They come at me from all directions. They're in bookshops, magazines, newspapers and now on dedicated book-buying websites. (I buy most of my books from the latter because there is no bookshop within miles of where I live.) I read about them on blogs. Other writers tell me about their latest publishing successes in emails, tweets and on writing forums. Increasingly, I download books onto my Kindle for the sheer convenience of it and the increasing lack of space around me. I don't download self-published books, even free ones. Quite frankly, there's enough out there already. And you know my views by now on self-published e-books. I have yet to find evidence that I'm wrong.
So how do I choose which books to buy? Am I swayed by advertising, marketing and all the hype? I would be a fool if I said I wasn't influenced in any way by advertising; it's ubiquitous and unavoidable. But my money is precious so I don't rush to buy on a whim and I'm far too old to be excited by bright lights, pretty colours and flashy graphics. (I don't live in a city. They don't advertise books on the public transport around here, what little there is.) It's the quality of the writing that has always mattered most to me. Most of the novels I have loved do not appear above the parapet of media hype. (I have never read Dan Brown, the Twilight Books. Similarly I have never seen Star Wars and only watch films when they appear on non-subscription TV. And, believe me, the more everyone in the media raves about something, the more likely I am to steer clear. Often I love a book well before it hits the big time--or the film is made and raved about.)
When it comes to book recommendations, I know whom I trust and it's not social networking sites. Of course, I buy books written by my published writing friends--sometimes out of sheer curiosity--and I will even write a favourable blog or tweet my support - BUT - only if I really like it. I will not big up something that doesn't appeal just because it's written by a friend or by someone who has been nice to me. I'm getting tougher in my old age. Time gets shorter and passes more quickly these days.
All this has made me pause and think about why I buy certain books and ignore others. And I do buy a lot.
There are certain authors whose books I will always buy. I know them well enough not to be disappointed, although some have fallen by the wayside over the years as successive books have failed to match up to previous ones. I read a great deal of historical fiction but only about some periods appeal such as Victorian and early 20th century history and also early-medieval England.
With both historical and contemporary fiction I go for what I suppose is the literary end of the market and what could be described as 'intelligent women's fiction'. I'm not a huge fan of crime fiction, although I read some. I don't like sadism or cruelty to children but I don't like crime when it resembles Cluedo. I do not enjoy science fiction or fantasy. But that still leaves hundreds and hundreds to choose from.
So apart from authors I love, what else sways me? Let's look at three recent novels I have loved.
One important influence is a personal recommendation from people whose judgement I trust. For example, my lovely friend Jane Smith suggested I read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. So I downloaded it immediately. To be honest, when I started to read it, I was a tad disappointed. It began like the most pedestrian of women's magazine fiction--but I needn't have worried. (It's like that for a reason, believe me.) The more I read, the more entranced I was and I could not put it down except to marvel. Harold and Maureen Fry live in net-curtained retirement in the West Country. Maureen has her household routine and Harold wears his cardigans and canvas boat shoes. mows the lawn and little else it would seem. One morning, out of the blue, a letter arrives from a woman with whom he used to work who, from a hospice in Berwick on Tweed, writes that she has terminal cancer. Harold feels he ought to reply out of politeness although he never knew her well and doesn't know why she has chosen to write to him. Maureen is resentful and unpleasant. But he writes his letter and sets out to post it at the nearest letter-box. Only he keeps walking...without any coat, food or money. He has left his mobile at home and he is wearing a pair of canvas shoes. He ends up walking to Berwick on Tweed.
What follows is the extraordinary, but very ordinary, journey. It is a twentieth centruy Pilgrim's Progress, (don't worry, it is not overtly religious), as step by step, the aches and pains of mind and body, the miles clock up. We learn of his childhood, his mother, his marriage and his son, but more about humanity, about people, about how even the most ordinary people live the most extraordinary lives. Slowly his life takes shape before him.
The world was made of people putting one foot in front of the other and life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had done it for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique: and that was the dilemma of being human.
The writing is exquisite and the changing shape of the landscape, the weather and Harold's changing state of mind is compelling. This novel has not receive much media attention and had it not been for Jane's recommendation I would never have heard of it. And I'm so glad she did. It is both tragic and funny, a revelation and deceptively clever in its simplicity. Rachel Joyce, who has been writing under the radar for many years, is simply brilliant.
