Tag Archives: Little Brown

The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig: Something nasty in the woodshed…

Cover imageThere’s something irresistible about a state-of-the-nation novel, even if that nation has shifted cataclysmically since the novel was conceived. This isn’t the first book in that vein Amanda Craig has written – I remember enjoying Hearts and Minds which explored the lives of immigrants in London a few years back. Two characters from that novel take centre stage in The Lie of the Land which looks at the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of Lottie, furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him.

Made redundant from her job as an architect, thanks to Britain’s post-financial crisis recession, Lottie is searching for a way out of her marriage. She and Quentin share a house in London bought long before property prices became stratospheric. She finds a Devon farmhouse with a surprisingly low rent, lets the London house and takes off with Quentin, their two young daughters and her mixed-race teenage son reluctantly in tow. The plan is to sell the house once the economy has recovered so that she and Quentin can each buy a flat. Everyone hates the countryside: the dilapidated farmhouse offends Lottie’s professional sensibilities and she misses her mother; Rosie and Stella miss their friends; Xan is bored to tears and the butt of racist remarks; Quentin uses the proceeds from his column deriding rural life to pay for a cleaner about whom the girls are distinctly suspicious and frequently takes off for London, ostensibly to cultivate his contacts but staying with his new girlfriend. As the year rolls on, each of them finds a way to cope without the glossy, sophisticated charms of London. Even Quentin occupies himself, speculating about writing the biography of their landlord, an ageing rock star who rejoices in the name Gore Tore. Alongside the Bredins’ story, another one unfolds. It seems that Home Farm’s previous tenant was murdered, a gruesome crime still unsolved.

If you’re looking for a piece of engrossing, intelligent fiction, The Lie of the Land is just the ticket. Craig handles her themes deftly, covering a multitude of issues afflicting twenty-first century British society within the framework of a rollicking good story. Her portrayal of rural poverty and deprivation, unnoticed by the tourists on whom the local economy depends, blows a hole through the much-cherished idea of the English pastoral idyll. Marriage is put under the microscope and men, even the apparently devoted, are found wanting. There’s a bright thread of humour running through the novel: Cold Comfort Farm came to mind when the grisly murder appeared on the horizon, and a few pages later Craig gives it a nod with a quote. Her characters are nicely three-dimensional, Quentin neatly dodging redemption when he tells his mother close to the end of the novel ‘without selfishness, I’ll have a life of misery and boredom’. The murder thread is satisfyingly – if a little melodramatically – resolved and the ending is a perfect fit. The book’s message was summed up for me when Lottie tells Xan ‘Maybe nobody gets what they believe should be theirs, but just getting a bit of it is worthwhile. Just a bit is more than most ever get’. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

English Animals by Laura Kaye: An outsider’s view…

Cover imageSuch a striking cover for this debut, and entirely fitting given it’s set in the English countryside although animal lovers may get a bit more than they bargained for in this novel about a young Slovakian woman who leaves London to work as an au pair for a couple at Fairmont Hall, the house which is both their home and a financial millstone around their necks. Laura Kaye explores what it is to be an outsider in more ways than one in this funny yet perceptive coming-of-age story.

When Mirka spots her future home from the taxi window, nestled in the English countryside, she thinks it’s perfect but her arrival is heralded by the sound of bickering, a favourite pastime for Richard and Sophie. Soon it becomes clear that there are no children for Mirka to look after. She’s expected to help around the various businesses that keep Fairmont Hall afloat: B & B, weddings, pheasant shoots and – Richard’s latest wheeze – taxidermy for which Mirka turns out to have a surprising talent. Despite their turbulent relationship, Richard and Sophie warmly welcome Mirka into their home – Richard joshing with her and Sophie teaching her how to do the daily crossword. Naturally neat and tidy, she manages to instil some order into this grubbily chaotic household – even the taxidermy becomes a pleasure as she devises tableaux, from a chicks’ hen party to a mouse rave, quickly snapped up by Richard’s hipster client. All seems to be set fair for Mirka, who has fled a violent home, but soon she finds herself falling in love and an affair begins for which one party may have higher hopes than the other.

Kaye tells her story through Mirka’s engaging voice, showing us English country life from an outsider’s point of view. There are some nice little digs about xenophobic attitudes, from Celia’s gullible swallowing of Romanian dognapper rumours to a tendency to lump all foreigners together, muddling Slovakian with Slovenian. Kaye depicts a certain sort of upper-middle-class Englishman painfully accurately in William who is all too recognisable but there’s also affection in her portrayal of English eccentricity and village life. It’s very funny at times although the squeamish may want to skip the more detailed taxidermy descriptions. All this is framed by an involving and appealing story peopled by well-observed characters. A thoroughly enjoyable novel, undemanding but well turned out enough to make me eager for more from Kaye.

