Discussion Time

DISCUSSION TIME! Literary And/Or Commercial Fiction

Hello! It’s been a while so how have you all been? Firstly, apologies for the lack of recent posts – after a busy March on the book/blog front, April has been busy on the real life/adulting front (no prizes for guessing which one was more fun…) so neither much blogging nor, indeed, much reading has been going on in my household for a few weeks.

In lieu therefore of any book reviews, I’ve thought a discussion post might be interesting and, prompted by this excellent video from Simon over at Savidge Reads, wanted to examine the literary vs commercial fiction debate that seems to be have risen it’s little head again in some corners of the book world. So, what defines a literary novel? What makes a book commercial? And, most importantly, does it matter anyway?

The short answer to that question is, of course, no.

But for some reason, every time there’s a book prize shortlist announcement or when a Writer of Great Literature announces that their new novel is set on an alien planet and could therefore be considered as sci-fi (*gasp!*), the literary vs commercial debate starts up again.

Take, for example, Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, a novel about Lizzie Borden. The Guardian’s favourable review called it ‘an outstanding debut novel about love, death and the lifelong repercussions of unresolved grief’ but, crucially, did not categorise it as a crime novel. And it most definitely IS a crime novel – it’s about a woman who may have stoved her parents’ heads in with an axe after all. Why then is it considered somehow different to Sarah Ward’s most recent novel A Patient Fury, in which a woman may or may not have murdered her entire family? That was also favourably reviewed in The Guardian but, interesting, was described as a ‘classic police procedural’ – clearly labelling it as crime fiction. Now I’m not saying that Schmidt and Ward write in the same way – or that the two books are identical – but, given that they have similar themes and ideas, I do find it interesting that one is considered ‘literary’ whereas the other seems to be treated as more ‘commercial’.

It was the same when Nobel prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Buried Giant. With elements of myth including dragons and ogres, the book could be – shock horror – considered a fantasy novel. Literary critics at the time of publication took great pleasure in debating whether a ‘literary’ author should be involving himself with the stuff of such a commercial genre and, most literary types agreed, it was a departure from the norm for the writer. Really? Isn’t Never Let Me Go science-fiction? Or dystopian? The Remains of the Day could most definitely be classed as historical fiction couldn’t it? And couldn’t you say that When We Were Orphans is a crime novel? Ishiguro’s been cherry-picking from genre fiction for years – it’s one of the things that, for me anyway, makes him such an interesting writer.

So is it about ‘literary merit’ then? The lasting quality of the works, the allure of the writing, the use of inventive structure and experimental form? For me, this suggests that commercial and genre fiction doesn’t have the same resonance or impact as literary fiction and I just don’t think that’s the case. I recently read and reviewed Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie, longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction and considered by some to be one of the more ‘commercial’ titles on the list. I found it to be a deeply affecting and highly intelligent novel about friendship, loss, memory and old age and I’m currently forcing copies into the hands of my family and friends at every opportunity.

Plus the ‘literary merit’ argument completely ignores the fact that many of our now beloved classic authors – Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens to name but a few – were most definitely writing commercial fiction back in the day. Dickens’ and Collins were both paid per instalment so deliberately wrote as lengthily as possible – and anyone who claims that Austen didn’t have her eyes on the prize has clearly never read any of her letters. And all three were highly successful authors in their day so it’s not about popularity or commercial success either.

Personally I think the terms ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ aren’t all that helpful for the majority of readers. For publishing types, they’re a useful way of distinguishing an author’s potential market and choosing how to promote that particular book. For academics and reviewers, they’re catch-all terms that can distinguish certain types of writing and style. But for readers? Well, they’re something for us to argue about I suppose!

Going back to the start of this post, I’m with Simon all the way when he says about books being accessible to everyone and that it wouldn’t do for us all to like the same things. So what if the only books you read last year were by E L James? The fact that I think Fifty Shades is suitable only for using as kindling in no way diminishes the enjoyment that many others may have gotten from the trilogy. One of my favourite contemporary novels is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History yet my Mum thought it was pretentious twaddle about a privileged elite. My best friend adores The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry but I found it so saccharine that I swear that I lost three teeth just picking it up. Having a choice in what we read and how we engage with that is one of the primary joys of being a reader. What does it matter what label a book comes with if it brings you joy?

So there you have it – literary, commercial – they’re just labels and, personally, I don’t think they should be used to define, praise or belittle anyone’s reading. Read what you want, share the book love and let me know in the comments what you think about literary and commercial fiction. I’m also thinking of making Discussion Time a more regular feature on the blog so if you enjoyed the post (or didn’t!), or if you have any bookish topics you think would be good to discuss, do let me know. And, as always, until the next time…

Happy Reading!!

