What I’m reading this Christmas: Anna O’Grady, Simon & Schuster

Anna O'Grady in front of her home library
Anna O’Grady in front of her home library

Thanks to Anna O’Grady for talking to Boomerang Books today, and sharing your Christmas picks with us. First, let’s find out more about you and some of the books you’ve been working on.

You’re the Marketing and Publicity Manager at Simon & Schuster. What does your job entail?
How much time do we have? I like describing it as ‘parenting’ a book and making sure that I find the best possible home for it. It all starts by understanding who would enjoy the particular title, and then the fun part of thinking of the best means of reaching that audience. Nowadays there are so many different ways that this can be achieved.

In the last few months I’ve worked on creating online trailers and ads, organized blog tours, pitched titles to festivals, events and media and talked to our book loving community over various social media channels.

How did you get this job?
I am the third generation working in the book world from a family of booksellers and publishers. For the better part of my life I have been lucky enough to continue our family tradition across six different countries. However, bookselling is rapidly changing and for a few years I have wanted to try my hand in a publishing house. All the stars aligned really well this year and I ended up with the amazing team at Simon & Schuster Australia. I have learnt a tremendous amount but it also has been a lot of fun.The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg

What is different/special about Simon & Schuster?
One of the things I really like about Simon & Schuster is that it is a small publishing house. There are just over 20 people in the office and that means that there are opportunities to try different things in different areas of the book business. For example, even though my official role is within the marketing and publicity department, I am also part of the acquisition team – so I have a chance to read new manuscripts and contribute to the decision on publishing these.

I also really love the staff’s passion for books we publish within the Simon & Schuster program. A lot of larger houses release so many books that it is physically impossible for everybody to be familiar with all titles. Our publishing program is small enough that almost everybody in-house can read all the books we publish and be able to meet all the authors in person. I really love being in an office where everybody reads and where books are celebrated every day.

I suspect you love all the books you work on, but could you tell us about some that you are particularly proud of?
It has been quite a year for me, and I often feel in awe of the amazing authors that I have been taking care of. I will highlight two – only because they are so completely different. The first one was my campaign for debut author Ellie O’Neill’s book Reluctantly Charmed. Debuts are notoriously difficult to break out, but I felt special pressure on this one because everybody at Simon & Schuster loved this book. In the end we had a great campaign that was embraced by a major sponsor – Tourism Ireland – and also created a lot of buzz in the book blogging community. I am already looking forward to the second book from Ellie coming next year.A Thousand Shards of Glass cover by Michael Katakis

The other campaign that will probably stay in mind for a very long time was A Thousand Shards of Glass by Michael Katakis. Although Michael is a world class photographer, an overseer of the intellectual property of Hemingway and an author of very thought provoking books, he is very little known in Australia. We decided to bring him here for a tour and I had the task of arranging events and media for his tour. This took several months and many, many phone calls and emails to organize. Because Michael is relatively unknown some event organizers took some persuasion and were hesitant to the last moment. In the end the response to Michael’s tour was exceptional and well worth all our efforts. I have never seen such an emotional reader–writer reaction, with many people moved to tears at events, and many readers calling and sending emails – and in one instance hand delivering a letter of thank you to our offices. There is nothing more special than seeing that connection in front of my eyes and knowing that I helped make it happen.This Changes Everything Naomi Klein

What do you see as the way forward in the book industry?
I have been watching the book industry very carefully for at least 20 years now and I find some changes painful, but I also see a lot of great things on the horizon. I think that we might be experiencing a new golden age of storytelling. There are more people reading than ever before, and they access books in many formats and ways. But what is even more exciting is that readers have more to say, and the means to say it, than ever before. The future of the publishing industry is in deepening the connection to readers and embracing new ways of telling and experiencing stories. I have no doubt that great books and storytellers will always find their audience.

