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May 17, 2013

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver – review

Big-BrotherLionel Shriver’s obesity tale is really about love, loss and family – and it may be her best book yet.

By Julie Myerson

As the writer who burst into our lives and minds with one of the most shatteringly dark novels ever written about parenthood, Lionel Shriver has, rightly, become famous for her peculiarly uncompromising brand of emotional noir. But her subsequent novels, while still sharing that unique, hard-boiled directness, have also been threaded through with a deep humanity, humour and tenderness for which she never quite – not critically anyway – seems to garner sufficient credit.

Maybe it’s her own fault. She doesn’t make life easy for herself with her choice of subject matter. Mass murder, snooker, the US healthcare system – who but Shriver could pull off a novel about terminal cancer that’s angry, yes, but also warmly, movingly upbeat? And now, obesity. But despite the unpromising theme, this one, like the rest, is really about love, loss, family – ordinary human beings struggling to do the right thing by one another. It’s also possibly her very best.

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March 18, 2013

Granta’s class of 2013: picking the 20 best young British novelists

Granta-123-Best-of-Young-BriHowls of outrage are bound to accompany next month’s unveiling of Granta’s list of top 20 young writers. Here a former Granta editor and veteran of the 2003 judging panel reveals how the list takes shape.

By Alex Clark

Ten years is a long time in the literary game: it can easily take someone until then to finish writing a decent novel – although that’s less and less likely to wash with contemporary publishers. But a decade is also more than enough time for a writer’s fortunes to change dramatically.

Take Hilary Mantel. In 2003 she was a highly respected novelist and critic, the author of such enthusiastically reviewed novels as Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, The Giant, O’Brien and A Place of Greater Safety, the epic fictional portrayal of the French revolution published a decade previously that had probably been her most widely read novel. In the spring of 2003 her extraordinary memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, came out. But Beyond Black, her macabre novel of psychic shenanigans in the home counties, was still two years away; and we would have to wait several more before Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies would scoop two Man Booker prizes and transport Mantel to the highest echelons of writerly fame. Ten years ago she was the very emblem of the seriously talented and audacious female writer who was somehow rarely mentioned in the same breath as the holy trinity of Amis, Barnes and McEwan. Now, she cannot express a mildly contentious view in a literary journal without waking to find an outraged press pack camped on her front lawn.

Both scenarios are mad, and flipsides of the same issue. The pigheaded undervaluing of certain writers and the overnight obsession with others suggest problems with scale and perspective; problems that are perhaps related to Jonathan Franzen’s analysis of the trappings that come with mega-successful authorship.

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March 10, 2013

Asperger’s bestseller earns £1.2m advance for debut novelist

The Rosie Project by Australian Graeme Simsion tells the story of a genetics professor with undiagnosed Asperger’s.

The Rosie Project by Australian Graeme Simsion tells the story of a genetics professor with undiagnosed Asperger’s.

International publishers and movie producers rush to sign up Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project

By Dalya Alberge

A first novel about a man with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome has become a publishing phenomenon, snapped up by publishers in more than 34 countries, from China to Portugal.

As a comic story of disability, it is an unlikely hit. But publishers believe that with its strong main character, the book will challenge perceptions of people with the disorder.

The Rosie Project tells the story of a socially challenged genetics professor, Don Tillman, who decides to look for a wife, drawing up a “scientifically valid” questionnaire to assist his quest for the perfect woman. Tillman lectures on Asperger’s without realising that he displays its symptoms himself – in his use of language, difficulty in reading social signals and obsession with detail.

The novel is being described as a cross between Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, about a teenager with Asperger’s, and David Nicholls’s One Day, a bittersweet love story – both huge bestsellers.

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November 6, 2012

Book publishers have long been playing into Amazon’s hands

Penguin, soon to get into bed with Random House.

The proposed merger of Penguin and Random House might be too late for a publishing industry seemingly set on self-destruction.

By John Naughton

There’s something quaintly touching about the spectacle of two publishing conglomerates – Bertelsmann and Pearson – arranging for their book-publishing arms (Random House and Penguin respectively) to huddle together for warmth against the icy blasts coming from California (Google and Apple) and Seattle (Amazon). When the deal (which still has to be approved by regulators) was announced, there was the usual corporate guff about “synergies” – aka job losses – and about how the new partnership will be “the world’s leading publishing house”, which will give it “the upper hand” in its dealings with Apple and Amazon.

Ho, ho. In the long view of history, the Bertelsmann-Pearson deal will be seen as just the latest instalment of a long-running story: a tale of formerly dominant industries trying to prevent their venerable business models being dismantled by the internet. The early victims were travel agents, record labels, newspapers, magazines and broadcast networks.