Books of the Year · Reviews

My Best Books of 2017

2017 has been a very up and down year on the reading front. I started strong, slumped massively in the middle and then re-discovered my reading (and blogging) mojo towards the end of the year. Despite that, I have read some cracking books this year and, whilst it’s not been as challenging a task to narrow down my Best Books this year as in previous years, the quality of what is here is definitely not diminished in any way – in my opinion all of the following are brilliant, brilliant books and I would urge you to read them if you haven’t already.

The Essex SerpentEssex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A gorgeously written treat of a book, this historical novel contains multitudes within it’s pages. Sarah Perry has skillfully captured life with her pen, weaving a web of human interactions around the strange fable of a legendary serpent said to haunt the Essex coastline. Packed with characters you’ll feel like you’re friends with and luscious prose that brings Victorian England vividly to life, this is a vibrant riot of a book and perfect for anyone who has The Miniaturist cravings following the BBC adaptation! My full review of the book appeared earlier this year on the blog and can be found here.

Days Without EndDays Without End by Sebastian Barry

If you’d have told me that a literary novel about two gay men set during the American Civil War would be my bag, I’d have been a mite dubious. But Sebastian Barry has created a miniature epic in Days Without End. A beautiful love story, a sweeping historical saga, a tense description of war, a tender portrayal of family – it’s all in here and surrounded in some of the best prose I’ve read all year. The voice in this novel is so unique and so profound at times – it gave me all the feels and I’d urge anyone to go and read it so that they can have them too. Again, a full review appeared earlier this year here.

The Dark CircleThe Dark Circle by Linda Grant

Again, a novel about twins set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-war England didn’t, at first, sound my cup of tea but, thanks to the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I picked up and loved Linda Grant’s novel. As with the Essex Serpent, this is a novel about characters more than plot as twins Lenny and Millie meet a range of residents from across the social spectrum within the enclosed microcosm of the sanatorium walls. Combined with an interesting period of social change and some insight into the early years of the NHS, this is a meditative, layered novel that rewards patient reading.

Six StoriesSix Stories by Matt Wesolowski

I’m a huge fan of the podcast Serial so when I heard that there was a novel that purported to be Serial in book form, you’d better believe I was straight on it! Constructed around six podcasts in which an investigative journalist outlines the circumstances surrounding the death of a teenage boy at an outward-bound centre and interviews witnesses and suspects, this is a compelling page-turner with a chilling edge. With a twisty narrative and some dark psychological insights, this novel is what I’d like all thrillers to be – a page turning read with an ending that packs a punch!

Killers of the Flower MoonKillers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Narrative non-fiction is always a tricky thing to pull off – too much narrative and it feels like a story, too much fact and you’ve got yourself a history book. David Grann gets the balance just right in Killers of the Flower Moon, an investigation into the systematic murders of large numbers of Osage Indians in the 1920s and 30s. Subtitled Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI, the book is a fascinating account of an overlooked piece of recent American history that retains it’s relevance and still resonates today.

The White RoadThe White Road by Sarah Lotz

Another twisty psychological thriller that gave me the chills in 2017 – although this time the setting might have had something to do with it! Set largely on Everest, this part thriller, part ghost story is gripping from the off and features one of the best unlikeable narrators I’ve ever come across. Simon Newman is the worst kind of journalist – dishonest and self-serving, he and his friend Thierry are willing to go to extremes to get their click-bait website off the ground, even if that means filming the bodies of Everest’s long dead. Taut and chilling, this is a psychological thriller with a supernatural twist, made all the better for the amazing sense of place. I posted a full review of the book earlier this year here.

The Good People by Hannah Kent / Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Get me being cheeky and sneaking in two recommendations for the price of one! In all seriousness though I couldn’t choose between Hannah Kent’s two novels, both of which I read in 2017. They’re both fantastic pieces of well-realised, cleverly crafted historical fiction. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdóttir, the last women to be executed in Iceland- perfect for anyone who has read (or watched) and adored Alias Grace. It’s dark, compelling and richly told. The Good People is a very different novel, centered around three women in early nineteenth century Ireland and their struggle to come to terms with the care of an unusual child. As with Burial Rites, the novel is based on real events but is quite different in tone and takes in a larger examination of societal attitudes and the uneasy truce between religion and folklore, modernity and tradition. I reviewed The Good People in full here and, on the basis of these two novels, I can’t wait to see what Kent produces next.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions this year have to go to:

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, which came along at just the right time and made me snort my tea due to laughing so much. It also made me realise that maybe being a bookseller wouldn’t be the best career for someone who prefers books to people most of the time!

Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas, wonderfully narrated on audio by Stephen Fry, which is a perfect alternative to A Christmas Carol and deserves to be read by adults everywhere (especially if they happen to be reading it to children). Gave me the real festive feels and has a vital message about importance of being kind.

Pam Smy’s Thornhill is a stunning graphic novel about loneliness, ghosts and a mysterious girl next door. Visually captivating, it tells it’s tale in alternating sections of narrative and pictures.

Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is an exploration of the way in which books shape and impact our lives and an insight into why and how we read. A must for any book lovers (as is his first book, The End of Your Life Book Club).

Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury, the third in her series of ‘Derbyshire Noir’ police procedurals. I went on blog tour with this book earlier in the year and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the whole series to crime fiction lovers.

As always, I’d love to know if you’ve read any of my books of the year and what you thought of them – or if you have any of them on your TBR pile for 2018. Do leave me a comment down below or say hello over on Twitter – if you’ve done your own Books of the Year post I’d love to read it! In the meantime, I’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and here’s to a bookish 2018!

Happy Reading x

Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR! A Patient Fury by Sarah Ward

DC Connie Childs is back! Long time readers of The Shelf will know that I’m a big fan of Sarah Ward’s Derbyshire based crime series that began with In Bitter Chill and continued last year with A Deadly Thaw. Set in and around the fictional market town of Bampton, the series focuses on DC Connie Childs and her boss DI Francis Sadler as they investigate present day crimes that often have a link to past misdeeds and cold cases.

33876124A Patient Fury, the third book in the series, sees Connie and Sadler investigating their darkest case yet – a devastating fire that leaves three dead and a mother suspected of murdering her family. Despite the evidence all pointing in one direction, Connie can’t buy into the matricide theory and, with the aid of the family’s surviving daughter Julia, sets out to investigate the past and a link to another missing woman. As the investigation deepens, Connie’s determination to uncover the truth behind the tragedy leads her to put everything on the line – and this time it could even cost her her career.

Once again Sarah has given her readers a relentless narrative that grips from the start and doesn’t let up. Her focus on the intricacies of familial relationships and the tangled webs that humans weave makes for a suspenseful read. She is particularly good at getting the minor details – the little oddities of character or phrase that set you on edge and make you aware something isn’t quite right – down onto the page and at making even the innocuous seem eerie. It really keeps the reader guessing until the very last page.

Connie and Sadler also become a real focus in this book. Connie feels refreshingly well-rounded; brilliant at her job but also obsessive, non-conformist and stubborn. Unlike traditional loose cannons in detective fiction however, she operates within a world of police procedures and, without giving away spoilers, it was refreshing to see her having to balance her determination with reality and find evidence to back up her intuition. Sadler, more mature and level-headed but headstrong in his own way, provides an excellent counterpoint to the impetuous Connie and their relationship – veering between admiration and antagonism – is one of the highlights of the book.

Previous knowledge of In Bitter Chill and A Deadly Thaw aren’t necessary to enjoy A Patient Fury (although I would highly recommend checking both books out as they’re page-turning reads) but long time fans of the series will notice a slight shift in tone and focus. A Patient Fury definitely feels a lot more like Connie’s story. Whilst chapters continue to alternate as in previous books (some are told from Sadler’s perspective andsome from outside of the police investigation), the reader spends the majority of time in A Patient Fury inside Connie’s head.

This, I feel, is no bad thing. Whilst it narrows the viewpoint slightly, I felt it gave greater momentum to the narrative. As a reader, you’re along for the ride with Connie – you share her curiosity, her triumphs, her frustrations and her disappointment. For me, multiple narrators can feel like head-hopping, with too many voices preventing identification with any one narrative strand. Connie, more than ever before, provides the central thread in the book and binds the various threads of the narrative together.

Sarah’s writing has always been strong – one look at her blog, Crimepieces, and you’ll see she’s a lady who knows her crime fiction onions – but, in A Patient Fury, it’s stronger than ever, building on the first two books to forge a tighter, tauter narrative that’s sure to be a hit with fans and will hopefully lead to many more readers discovering her work. Providing a page-turning blend of police procedural and domestic thriller, A Patient Fury is an atmospheric, engrossing read that’s perfect for crime fans to snuggle up with as the nights draw in.

