I first encountered Neil Gaiman the author phenomenon, rather than Neil Gaiman’s writing.
Working at Edinburgh International Book Festival the enormous audience who came to listen to him speak and the queues for every Gaiman book signing were a high-energy administrative nightmare. Contrarily, I avoided reading his work. Then I was given The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
The book title and cover struck me as children’s or YA so I was immediately surprised that the narrator was a middle aged man, reflecting on his childhood forty years ago. His recollection of a lodger stealing his family’s car and committing suicide in it was graphic. That this stirred up ancient powers, a primal menace that threatened his family unit, seemed almost necessary in order to process the opening horror. I felt it was redolent of Pan’s Labyrinth and Terry Pratchett’s books, modern reshaping of fairytale fables.
The three women who live on the farm at the end of the lane and defend both boy and man are characterized brilliantly. The youngest, his childhood companion, claims their duckpond is the titular ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang. In between these fantasy elements are prosaic, comfortable details and conversations about farming, food and clothes. It is a sanctuary that riffs off our associations of femininity and lifestyle, paganism and nationalism.
I love reading new versions of ancient and arcane stories and examining how they comfort different people over different times. This is wonderfully written, bursting with drama, fear, domestic and funny language and characters. Highly recommend as a Christmas present for almost anyone!
978-1472200310 £16.99 Headline
As part of a literary agency, I thought the Literary Rejections website’s list of famous works publishing history was fascinating. I chose my favourite 10, with my reasons for interest below. Visit www.literaryrejections.com for more.
1- Absolute bestsellers don’t necessarily take off at once:
The Christopher Little Literary Agency receives 12 publishing rejections in a row for their new client, until the eight-year-old daughter of a Bloomsbury editor demands to read the rest of the book. The editor agrees to publish but advises the writer to get a day job since she has little chance of making money in children’s books. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling spawns a series where the last four novels consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history, on both sides of the Atlantic, with combined sales of 450 million.
2- Finding a publisher is not necessarily the end of an author’s problems:
Having sold only 800 copies on its limited first release, the author finds a new publisher and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho sells 75 million.
3- Editorial advice can be really significant to publishing success:
“We feel that we don’t know the central character well enough.” The author does a rewrite and his protagonist becomes an icon for a generation as The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger sells 65 million.
4- Editorial advice can also be absolutely wrong:
“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.” Rejection of The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame. The novel did sell: 25 million copies worldwide.
5- Timing is very important:
5 publishers reject L.M. Montgomery‘s debut novel. Two years after this rejection, she removes it from a hat box and resubmits. L.C. Page & Company agree to publish Anne of Green Gables and it goes on to sell 50 million copies.
6- It may be easier to sell your work abroad than at home:
“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Shunned by all the major publishers, the author goes to France and lands a deal with Olympia Press. The first 5000 copies quickly sell out. But the author Vladimir Nabokov now sees his novel, Lolita, published by all those that initially turned it down, with combined sales of 50 million.
7- If you can do it, doing it yourself is not a bad option:
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter was rejected so many times she decided to self-publish 250 copies. It has now sold 45 million.
8- A lot of rejections do not mean the end:
Margaret Mitchell gets 38 rejections from publishers before finding one to publish her novel Gone With The Wind. It sells 30 million copies.
9- It’s not always necessary to have an agent:
After 25 literary agents reject her debut manuscript, she mails it unsolicited to a small publisher in San Francisco, MacAdam/Cage. They believe it is a classic. Upon publication, the world agrees. Translated into over 33 languages and adapted into a movie, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger sells 7 million copies.
10- It’s not just a hardback format that can be your big break:
24 literary agencies turned down The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. The 25th did not and sold it to Time Warner one week later for $1 million dollars.
Also, in case you thought this was universally positive for the authors:
“Our united opinion is entirely against the book. It is very long, and rather old-fashioned.” Publisher rejects Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It is later published by Harper & Brothers, who release a first print run of 3000 copies. Only 50 of these sell during the author’s lifetime.
After 22 rejections, Dubliners is finally published. But it only sells 379 copies in the first year. James Joyce bought 120 of them.
To prove how hard it is for new writers to break in, Jerzy Kosinski uses a pen name to submit his bestseller Steps to 13 literary agents and 14 publishers. All of them reject it, including Random House, who had published it.
Wool by Hugh Howey
'The next Hunger Games' The Sunday Times
Now that is quite a review to live up to. In some ways I think Wool exceeds this, but in others it doesn’t quite match up.
