Holiday reading: the books

So here it is. The final selection, and I must say I’m feeling pretty confident about them all. The eagle-eyed among you may notice that I have broken one of my own rules. Yes there are a couple of over-hyped debuts in this list, but they have been so wholeheartedly recommended to me by everyone I trust that I believe they will prove to be not over-hyped, but rather justly hyped. 

Only one of these books is an actual print book, so in the absence of the ‘towering pile of holiday books’ photo, here is a collage of my holiday books on a variety of devices, most of which I still have to locate and pack chargers for in the next 48 hours.

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The other fairly crucial rule I’ve broken is that I’ve actually read one and a half of these ‘holiday’ books already. I’ve read the Lisa Jewell in its entirety and I started the Julie Cohen last night, a full three days before my plane takes off. I’m confident that with small children taken into account, the remainder of this lot will still last me a fortnight. 

I’ll report back on my hit rate in due course. 

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How to make your holiday reading work for you!

How’s that for a clickbaity title?

There are many topics on which I can be bossy and dogmatic, but people who have been on holiday with me will confirm that there are few topics on which I’m more dogmatic than the importance of getting your holiday reading right. This may be annoying, but there is a good reason for my dogma and the reason is this: I (virtually) always get my holiday reading right – I take books that I know I will love reading, and I am proved correct. Other people I’m on holiday with often get their reading wrong, and spend a week or two pretending to enjoy their books, whilst putting them down every few minutes to go and look at a lizard next to the swimming pool. I can tell they are not enjoying their holiday books, but they are often too embarrassed or stubborn to admit this.

There was an early phase in my relationship with my husband during which he took a book called Democracy in Europe on holiday with him every year, and failed to finish reading it every year. He eventually did finish reading it, and confirmed that it was a good book. But this did not invalidate my original point: that he should never have taken it on holiday.

So, it’s not rocket science is it? What this conclusively proves is that I am right and you should all listen to me. I can’t imagine how this might be interpreted as bossy; it is simply a matter of the application of science. And in return, I will be happy to take your advice in other areas of life about which I know less than you do, whatever those areas may be.

Ah, I hear you say, but what if I don’t like the same sorts of books that you, Jenny, do? That does not matter, because as you will see, these are general all-encompassing rules that can be applied to you differently, whatever your tastes.

Here be the rules:

1. RISK.  How much of a risk you are willing to take on your holiday reading should be flexed according to two factors:

a. Are you going on holiday to Britain, Ireland, the USA or another country where you read the local language and will be staying close to a bookshop?

b. Do you have an e-reader and reliable wifi at your holiday destination?

If the answer to either or both of those questions is yes, then there’s good news: you can feel free to take more risks with your holiday books. It doesn’t really matter too much if some or all of your holiday reading choices turn out to be disappointing, because you can just buy some new and different books while you’re there. However, there is still an opportunity cost and a financial cost attached to taking bad books on holiday so, to be honest, you’re probably still best off following all the rules below anyway.

2. SELF-KNOWLEDGE. Be honest with yourself about who you are and what you like to read. Because I don’t know you, I don’t know what you like to read. But I do know that my husband spent many years thinking he was the sort of person who liked to read Democracy in Europe on holiday, when actually I knew all along that he was the sort of person who liked to read Robert Harris on holiday. Stop caring about everything other than your holiday reading pleasure. Don’t care about looking clever around the pool (you are clever), don’t care about ‘having time to read books that I’ll never get around to in my normal life’ (because, guess what, the reason you never got to those books in normal life is not because you don’t have time, it’s because you’ve never made time because you don’t care enough about reading them.) Sitting in 32 degree heat with people splashing around in a swimming pool in front of you is not the time to concentrate on that 800-page experimental novel you never got round to reading on your commute.

3. GRIP. You may think from the above that what I’m getting at is that you should read just ‘easy light reading’ books on holiday or just read commercial fiction rather than literary fiction. But you would be wrong. I have read some great intelligent non-fiction on holiday, I have read some great literary novels. The key factor is grip. Think about the books that have gripped you most throughout your life – one of these books may have been Democracy in Europe. That’s fine, in which case you should definitely pack more books by Larry Siedentop for your next holiday. The thing is to identify what are the factors that make a book gripping, for you. And then once you’ve identified these things, try as hard as you can to find them in similar books. If you have no idea what these other books are, ask a well-informed literary friend, your local bookseller, or use the Amazon ‘also bought’ function for ideas.

4. BEWARE THE OVER-HYPED DEBUT. And I say this with great self-knowledge. I work in publishing and therefore I love an over-hyped debut more than the next person. At any other time of the year, I will fall on an over-hyped debut with glee and anticipation. But on holiday, the over-hyped debut is the biggest risk of all. The fact that 9 desperate editors offered six-figure sums for a book in the week before Frankfurt is not a sign that you will enjoy reading it on your holiday.

