needed a police officer. Even after the second and third books, I really wasn’t thinking of a series. Then I realised I was creating a tool that could be used to tell stories about the situation in Sweden in the Nineties.”

Ian Rankin suggests that what draws people to crime fiction is its capacity to explore and to allow the reader to conduct their own investigations into themselves. In the Edinburgh Review he wrote that “what interests me is the soul of the crime novel – what it tells us about humanity, what it is capable of discussing. […] We are all inquisitive and curious animals – crime fiction touches this deep need to both ask questions to get answers”.

In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo this concept is taken much further; it starts as a slow-moving detective story but ends with scenes of graphic violence. Larsson laces the fiction with genuine figures relating to violent crimes against women in Sweden, explaining how the fictional Salander, whose own civil rights are taken away, is based on real events. Larsson deliberately destroys the image that the rest of the world may have about Sweden, of Ikea and Abba, and presents a much darker version, a movement begun in 1968 by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo with the Martin Beck series.  In these dark worlds, by solving the crime the detective is in effect saving society and can be read as the triumph of intellect over primitive instinct. It is satisfying to read about the police, a private eye or your average person on a mission getting the bad guy in the end. In real life, we often hear about endless amounts of crime, but very little sense of resolution. At least in fiction we get an ending in which the villain gets what he deserves. 

Some novels complicate matters further with multiple perspectives of the characters making it hard to judge who is ‘guilty’. Of course, in the end, it often becomes clear, but there can be complicated questions about the ‘guiltiness’ of criminals.  In Out by Natsuo Kirino, the reader automatically roots for the women covering up the murder of a gambling philandering husband, even as they dismember his body in a bathtub. Even the police sometimes stray over the line into the dark – Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole has addictions to drugs, cigarettes, violence, women and alcohol which can leave him battling to stay on the side of the good. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter takes this further with mind games between predator and prey, except with ambiguity about which person is which. We are left rooting for Dexter as he does the dirty work of those that have evaded society’s form of justice and adopts his own.

So it seems that violent crime novels can offer us the thrill of the chase as society’s issues are assessed, all with a promise of a potentially satisfying resolution. For once, those grisly murders might not seem so dark after all…

This article originally appeared on Waterstones.

Robert Chilver – @robchilver

Celebrating the backlist with Hodder

Here at Adventures With Words Towers, we know that sometimes, while it’s great reading a brand new book from a first-time author, the old ones can be the best. It’s worth taking some time to rediscover a few modern classics once in a while. Luckily, it turns out Hodder agree; they’re promoting some of their established authors – the backlist – to remind us about some of the good stuff already out there. Here are some suggestions to get you started…

Carter Beats the Devil – Glen David Gold
In 1923, the magician Charles Carter found himself implicated in the mysterious death of US President Harding. Glen David Gold takes the bare bones of a biography of a famous 1920s illusionist and escapologist, and fleshes it out into a marvellous and magical life story, as well as a tightly plotted thriller. The way in which Gold ramps up the tension has been compared to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. He brings to life the sparkle and temptation of the Jazz Age, as well as the public’s desperate need for escapism in a time of economic turmoil.

Penguins Stopped Play: Eleven Village Cricketers Take on the World – Harry Thompson
From a former writer of Have I Got News For You comes a comic tale of one of the most unusual sporting challenges ever conceived – to assemble a team of eleven men to play cricket in each of the seven continents of the globe. Except that what seems like a simple idea turns out to be a lot more complicated, what with incompetent airlines, a host of colourful international characters and a whole army of pitch-invading penguins! A top ten bestseller, this picaresque memoir is a great light read, even if you know next to nothing about cricket. Or indeed penguins, for that matter.

Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
This wonderful book weaves its way through a tropical paradise full of dark secrets, revealing to us the dramatic effects of colonialism. Matilda is a young girl, growing up in Bourgainville, named for its lush flowers. The only white man on the island, Mr Watts, has appointed himself teacher of the tiny school, in which the only textbook is a copy of Great Expectations, so Matilda’s view of the world is influenced on the one hand by her family and traditions, and on the other hand by one of Dickens’ greatest works. Mister Pip was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies…” In this astonishing narrative, Mitchell guides the reader through history and lives, from the 19th century via mid- and late 20th to a far-off post-apocalyptic future to explore the development and consequences of the human desire of power and technology. Reading this book made me think of the layers of an onion, being peeled back to discover something even more exquisite, intricate but also sharp and biting. Also, because of the way the narrative is structured, the first half piques the reader’s curiosity, posing a myriad questions, which are then slowly answered and put into context as we read the second half. In 2003, Mitchell was selected as one of Granta Magazine’s Best of Young British Novelists, and Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize.

What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt
This first person narrative traces the lives and loves of bohemian couples in New York’s art scene in the second half of the 20th century. The protagonists are middle class and intellectual but they are also passionate and only human, prey to lack of confidence, depression, exuberance and enthusiasm. The depiction of Bill’s art is also vivid and engaging. On top of the parental and marital dramas is an intriguing urban thriller.

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour – Kate Fox
Kate Fox, a social anthropologist, is Co-Director of the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, and a Fellow of the Institute for Cultural Research. She brings this expertise to bear in her exploration of English culture and behaviour. You’ll cringe, you’ll laugh, you’ll be amused and horrified in equal measure as you recognise yourself in these pages. A really interesting sociological study that also entertains.

All these books are out now!
Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten

Celebrating Sendak

Most book-lovers will probably now know that Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are, has died, aged 83, as a result of complications after a stroke on Friday 4th May 2012.  From what I’ve read of him as a grown-up, he was a funny, sharp, cantankerous old curmudgeon, deliberately awkward and critical, as well as incredibly intelligent and perceptive, and determined not to patronise or talk down to children in his books.

He is best known for his picture books – Where The Wild Things Are (1963), In The Night Kitchen (1970) and Outside Over There (1981) – all wildly different in style and, well, wild in nature.  They are dreamscapes, fantasy spaces where children’s imaginations can run…wild.  The thing about these books is that they’re not “safe”.  In Where The Wild Things Are, Max has been bad – he’s worn his wolf suit and done wolf things, naughty things.  So he’s sent to his room without dinner.  In his sulk, he sails away to the island where the Wild Things are.  These are scary monsters but Max is the wildest of all, becomes their king and they celebrate him.  But soon, Max realises it’s time to go home again.  The Wild Things are sad – they roar their terrible roars – but they wave goodbye, and when Max gets back, he finds dinner awaiting him.  “And it was still hot”.  It’s a wonderful metaphor – what child (or grown-up) hasn’t felt like having a wild rumpus once in a while?  The illustrations are stunning; no wonder hundreds of imaginations were captured by this story.

In The Night Kitchen and Outside Over There are less well-known, but equally amazing.  Mickey can’t sleep so he plays (or dreams he plays) in a fantastical over-sized baker’s kitchen.  And in Outside Over There, Ida goes on a quest to rescue her little sister from goblins who stole her through her open window, and replaced her with a baby made of ice.  Creepy!  I also really like Higglety Pigglety Pop!, Or: There Must be More to Life (1967), in which a grumpy little dog makes her way through fairy tale settings, meeting Mother Goose characters, just trying to find somewhere she fits.  These are also ‘dangerous’ tales – there’s peril, scary characters and situations, just as there are in childhood dreams and make-believe games.  Children need to know there is danger but it can be coped with and vanquished.  Max, Mickey and Ida all manage this.  It even works out for Jennie the dog.

These books formed such an enormous part of my childhood; I was really shaken when I heard the news.  I’d never considered how old Sendak might have been, as his books just seem timeless. I’ll certainly be sharing them with future generations if I get a chance, and I’ll be reading Caldecott and Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures, Sendak’s collection of essays on fairytales.  Let’s all take this opportunity to recognise a real genius, who made such a positive contribution to the world of young people over so many years.

Maurice Sendak
10th June, 1928 – 8th May, 2012

Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten

Bella vs Katniss – role models for girls in teen fiction?