There are some obvious similarities with Hunger Games: a post-apocalyptic future setting, a strong, young female protagonist, a fight against the lying establishment. All of these are beautifully drawn. However, this book is a more adult examination of the psychology of a closed society and perhaps consequentially I didn’t tear through it as I did with Hunger Games.
There are equally some obvious differences with Hunger Games. Primarily there is no violent competition in Wool. The plot focuses on the actions of a few condemned individuals sent outside to clean. Howey’s skill at making this phrase, these words with their connotations of the domestic and ordinary, utterly terrifying and mysterious is impressive. The atmosphere is cloying. The character development individually and in groups is delicate. Despite being introduced to a host of people, a tiered silo society, a new class system, quasi-religious belief and modus operandi I felt the characters were entirely relatable and real. There are few long passages of description, which so often weigh down the sci-fi and fantasy genre. Instead the reader’s awareness of this new world follows the character’s actions, growing alongside their realization that it is not all it seems. There is a constant, considered tension in Wool that compels you to consider motivations and human nature in a way that I didn’t feel in Hunger Games.
This was a kind loan from a friend (on their kindle no less) and I don’t know how I would have felt had I bought this myself. This will make you think more deeply about those fantasy worlds which we often escape to, perhaps not realizing how they draw on our own.
978-0099580485 £6.99 Arrow
Spare Brides by Adele Parks
I was given an advance proof of hotly anticipated new Adele Park’s title Spare Brides and consumed it in two days. This was partly but not entirely because I knew a lot of other people who were keen for me to pass it on. It’s available to pre-order now, publishing Feb 2014.
Spare Brides tells the story of a group of upper class English women reeling from the First World War. Glamorous Ava and Lydia are the toast of their set. The pages devoted to their outfits will put off most of the male and some of the female readers I know (just look at the gorgeous cover!). Adele Parks takes joy in the Downtown Abbey luxury of the era- but she doesn’t shy away from the shattering costs of this long gone lifestyle. The scenes between Lydia and her maid are particularly indicative of the divide between the absolutely sheltered women and working women. This is not a class polemic though, a lot of characters exist in grey areas, including dowdy and increasingly poor Sarah and Beatrice, upwardly mobile Captain Edgar and Ava’s ‘new money’ parents. The class breakdown appears alongside the changing relationships between men and women due to the war. It is sometimes uncomfortable reading- I found Lydia’s harsh judgment of her non-combatant husband and her glorification of the returning soldiers particularly difficult. Beatrice’s acceptance of her role as a guide for the younger generation, inactive in her own life, is at times terribly sad. Thank goodness for steely Ava!
Adele Parks is incredibly popular because of her sympathetic observations of human relationships and her style remains despite the historical context. Spare Brides- as the title suggests- is essentially a book about love stories. Ava’s independent affairs, Lydia’s frustration with her husband and enchantment with Captain Edgar and Beatrice’s desperate attempt to find a man amongst those remaining in her age group drive the plot. Their experiences are gripping, the various strands weave and overlap fluidly and there is a sense of the universal as well as the specific about each story.
An engaging and thought provoking read- this is a book you are going to want to discuss with your friends.
978-1472205391 £19.99 Headline Review
The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace
I’m afraid I’m automatically biased about this book because I read it to prepare for a job interview. I loved it, so I enjoyed planning for the interview and then I got the job!
I’m now working for Mulcahy Associates literary agency and Wendy Wallace is one of the authors we represent. Her recent paperback release, The Painted Bridge, is a historical fiction set in an asylum/retreat for women on the outskirts of Victorian London. In this frightening place a young doctor is trying to use the new science of photography to capture the truth about the patients. He believes that unlike fallible human eyes, or paintings, a photograph can only show reality- insane or sane. The arrival of a new patient- a young woman whose husband decides she is behaving unacceptably strangely- throws this into turmoil.
I read and enjoy a lot of historical fiction, and I have read a lot of Victorian gothic tales, although the latter tend to frighten me more than a modern reader should probably admit. This book treads a fine line between historical interest- with a great deal of detail I had no idea about- and high drama. Wendy’s turn of phrase is balanced, atmospheric and beautiful to read. I’d recommend it to fans of Tracy Chevalier and Sarah Waters.
Interestingly, this book has a trailer. Far more common for a movie, book trailers have had mixed success and people still have mixed opinions about them. There is something uncertain about translating the literary into the visual, which seems to lead a lot of book trailers featuring swirling words rather than people or places. However, this trailer is far more cinematic, which seems appropriate for a novel dealing with the importance of the visual. Let me know what you think!
978-0857209290 £7.99 Simon&Schuster