The Books 2014 Forgot

It is my constant lament that great books go unread while trite, unimaginative and poorly-written pablum rockets to the top of the charts. It is even worse when those bestsellers are scientifically illiterate and lack any basis in reality or common sense (see The Real Meal Revolution) or lacking any foundation in fact or originality (anything by Malcolm Gladwell) or just the same old crime thrillers by the same old names, with the same grizzled detectives solving superficially interesting crimes (like half of the NYT bestseller list).

Some of the books I’ve mentioned below did well overseas but not in South Africa, and that kills me because some of these are local and deserve better. And in my constant, never-ending and admittedly ill-fated mission to promote excellent (and sometimes slightly inaccessible) books, I would like to promote some books that everyone should read or buy as gifts for people like me who are difficult to please. Where possible, I have added links and reviews.

Onwards!

71QTSFmYk6L._SL1500_The Three by Sarah Lotz

Read my full review

Elevator pitch: Four planes drop out of the sky at the exact same moment. Three children survive. The world freaked out in 2014 when MH370 went down – imagine 4 planes, at once, across the world. A tightly-written, utterly compelling thriller of the highest order anointed by the High Writer of Horror Stephen King.

Sold at a massive auction off a manuscript fragment, this locally-authored book did spectacularly overseas, but I was saddened by poor local support.

10352275_637546756336934_2894595274120220687_nBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes 

Read my review here

Elevator pitch: Detroit, rotting corpse of America’s dreams, is being stalked by an imaginative and terrifying serial killer. This is not your bookclub’s crime thriller: it is a superb mix of every genre, with literally dozens of ideas bursting off every page.

Also locally authored, with excellent international support but not enough local readership. Can we all get over our cultural cringe, please? Also anointed by the Dark Lord Stephen King.

books24f-2-webThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

My review here

Elevator pitch: A young girl is married off to a rich merchant in Amsterdam. The marriage is strained from the beginning, and he attempts to appease her with a cabinet containing a miniature version of their household. But when the cupboard’s contents start to predict household events, all that is hidden is forcibly revealed.

I loved this for its immense historical detail, crisply and deeply detailed characters and lyrical prose, as well as its gorgeous setting.

Awards: Waterstones Book of the Year 2014

9781594633171_custom-72d13cb6685ce632b975840ffc997395a0f5e4e7-s6-c30In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

Review by the Washington Post
Review by The Guardian

Elevator pitch: It is 1996, and strangers gravitate to Auschwitz, sleeping in the guard’s quarters, meditating in the snow and listening to apologies from clergy and congregation. They attempt to make sense of the madness, but can anybody? A lyrical take on survivor’s guilt, religious guilt and Holocaust voyeurism.

It is a shortish little book, but it is weighty and challenges the  facile idea of closure and healing around such a cataclysmically monstrous event.

DW_full coverDark Windows by Louis Greenberg

Review by the Mail and Guardian

Elevator pitch: What if Joburg suddenly knew peace and harmony? When a New Age government takes control, a wave of calm sweeps through the country. But the Transformation is not complete, and requires the blacking out of windows in rooms where violent acts have taken place. Why?

A quick-thinking, provocative piece on Joburg, the legitimacy of hippie thinking and the causes and costs of violence. The ending alone is worth the read.

Gordon Torr -  Kill Yourself & Count to 10 HRKill Yourself and Count to 10 by Gordon Torr

My Sunday Times review here

Elevator pitch: What happened to all the soldiers who didn’t suit the Calvinist apartheid government? They were sent to Greefswald, a camp for the broken toys of the sociopathic Dr Levine. A rage-inducing, haunting look at a hidden and shameful chapter in South African history.

This is a tremendously difficult read at times due to the weight of its history and suffering, but it should really be taught in schools.

the-collected-works-of-a-j-fikryThe Collected Works of AJ Fikry

My review here

Elevator pitch: This is a bookseller’s book, a tribute to the life and times of a little bookstore and its owner, and the girl he finds abandoned in it. It is a wonderful, quirky read and a love song to literature.

I especially loved the reading list suggestions by Mr AJ Fikry himself, broad and fascinating and uploading.