When it was published in 2005, Twilight was an instant sensation. Hundreds, no, thousands of teenage girls devoured the series, delighted by twin heroes Edward and Jacob, both driven to desperation and dangerous acts by their love for damsel-in-distress Bella Swan.

Throughout the novels, Bella is torn between vampire Cullen and werewolf Black; both would do anything for her. Edward pleads with Bella not to sacrifice her humanity to be with him, even going so far as abandoning her in the belief that she will be better off without him. As a result, she is pushed towards Jacob, who as a werewolf despises vampires in general, and Edward in particular, for the same reason – Bella may choose to lose her life in order to be with Edward.

Now, these things have a way of working themselves out in the end – and they do – but in the meantime, Stephanie Meyer had hit the jackpot. What teenage girl wouldn’t dream of two ardent, handsome and (mostly) virtuous young men competing for her favour? But there’s a problem here. What about Bella? What about her hopes and dreams for the future? What did she want to do when she left high school? Did she want to go to uni? Have a gap year? Travel? Have a career? Bella is supposed to be a relatively normal teenager, albeit a bit clumsy and strangely attractive to fantasy creatures, but she seems not to have thought about any of this. I realise, of course, that Meyer might not have felt this was particularly relevant amongst the whirlwind of danger and romance but I tend to disagree. As soon as Bella meets Edward, any thoughts of independent plans for the future go out the window. Edward actually tries to get her to think about these things but she brushes away his concerns. None of that matters any more.

What bothers me is that we’re left thinking it’s absolutely fine. She loves him. She’s completely mad about him. Without him, she is nothing. Her life would be meaningless if it were not for him. Without him, she might as well be dead. Hold on – let’s think about this for just a second. Where is Bella’s self-esteem?! Her view of her own value as a person depends entirely on Edward’s continuing affection for her. And even with all his protestations of love, she still doubts him – in New Moon, she suggests he’ll no longer want her when she’s old and wrinkly. Good grief, girl – get a grip! Just like airbrushed supermodels in fashion mags, this is an insidious sort of brainwashing: women, get yourself a man. Then you’ll be happy.

So, if Bella is no sort of suitable role model for teenage girls, could Katniss Everdeen be a preferable alternative? It seems odd at first glance to advocate someone who kills other children as part of a barbaric ritual intended to subjugate the plebs, but you can’t deny that, in Katniss, Suzanne Collins has created a much more rounded, balanced, flawed but self-aware character.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss is presented with a no-win situation: kill or be killed. it’s an impossible choice, because Katniss has a strong moral core. She knows right from wrong, she has known personal tragedy in her life so she knows what it’s like to lose someone. But equally, she values her life and will do what she has to in order to survive, so she can get back to her family. The only option left to her is to defend herself and kill where there is no other option. With the influence of Peeta, she develops, moving on from simply surviving to working as a team, caring for him as much as she can allow herself to, and realising she can make a difference by taking a stand against the disgusting voyeurism of the Games.

However, she’s not perfect. Having relied on herself to keep her family going for many years, Katniss is prickly, difficult and mistrustful. She can be shortsighted, impulsive and demanding, and is quick to lose her temper. She finds it nigh on impossible to be diplomatic at times, and thinks of herself before others. But Collins’ heroine differs in two very important respects from Bella Swan: firstly, she’s aware of her flaws, she feels bad about them and wants to change. Secondly, she’s aware of her strengths. Katniss is determined, independent and motivated, at times by anger, at times revenge and also love. She has talents – hunting, knowledge of nature, survival skills. She feels something for Gale, and also for Peeta, but those feelings neither define nor cripple her. And, she sees the alterations to her appearance when she’s readied for the Games – plucking, shaving, make-up, clothes – as at least to some extent strange, unnatural and unnecessary. Whenever she can, she wipes off the make-up and goes back to just being herself.

“I know which one of these young women I’d rather teenage girls admired and emulated”

More and more frequently, we hear of girls, and also boys, lacking in self-esteem as they’re pressured subconsciously, through advertising and images in mass media, towards fitting into what Society sees as acceptable forms of beauty. In that context, I know which one of these young women I’d rather teenage girls admired and emulated.