What are your must-reads over Christmas?
I have been building my little Christmas stack for a while now – and as usual I am probably overambitious. Here are the titles that are currently sitting in my Christmas pile: The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg; The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel; In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower; The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber; and This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein – but who knows what other gems I might find under my Christmas tree.In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower

What is your secret reading pleasure?
I really enjoy many YA novels, love a good mystery, and have a fascination with horror fiction. For me some of the great horror and crime writers are amongst the best at the craft of writing – although critics often disregard them.

Thanks very much for speaking with us, Anna.
You’re most welcome, it’s been a pleasure.

What I’m reading this Christmas: Galina Marinov, Leading Edge Books

Three StoriesThanks for talking to Boomerang Books, Galina Marinov.

Thanks for having me.

You’re the buyer and marketing manager at Leading Edge Books and you’re going to share your Christmas picks with us. But first let’s find out about you and your work.

Leading Edge Books has a national profile. What does LEB do? 

Leading Edge Books is a marketing and buying group behind more than 170 independent booksellers from all over Australia. We are part of a wider Leading Edge Group – an organisation providing vital services for small independent retailers – from Books, Music and Video stores, to Electronics, Computers, Appliances, to Jewellery shops. Leading Edge Group also operates in Telecommunication and Technology services.

Members of Leading Edge Books have access to improved trading terms with all the major Australian publishers through group buying and variety of backlist and other promotional offers. In addition, bookstores have access to marketing materials in the form of print and online catalogues, newsletters, POS and merchandise services.

We run a dedicated promotional website under the brand of Australian Independent Booksellers (www.indies.com.au) and its associated social media channels, promoting new publications as well as serving as a gateway to member-bookstores own websites.Galina

In addition to buying and marketing services, Leading Edge Books serves as an entity uniting independent booksellers in Australia and provides opportunities to its membership to exchange ideas, expertise and innovation. We work closely with the Australian Bookseller Association and for the past few years have run conjoined conferences – forums packed full of sessions on topics pertinent to Australian book trade and bookselling – from industry-wide developments and challenges, to small business essentials, and opportunities to hear from authors about their new publications.

All our activities and programs are centered on providing support to the booksellers in our group – from offering marketing support and improved profit margins, to ability to share expertise with likeminded people and businesses. We’d like to think of Leading Edge Books as an organisation that contributes to keeping Australian independent booksellers thriving and prospering in changing market conditions.

SpringtimeWhat is different/special about Leading Edge Books? 

Leading Edge booksellers share a strong commitment to maintaining the highest standard in terms of depth of range, customer service and expert advice on the best books for adults, young adults and children.

Independents are well recognised by the publishing community as the biggest supporters of Australian writing and are instrumental in nurturing and promoting new Australian writing. In recognition of this role, in 2008 we established the Indie Book Awards – awards recognising the best in Australian writing in the category of fiction, non-fiction, children’s & YA and debut fiction, as selected by independent booksellers.

Announced early in the year, the Indie Book Awards are now considered the front runner of Australian literary awards. We are proud to have had as our Book of the Year some of the best Australian books of the past few years – Breath by Tim Winton, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do, All That I Am by Anna Funder, The Light Between Oceans by L.M. Stedman and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan which went on to win this year’s Man Booker Prize.

We are currently in the process of collating the nominations for the 2015 Indie Book Awards and it is heartening to see so many young and debut Australian authors being nominated.

Why  are independent bookshops  so important and what do you see as the way forward in the book industry?A Strange Library

Independent booksellers are renowned for their passion for books. They know their books and their customers and often serve as hubs to their local communities, encouraging love of literature, literacy and education. As such, they are much more than commercial enterprises; they are indispensable to our society cultural institutions.

We are proud to have in our group some of the best independent booksellers in Australia – from Readings in Melbourne, to Boffins in Perth, to Avid Reader and Riverbend Books in Brisbane, to Abbey’s, Gleebooks and Pages & Pages in Sydney.

Far from the “doom and gloom’’ often portrayed in the media when it comes to the current state of the book industry, these booksellers offer brilliant examples of successful businesses which thrive on change and innovation. Maintaining the core independent bookselling ethos of serving and working closely with their local communities, they are also very active on social media, reach wider audience through strong online presence and view new formats such as ebooks as a way of enriching services to their customers rather than as a threat.

