A(nother) Rambling: Majority Report

I haven’t gotten on my soapbox for a while now, so I thought it was about time I went on another rambling.

 

For the last seven weeks on the blog, I’ve been reviewing the shortlisted titles on the WHSmith Thumping Good Read award – that’s after I had the pleasure of reading over thirty books back in March to help choose the shortlist.

 

My reading style has never been the most commercial. The books that sell thousands of copies are crime, action or romance stories – they all have their merit, but they’re generally fast-paced crowd-pleasers.  There’s nothing wrong with them, this isn’t a blog about commercial vs non-commercial books – at least not in that sense.

 

The types of books I LOVE are those that slow it down and explore their characters. Their critics would say these are the books wherein nothing happens, and while that’s not exactly true, I can see their point. My favourite book – A Little Life – is well over seven hundred pages long and has plenty of plot – but a thriller writer might dispatch of those plot points in two hundred pages or so.

 

Like I say, this isn’t to pick holes in either genre – I love reading all books and all have their positive and negative points. The real reason I’m highlighting these differences is because I had never read so many commercially focused novels in such quick succession before and it really brought something home to me.

 

For Thumping Good Read, publishers were asked to submit their best books, the page-turners that readers just wouldn’t be able to put down. Those brilliant books that people who don’t read would want to read. It’s a prize for people that don’t want to read a hard-going tome like A Little Life – or this blog post, the way it’s going.

 

In those thirty plus books – and I’m not going to name names, they were all wonderful books, and dismissing any of them was extremely hard – I can count the number of gay characters on one hand.  The three that I stumbled across were – 1) a dead body 2) a cardboard cut-out best friend 3) closeted until page 223.

 

The number of ethnic minorities were fewer: One.

 

ONE.

 

Ok, so that one’s slightly disingenuous. A majority of the time race wasn’t explicitly mentioned for many of the characters, but there were clues.

 

Perhaps I was reading them as white – projecting my own societal expectations and unconscious racism onto the fiction that the author had written.  It’s possible, but there was at least one occasion where I read a main character as black – only for, three quarters of the way through the book for the author to make a point of highlighting the character’s milky white skin.

 

If I could read that character as being from a BAME background, why couldn’t I have read others in the same way? It’s just as possible as me reading them as white, that they were written white.

 

Some of my favourite books of the last couple of years contain representatives from minorities – Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Sarah Winman’s Tin Man and the up-coming Take Nothing With You from Patrick Gale. These books exist – but they haven’t all broken into bestseller lists, and perhaps more tellingly, they’re not being submitted for a book prize that in its very mission statement is looking for commercial books.

 

Even as I write this, I can see that these books are skewed towards my own interests, mirror aspects of my own life. Perhaps the simple reason commercial books are mostly white and mostly straight is because most of the book-buying public is mostly white and mostly straight?

 

Representation is important. Recognising yourself in a character is a shortcut into understanding a novel – but so is learning about other people, other cultures, it’s how we learn about the world, develop our empathy.

 

With all this in mind where are the commercial novels serving these minorities? Why are we making it so hard for their voices to be heard?

 

Is it because publishing is full of straight white people, publishing straight white people for straight white people to read?

 

As someone on the inside of the business I can tell you this – while publishing is very white, it’s not very straight, so there must be something else at play.

 

Perhaps the state of the economy has led us as an industry to become risk-averse. We look at the bestseller lists, see what people are buying ask for more of it, then flood the market with it.

 

Customers are looking for good books, at the end of the day that’s all they really want, and I believe that most of them are grown-up and educated enough to be able to read and enjoy a book that doesn’t match their own demographic.

 

We – the publishing industry – are unconsciously discriminating (and I do think in many cases it is unconscious – we’re not horrible bigots) and so we need to start consciously changing the things that we can control.

 

From authors to agents, editors to publishers, retailers to reviewers we need to start championing the books we all love and not just dismiss them as ‘uncommercial’. We need to have more faith in readers.

 

It’s also worth noting – that of the four characters I identified above from the thirty plus books, three of them ended up on the Thumping Good Read shortlist. Even those that were thin cardboard cut-outs helped add a difference, a richness to the worlds they were introduced in, helped their books stand just above the others.