Books in the post: What in God’s Name by Simon Rich

How can you help mankind when they won’t help themselves? Welcome to Heaven Inc. Meet God, CEO of Heaven Inc. Its mantra? “We’ve got Earth covered”. Unless of course someone is away from their desk. But these days, God is kind of disillusioned. He knows he should be keeping an eye on genocides and stuff, but he’d rather watch the church channels on cable. And his first priority in terms of wielding his power is to get Lynyrd Skynyrd back together…

What In God’s Name is the second novel from the youngest ever writer to be hired by Saturday Night Live, Simon Rich. His previous offering, Elliot Allagash, won him many high-profile fans, including Judd Apatow and Jon Stewart, and was described as Clueless for boys. In this book, he looks to his Jewish upbringing for inspiration and creates a deeply, dryly funny and ironic view of just what the big man upstairs might be getting up to. And, of course, what his helpers might be doing to keep him on the straight and narrow. This concept isn’t new, of course – I’m thinking Dogma, or A Life Less Ordinary – but with a topic and canvas as big as this, there’s plenty of room left for interpretation.

Simon will be in the UK in August when What In God’s Name is published, by Serpent’s Tail; keep an eye out, this looks like a good one…

World Book Night 2012 – what did you give?

April 23rd is no longer just St George’s Day or the anniversary of the birth and death of Shakespeare; for the last two years, it’s also been World Book Night, where a million books of all genres have been given away free to members of the public around the UK, and elsewhere.

This year, the shortlist was a little longer than in 2011, with twenty-five titles for givers and receivers to choose from. I was lucky enough to have a box full of The Player of Games by Iain M Banks to distribute, AWW originator Rob gave Misery by Stephen King, and on a very rainy evening, we took our novels to The Big BookBang at Slack Space, a not-for-profit arts space in Colchester.  We had the privilege of advocating and reading passages from our books, along with eight or nine other givers.  This was interspersed with an introduction to Book Crossing, plus local poets Fred Slattern and Mark Brayley, some stand-up comedy and even a local author.

Rob was first up to introduce his book. I was the last to advocate their book in person.  The event was really well attended, with over a hundred people braving the dreadful weather to leave with a couple of lovely new free books, as well as some pre-loved copies from the Book Crossing tables at the back of the hall.

The full list of books runs like this:

Which would you have chosen to give away?  Which have you read, and which are still on your list?  Was something missing?
Some of my very favourites are there – Pride and Prejudice, Good Omens and The Time Traveller’s Wife. I would have loved to get a copy of Let the Right One In, as I loved the film.  I’m really looking forward to reading Notes From A Small Island, as Bill Bryson became the Chancellor of Durham University at least in part due to his description of the city’s beauty in this travelogue of Britain.  I would have liked to see a poetry collection on the list somewhere (I gave The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy last year, she’s my idol).
Let us know what you think – what would you like to see there next year?  I’d recommend signing up as a giver, especially if you’ve got a great event in your local area where you can share your books.

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

Review: The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg

Camilla Lackberg has been heralded as the queen of Scandinavian crime fiction. Her seven novels featuring Erica Falck and Patrik Hedstrom have all been bestsellers around Europe; the front cover of the editions I’ve read proclaimed “7 MILLION BOOKS SOLD”.

The Preacher is the second book in this series. Twenty years ago, two young women disappeared while on holiday in the peaceful resort of Fjallbacka, the setting of the series. Now, their remains have been discovered in a local beauty spot, along with those of a new victim, sending the town into shock.

Patrik Hedstrom, local police detective, takes charge of the investigation, which tears him away from his heavily pregnant partner, writer Erica. As the identities of the victims are revealed, the investigation revolves around the Hult family, a strange clan already at war internally over old feuds and split into two branches, one respectable and one constantly in trouble with the law. Lackberg brings these characters to life in glorious technicolour. I’m not always a huge fan of the Swedish-to-English translation by Steven T Murray but the occasionally clunky word choice didn’t hamper my immersion in this rural seaside community.