The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards

The Bad Sex Award is definitely not as prestigious as the Man Booker Prize, but it is one of the most popular awards in the literary calender. Established by Auberon Waugh in 1993 ‘to highlight – and hopefully discourage – the “crude, tasteless, and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels”‘, the Bad Sex Award has become also notorious for its rather snide awards ceremony. When Rowan Somerville won last year, he had this to say about receiving the award for The Shape of Her:

In October, well before the shortlist was announced, an article by Susana Rustin in the Guardian had quoted me criticising the Bad Sex award: “It reminds me of a bunch of sniggering sixth-formers in the back of the class. There’s a kind of English notion of sexuality that I wish we could get away from, it’s Benny Hill, it’s page 3 …”

Despite the magazine’s assertion that “it’s only a bit of fun” there’s an atmosphere of bullying peculiar to public schools about the whole thing. If you decline to show up, like the excellent Sebastian Faulks, they harangue you for years.

One wonders what this year’s winner, David Guterson, will undergo at the ceremony. You can read the extracts from Ed King that landed him this prize here.

Ed King by David Guterson

I read all the extracts (it behooves a bookseller to do so) and to be honest, I really thought that Christos Tsolkas would have won for his hugely grotesque descriptions. I would rather not put this blog on some kind of predator watchlist by posting extracts from Dead Europe, but you can read them here.

While I think that gratuitious sex scenes are exactly that, I’m not so sure that some of the extracts (listed below) really count as ‘bad sex’. We can argue all day what constitutes bad sex (and please do so with me in the comments thread!) but the Bad Sex award seems determined to punish clumsy writing more than actual sex scenes. If I were to offer a definition, I’d say a bad sex scene would be one that has no place being there and stands outside the general style of the novel itself. Like throwing in fifteen gang bangs in the middle of a Miss Marple tale, for example. Or some pedestrian, tired new parent sex in the heart of a chainsaw massacre story.  But most of the scenes are just bad writing more than actual bad sex, and reflect on the rest of the novel. Auel’s extract sounds like something my grandmother would write if she weren’t quite so British; its not really bad sex like Mills and Boon produces on a weekly basis.

The other nominations included literary heavyweight Murakami for 1Q84 and the monarch of horror Stephen King for11.22.63; their extracts can be found here and here. Also nominated:

The award generates controversy and publicity for the books, which Rowan Somerville found himself pleasantly surprised by. The Shape of Her had mostly disappeared before the award nominations went in.
But let’s be frank … this ridiculous award had put my novel in newspapers and websites across the world and although, when the deputy editor of the mag emailed me to ask if I’d enjoyed the party, I replied “as much as a televised visit to a proctologist”, I don’t think the publicity is going to do me, or the book, any harm either. So although it surprises me to say it, I am very grateful to them.
For more reading around the Bad Sex award, there’s Alistair Campbell’s article about why he wants to win the Bad Sex Award, the need for a Good Sex Award and why men write such bad sex scenes.
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Originally posted here at the Exclusives.co.za Blog (by me) and adapted with product lists. Buy the books and support your local bookstores where possible.  

Writer on Writer Crimes

There’s nothing writers love more than giving each other advice.

It is the most irritating thing short of catching ebola from a tax form.

But there are hundreds and hundreds of blogs dedicated to writing about writing, because it doesn’t get more tediously meta than writing about writing about writing. Maybe this is why some writers have to work so hard to keep friends around. And most of the writers giving advice haven’t even published so much as a pamphlet, but since opinions are as plentiful as assholes, its a little difficult to get away from. This is the reason why I don’t actually want to hang around writers. (But I have hung out with some pretty cool authors.)

Now, if I want advice on writing, I want it from Neil Gaiman, Lauren Beukes or Toni Morrison or Chuck Paulahnuik. And I do seek it, please believe my pretty white gi. And from what I gather, the only advice is practise and read more. That’s all there really is to it. Everyone wants a great novel and everyone wants to be JK Rowling but no one wants to put in the legwork. Great authors are well-read authors, and have been writing non-stop for years. Whenever people casually say ‘oh, I thought I’d write a novel, but its like really hard and stuff’, it usually turns out they’ve never written out more than a cheque before. Of course its fsking hard. All I’ve managed is 6 of the damn things and I’m 25. Compared to Stephen King or even Barbara Cartland, it is a pitiful output. Nowhere near enough, and definitely not good enough.