 

I know that I’m going to start mixing things up in the books and stories I write – even if all that means is I stop referring to girls with milky skin and blue-eyed boys…

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A(nother) Review: One of Us Is Lying by Karen M McManus

Here it is, the final book in the Thumping Good Read shortlist – One of Us Is Lying by Karen M McManus.

 

I already mentioned last week that this is one of my favourites, and as I sat down to write this post, I found myself grinning as I remembered it.

 

One of Us Is Lying is a novel about five students who all find themselves in detention. Some of them regulars in the detention room, some of them there for the first time, all of them denying having done any wrong-doing.

 

When one of the students suffers an allergic reaction and dies, it is seen to be a tragic accident. At least, at first. Simon runs – ran – an app detailing all the gossip at their school and soon the other four students from detention are all in the frame for his murder – with all of them keeping secrets that Simon was about to reveal.

 

There’s not a lot more I can say about the plot without giving too much away, but for me, this is the epitome of a book you can’t put down. I had to read on to find out what each of their secrets were and to try and work out ‘whodunnit’.

 

McManus makes it easy for us to read as well, the focus shifting between the four suspects, never lingering too long, so if there’s a character you don’t like as much as the others, there’ll be one that you do along any minute.

 

I love this kind of split narrative. Mostly because typically, I like all the characters but there’s one character, one story that I want to read more of.

 

A lot of people I know that have read this have likened it to The Breakfast Club – I’d love to agree, but I’ve never seen TBC so both you and I will have to take their word for it. But if that means anything to you, then it sounds like a good recommendation, doesn’t it?

 

For me it reminded me of other Young Adult novels by David Levithan and John Green. This was very much in that vein, so perfect for fans of both of those authors.

 

And there’s the thing. It’s branded and promoted as a Young Adult read.

 

Having handed this book out to a few different people, a couple of them have responded saying they hadn’t realised it was Young Adult – for them it was just a really good read (Thumping Good, perhaps).

 

I always worry that YA branding will put some people off of reading it, but I’ve come to realise I don’t care. It’s their loss, and actually if it helps young people who might not normally read find an accessible way into books, then that’s just fantastic.

 

But, if the only reason you’re not picking up this book is because you don’t read Young Adult, then take your hang-ups, pop them in a drawer and settle down with one of my favourite books of this year.

 

(Even though, it first came out last year…)

 

More importantly, other than being a really great read, I have a happy memory of it. Seeing the cover, thinking about writing this review has put a smile on my face. There are other books I have enjoyed that give me different feelings when I remember them (melancholy, tension, despair), but this is one of the few that makes me smile fondly.

 

One of Us Is Lying is available now from Penguin and is half price in all WHSmith High Street stores until Wednesday 18thJuly.

 

The winner of Thumping Good Read will be announced on Thursday 19thJuly

A(nother) Review: The Other Woman by Sandie Jones

We’re on our penultimate book of the Thumping Good Read Award shortlist and we’re onto one of my favourites (Yes, ok I’ve said that before, but to be fair, they wouldn’t be on the list if I didn’t enjoy them!).

 

Before we get into The Other Woman – that didn’t come out quite the way I intended, but I’ll leave it there – I should let you know that there is only a day and a half left to vote for your favourite.

 

Head over to the WHSmith blog where you can find out more about the seven shortlisted titles – including the only one I’ve not featured yet One Of Us Is Lying (it’s another one of my favourites!). You have until the end of Friday 6thJuly to vote for your favourite and help decide who will win the £10,000 prize.

 

But back toThe Other Woman– what’s it about? It’s not about a mistress as you might initially think. Instead, it’s about a mother-in-law. Pammie.

 

Pammie.

 

You can just tell by that name that she’s going to be difficult, and boy does she cause trouble.

 

It’s been a couple of month since I read The Other Woman and I can still remember her name. I read a lot of books, all of them with a lot of characters and a lot of names. The plots stay with me – for better or for worse – but you can tell when a character is well-written, because they linger in your mind for ages.