You’re the buyer and marketing manager at LEB – what do these roles involve?

We are a very small team of only four staff members working exclusively for the Books group and as such we all work together across the entire range of services we offer to our member stores.

Absolutely Beautiful ThingsMy main responsibilities lie in the areas of group buying – I work closely with representatives from all the major Australian publishers in offering the best titles for independent bookstores at best possible terms – and I also manage the production of marketing materials for the group. I love being able to see what’s being published across all publishers and imprints, and across genres – from fiction, to non-fiction, biographies, illustrated books to children’s and YA. We work 3 to 4 months in advance, so more often than not I read books that will be published in the future. Love of reading and knowledge of authors and publications are essential to this role, in order to being able to offer titles suitable for independent booksellers and to produce marketing materials and promotions of relevance to our bookstores.

How did you get this job?

I’ve been with Leading Edge Books for over six years now. The sum of all my previous experience (and of course love of books) led me to this role.

I was lucky my first job in Australia over twenty years ago was with a library and educational supplier. They were also an agent for a number of overseas publishers. That period of my early career was a crash course on who’s who of Australian publishing and the relationships between publishers, booksellers, libraries and agents.

After finishing a post graduate Diploma in Library and Information Sciences, I could have well gone down the road of Twelve Days of Christmasbecome a reference librarian (my dream at the time) but ended up taking up a position with Doubleday Book Clubs, first as an editorial assistant, then as a product manager within the new member recruitment team and later as a product manager/club director for some of their specialty book clubs. Product selection, buying, creative, marketing, editorial was all part of the job. I met and worked with some incredible people, read widely both fiction and non-fiction, and loved every minute of it. Unfortunately by mid-2000 the book club concept was on the way out and the clubs failed to re-position themselves in the new online selling environment.

I went on to work as a senior product manager for Random House – a role that gave me the opportunity to work within a publishing company. The learning curve was steep but extremely rewarding – I was responsible for the product management of the Random House UK list and for local reprints – and I absolutely loved the idea of working for the publisher of some of my favourite authors, both local (Peter Carey, Matthew Condon and Christopher Koch were all published by Random House at the time) and UK literary giants such as Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Louis de Bernieres, just to mention a few.

Then the offer for this job came and I could not resist the opportunity to see it all from the bookseller side of the industry…

The Rosie EffectI enjoy seeing you at writers’ festivals and know how passionate you are about the books you come across, but could you tell us about some that you particularly love.

Like anyone who works in the book industry I read a lot and I buy a lot of books. My library is full of ‘my favourites’ – way too many to list here, and the moment I finish writing this I know there will be dozens more that will come to mind, but here are a few offerings.

Anything Jane Austen – I’m a huge Jane Austen fan – and especially Pride and Prejudice.

Then in no particular order – from modern classics to more recently published, some of my favourite books are:

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Lovesong by Alex Miller
The Tiger Wife by Thea Obreht
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Educating Alice by Alice SteinbachMuseum of Innocence
Wanting by Richard Flanagan
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
People’s Act of Love by James Meak
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Fingersmith by Sarha Waters
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
etc, etc

Which authors have you been especially thrilled to meet?

Meeting authors and listening to author talks at writers’ festivals, bookseller and publisher events, is one of the most rewarding aspects of working in the book industry. I’ve met some remarkable writers and again the list would be too long but if I have to choose just a few, I would mention listening for the first time to Alex Miller at the Sydney Writers Festival, Alain de Botton at the Sydney Opera House, Simon Winchester at an event at Pages & Pages, Hilary Mantel in conversation with Michael Cathcart via video link at the SWF, Richard Flanagan’s speech at the Leading Edge conference in Adelaide in 2013. More recently I was absolutely thrilled and star-stuck meeting George R.R. Martin at HarperCollins Publishers and in September this year I went to an event with Salman Rushdie at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

What are some must-reads over Christmas?