Why we need independent publishers

Quercus logoLast week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent  started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent

I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.

I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with theCorsair logo literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.

The Lives of Stella Bain: Commercial or literary fiction, and does it matter?

Cover imageThere’ve been a few exchanges in my booky little Twitter corner recently about commercial and literary fiction, how one is thought to be more worthy of serious attention than the other. I haven’t been joining in partly because I’m not sure what I think about it. I do know that my own reading would be considered to fall into the literary pigeonhole but I’m not entirely sure what that means. I’ve been thinking about this having just finished Anita Shreve’s new novel – she’s a writer I’ve often seen reviewed as someone whose books straddle the line between literary and commercial fiction.

The Lives of Stella Bain is another First World War novel – I don’t seem to be able to avoid those for long this year. It opens with a woman regaining consciousness, becoming aware of the stink of gangrene, the sound of surgical instruments, the feeling of pain in her feet. She begins to understand that she has no idea who she is, and no one else does either. She arrived in the French field hospital dressed as a British volunteer but she has an American accent. She waits in vain for clues, grasping at the name Stella Bain which seems to have a glimmer of meaning for her – she can draw, she knows how to drive an ambulance and she has a pressing need to visit the Admiralty in London, all else is a blank. She makes her way across the Channel, becomes lost in London and is taken in by Lily Bridge and her husband August, a cranial surgeon with an interest in the new-fangled practice of psychotherapy. After several visits to the Admiralty with Dr Bridge, Stella is spotted by an old flame who calls her name – Etna Bliss – and things begin to fall into place. She understands that she has two children, that she has fled a bad marriage turned violent, that her husband had inveigled his young daughter into accusing a rival of molesting her in order to disgrace him and that the rival had volunteered as an ambulance driver in France where Etna had gone to beg his forgiveness. When Etna returns to America she must fight a custody battle for her children.

It’s an engrossing story, well told although it stretched my credulity a little – I wasn’t entirely convinced that Etna would have left her children and gone to what was the hell of France in 1915 but she later explains it as literally ‘a moment of madness’. Shreve explores many interesting themes – the newly emerging ‘talking cure’, attitudes to shell shock, and to women. There’s always a welcome strand of feminism running through her novels. She Baileys Women's Prize for fictionknows how to spin a story well and keep her readers’ interest. As to the literary/commercial pigeonhole – this one felt more commercial than her other novels, many of which I’ve read, and it’s possible that the ending might have something to do with it but I can’t discuss that here. What makes a novel literary or commercial, and does it matter? It’s an interesting debate and I’d like to know what you think.

And as for the Baileys long list – click here and all will be revealed, unless you’ve seen it already of course. Only four from my wish list here. Lots to explore, I’m delighted to report, but some I’m very sad not to see most notably Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Helen Dunmore’s The Lie and Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. Lots more prizes to be won this year and my fingers are firmly crossed that all three will appear on at least one of those lists.

The Quarry

Cover imageIt has been a sad and rather unsettling experience reading The Quarry. Anyone with even the most fleeting interest in the book world knows that Iain Banks died from cancer in early June, a mere few months after being diagnosed, and those who have read the reviews of his final novel know that one of its main characters has terminal cancer. The strangest thing is that when Banks began the novel he had no idea of his own condition but we readers know from page one.

Narrated by eighteen-year-old Kit, described as “socially disabled on a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other”, the novel is set over a single weekend when six old friends visit Kit’s father, Guy, ostensibly to say goodbye but most of them wanting to get their hands on an old video tape from their Film and Media studies days. All deny it is a sex tape in a methinks they doth protest too much kind of way but it’s clearly incriminating. Guy strings them along until the contents of the tape are finally revealed. No one comes out of it very well: Rob and Ali, slaves to the corporate machine, are bitterly competitive beneath their lovey dovey exterior; Pris is desperate for everyone’s unlikely approval of her tabloid-reading partner; Hol’s social conscience is not so pristine as she’d like it to be; Haze is in a drug induced time warp and Paul is a corporate lawyer. Over it all presides Guy – bitter and self pitying – the antithesis of Banks himself whose interview with the BBC shortly before his death showed him to be quietly accepting. There are plenty of Banks trademarks – black humour, political tirades and nice little digs at institutions like the Daily Mail – all wrapped up in a neat story but it lacks the brilliance of some of his previous novels. Kit’s personality works nicely as a foil for the others’ self indulgent posturing but descriptions of his obsessive compulsiveness are a little too detailed. Somewhat sentimentally, I wanted this to be my favourite Banks novel but that will remain The Crow Road which I’ve happily reread several times and I’m sure will read again. How many other contemporary novels can you say that about?