In each case, the relevant executives could be heard loudly declaring that while it was indeed the case that the guys “over there” (gesturing in the direction of some other industry) were being disintermediated by the network, nevertheless the speaker’s own industry was special and therefore immune from technological contagion. Universities and book publishers have been arguing like this for quite a while. The Bertelsmann-Pearson deal suggests that the publishers have finally heard the tocsin. Universities haven’t got the message yet.

The funny thing about the publishing industry is that long before it was really threatened by the internet it was busily rearranging itself so as to make it more vulnerable to it. The process was vividly described by sociologist John Thompson in his book Merchants of Culture, the best account we have of what happened to publishing.

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August 30, 2012

Victoria Barnsley: ‘We can’t think of ourselves as book publishers any more’

Victoria Barnsley of HarperCollins: ‘In some respects, publishing 12 years ago had more in common with publishing in the last century than now.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Observer

HaperCollins’s chief executive is about to launch an e-atlas – and, she says, that’s not the only way the world is changing.

By Juliette Garside

As the trays of cheese and wine begin to circulate for this autumn’s book launch season, one of the UK’s biggest publishing houses will be pinning its hopes not on a hardback, but on an app designed for tablet computers.

Alongside celebrity autobiographies from Victoria Pendleton and Cheryl Cole, and John Major’s history of music hall, HarperCollins will be unveiling a digital reinvention of the Collins World Atlas. “It’s the culmination of years of work, and it’s going to be really ground-breaking,” says Victoria Barnsley, UK and international chief executive of the book publishing arm of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

The app presents a collection of globes suspended in space. One shows a satellite view; others are themed by population, energy or telecommunications. A few swipes, and the world lights up according to which areas have mobile coverage, or consume most oil. The information is, of course, always up to date.

“We can’t think of ourselves as book publishers any longer. We have to see ourselves as, you know,” Barnsley hesitates to use the cliché, “multimedia content producers.”

Her flower-scented Hammersmith office, with its plush upholstery and charcoal-grey walls so dark the eyes have to adjust, is a world away from the warehouses across town on east London’s Silicon Roundabout, where most new digital products are being produced.

But HarperCollins appears to have wholeheartedly embraced the e-book revolution that followed the arrival of Amazon’s Kindle reader in the UK in 2009. Barnsley predicts that within 18 months, over half of revenues from her fiction titles will be digital: they already are in America.

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July 16, 2012

PD James: inside the head of a criminal mastermind

PD James, at home in Holland Park, London: her ability to keep readers guessing hasn’t failed her in half a century. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

Now 91, PD James retains a special place in the hearts of fans – who include fellow authors – so we invited her readers to pose the questions for our interview. Here, the author talks about our appetite for detectives and her Jane Austen sequel.

By Kate Kellaway

At 10 o’clock PD James – or Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE – walks into her sitting room. We last met almost 20 years ago in the same room and there is, along with the deja vu, a sense of wonder at seeing her again. At 91, she is remarkable. She is looking marvellous in an elegant powder-blue jacket of oriental cut, offset by a narrow silk scarf decorated with flowers. She is frailer than when last we met (she has survived heart failure and had a hip replaced in 2007) but otherwise is unchanged and in no way extinguished. She is as kind, civil and forthright as I remember. Her secretary, friend and all-round prop, Joyce McLennan, has tea and biscuits ready on the table. Everything is in order – above all, PD James’s shipshape mind. Incidentally, P and D stand for Phyllis and Dorothy.

It is splendid, she volunteers, to be answering questions from readers and fellow authors. She avoids being insulting yet her view is implicit: journalists are less likely to be armed with surprising questions. As a crime writer, surprise is PD James’s forte. Her ability to keep readers guessing has not failed her in half a century. And it is characteristic that, towards the end of her writing life, she should elect to spring a new surprise on us.

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July 1, 2012

‘Book book experience’ creates bonds

By Sarah T Schwab

I might feel differently when I publish my first novel. But currently, I dislike eBooks. No matter how many hundreds of pounds of tangible books I have to lug around with me until I finally settle down, I will never, ever, purchase a Kindle, Kobo Vox, Aluratek LIBRE, or any other eBook reader.

So when I read that Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo (won in 2002 for his book “Empire Falls”) refused to allow his new novel to be sold as an eBook, I was pleased.