There are so many wonderful books being published this Christmas season; there is truly something for everyone.Amnesia

For fiction lovers, there are new books by some of Australia’s most loved writers – Amnesia by Peter Carey is a satirical exploration of the big issues of our time and our recent history. There is the follow up to the bestselling The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, short stories by Christos Tsiolkas, Merciless Gods, and J.M Coetzee’s Three Stories, a jewel-like novella by Michelle de Kretser, Springtime, to mention a few. And for everyone who hasn’t read it yet, there is the remarkable The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

International fiction offers a wealth of books to choose from – from Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster and Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, to new offerings by Michel Faber (The Book of Strange New Things), Alexander McCall Smith’s latest in the Mma Ramotswe’s adventures The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Cafe and a re-imagining of Emma, Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library, and short story collections by Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood.

I am also looking forward to reading Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud, Miss Carter’s War by Sheila Hancock and First Impression by Charlie Lovett, which as the title suggests promises to delight all Austen fans.

As usual non-fiction covers a variety of subjects and genres – from biographies on the lives of politicians (My Story by Julia Gillard and The Menzies Era by John Howard) and artists (Bill: The Life of William Dobell by Scott Bevan and John Olsen by Darleen Bungey), remarkable true life stories (Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis and A Bone of Fact by the creator of Mona in Hobart, David Walsh) to TV and sports personality books.

Once Upon an AlphabetA stand out for me is What Days are For by Robert Dessaix – a small but profound book on what makes a meaningful life.

There are also beautiful illustrated books on offer – from gorgeously produced cookbooks (my pick is A Food Lover’s Pilgrimage to France by Dee Nolan) to books on art, gardening and interior design – a must-have is Absolutely Beautiful Things by Anna Spiros.

And of course, for children there is plenty of fantastic picture books – my favourites are Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers, In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey and a gorgeous edition of The Twelve Days of Christmas by Alison Jay. Withering-by-Sea by Judith Rossell is my pick in junior fiction and Laurinda by Alice Pung is my choice for teen readers.

What is your secret reading pleasure?

I love historical fiction – from literary masterpieces such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, to the genre-busting A Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin (which strictly speaking are fantasy books of course), to historical sagas. I’ve been reading one particular series – The Morland Dynasty books by Cynthia Harold-Eagles since the late 1990’s. It follows the life of an English aristocratic family from the Middle Ages until recent days. I’m looking forward to reading the latest volume #35 over the summer holidays.

I also love reading poetry.

… And did I mention, Jane Austen – there is always a different edition of Pride and Prejudice to re-read.

Thanks very much for speaking with us, Galina.Bill

You are very welcome. Thanks for the opportunity!

 

Christmas wish list

Christmas holidays are all about catching up with friends and family, and catching up on all the books that I haven’t had a chance to read during the year. I’m not a fan of reading on the beach – too sunny, too many kids to watch, too many friends to chat with. But once I settle into a shady spot with a good book, I can get lost for hours. Maybe a little too lost.

EyrieLast summer, on the hottest day of the year, I was immersed in Tim Winton’s Eyrie, under a shady ghost gum, when I noticed something moving out of the corner of my eye. A snake had made its way onto the arm of my sun lounger and was staring at me, flicking its tongue, inquisitively. I was so absorbed in Eyrie that I hadn’t even noticed, until the snake was centimetres from my face. I hurled myself off the chair and the snake took off in the other direction. A nasty interruption to my relaxing afternoon.

Once again this year my Christmas wish list will be filled with books, but I might just glance around now and then, when I’m reading, no matter how engaging the story is.

Here’s what’s on my wish list:

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

9781741666700I can’t wait to get into this Man Booker Prize winning novel, which my fellow blogger, Jon Page, recently reviewed.

“Richard Flanagan has written a tragic love story, a deconstruction of heroism and mateship, and captured a side of humanity I’ve never read before. Wars, according to our history books, have beginnings and ends but for those who take part in wars, who are swept up in its maelstrom, there is no beginning or end. There is only life. And the damage war causes must be endured by those lucky or unlucky enough to survive it.”