A Patient Fury, published by Faber & Faber, is available now in hardback and ebook from all good book retailers. My thanks go to Sarah Ward and to Faber & Faber for providing an advance copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

 

Blog Tours · Upcoming Books

Autumn Reading

Ah September, the beginning of autumn. The leaves begin to turn, the nights start to darken and book lovers everywhere prepare to turn on the fire, find their cosiest PJs and hibernate with a pile of books and a supply of comforting hot drinks under their favourite blanket. As thoughts turn towards Christmas, the stars of the publishing world unveil their heavy hitters and there’s a veritable feast of literature to look forward to over the coming months so, in this post, I thought I’d talk about some of the books that I’m hoping to curl up with this autumn.

29758006First up, and the book I’ve just started reading, is Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World, now out in paperback. I adored Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, and her second book returns to the wild beauty of Alaska in the Winter of 1885 as Lieutenant Colonel Allan Forrester attempts to navigate the Wolverine River and map the inner portions of the Alaskan frontier. Alternating between Allan’s journals and the diaries of his young, heavily pregnant wife Sophie left behind in the fort, I’m hoping for more of Ivey’s vivid descriptions of the natural world and her meticulous portraits of human relationships.

35508160Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017, has been garnering praise from across the literary world. Loosely based on Sophocles’ Antigone and set in contemporary London, Home Fire is the story of two British Muslim families and examines familial love, political ideology and what happens when the two collide. Isma is finally free, studying in the US after years spent raising her twin siblings. But she can’t stop worrying about headstrong, beautiful Aneeka, left back in London, and Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of their father’s dark jihadist legacy. When handsome, privileged Eamonn enters their lives, two families fates becomes inextricably intertwined in what promises to be a compelling story of family and loyalty that feels completely relevant to the world we live in today. I’ve got my reservation in at the library for this one and I’m looking forward to its arrival.

Arriving in October, Phillip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage is the first part 9307699of his much anticipated The Book of Dust and sequel to the acclaimed Northern Lights trilogy. I’ve stayed deliberately ignorant of any plot details for this because I want it to be a complete surprise on reading but I do know that it’s a prequel to the events of Northern Lights set when Lyra is just a baby. In preparation for its release, I intend to finally read the last part of the Northern Lights trilogy, The Amber Spyglass. Quite why I’ve never got around to reading the final part is a mystery even to me – I think maybe I just didn’t ever want the book to end so deliberately deferred reading the final portion. Now that I know more Pullman set in the same universe is on the way, I can read without fear!

34913762Joanne M Harris’ forthcoming A Pocketful of Crows, also due in October, promises to be a modern fairytale with a nameless wild girl at its heart. Again, I know very little about the premise but you only need to say Joanne Harris and fairytale to colour me interested. Plus I’m booked to an event with the author at the wonderful Booka Bookshop at which I look forward to hearing Joanne speak and debating whether my starstruck self is brave enough to ask a question at the end.

33876124Last, but by no means least, I’m taking part in three blog tours this autumn for upcoming titles that I’m happy to sing the praises of. The first, for Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury, is taking place on Saturday 09 September to tie in with the launch of the third book in her extremely enjoyable DC Connie Childs series of Derbyshire-based crime novels. Combining police procedural with domestic thriller and with a dash of nordic noir, there’s still time to check out Sarah’s first two books – In Bitter Chill and A Deadly Thaw – before picking up the third.

35079533Next up will be the second collection of the late, great P D James’ short fiction, Sleep No More. Published in early October as a companion volume to last year’s The Mistletoe Murder, the collection offers six more tales of murder from a master of the crime short story, all with the dark motive of revenge at their heart.

The Shelf will also be visited by Christopher Fowler, author of the popular Bryant & May series of crime novels, when he releases his intriguing non-fiction foray into the back catalogues and backstories of authors that were once hugely popular but have now disappeared from the shelves of most readers. The Book of Forgotten Authors promises to be an entertaining guide to 34100964some forgotten gems from an enthusiastic and enlightening guide and a real treat for any book lover who enjoys books about books!

Those are just a few of the titles that I hope will be gracing my shelves this autumn. What are you looking forward to in the upcoming months? Do let me know in the comments or by dropping me a line over on Twitter or Goodreads.

Uncategorized

Summer #CosyReadingNight Wrap Up

Just a quick post today to follow on from my #CosyReadingNight TBR yesterday to let you know how the evening went and what reading I got done.