 

The other way you can tell a character is well described is when you talk about the book with someone else, and you both say the character reminded you of the same person. In this instance @LucyHine and I both said Pammie was Bridget Jones’ mother.

 

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This might be all you need to know about her… but I’m going to tell you more. At least about the book.

 

Emily meets Adam and they instantly fall head over heels with each other. Things are going really well right up to the moment Adam takes her to meet his mother. This is where things start to take a turn.

 

Adam and Emily argue on the way to see Pammie, their first proper argument, but this is overshadowed by Pammie’s reaction to Emily. In public, she’s all smiles, but in private, she undermines Emily, starts playing games.

 

Emily starts to wonder if she’s imagining things, but it soon becomes clear that Pammie has taken a dislike to Emily, and is intent on doing anything to split her and Adam up. Not that Adam can see this.

 

The whole book is like a car crash, you can’t help but watch it, though you know how badly things are going to turn out.

 

The decline of Adam and Emily’s relationship is gradual, as an outsider, we can see it happening, in the same way that we sometimes look at our friends relationships and can see that it’s not working. But when you’re Emily, when you’re in the middle of the relationship, you just can’t see it.

 

The Other Woman is a compelling slice of relationship drama with an antagonist that is so vivid and ever-present that it’s hard to shake her months later. The only problem is that the character development of Pammie comes at the detriment to some of the other characters.

 

An example: Emily has a best friend whose sole function in this story is to be Emily’s friend, he has no life of his own, at least one that’s not explored – the few times we meet him, he’s a mouthpiece to Emily’s issues, we learn nothing about him – barring a few identifying clichés – and we skim over the conversation that’s not about Emily.

 

Generally, that’s ok, secondary characters are secondary for a reason, but the problem here is that because the story is told from Emily’s point of view, it colours her character and she comes across as self-centred and a little vacuous, which in turn hinders the amount of sympathy we’re being asked to direct to her.

 

But it’s a little gripe and is made up for entirely by a memorable villain and a brilliant, unexpected ending. This book ain’t going where you think it’s going.

 

The Other Woman is published by Pan and is available now as part of the Thumping Good Read award in WHSmith stores.

A(nother) Review: Here and Gone by Harlan Beck

For the last few weeks I’ve been talking about the Thumping Good Read award (pop over to the WHSmith blog for more details) and this week, we’re onto Book 5 – Here and Gone by Harlan Beck.

 

This was one of the first ones I read and one of my favourites of the whole bunch.

 

The story starts out with Audra driving across America with her two small children. It becomes clear that she is running from something, though we’re not exactly sure what. She is pulled over by a policeman on a deserted road, who writes her up for having her car too loaded up.

 

A routine investigation escalates and she soon finds herself jailed for possession with intent to supply, despite protesting that she didn’t know how the drugs got into her car. This is just the beginning of her nightmare, though.

 

Once jailed, she asks the police officer how her children are. He simply replies there were no children in the car when he pulled her over.

 

Audra flips.

 

As you would.

 

Soon, she’s accused of having done all sorts to her children and she must fight to prove her innocence. And her sanity.

 

From this moment, Here and Gone had me hooked. Audra found herself in this situation so simply, it could happen to any of us. What would we do if we found ourselves in this situation when we just KNEW we were right?

 

This seems like a good time to crack out a picture of Dr Beverly Crusher:

 

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Here and Gone is tense throughout, and leads to one of those endings where your fingers are turning the page faster than your eyes can read because you just need to know what happens.

 

A definite page-turner, I loved it. I think you will too.

 

Here and Gone is available now from Vintage and is half price in WHSmith High Street stores until Wednesday 4thJuly

A(nother) Review: Guess Who by Chris McGeorge

There are so many different reasons why we pick up books – word of mouth, an exciting jacket or intriguing title, even a special offer, but sometimes the marketing does its job and the slug on the front of the book, explaining the concept manages to sell it in just ten words.

 

That was the case with Guess Who by Chris McGeorge for me:

 

One room.

Five suspects.

Three hours to find a killer…

 

That said it all for me, I wanted to read this book and I wanted to love it.

