BOOKS: PLUMS TURKEYS
Every year, we ask top publishers to nominate the book on their list which they feel was unjustly passed over by reviewers and readers. Are they right? Kate Figes gives her own verdict
London-born Kate Figes is the author of two novels and five non-fiction books, mostly about family life and relationships. katefiges.co.uk. Her latest book ‘Our Cheating Hearts: Love & Loyalty; Lust & Lies’ has just been published by Virago
Sunday 28 December 1997
Dan Franklin, Publisher, Jonathan Cape
Published in March, it has sold just under 2,000 copies, got some excellent reviews, been translated into German and French and won a Betty Trask Award. Why then do I feel slightly disappointed by its career so far? Partly because the reviews were so widely spaced (the Guardian did not notice it until 4 September), but more, I think, because the huge enthusiasm for the book at Cape somehow never translated itself into the success we were all hoping for. Ambitious, clever, beautifully written and, above all, thoroughly entertaining, it is one of those novels that everyone (publisher, bookseller, reader) is looking for and I hope more will discover it next year in paperback.
KF: This is a very self-assured first novel from somebody so young - Buss was born in 1963. The narrative flows well and is never dull as we follow the steady physical and spiritual degeneration of middle-aged Claude, successful antique dealer (therefore conman). He finds some old letters stuffed into the cover of a Bible which indicate that some of Byron's memoirs may still exist in Italy and even though he knows that this is bound to be a con, cannot resist following the trail for one final thrill in his dull, successful bourgeois life. The descriptions of Claude's failing marriage and stormy relationship with his adolescent daughter are occasionally unconvincing, but the overall portrayal of a middle-aged man isolated within the grey, selfish walls of depression and self-doubt is brilliant and deeply sad. First novels are notoriously difficult to publish well and if reviews are spaced out then there is little impact. But the cover is fab, the writing competent and clear, although nothing special stylistically, and with time Buss will pick up more readers and a reputation.
W B YEATS: A LIFE by Stephen Coote, Hodder pounds 25
Roland Phillipps, Publishing Director, Non-Fiction
This is my most disappointingly under-reviewed book of this year. Coote is a marvellous biographer: he brings his subjects deftly to life against their social, political, scientific and spiritual background, and the temper of their age. We published his biography of Keats in 1995, which got outstanding (and blanket) review coverage. I commissioned the book aware of the need for a modern, epic biography of one of the most interesting figures in literature and one who can be re-discussed for each generation. Roy Foster's biography was looming, but was already so often delayed, and split into two volumes, that I felt this would fill a different market.
Unfortunately, we published shortly after Foster, so literary editors on the nationals were not inclined to run more Yeats reviews in spite of Coote's excellent track record and credentials.
KF: I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this biography. Coote brings Yeats to life - his attraction to theosophy and mystical nonsense; his love of Ireland and loathing of London; his agonisingly platonic relationship with the tall and beautiful Maud Gonne which fuelled so much of his poetry; his associations with William Morris, Beardsley, Wilde and Pound and the lechery of later years. This is a biography for the general reader but the cover makes it look academic, lacking the design panache which has highlighted hefty, scholarly tomes such as Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf or Ackroyd's Blake in recent years. It is also one of three, not two biographies on Yeats published this year. There is Keith Alldritt's shorter, more gossipy version and Roy Foster's authorised first volume, which takes us only to 1914 and will probably become the definitive work. But Coote's well-written and researched book certainly ought to have a place nearby for the general reader. It was reviewed by the Literary Review and the TLS but not by a single national, and I feel deeply for the author that so much work should be so consistently overlooked. The reluctance of literary editors to put yet more Yeats on their pages is understandable, but why didn't Coote's publisher pull out all the stops to speed up the production process in order to coincide with Foster, or delay publication to give greater space between the two works if that was not possible?