When the evening kicked off at 7pm I was still in the kitchen cooking tea – Toad in the Hole with mash and baked beans on the side. For those non-Brits who maybe don’t know what Toad in the Hole is (it’s one of those curiously British dishes that doesn’t seem to have migrated from our shores), it’s essentially sausages in a delicious Yorkshire pudding batter and is pure comfort food – perfect for a cosy night in! There’s a super easy recipe here for anyone wanting to try it out.

Being in the kitchen didn’t put me off reading though and, with the Toad in the oven and a glass of rioja at my side, I kicked off hour one with Sarah Ward’s ‘A Patient Fury‘, the forthcoming third book in her DC Connie Childs series. I’m going to be part of Sarah’s blog tour (details below) in September so I won’t say too much here about the plot but this is definitely shaping up to be Sarah’s strongest book to date and it kept me gripped throughout the first hour.

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Having scoffed a substantial portion of Toad in the Hole and poured myself a large cup of tea, I settled down onto the sofa to head into hour two with a short story from the forthcoming P D James’ collection ‘Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales‘. Again, I’m part of a blog tour later in the year for the collection so I won’t go into specifics but the two tales that I read had James’ trademark psychological insight and packed a punch in the shorter form.

Having been joined by my cat Lexi, I headed into the final hour of cosy reading night with a dip into Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind‘. In hindsight, I possibly should have started with this one as my increasingly relaxed and sleepy brain did struggle to keep up with all the scientific insights and I made slow progress. I hasten to add that this isn’t because the book isn’t good – it’s fascinating – but because the combination of being full of food and tea, a warm cat, a cosy sofa and a very relaxed brain meant that I was nodding off and kept having to re-read paragraphs!

Overall, #CosyReadingNight was a real success. I read about 50 pages of ‘A Patient Fury’, two short stories from ‘Sleep No More’ and a chapter of ‘Sapiens’ but, more importantly, I had a much needed evening of self-care and relaxation. Lauren has already said she’ll be back in the Autumn with another #CosyReadingNight so do go subscribe to her channel on Youtube to get notified when this happening and make sure you can join in!

Uncategorized

Summer #CosyReadingNight TBR

Tonight is summer #cosyreadingnight, as created and hosted by Lauren over at Lauren and the Books. What is a cosy reading night? Well, it’s exactly what it says on the tin – a night dedicated to getting some snacks in, getting your PJs on, shutting the world away and snuggling up with a good book. Lauren has done a great video introducing the video which you can watch here, as well as another with her personal TBR for the night. It starts at 7pm British Summer Time and runs for three hours until 10pm. I’ll be tweeting throughout the evening over @amyinstaffs but, before it starts, I thought I’d pop a quick TBR up so you can see what I’ll be reading over the course of the evening.

I’m currently preparing to take part in two blog tours that I’m super excited about. The first is for Sarah Ward’s upcoming ‘A Patient Fury‘ (published 07 September) which is the third in her DC Connie Childs’ series set in Derbyshire. I’m about 150 pages in to the book and it’s certainly shaping up to be the twistiest and darkest yet so I’m going to crack on with that for at least part of the night.

I’m also taking part in the blog tour for the upcoming second collection of P D James’ short stories, ‘Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales‘ (published 05 October). A companion to last year’s successful collection ‘The Mistletoe Murder: And Other Stories‘, this latest collection features six more stories with revenge at their heart. I’ve always enjoyed James’ Adam Dalgleish series of crime novels – I can highly recommend them on audio in particular – so I’m looking forward to diving in to some of her shorter fiction and hope to read the first story this evening.

Finally, I have ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind‘ by Yuval Noah Harari to dip into as a change of pace from the fiction. I’ve had this on my shelf for an absolute age but the sheer density of it (just shy of 500 pages of anthropological study) has been a bit daunting. Having started it a couple of evenings ago though, it’s proving to be both fascinating and very accessible.

So that is my #cosyreadingnight TBR. And for snacks and drinks? Well, I currently have a Toad in the Hole cooking in the oven to devour with mash and baked beans. If there’s any room left after that, I’ve got some NOMNOM Honeycomb chocolate leftover from my recent foray back to Wales. For drinks, I have a glass of rioja (my favourite) on the go then I’ll stick to that British favourite, a nice cup of tea. Perfect for snuggling up in the PJs on a Saturday night!

If you’re joining in with #cosyreadingnight, come say hi over on Twitter throughout the evening and let me know what you’re reading. All being well, I’ll be posting a short wrap up of the evening on here tomorrow. Keep an eye on Lauren’s channel for future Cosy Reading Night announcements and, if you’re taking part, have a great night! x