The 62-year-old said in a BBC interview that his new work Interventions, a collection of four volumes, is a “tribute to the printed book.” Russo is not completely anti-online booksellers. He just doesn’t “want them to control the world.” He said he wanted his new work to give people a “book book experience.”

Despite being an early fan of online publishing, Stephen King’s next horror story “Joyland,” out in June 2013, will only be released in (tangible) book form too. King said he decided against an eBook because he “loved the paperbacks [he] grew up with as a kid.”

I agree with these authors’ plight.

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May 29, 2012

Tom Phillips and A Humument: how a novel became an oracle

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 10:27 am

 

Tom Phillips’s A Humument app, which can show a random pairing of two pages, a facility that delights the author.

New print and digital editions of the painter Tom Phillips’s extraordinary work mark the artist’s 75th birthday.

 By James Bridle

Thursday marks the 75th birthday of the artist Tom Phillips and much celebration is in order. He is best known for his ongoing project A Humument, new editions of which, in print and digital, coincide with this anniversary.

A Humument is an altered novel, begun in 1966 and first published in 1970. Phillips paints, draws and collages over the pages of an obscure 1892 novel – WH Mallock’s A Human Document – leaving gaps for the original but transformed text to show through. Phillips has worked over the novel continuously through the decades: this year’s edition will be the fifth. In 2010 A Humument appeared in digital form, as an app for iPhone and iPad. The technology suits it well: the brightly lit screen displays the pages at their best, as Phillips himself notes, “in colours more glowing than my pens and paints could achieve, almost like church windows at times”.

What’s really interesting about A Humument‘s digital counterpart is that it’s not just a facsimile edition of the print version. Instead, Phillips implements something he’s wanted to be possible all along: the ability to select two pages at random and gain an insight from the juxtaposition, in the tradition of such divination books as the I Ching.

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Ebooks: winners in the generation game

Filed under: e-tailers — Tags: , , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 8:50 am

Ebook consumption among older age groups continues to grow. Photograph: dbphots/Alamy/Alamy

The growth of e-reading among older age groups shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

By Anna Baddeley

New technology, like pop music or radical politics, is something you’re expected to lose touch with as you get older. This idea is encouraged by the young, who would rather their elders gracefully embraced luddism than try to befriend them on Facebook. What’s refreshing about e-reading is that it’s not just popular with traditional early adopters; their parents are getting in on the act too.

According to market researcher Bowker, while younger people’s ebook consumption is plateauing, in older age groups it continues to grow: more than a quarter of 45- to 55-year-olds and a fifth of over-55s bought an ebook in the six months to March 2012, up from 17% and 15% last November. A OnePoll survey last year found the over-55s were more likely to own an e-reader than 18- to 24-year-olds.

We shouldn’t be too surprised: older people tend to be heavier book-buyers and baby-boomers keen technophiles. But e-readers have qualities that could make them indispensable to an ageing population.

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March 12, 2012

Roddy Doyle: the joy of teaching children to write

Roddy Doyle with children at a Fighting Words workshop in Dublin. Photograph: Patrick Bolger for the Observer

Inspired by his friend Dave Eggers, Irish novelist Roddy Doyle set up Fighting Words to nurture the creative skills of deprived children – with a little help from some big names

By Elizabeth Day

It is a Monday morning in the heart of Dublin. In a light, airy room situated in the shadow of the city’s looming Croke Park stadium, two dozen schoolgirls in matching navy blue jumpers sit attentively on coloured beanbags. The room is lined with bookshelves. High up on one wall there are a series of framed posters entitled “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction”, compiled by different well-known authors. In Anne Enright’s rules, there is the warning: “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.” Number One in Richard Ford’s list is: “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.”

The girls, aged eight, nine and 10, are not at that stage quite yet. They gaze around the room wide-eyed, cowed into silence by the excitement of unfamiliar surroundings and a morning off school.

“Does anybody know why you are here this morning?” asks a woman standing at the front.

A tentative hand goes up. “To write a story,” comes the reply from a pupil called Sophie.

“That’s right – and we’re here to help you.”

The girls’ legs jiggle in anticipation. This is Fighting Words, a workshop set up by the author Roddy Doyle in 2009 to encourage creative writing in students of all ages across Ireland. Since its inception, the centre has seen several thousand come through its doors. The majority are from local primary schools in Ballybough, an economically deprived area of Dublin, but other students have travelled hundreds of miles. Fighting Words, which relies largely on volunteer staff and offers all its lessons free of charge, has proved so popular that sessions are booked up a year in advance. “The interest is huge,” says Sean Love, the executive director and co-founder. “We’re obviously filling a gap that is not filled in formal education.”

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