 

If you need more than that to whet your appetite, there’s not much I can say without ruining the plot too much, but I’ll try. TV personality Morgan Sheppard (think Jeremy Kyle but a detective version) wakes up in a hotel room, chained to a bed and slowly comes to realise that there are other people in the room with him, all starting to wake up as well.

 

He is the only one locked up and when the TV turns on with a message for them all, it seems to be directed straight at him. Their captor challenges him to solve a mystery within three hours, or they will all die.

 

Does it live up to its premise? Did I love it?

 

Well… not quite. It’s still very good, and McGeorge is a great writer, but the narrative jumps out of the hotel room into Sheppard’s past quite regularly and so doesn’t quite maintain its feeling of mystery and claustrophobia.

 

But, that’s a big challenge anyway. It’s difficult to wring tension and drama out of that situation and the exposition was necessary for the pay-off… I just wish the author had found a way to keep all the action in the room.

 

I wondered as I reached the end, whether the concept would work better as a play. Tense silences, suspicious glances and a restrained location can work wonders on the stage, but are very hard to convey in writing. Hard, but not impossible.

 

It’s still definitely worth a read, and I’d highly recommend for a summer read, but it doesn’t quite live up to its marketing.

 

Guess Who is published by Orion and is available now as part of WHSmith’s Thumping Good Read Award. It is half price in High Street stores until next Wednesday.

 

 

A(nother) Review: The Silent Companions

Here we go.

 

After a couple of weeks of reading books that are away from my usual fare, we’re back firmly inside my comfort zone with The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

 

This one has been around for a while and one of those I’ve been meaning to read for ages, so I was really pleased when it made it on the longlist for Thumping Good Read.

 

Little secret: As part of the team that chose the shortlist, I’m not supposed to have favourites, but if I were to have one, this MIGHT be it.

 

If you don’t know – this is a story about Elsie, a widow who travels from London to her late husband’s country estate The Bridge. There she deals with her grief and her growing pregnancy, but there are some mysterious goings on – all centered around life-size paintings on wooden boards. Think a ye-olde-cardboard cut-out.

 

Nowadays, these things would be sold in hipster cafes that also sell vinyl, or in a motorway service station, but back in the nineteenth century, these things are extremely creepy – especially when they seem to move on their own accord.

 

It’s a brilliant, atmospheric gothic horror with a plot that constantly evolves and develops. As a reader, I wasn’t sure where it was going to end up – I, like Elise, assumed there had to be a practical explanation, but I just couldn’t think what it might be so I started to believe that maybe – in this world at least – ghosts were real.

 

As I alluded to before, this MIGHT be my favourite from the Thumping Good Read list – but my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s your job to vote for the favourite (by clicking on this link right here).

 

The Silent Companions is available now from Raven Books and is half price in WHSmith High Street stores until Wednesday 20th June

 

A(nother Review): Capture or Kill by Tom Marcus

After five years of writing blogs the inevitable is finally happening and my blogs are colliding with my work.

 

We’ve just relaunched the Thumping Good Read Award– a prize that WHSmith ran from 1992-2003 and for the next seven weeks my blogs are going to coincide with the seven featured titles in-store.

 

It might appear that I’m selling out slightly and becoming a corporate mouthpiece for ‘The Man’ – but the truth is, a few months ago, I spent a lot of time reading a lot of books, and darn it, I’m going to use that for personal gain if I can.

 

I’m also actually really excited for Thumping, it’s a great prize that will celebrate the best of commercial fiction – and hopefully it’s exciting for the authors too – the winning writer will get £10,000!

 

You can find out more by visiting the WHSmith blog here

 

Meanwhile, on this blog, you’ll find my thoughts about each of the books and about the experience of choosing the shortlist.

 

First up is Capture or Killby Tom Marcus.

 

What can I say about this book?

 

Literally, what can I say? When it was first submitted, we didn’t actually receive a copy of the book straight away because MI5 were still going through it and checking to see if they would allow it to be published.

 

I’m not even sure if I can say that!

 

Capture or Killis about Matt Logan an MI5 agent who – driven by personal tragedy – leaves behind his life to become part of a deniable unit known only as Blindeye. No rules stand in their way, they can do anything they need to to achieve their mission, but if they’re caught doing what they’re doing, the government will claim they acted alone.