I read The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones because I was attracted by its cover in some magazine or other and by the name of the author. Although I haven't read The Outcast, I knew the author was well-regarded. Her second novel turned out to be totally different (which has apparently upset some reviewers): a delicious historical romp through class mores, a satire on country-house ghost stories, a comic Upstairs Downstairs, or even a morality tale.
It is 1912 and Emerald Sterne's 20th birthday. As the stoical housekeeper and her drudge toil away in the bowels of Sterne, their beloved and dilapidated country house, the upstairs owners drift around and prepare to welcome their guests. Meanhwile, the paterfamilias, Edward has set off to Manchester to beg a loan from a man he loathes, leaving behind his beautiful but useless wife, Charlotte, birthday girl, Emerald and Clovis, a typical useless public school smart-ass. Smudge is their thirteen year old sister. Left to her own devices, she is ignored and neglected (as are all adolescents in classic fiction)and has her own inimical capacity for causing mayhem.
As their guests, none of whom they actually like, begin to assemble, they hear of a railway accident nearby and receive instructions from the railway company on a dodgy phone line to prepare for the arrival of some survivors--which they sigiularly fail to do. These uninvited guests seem to multiply alarmingly as time ticks on. And then when a certain Mr Traversham Beechers, their self-appointed leader, appears, all hell lets loose. Cue a cruelly-observed country house drama, the like of which I have never read. It's like Noel Coward on acid. I don't usually enjoy purely comic novels but I adored this one, particularly because beneath the surface lie a tale of redemption and self-awareness and a great deal of poignancy. Sadie Jones writes like an angel. Her observations are as sharp as a scalpel. And if it were ever to be dramatised, Simon Callow would be the perfect Charlie Traversham Beechers.
Finally, in this post I want to talk about a novel that I read before it was published: The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman. All I know is that the author is Australian, but no-one is telling us whether male or female. I don't like gimmicks but, that aside, this novel is outstanding. Briefly it tells of a crime, born of grief and desperation. In the years following the First World War, A lighthouse keeper and his wife are living on a remote island just off the coast of Australia poised between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, hence the novel's title. They, have just lost another still-born baby. When a boat is washed on shore containing a dead man and a living baby, they make the fateful decision to say nothing and keep the baby as their own. The truth is discovered but nothing is simple and the repercussions of this secret: who is to blame and who is protecting whom, haunt the novel. The reader is constantly torn between the needs and rights of the real mother and the usurper. It deserves to be a prizewinner: not because I say so but because it is superb in every way.
So how did I hear about it if it wasn't published when I read it? The simple answer is Amazon Vine. Aha! I hear you say. The Mighty Amazon whose meddling, powerful tentacles get into everything. Well, maybe. Some aspects of Amazon I am wary of; others I love. Amazon Vine is very much one of the latter.
I don't know several years ago why I was 'chosen' or how many other 'Vine Voices' exist throughout the world but every month I am emailed a list of about a hundred books and some other oddities (such as coffee makers, shavers, scart leads and software bits and bobs) which I disregard. What I look at are the books. They range from cookery books, children's books of all ages, Crime and other genres. They are supposed to reflect my book-buying preferences but very vaguely I have to say. Anyway, I am allowed to choose up to four a month. For free. For this I have to review 80% of the books I am sent. I am very picky what I send for and some months pass without asking for any but it is how I have discovered some gems. So is this advertising hype? Possibly. But The Light Between Oceans was buried within a ten-page long list of other titles with no razzmatazz or bigged-up descriptions. But...um... here I am raving about it. But it;'s hardly an advertising campaign, is it?
This is not a book review blog. There are plenty about, the Crème de la Crème, being, as far as I am concerned,
The Dove Grey Reader. But every so often I can't help musing why I read some books and not others, why some appeal and others, no doubt just as good, pass me by. Of the three I have highlighted here, two are set just before and after the First World War, which I have to admit is a period that has occupied me a good deal when I was researching and writing what I hope will be my second novel. But the other is very much concerned with current sensibilities. One was a personal recommendation, one was given away by Amazon Vine and the other I bought on the basis of the cover design I spotted in a magazine. So how much of my choices rely on advertising? Not overtly, it would seem. Am I different from most books buyers? And are my choices swayed by outside forces I choose not to think about? But the bottom line for me has always been and always will be-- the quality of the writing.
It's that old Elephant in the Room again. And always will be as far as I am concerned.