Friday, 4 January 2008

Happy New Year

Now, I know this post is three days late, but what with visits, clearing up, supervising children's thank you letters and cajoling elder son to do GCSE coursework (after the major challenge of getting him to rise from his bed before midday each day), be grateful that I've made it at all. I hope you all had a wonderful Hogmanay and New Year's Day and I wish you all a happy and successful 2008.

So, January. My least favourite month. The desire to hibernate my way through it strong. I long for light to return and energy levels to rise, and I get very Scrooge-like when I go downtown, read the newspapers, watch the review-of-the-past-year programmes on the TV. All these exhortations to make fresh starts. God. Humbug! Paul Mckenna promises to make us thin, tobacco free, confident and wealthy. Humbug. Boots the chemist offers a choice of healthy challenges that they will caringly help us with. Humbug. Horoscopes aver that with Pluto departing after a ten year dominance of the heavens (had you noticed?), this year will be the year for Capricorns, Pisceans, .... all 12 signs, apparently. Goody.

However, January was named after Janus the double-headed Roman god of doorways and it is a time for looking forward and back, so here goes. I feel I should contribute to the plethora of 'books of the year' judgements which the newspapers have been boring us with - always the same old, same old. As I review what I bought last year and what I read (and figure A is always larger than figure B), certain books delighted me, and some were disappointments. Much of my reading was teaching-related, or was research for what I'm writing, so I won't go into that. Exciting and brain-tiring, is what I'll say. Here's a selection from the rest:

Good novels:

Jane Smiley: A Thousand Acres (reworking of the King Lear story)
Julie Hearn; Follow Me Down, Eva Ibbotson: Journey to the River Sea, Marcus Sedgwick: My Swordhand is Singing, Michelle Paver: Outcast, Geraldine McCoughrean: The White Darkness - all excellent children's books. Some of the children's fiction I read was less inspiring, but I'll protect the guilty in case they were published by some of the publishers I'm approaching at present!
C.J. Sansom: Dark Fire, Dissolution. (Tudor mysteries - I'm saving Sovereign for the summer holidays)
Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black
Kate Atkinson: One Good Turn
Stef Penney: The Tenderness of Wolves

Not so ...:

Mo Hayder: Pig Island ( I love her Tokyo, but this one seemed to suffer from the pressure publishers put on successful authors to roll out a book a year - or less. Don't they know that stories need time to mature? This one had its moments but became too grand guignol absurd plus it was all too easy to guess who was responsible for the Bad Stuff)
Jason Goodwin: The Janissary Tree (this was like Boris Akunin's work. I tried to like it but couldn't - lots of wit and historical detail but nothing convincing about it. Nice, though, that the hero was a eunuch but could still romp like James Bond with Russian countesses!)
Marisha Pessl: Special Topics in Calamity Physics (This one was a trial. Embedded in it was an interesting murder mystery, but the layers of reference, sidetrack, anecdote and diversion buried that at somewhere around the depth of the Cretaceous era. There's no doubt she's a clever and witty writer but every phrase had to be wisecrackey, every image developed at extraordinary length, nothing could be left to be common or garden. It was extremely wearing: I kept throwing my hands up and crying 'Enough already!')

Now no doubt some of you are spluttering indignantly 'She liked that?' 'She was bored by that?' It's all a matter of personal taste. What I do appreciate - and any of you out there who are writers or would-be writers will also appreciate - is that each and every one of those authors put one word behind another on the page, page after page, chapter after chapter, on and on to the bitter or sweet or slightly flat end - and then, even more miraculously, they got themselves published. So more than three cheers for that.

Looking ahead, I know that Book Trade Madness will go on (by the way, would you like to know who was the most pictured author in The Bookseller in 2007? J.K. Rowling? Ian McEwan? Nope and nope. Jordan aka Katie Price, that's who. I don't need to say more).

We will grind our teeth at celebrity madness, at the blindness of agents and editors, at a culture which devalues literacy and literature (take a look at Susan Hill's brilliant blogpost of Jan 2 - see link to her blog at right - where she lambasts Ed Balls and the Labour government for what is being done to libraries). We will, nevertheless, go on loving and hating books, searching for and pouncing on stories that cast a spell, and some of us will go on dreaming of writing our own stories and maybe, just maybe, selling them.

As for me - well, last year I was full of fine-sounding resolutions. All I can say at present is that I'm continuing to maintain Hopeful Author Stance (see my post back in June. Yes, June.) Keep tightening those abdominals.

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