Unlike Mankell’s Wallander series, Lackberg’s Hedstrom novels always keep the villain’s identity a mystery. I really engaged as I investigated alongside Patrik and his colleagues, weighing up each new piece of evidence as it was revealed. In this instance, I guessed the murderer but then changed my mind at the last minute – the twists and turns are really gripping and will certainly hold any reader’s attention.

The Guardian quote splashed across the front of the book reads “Expert at mixing scenes of domestic cosiness with blood-curdling horror”; I wouldn’t necessarily say the horror in The Preacher is blood-curdling but it’s very sinister and insidious. You feel as if any number of characters could be guilty of, or complicit in, a foul crime, involving prolonged torture and abuse. There is certainly a sense of threat pervading what should be cosy, homely scenes.

In her previous book, The Ice Princess, the contrast between crime and cosiness is more pronounced – we experience it as a dichotomy as Lackberg presents us first with a murder, then with the growing romance between Erica and Patrik. In The Preacher, however, Erica and Patrik seem to have little in the way of domestic bliss – Erica is fed up of pregnancy, especially in the heat of high summer, she has been advised by her doctor to stop working and she is then plagued by a series of bizarrely inconsiderate house guests. Her troubled sister, Anna, also puts in an appearance, just to add to her woes. I was really puzzled by this marginalisation of the main character of the previous book. Despite Patrik being the police detective, it’s actually Erica who does a lot of the legwork and puts together the pieces to solve the murder of her friend Alex, the eponymous The Ice Princess. As a result, I found that book a more enjoyable read over all. The Preacher, while a great thriller, definitely loses out in the comparison.

Despite this, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Preacher, or its predecessor, to those who enjoy crime thrillers with a little more depth.

Kate Neilan

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s nest.

The Millenium Trilogy draws to a close with The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest.

Salander is plotting her revenge – against the man who tried to kill her, and against the government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life. But it is not going to be a straightforward campaign. After taking a bullet to the head, Salander is under close supervision in Intensive Care, and is set to face trial for three murders and one attempted murder on her eventual release. With the help of journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his researchers at Millennium magazine, Salander must not only prove her innocence, but identify and denounce the corrupt politicians that have allowed the vulnerable to become victims of abuse and violence. Once a victim herself, Salander is now ready to fight back.
Following on directly from the events of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander is in hospital and Mikael Blomvist is still investigating the conspiracy surrounding Soviet defector Zalachenko. Salander is recovering from a bullet wound in the head, but has inadvertendly triggered a chain of events within the most secretive of government agencies. They are determined to cover their tracks at all costs and having already had her declared mentally ill and sentenced her to an instituion, they want her to go back there for good. 
As with the previous books, it takes some time for the plot to get one. It is very much a continuation of the second book rather than stand alone novel and so it is vital to read the other two books to understand the story and characters. It does improves on the second book though in that Salander is present throughout, even though she starts off severly injured and incapacitated in hospital. Without her we are left with an interesting but somewhat dry investigation into the Swedish secret service. Soon though the book picks up, with the courtroom scenes being particularly compelling.
It is remamrkable that the pace and momentum are kept up over what are considerably long and complex plots. Plotlines interweave with one another but it remains clear and concise. Once again it was only the Swedish names that remain a potential stumbling point. The lengthy trial scenes are perhaps Larsson at his most grandstanding, where the Swedish judical system is examined and taken apart, and the authors own views come on a little too strong. This final book could have done with a bit more editing as at times there are few lapses and certain sections could have been tightened up, yet it still remains a thrill as the book draws to its conclusion. Not everything is tied up neatly at the end, with the whereabouts of one character still not resolved…
For me, the first book remains the best, with the second the weakest of the three. It remains to be a crying shame that the author died without knowing his success and overall the Milleniunm series has been a triumph.  As it is though, it remains a thrilling and fitting conclusion to a remarkable series of books featuring one of the most interesting and complex heroines in recent crime fiction history.