JANE AUSTEN by David Nokes, Fourth Estate pounds 20
Christopher Potter, Publishing Director, Fourth Estate
In 1993, when we first discussed Jane Austen as a possible subject for David Nokes, the coast was clear of competition. In fact, eyebrows were raised that Jane Austen could be seen to justify a new biography, even after so many years, given the paucity of new material. As time went by the buy began to seem even more percipient as TV and film plans unfolded. However, news also broke through of competition. Claire Tomalin, Maggie McKernan and Valerie Grosvenor-Meyer were all going to write books on Jane Austen. The latter appeared first, without causing much of a stir. It became apparent the heavyweights were going to be Nokes and Tomalin. In the event largely favourable reviews of both books have, if forced to choose, opted for the Tomalin. A couple of reviewers took against Noke's approach aggressively, which can't have helped. Tomalin, it must be admitted, is no mere rival. She is a much admired and popular biographer. I don't begrudge her any of her fine reviews, I just wish more critics could have got the point of David's Jane Austen.
KF: At least by publishing at the same time as Tomalin's Jane Austen, Fourth Estate did not fall into Hodder's hole of losing the book entirely. They pushed literary editors into commissioning double reviews and even perhaps into giving Austen more space. Inevitably the two are going to be compared. Noke's Austen is more thorough, scholarly and detailed while Tomalin's is more readable, approachable and endearing. Noke's tone is cold, clinical and detached and one gets the feeling that he didn't like Austen much, while Tomalin's love of her subject and her novels oozes through every page. She seeks to understand Austen and applies contemporary knowledge of the psychological implications of early separation from the family through wet-nursing and boarding school at seven, and we are left with the feeling that Austen was a sad and rather lonely woman. There is room for both books, given that Austen is more popular than Yeats. We know so little about Austen because her sister Cassandra destroyed so many of her letters, and each book offers a different interpretation of the large silences; Tomalin believes she was deeply depressed, Nokes that she was too busy having a good time at parties to write. Either version could be true or both could be wrong. But it is not surprising that the general reader should opt for Tomalin's version. Potter talks about the paucity of new material, but new interpretation is just as important, and with Tomalin's empathy for her as a woman of her time we have found a woman we can love.
THIS FAR, NO FURTHER John Wessel, Viking pounds 10.99
Juliet Annan, Publishing Director, Viking, Hamish Hamilton and Penguin
Viking published this extraordinary debut novel in March (just before I arrived here). It's an American noir mystery with extremely strong, funny well-drawn characters. Viking was going through some upheaval at that point, but that doesn't account for its having had almost no review attention. I think the reason it bombed was more to do with its jacket than anything else: it made it look like a non-fiction book on how to improve your orgasms. It was particularly frustrating that it did so disappointingly as everyone here loves this book. But the fun of publishing is that you can reinvent things - when we publish in paperback next April we will have a completely different jacket that says quite clearly that this is wonderful crime writing of the Pulp Fiction meets Raymond Chandler variety.
KF: If this were a film it would scream B-movie at you. The cover is absurdly inappropriate, the title uninspiring and even the endorsement by Sue Grafton intended to hammer home the book's brilliance lacks lustre: "One of the most exciting mystery debuts in years". Well, it isn't. The comic-strip characters who endure repeated pummelling and still keep on going as well as the ironic references to every trick in the noir book, from sadistic sex scams to phone tapping, may appeal to lovers of the Pulp Fiction genre. But I find it hard to believe that even the most seasoned mystery addict can last the course of a 300-page book with acres of senseless violence without Travolta, Tarantino and the visual dimension of film to keep him hooked. The narrative drive and denouement simply wasn't convincing enough. It's full of great lines though - "I did a favor once for Chang, removing a lid from a can of heavy-syrup Del Monte peaches from his brother's neck" - and there are some good jokes. When Harding, ex-licensed Private Investigator finally wraps up the scene after surviving yet another shooting and gets put on a stretcher he says "it feels wonderful to lie down. Maybe getting shot means I can finally get some sleep."
