Books by Charlie Hill: Jasper Fforde meets Black Books

Cover image Hard for any committed reader to resist a novel with the title Books, particularly one which comes with a hearty recommendation from Jim Crace. In it Charlie Hill lampoons everyone in the book trade, from publishers to booksellers, literary editors to authors, bloggers (how dare he!) to publicists and adds a swipe at performance artists for good measure.

It begins in Corfu where both Lauren Furrows, a lovelorn professor of neurology, and Richard Anger, an independent bookseller who’s been in a strop ever since his fiancée ditched him and went to live in the suburbs, are on their separate holidays. One day they witness the sudden death of a woman reading a manuscript which is later revealed to be the new offering by Gary Sayles, bestselling author of several ‘male confessional’ novels and the personification of all that Richard detests. Returning to the UK, Lauren is troubled by a newsfeed item identifying another victim who has succumbed to SNAPS – Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome – and decides to investigate, enlisting Richard’s help. Meanwhile, Gary Sayles is preparing for the launch of his new novel, The Grass is Greener, when he spots a website set up by two fans Mike and Susan, aka Zeke and Pippa two performance artists dedicated to provocation, making money and inventive sex. He sets up a meeting, is completely suckered by them and the People’s Literature Tour is born. What follows is a race against time as Lauren and Richard come to the conclusion that the increasing number of SNAPS deaths all have one thing in common: The Grass is Greener. How can they stop the mass demise of Gary Sayles’ multitude of fans once it’s published?

Books combines the humour and pace of Jasper Fforde’s fiction with the satire of Channel 4’s Black Books. Richard shares Bernard Black’s contempt for the book trade, convinced that it’s drowning in mediocrity and staffed by know-nothings, excluding himself of course. Gary Sayles is self-satisfied and unpleasant, given to delivering platitudes as if they are the insights of a razor-sharp brain. The novel is liberally scattered with book titles, authors’ names and in-jokes. It’s occasionally a little strained and may feel a bit too anoraky for readers who haven’t worked in the book trade but that said it’s sharp, funny and ends very satisfyingly. It’s a book that could only have been published by a small publisher – step forward Tindal Street Press.

7 thoughts on “Books by Charlie Hill: Jasper Fforde meets Black Books”

  1. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with this kind of book: I always think I’m going to love them and then I end up hating them! Well, not always and hope springs eternal. I’m not sure why, except perhaps that I think there really are some important novels to be written about life in the book trade, which is too rich a subject to throw away in satire (often a blunt instrument). I have long wanted to write a book about Frosty, or Miss Frost, the loyal secretary of Allen Lane who revolutionized Penguin books by introducing the paperback to huge resistance. What an era to write about! But I doubt my ability to turn historical research into fiction… Have you ever read Diana Athill’s Stet? We read it in a book club I belong to last year and it was wonderful – a real peek into the world of editing and a fascinating progression through the boom years of publishing and into our somewhat exhausted and confused contemporary climate. I recommend it warmly!

    1. I do know what you mean, and it was occasionally too smart for its own good. I loved Stet. A much kinder insight into the book trade and so elegantly expressed. I think Athill is like William Maxwell: an intuitively excellent editor who applied those skills to her own writing. I’d love to read a book about Frosty. My partner works at Bristol Uni who have the Penguin archive. He worked on a Penguin Specials project which covered an amazing range of subjects and reached a surprisingly large readership.

  2. Thank you for this, Susan. I caught the tail end of a review of this book on the radio and didn’t get the details. Like Litlove, I’m slightly circumspect about this type of satire, but I am a sucker for anything to do with the book trade. Your discussion reminds me that I still have ‘Stet’ to read and am I not right in thinking that that is not the only book Athill wrote about her publishing life?

    Can i also be checking and ask what the Penguin Specials project was. I owe them so much of my early reading life.

    1. I think she may touch on it in Make Believe, Alex – failing memory syndrome, I’m afraid. I’m also very fond of Coming to the End.

      Here’s a v. brief outline of the PS project: It’s in the present tense but H’s bit is now over and I’m pleased to say that the PhD has a permanent job. No mean feat these days! I was lucky enough to spend some time in the archive, too. It’s fascinating.

    1. That would be a treat for winter evenings, Christina! I’d like to see this one adapted for film or TV by the Black Books screenwriter.

  3. Pingback: The First Book of the Year | A life in books

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