The Writing Life by David Malouf

The Writing LifeDavid Malouf examines the work of writers who have challenged, inspired and entertained us for generations – from Christina Stead, Les Murray and Patrick White to Proust, Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte. He also looks at his own work and the life of the writer, where the danger is spending too much time talking about writing and not enough doing it.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel – the double Man Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The Assassination of Margaret ThatcherHer portraits of Thomas Cromwell’s England are epic historical tales, so I’m intrigued to delve into this collection of short stories, which promise to summon the horrors so often concealed behind everyday facades. 

The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb

The Wife DroughtUbiquitous journalist, Annabel Crabb takes a new angle on the work-family balance debate, by bringing working men into the picture. She asks why we have become fixated on the barriers that women face progressing in the workplace, and forgotten about the barriers that still block the exits for men? The Wife Drought is peppered with candid anecdotes from Crabb’s own work-family juggling act, is a thoughtful addition to the equality discussion and a call for a ceasefire in the gender wars.

I’d love to hear what’s on your wish list. Happy reading.

Julie

Julie Fison writes for children and young adults. Her books include the Hazard River series for young readers, the Choose Your Own Ever After series that lets the reader decide how the story goes, and Counterfeit Love for young adults.

Hilary Mantel the third author to win Man Booker twice

Hilary Mantel has become the third author to win the Man Booker Prize twice.

She was yesterday announced as the winner of the 2012 award for her novel Bring Up the Bodiesbeating 145 entrants in this year’s award.

The novel is a sequel to her 2009 Booker Prize prize winning book, Wolf Hall.

Peter Carey and J M Coetzee have also won the prestigious prize twice.

Wolf Hall: Surprisingly Readable

Villains are so much more engaging when they have a heart, dontchathink?

I have been ashamed for too long – Wolf Hall has had pride of place on my bookshelf for months now, and I’ve barely poked it. I only wish I had got to it sooner, because once I picked it up I could not put it down. And it seems like the perfect time to talk about it, what with the 2010 Booker shortlist having just been announced (I can’t believe Mitchell wasn’t picked)!

So then: Wolf Hall. The 2009 Booker prize winner is something of an art piece, detailing a vast account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise as the grand vizier to Henry VIII. So often the courts of Henry VIII are the subject of lusty romance fiction novels, with victimised mistresses as bawdy fruit ripe for the picking, and a particular redheaded brute who enjoys hunting, feasting, and aforesaid victimised mistresses. Don’t get me wrong, I love that bodice-ripping stuff. But it can get a little worn. Wolf Hall is of a refreshingly different breed, and Mantel is the architect of a sceptical and calculated court, seen through the beady eyes of one Thomas Cromwell.

The novel’s magic lies in the humanisation of Cromwell – his marriage is a business contract, but he comes to love his wife Liz, his boy Gregory and his two little girls. When Liz, Grace and Anne perish of the sweating sickness we don’t see the outward show of stoic, but instead are witness to Cromwell’s grieving thoughts as he makes a show of conducting his daily business. Mantel treats Cromwell’s life unequally – she is particularly attentive to his early years where his father uses him for bloodsport, and then is attentive to his later years under the majestic Cardinal Wolsey, with very little in between. Yet, this deliberate spotlighting results in a fascinating portrait of a guy whose humble beginnings helps him understand the fickleness of power when everyone around him is a glutton to it.
Cromwell’s wry disdain of mademoiselle Anne Boleyn is particularly evident – I especially love the first introduction of her:

“The lady appeared at court at the Christmas of 1521, dancing in a yellow dress. Daughter of the diplomat, Thomas Boleyn, she has been brought up since childhood in the Burgundian court at Mechelen and Brussels, and more recently in Paris, moving in Queen Claude’s train between the pretty chateax of the Loire. Now she speaks her tongue with a slight, unplaceable accent, strewing her sentences with French words when she pretends she can’t think of the English. At Shrovetide, she dances in a court masque. The ladies are costumed as Virtues, and she takes the part of Perseverence. She dances gracefully but briskly, with an amused expression on her face, a hard, impersonal touch-me-not smile. Soon she has a little trail of petty gentlemen following her; and one not so petty gentleman. The rumour spreads that she is going to marry Harry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s heir.”
-[Page 67, Wolf Hall.]