LITERARY RUSSIA by Anna Benn and Rosamund Bartlett, Picador pounds 20/pounds 12 soft cover
Peter Straus, Publisher, Picador
We commissioned this extraordinary and useful book three years ago. The authors spent a great deal of time in Russia accessing information and photographs. On publication, Orlando Figes, Michael Ignatieff and John Bayley, doyens of the historical and literary Russian scene, provided superb testimonies: yet we only got one very powerful review in the Observer. I keep seeing books about Russia being reviewed but not this one. No- one could get a hold on it. Literary editors interested in the book did not seem to know who to pass it on to for review and it gets slotted into the "guidebook" section of shops, but should be in Travel, in Literature and in History.
KF: This book is difficult to categorise, particularly in bookshops, but slapping "A Guide" on the cover seems to me to be a good way of giving the manager a reason to stick it in the "guidebook" section and was probably a mistake. Otherwise I cannot fault the packaging or the contents. If, as readers and literary editors, we search for originality and new ways of imparting information in book form, it is absurd that such a unique, thoroughly researched and well-written book on Russia's literary heritage should be so consistently ignored. The authors have gone through areas of Russia alphabetically, pinpointing houses and streets where writers have lived and set their work. By isolating moments of inspiration such as the square where Raskolnikov decided to kill the old lady in Crime and Punishment, or describing the Kursk Railway Station in Moscow from which Anna Karenina made her last fateful journey, the authors bring the heart of Russia to life. More than any other country, Russia is the sum total of its literature and with this wonderful book the authors have married aspects of the great nineteenth-century novels of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, the plays and stories of Chekhov and the more modern Soviet masters such as Akhmatova, Blok and Bulgakov, to the land they came from. The authors have included descriptions of the museums' contents which is useful since many of the museums have not translated their literature into English. This is the perfect companion for anyone travelling to Moscow or Leningrad, but it is also a joy to dip into for the armchair traveller who simply loves the literature.
THE VENTRILOQUIST'S TALE
by Pauline Melville, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99
Liz Calder, Publisher, Bloomsbury
The voice captivated me from the very beginning and I expected others to be carried away by her too, but it just didn't happen. It's very intriguing and funny, far from the Hampstead novel but it's not trying to be magical realism. We did a campaign with point-of-sale material and I suppose I expected people to fall on it with happy cries, as they did with her short stories, which won the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Macmillan Silver Pen Award and the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. It came close to being on the Booker Shortlist, but then maybe they say that to everyone. How they chose such dull books compared to this I can't imagine. I find it hard to believe that this book still hasn't got an American publisher. She has been shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Prize, and we'll do the paperback in January, so I'm hoping that next year she'll get the recognition she deserves.
KF: "There are three strands of insanity in this world; love, religion and politics, each one so dangerous that it has to be kept in an institution," declares the ventriloquist narrator at the end of this mesmerising novel. All three forces break free as we follow the fortunes of three generations of an Amerindian family in the savannahs of Guyana. Illegal love outside the institution of marriage drives this extraordinary narrative along. Religion surges forth as missionary Father Napier tries to build churches and teach the Indians to Thank God. It is only when he remembers that they have no word for "thank you" that "That's enough God" becomes the best he can hope for. He ends up severely poisoned and driven mad by native cuisine and hostility. But it is the politics of culture clash and the magnetic attraction that people have to their own kind which predominates and makes this novel so poignant and original. "Everyone nowadays is retreating into their own homogeneous group. Black with black. Serb with Serb. Muslim with Muslim," comments a Czech anthropologist. While true, I suspect Melville agrees more with her heroine Rosa, an English academic who has travelled to Guyana to uncover what she can about Evelyn Waugh's trip there in the Thirties. She is horrified by such notions of racial purity. But Melville's narrative says otherwise. Melville's writing is rich with descriptions of the landscape, macaws, river rapids and jaguars as well as fascinating insights into the mythology of Amerindian life. Her voice is confident, original and not easily forgotten. With a summer paperback campaign along the lines of The Beach last year, she could get that recognition she deserves.