So in the run-up to Nanowrimo, there will be hundreds of blogs dutifully telling other writers what to do. And it is nearly always people who have no idea what they’re doing. Stupid advice about writing schedules, or not having a schedule, or writing in the morning or on the train. Its never a straightforward “write until you get sick of it. And then write some more. And read more great books by real authors. And then write some more.”  The whole joy of writing for me is that it is such a solitary joy and that it is the one thing that (to a large extent) doesn’t rely on anyone else. Toni Morrison said in an interview that she writes books that she wants to read. Isn’t that part of the point? Since when did we need consultants and talent brokers?

Of course there are great articles that are interesting and give good advice, but isn’t the one thing writers hate most is advice? I have a book called You Know You’re A Writer When…By Laura Adair, and one of the signs is “when a friend timidly suggests that maybe the umbrella scene isn’t necessary, you find you don’t like that friend so much anymore.” Its true and no one wants to admit it, but no writer actually likes being corrected. We admit it is necessary, and we know that we sometimes have to do what our publishers want but no writer actually enjoys it. (For better insight into the writer-publisher relationship, read He Beats Me, But He’s My Publisher over at Mad Genius Club).

So yes, in the Nanowrimo frenzy, amongst the joys and horrors of trying to make wordcount between work, training and the Handsome Physicist, the last thing I know I want to hear is “oh, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t you know you’re supposed to write naked?”

Forbes Top Ten Authors and the South African Top Ten

It is a slightly old article, but the results of the Forbes Top Ten authors list is as interesting as the authors are (in my opinion) mostly mainstream. The list taken from this page includes a surprising number of authors who write for children or YA markets.

The list encourages one to draw the following conclusions about the book market:

  • Kids are reading more and more than ever before, especially if authors like Kinney are writing exclusively for young kids and others are branching out into the younger readers market. The first article mentions the advantages tech-savvy authors have when they tap into the massive eBook market. I wish I could remember where I read it, but the YA market is possibly the fastest-growing market. It makes sense to write for it. And judging by the books that I see in the subs with the book reps, there is a desperate need for someone to write better YA that doesn’t involve emo vampires or sad fallen angels or hairball-hacking werewolves. Or mermaids. (Why mermaids? That is a question that speaks to some very deep-seated issues.)
  • Writing crime pays, apparently. Judging by the high earnings of Patterson, Evanovich and Steel, writing about or involving crime in one’s books seems to be successful. However it is a highly saturated market with far too many authors competing for one of the most unforgiving markets. Crime readers tend to follow one author just because the selection is so overwhelming. If anyone wants to break into the book market, crime and romance are definitely the hardest to crack. Fantasy and sci-fi readers are much more likely to pick up new authors.
  • Writing for women is more likely to pay off (Steel, Evanovich, Sparks and Meyer are prime examples) and it has long been established in the publishing industry that men don’t read, or at least not enough to matter. (An unfortunate conclusion but that’s how the numbers roll.) Now that I have been meeting with reps for about six months, I have been able to piece together a great deal about the industry. Women do read a great deal more and across more genres, and while I don’t doubt that men read, they don’t read enough to dictate to many markets. From what I gather, non-fiction tends to be more unisex but there is a growing trend in what is unofficially called ‘dick-lit’. Its chick-lit with a male protagonist who too is unfulfilled and seeking love. It sounds a lot rougher than it really is.
  • Mainstream works. None of the authors on the list are particularly challenging or even controversial. Meyer with her necrophilia and bestiality is so bodice-ripper and hetronormative to be puke-inducing, so that puts her firmly in the heart of the mainstream.

I understand that reading is always going to be escapist and simple for 98% of the world’s literate people. That’s why none of these authors write anything that is particularly stimulating. And I can respect that most people are not interested in reading challenging and mind-rearranging material that inspires debate and anger. The list is interesting for many reasons, but mostly for me because it serves as a handy shorthand for what people want to read more than what booksellers want to sell. If I had a book store I know it would be very much like Black Books, with really interesting but badly selling titles. This is why I have a blog and not a book store.

The most important thing to take away from this is that people are still reading, and while a large part of me wishes they were reading more interesting things I’m just glad that kids are still loving books and that people haven’t given up books for reality TV.

While I’m on the topic of top ten lists, it is always interesting to get the Top 50 books sold here at Exclusive Books. While I cannot share numbers with you, I can share the top sellers, and it fascinates me that the local top 10 this week is 90% South African non-fiction. This may change when all the big international Christmas titles come out (Night Circus, Language of Flowers and the Freddie Mercury biography, for example) but for now it is good to see South Africans supporting South African literature, especially non-fiction.