The rest of the book is just as impeccably written. And if you expect to see the rise AND fall of Thomas Cromwell, you will be disappointed – the curtain closes when Thomas is at the height of his power in 1535, five years before his downfall and his execution at Henry VIII’s word in 1540. To my mind it is the perfect send-off. You can’t help but feel a little uneasy, like a gypsy reader unsure of her own clairvoyance. Thomas Cromwell, in the closing of Wolf Hall appears as if he will be Henry’s beloved forever. But that’s the draw of power, isn’t it? It makes you omnipotent and thrillingly vulnerable in the same intoxicating breath.

The Utter Insanity of Book Guilt

Sigh.

Being part of the blogging community, particularly being part of the book blogging community, is a fun, informative, and – if you want it to be – a largely collaborative experience. If you’re a social internet creature with a book fetish, there is a whole plethora of groups you can join to help hone your book goals and meet likeminded people who will comment on your page, and recommend you books they think you’ll love. Oftentimes joining these groups, and regularly participating in these groups, can be a really productive thing.

Joining a book challenge is probably the most popular way to go about group participation with a common goal in mind: someone hosts the challenge on their blog page, sets the rules, and those who are interested in that particular challenge will hopefully follow those rules, maybe even post their experiences following the challenge on their own blogs. It’s a great way to feel part of the blogging community, and to knock the dusty top off your never-ending TBR pile.

One particular challenge that I thought I could handle is Wolf Hall Wednesdays. The gist of the challenge is this: Read 100 pages of Wolf Hall, weigh in with your thoughts at the hostess’ blog page, and see what everyone else thought of it in return. Once a lively and colourful discussion has been had by all, you crawl back in your hidey-hole until the next Wednesday, at which point you discuss your thoughts on a further 100 pages. In theory, this is brilliant idea with a substantial payoff to the individual– it’s like an online book club, where everyone supports everyone else in getting through a fairly chunkeriffic read that you otherwise might be too intimidated to finish on your own.

Except I haven’t really been holding up my end of the bargain.

You would perhaps think that since the internet isn’t ‘real life’ you can easily drop book challenges that you’ve committed to online without psychological repercussions. Not so, my friends. The guilt I feel is disproportionate to what I SHOULD be feeling, considering I don’t have a boss to report to on a failed deadline and the other challenge participants probably don’t give a rat’s if I contribute or not. But the guilt is definitely real. I panic as the Wednesdays roll around like the next car in a city cab rank, and I am barely past the third paragraph each and every time.

So instead of writing my discussion post on pages 300-400 of Wolf Hall and feeling some sense of accomplishment, I am here writing this warning post and wallowing in self-pity. If I could go back to my younger self when I signed up for this challenge (all of four weeks ago), I would say “Don’t do it!!” or “Do it next year instead!!” But it’s too late for me. Maybe not for you.

Like I said, book challenges are a fun way to participate in the blogosphere, and accomplish some long-held book goals. My advice for newbies, however, is: don’t bite off more than you can chew.

You’ve just gotta know when to stop, I guess.

So here’s to 400 pages of Wolf Hall to catch up on before next Wednesday. It’s gonna be a long week.

Does Size Matter?

Wolf HallUntil recently, book size wasn’t something that I noticed. If I wanted to read it, I wanted to read it. And very often the larger the book the better. After all, there’s nothing worse than finishing a good book too quickly and then finding yourself in the post-good book void.

But it’s in finding myself with fewer and fewer hours in the day to devote to reading (yep, growing up sucks) and my pile of books to read ever growing (partly due to my good fortune to be able to review books, but mostly due to my penchant for purchasing books before I’ve had time to read the ones already in the pile), that I’m starting to wonder if size does matter.