WILSON'S ISLAND Stephen Blanchard, Chatto pounds 9.99
Jonathan Burnham, Publisher, Chatto & Windus
I expected the world to sit up and pay serious attention to Wilson's Island when it came out, but this didn't quite happen. It is a small masterpiece of menace and sly humour. Perhaps a hard read: when the typescript first came into the office long arguments ensued about what was exactly going on in the story. But this sent us back to the original many times and forced us to acknowledge its puzzling, dislocated power. The reviews were astonishingly perceptive, often excellent, but nothing made any difference to the sales, which were disappointing. I feel that this novel should have secured Blanchard a readership of devoted fans - think early McEwan - ready to follow him to new heights or weird depths.
KF: Ralph, ex-alcoholic, has been living in the back of a van, travelling through seaside resorts. When he comes "home", he revisits his hostile relationship with his father, Cliff, who deals in second-hand fridges, "Ma", the grandmother who brought him up and his estranged wife and nine- year-old son. Yet when he stands next to his son at a swimming gala he does not recognise him. This is a novel about the distance between fathers and sons, set in the heavily working-class blokish world of darts, deals and the spurious notion of blood brotherhood between men. There is a distinct and unusual voice to this novel which is hard to pigeonhole. The dialogue is obtuse and reminiscent of real life with people rarely answering questions directly and finding it hard to say what they really mean. Yet there is a frankness about the inevitable disintegration of family relationships which is painful and depressing. Blanchard writes about the reality of working-class life, without glamour or romanticism, and it is a rare and welcome new voice indeed. But the drudgery is relentlessly cheerless and grey and as with his first novel Gagarin and I there is next to no sense of time or place, which makes it very hard going at times. This is not a "word of mouth" book. It is enigmatic and interesting but ultimately not that enjoyable. It doesn't leave you with that exhilarating feeling, as you finish the last page, of wanting to pass it on.
LOS ALAMOS Joseph Kanon, Little Brown pounds 15.99
Philippa Harrison, Publisher, Little Brown
I feel passionately about this first novel set in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the scientific community working on the Manhattan bomb project in 1945. We had early reading copies and great support from independent booksellers and one particular chain. However, although the reviews were generally excellent, they appeared over an appallingly long period of time and lacked the concerted impact that would have made this novel take off. Publicity was sparse. The books that defy genre are often the most interesting, if difficult ones to publish and we felt that while this was a book that was centred on a crime, it was sufficiently well written and posed enough serious moral questions for it not to be dismissed as a mere thriller. That said, it's quite as exciting as Robert Harris Enigma and the paperback is yet to come.
KF: When an ex-German Jew is found murdered with his pants round his knees in a park in Santa Fe, 40 miles from the "Hill" where scientists are working on the American atom bomb, Connolly is called in to investigate whether there is anything more sinister to the crime than a homosexual encounter that went wrong. During the course of his investigations, he falls in love with the bored English wife of one of the scientists and slowly the narrative moves from a whodunnit to a tale of espionage and moral responsibility. It's an enjoyable read with vivid descriptions of the landscape around Santa Fe and the workings of the American bomb making programme at the end of the Second World War. It's a textbook example of how immaculate research into a non-fictional subject can be made infinitely more interesting through the imagination of fiction. Eisler, a leading scientist working on the bomb programme, was the main leak, giving the Russians crucial details because he felt that the power of the bomb was too great to be left in the hands of one country. Through his actions, he inadvertently began the process of the Cold War which prevented its use. His character, and the descriptions of his slow suicide from radiation exposure, are particularly success- ful. But this is a novel which falls between stools; not quite thrilling enough to be a thriller and lacking the originality of voice which could establish Kanon's as a "remarkable new debut". In addition, the author is American, which can be a distinct disadvantage. It took several novels before thriller writers such as Patricia Cornwall and Sara Paretsky became established here, while indigenous talent such as Robert Harris can find their first novels in the best-seller lists. 8
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