 

Think 24 when Jack and Chloe go a bit rogue and you’ve about got it.

 

I loved 24, but this isn’t exactly my normal sort of book. That was a challenge for me during the whole reading process, trying to find brilliant books across multiple genres. What we didn’t want was seven amazing crime titles, or a whole raft of tearjerkers (suspect the collective noun for that is probably a tissue).

 

The whole point of Thumping Good Read is to showcase a title for everyone. A whole family could buy the lot and everyone would find a different title they loved.

 

The rest of this year’s shortlist are all brilliant books in their own right, including some thrillers – but Capture or Kill is relentless action from start to finish. But that’s not all.

 

In a way, the genres that I don’t normally read were the easiest to put forward for the shortlist. They all have great stories that transcend the genre that they’re being presented in, so that even if you’re not necessarily into the heart-pumping action of a spy thriller you can still enjoy it.

 

And if you DO love heart pumping-action and detailed descriptions of the undercover operations then you’re in for an extra treat, because this has all of that and more.

 

In short, it’s a Thumping Good Read.

A(nother) Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Last week I was heading into London and found myself on a train with no book – EEK! So, I ran into WHSmith in the station and looked for something I hadn’t read yet.

 

It was a small one with only a handful of books – so there wasn’t much there I hadn’t read, but from the new Richard and Judy Book Club (my boss has asked me to add here that it said Book Club is indeed exclusive to WHSmith and is in fact Britain’s Biggest Book Club) – there was Little Fires Everywhere.

 

That’s not a grammatically incorrect description of the state of the store, but in fact the new book from Celeste Ng (whose twitter name is helpfully @pronounced_ing).

 

The story is set in the planned community of Shaker Heights where Mrs Elena Richardson wakes up to find her house on fire. Her husband and four kids are all out of the house and she escapes easily, but once outside, with the fire brigade in attendance, she learns that the fire was started deliberately.

 

There were in fact, little fires set everywhere through the house.

 

What follows takes us back to a year previously when the mysterious artist Mia and her daughter Pearl move to town, renting a home from the Richardsons.

 

Mia’s presence figuratively sets little fires going inside all of the Richardsons, her and Pearl’s influence on them bringing forward a maelstrom of different emotions amongst them all, particularly the kids, who much of the story focuses on.

 

What I loved about this was the way the story seamlessly shifted point of view across eight different characters. Some books I’ve read in the past have struggled with just three, or over ambitiously gone for ten or twelve, but Ng manages to make each of them engaging enough and for the right length of time that it’s not off-putting.

 

Even my least favourite character – Mrs Richardson – earns that accolade through being a busy-body, rather than through poor writing, or for outstaying her welcome.

 

The only thing I found slightly distracting? It took me a while to figure out exactly when the book was set. My automatic assumption with most books is they are in present day – so when I worked out that one of the teenage characters ought to be in their early thirties, I realised I had to go back and reassess.

 

Maybe I missed something – quite possible – or maybe it just wasn’t clear. Still, it was only a minor niggle for a book I really enjoyed. The next time you’re in a train station and needing a read… give this one a go!

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is available now from Abacus

 

 