My always-spritely, avid-reader grandmother is now 93 and is starting to become frail. This year my mother’s instructions for her Christmas book present purchase was not which book she’d like but that I should select something that wasn’t—a consideration I’d never before encountered and which saddened me greatly—too heavy for her to hold up.

When I worked as a bookseller, parents desperate to get their children reading would screw up their noses at books even slightly more than wafter thin that might seem, like a mountain, insurmountable to their reluctant reader. Once one woman wanted a refund on a stack of mass market books she had bought to take on holiday because they would be ‘too heavy’ and take up ‘too much room’ in her suitcase. Why this hadn’t occurred to her when she selected, purchased, and then carried the books home, I don’t know. As someone who’d sacrifice clothes, toiletries, and underpants before I’d take out books, I was, well, a little incredulous.

But as I find myself having to choose my next book carefully, I’m starting to size up my books as much for their page length as their compelling content. I’m selecting books that I can get through quickly, in part to make myself feel as though I’m accomplishing something. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m so physically and mentally sapped that I’m flat out staying awake for more than a few pages and am unlikely to remember what happened at the beginning of the book by the time I’ve gotten to the end.

I keep telling myself that I’m saving the longer books for the holidays—say, for example, Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning tome Wolf Hall—but as a freelancer my holidays are few and far between and Wolf Hall and its counterparts are likely to sit gathering dust for some time. Which makes me wonder if every other time-poor ‘adult’ (and I use that term loosely because I’m not yet convinced that I am one) is in the same boat? Do we live by the mantra that size—specifically, the smaller the better—does matter?

For the Love of the Chunkster

Dear Readers:

I have a confession to make. It is a confession that is so monstrous, so remarkably horrid, that your view of me will forever be marred.

*Takes deep breath*

I have never read The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

[I know what you’re thinking: “and here she is, this imposter, purporting to be a FANTASY blogger, no less!”]

Before you pass too hasty a judgment, let it be known that I have watched the Peter Jackson movies and loved them to bits, over and over again. And I read The Hobbit, so really, I feel like I know Bilbo Baggins PRETTY well. It’s not the same, I know. But it’s a start.

On three separate attempts I have made it, at best, about halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring. My excuse for not finishing it? It was TOO DARNED LONG. Too much valuable reading time had to be spent on the series, whereas I could read 15 or so smaller books in the same time bracket! But in my heart of hearts, I know this is a lie.
In truth, if you look at which books I love and have enjoyed the most, refusing to read a book because it is “too long” is laughable. For my very reading existence is almost completely dependent on my love for a particular type of book: for the love of the CHUNKSTER!

I define a chunkster as a book that has at least 500-600 pages, average size font.

Why do I love them? Well, there is something deliciously satisfying about reading a book that gives me the proper amount of time to immerse myself in the story, wallow about in its glorious filth. To know the characters through an intense description of a frock worn, to know a world as it is built, brick by brick around me. And, of course, I feel pretty awesome when I finish something that requires so much time and effort to get through.

Some of my fave chunksters:

Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett is a magnificent choice in the chunkster realm. To understand the passion and architectural skill of building a Gothic cathedral, while all these people’s lives are carrying on around it, is just mesmerising to me. After reading that book, I felt like I had built the church myself – ’tis a great feeling of accomplishment;
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is 1000 pages or so of mind-numbing faerie Victoriana brilliance;
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, sends me into a spin just thinking about it;
And I have just read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and been absolutely blown away by its intricate content, its romantic Sci Fi, its literary awesomeness. No wonder it won the Booker Prize.

I am also super pleased to report that the fashion of the chunkster doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere fast. The obsession with mass fantasy reads like Harry Potter and Twilight meant that each book in the series had to be larger than the last, to satisfy the starving fans. And you only have to look at 2009’s Booker shortlist to see that chunksters are still considered worthy literary reads (I’m currently digging my way through Wolf Hall with mounting enthusiasm). So, to come full circle – I don’t know why I can’t get through Lord of the Rings. I’m going to try again, mid-year, and let you know the results. As long as another chunkster doesn’t steal my attention… (here’s hoping!)

How do you feel about chunksters? To me, you’re in one of two camps: you adore the chunkster and all that it stands for, or you fear them to the depths of your soul and avoid them like the plague.

Which is it for you? Team Love? Or Team Fear?

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Guest Reviewer Sally Cripps

The sign of a *really* good book at my place is insects squashed between the pages, and other pages stained with food and drink spills, all because I couldn’t bear to stop reading. This is what Wolf Hall was like for me – a story of the broadest magnitude, grabbing a well-known tale and remaking it, using imagery of the highest order without wafting off into the incomprehensible realms of “lyricism”. On the face of it, it’s the story of how Thomas Cromwell rose from a position of obscurity as a brawling blacksmith’s son to become Henry VIII’s highest advisor, and how he manipulated Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the changes to the church in England. We see him as a bereft husband, a teasing mentor, a deft diplomat, a thoughtful future planner, as a fumbling father, and in many more guises. It is a rich portrait – Mantel is as skilled as any of Cromwell’s law colleagues at persuading readers to look at the man in a certain way, in the best “show, don’t tell” tradition.

After a cardinal delicately lays out his family tree and connections, Cromwell thinks “If you were born in Putney, you saw the river every day, and imagined it widening out to the sea. Even if you have never seen the ocean you had a picture of it in your head from what you had been told by foreign people who sometimes came upriver. You knew that one day you would go out into a world of marble pavements and peacocks…but if you were born in Aslockton, in flat fields under a wide sky, you might just be able to imagine Cambridge, no further”. Over and over, we are reminded of Cromwell’s humble beginnings, the power inherent in him – his son Gregory is surprised that Cromwell doesn’t realise people see him as a murderer – but also his desire to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Cromwell’s philanthropy and his passion for knowledge is one of the many interesting threads in the story. Often he asks about Guido Camillo, a man who is creating a “memory system” – a man who has “built a soul…They are what we shall have left, if all the books are burned. They will enable us to remember not only the past, but the future, and to see all the forms and customs that will one day inhabit the earth”. Entwined with this is the fear of Lutheranism and the persecution of those publishing the Bible in English, the vicious racking, burning and torture ordered by the puritanical Thomas More – “He can close the booksellers, but still there will be books. They have their old bones, their glass saints in windows, their candles and shrines, but God has given us the printing press” one woman excitedly tells Cromwell. Later, he himself tells his nephew “You can’t tell people just part of the tale and then stop, or just tell them the parts you choose. They have seen their religion painted on the walls of churches, or carved in stone, but now God’s pen is poised, and he is ready to write his words in the book of their heart”.

The ancient heritage underlying Henry’s kingship, the primitivism at the heart of us all, is also strongly enmeshed in the story. Echoing the story’s title, during an earthy conversation with his cook Cromwell recalls the saying “homo homini lupus” – man is wolf to man. Mantel seems to be asking what gives us our power, evoking images of Albion, Caesar’s legions, star signs and astrological systems, Halloween and the purgatory of souls, even Emperor Constantine digging “through a necropolis, through 12 centuries of fishbone and ash, his workmen’s shovels powdering the skulls of saints”. Alongside this, Cromwell muses that Christ didn’t induce power in his followers, so how does the Pope get his power? And then on to legislative power, through which a King reigns. It is a book that gives food for thought as well as entertainment.

One of my very favourite passages shows Anne Boleyn as a deer caught in the woods – “Walking away – eight antechambers back to the rest of his day – he knows that Anne has stepped forward to a place where he can see her, the morning light lying along the curve of her throat”. The veneer of civility, the antechambers to be passed and the stripping away of it to reveal one’s true nature, is what the book was all about for me. It was never far from mind that the head of Wolf Hall, Edward Seymour had taken his son’s wife to his bed. How Thomas Cromwell makes use of all this made for enthralling reading. I hope the sequel isn’t too far away.