A(nother) Rambling: A New String to My Bow

Taking a break from reviewing a book this week – to talk about my favourite topic outside of books.
(Me)
I did something new yesterday, something a little bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately fun. It’s also what stopped me from reading, at least stopped me from reading anything new – hence no review.
(I do like the word hence. Makes me feel posh)
At WHSmith, we’ve been working on erasing stigma around mental health. The company has done shitloads (that’s the technical word) to raise awareness within the company, as well as this year doing huge amounts of fundraising for – along with Cancer Research – Mind.
As part of our activities, last year Bryony Gordon came to Swindon for a Q&A session – hosted by publicity goddess George Moore.
It went down so well, we arranged another one for Matt Haig – to coincide with the launch of his new book (How To Stop Time – read it!) and to get a male perspective on the challenges faced by those who suffer from poor mental health.
I know what you’re thinking – How come he’s not talking about himself yet?! Give the people what they want!
Ok, ok!
Well, guess what mug offered to step in and host the thing – with absolutely no prior experience of having done something like that?
You guessed it. This guy.
I spent the last week reminding myself of the events of How To Stop Time, I re-read Reasons to Stay Alive, and I monitored Matt’s tweets closely to see if they would raise any questions I wanted to ask.
Then. I got up on the stage, sat opposite Matt – and introduced us both to what felt like an enormous crowd, but was in reality closer to 30.
How to stop time indeed.
Matt had the hard job – he had to talk for twenty seven out of the thirty minutes – I just had to sit there and listen to him, and make sure I didn’t ask a question he’d just answered.
But boy was it hard – I didn’t know where to look. Did I look at the audience like a loon? Matt was (NOT like a loon, I hasten to add), but then he was talking to them. I would just be grinning inanely at them.
Should I instead just ignore them? But that felt rude, and besides if I didn’t look, how did I know if they were still awake – or even there?
At least I know why Graham Norton drinks now.
In the end, it went ok. Neither myself or Matt said anything stupid, I had some positive feedback from people afterwards (not that I believed them of course), and we all learnt a little bit more about mental health (and turtles) as well as hearing about a great book!
What’s the point of me telling you all this? I have a new skill! I can interview people – so let me tell you now, Graham had better watch out.
He’s ahead in the interviewer-skills race (for now) – but I can match him drink for drink.

A(nother) Review: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell-Boyce

There are some writers who when you pick up their books, you think “I really should have read this guy/gal before”.

 

Never more so does this happen than in bookselling where people, both in and out of the industry, assume you have read all the important books and writers. The truth is, we’re all so busy that unless we read those in school, we probably haven’t read them.

 

I can tell you the names of the last fourteen James Patterson titles, and I can tell you exactly what happens in about a million books you won’t have heard of before, nor will ever again, but I can’t tell you anything about Sylvia Plath, or even spot the difference between Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

 

I went to a public school in Swindon in the late nineties, I read The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm and maybe two or three Shakespeare plays. I didn’t study English at college, and I sort of stopped reading between the age of thirteen and eighteen, so my book knowledge only really began in circa 2003, when I read (following a 3 for 2 in my local WH Smith) The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Shadow of the Wind and Cloud Atlas and fell head over hells in love with reading again.

 

I can’t wait until I’m ninety when I will be one of the most well-read people, having read all the obscure classics, and no one will ever know I only have a passing acquaintance with Jane Austen. Until then, I’ll continue to bluff my way through while slowly building up my reading backlist.

 

In the frame this week is Frank Cottrell-Boyce – one of those names you’ll know, but not sure why. He wrote the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics as well as the award winning novel Millions. I’ve not read it, but I enjoyed the film a lot.

 

After reading John Boyne for the first time last week (I know, I know, I haven’t even read The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas), I was looking forward to reading Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth

 

And I wasn’t disappointed.

 

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is first and foremost, a children’s book, but it deals with some quite heavy stuff. Prez is a young carer who’s granddad suffers from dementia. One summer, his granddad gets arrested, and Prez has to live at the Temporary.

 

Before long, he gets the opportunity to stay with a family who live on a farm, and it’s here where he meets Sputnik. Sputnik appears to everyone else as a dog (although a different dog to each person), but to Prez, he is an alien from outer space, who has come to look after Prez, and help him save the Earth from destruction.

 

To do so, they must find ten things that make the Earth unique, and they set off on an adventure together, each of them with very different ideas as to what will make the list.

 

It’s a fun romp (and I do appreciate the opportunity to say – or write – the word romp), through prison breaks, gravity surfing and explosive birthday parties – but there’s also an incredibly touching side to this novel, which will leave even the hardest heart softening a little.

 

It is perhaps a little unfair to compare it to the film Millions, but that’s what I’m going to do as it’s my only other point of reference for Cottrell-Boyce. There is a similar vein of ridiculousness running though both, but Sputnik feels a little more cartoonish, which does dampen the emotion slightly.

 

Of course, it IS a kid’s book, so it is likely highly intentional. Perhaps I need to go back and read Millions now?

 

Or maybe I should get a move on and finally try some Sylvia Plath.

 

(SPOILER: I did neither)