Authors you already know that you love are the safest of all and should be first in your suitcase, authors you know that other people have loved and bought in their hundreds of thousands reduce the risk somewhat (although not entirely – see point below). An over-hyped debut is highly untested and therefore high risk. You may get lucky, but if you don’t, then don’t say I didn’t warn you.

5. BE CAREFUL WITH RECOMMENDATIONS. Recommendations can be great. A recommendation from the right person, thrusting a book into your hands – or emailing a link to your iPad – can be a delight. But how do you know who to trust? Beware recommendations from: people you don’t know on twitter, literary prize committees and beware most of all the recommendations in broadsheet ‘summer reading’ round-ups. All of the above have agendas themselves and therefore cannot be trusted to deliver a truly fun holiday read. I would suggest that you can trust one sort of person only – a person who likes the same sorts of books as you, and who says, with unreserved enthusiasm ‘this book is brilliant and I know that you will love it’. Watching out for the exact wording is vital because even usually trustworthy deliverers of good holiday reads – like my sister – sometimes say things like ‘I’m desperate for you to read this so that we can discuss it’, which invariably means ‘I’m desperate for you to read this so we can discuss how massively disappointing the twist turns out to be’. Interrogate your recommender at great length.

6. VARIETY MATTERS. This may seem contradictory with some of the above but I’ll put it out there anyway. Ensure that your holiday reading contains sufficient variety. Even if you have identified yourself as the sort of person who loves reading psychological thrillers on holiday, I’d still be careful about taking 8 of them away with you. I went on a 2-week holiday to Corsica in the year 2000, when the comic women’s fiction market was still at its peak. And having read several very good but somewhat similar books in this genre, I was delighted to find an old copy of Jose Saramago’s Blindness in the holiday villa. I would normally consider literary fiction in translation the highest of holiday risks. But it a brilliant and unputdownable book, and I was in need of a break from Mr Right hilarity.

7. THE SLOWER YOU READ, THE MORE IMPORTANT THESE RULES ARE. This is the rule of rules. In the days when I got through five books in a week on holiday, one or two dodgy books mattered less. Post children, I can usually manage three average-length novels in a week, or five in a fortnight. If you are a slower reader, or you’re going on a holiday where you won’t have a chance to read much, you may read even fewer than this so it makes it even more necessary that each one holds its own.

You only get a small amount of holiday a year and you only get one chance to pick your books. As Jack says to Rose in Titanic: make it count.

SOME IDEAS

If anyone’s interested in some actual book tips, here are some books that I remember reading on holiday with great fondness:

THE WOMAN IN WHITE BY WILKIE COLLINS – This book for me is the absolute apex of holiday reading joy. It is a literary classic, and it is also a properly gripping thriller. I read it on a holiday which was in every other way disappointing: crap house in the Dordogne, no beach (obvs I could have predicted that, it being the Dordogne, but I didn’t fully think it through), crap weather, I got hayfever for the first time ever and I was at that point vegetarian and so couldn’t find anything to eat in a local restaurant that wasn’t a cheese omelette. But this book made my holiday, and I recommend it to all.

THE BIGGEST GAME IN TOWN BY AL ALVAREZ – I’m not someone who believes that just because you’re going to Kefalonia, you have to take Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But I read this book in Las Vegas, and if you have any interest at all in poker, Vegas or reading about one or both, this is ace (geddit?).

EMILY GIFFIN or JENNIFER WEINER I’ve read too many by both on too many holidays to list here but it’s very hard to go wrong. People who think commercial women’s fiction isn’t also clever should be beaten over the head with a copy of one of Giffin’s or Weiner’s novels until they see the light. Here is a photo of my most joyous flight ever, when the baby fell asleep on me and let me read Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love? all the way home from Mallorca.

nath on a plane

AFTER THE PARTY BY LISA JEWELL This book has a special place in my holiday reading heart, because it is about previously carefree and childless people coping with the changes wrought by having children. And I read it on my first holiday post-children which was… somewhat different to what I was used to. This book made me feel that I wasn’t the only one, and that’s what all the very best books should do.

BLINDNESS BY JOSE SARAMAGO See above. Seriously, it’s outstanding. If you think my taste is too commercial for you, then you can ignore the other suggestions and just pick this. It’s a political parable, but with the plot and pace of a dystopian thriller.

Happy holidays! I will report back from my own in late August with any new and unmissable tips.

 

On The Gruffalo and deserved success

We in publishing are fond of discussing how book history could and should have gone differently. Why some publisher spent too much on book x; why book y should have sold more copies; it’s a mystery why book z sold as many copies as it did. And so on. We love a good moan about a bit of publishing injustice. Our success as publishers is contingent upon our ability to predict what will work and what will sell. Sometimes we get this wrong. But sometimes, the industry, and the reading public, gets it brilliantly, spectacularly right.

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The finest example of this justice at work in the publishing world is The Gruffalo. It is the best-selling picture book of my parenting years. It is also the best. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, it is not one of the best, or among the best, it is objectively, in all senses, the very very best. And I believe its exceptional quality has in every way been the reason for its success.

The Gruffalo walks a line that seriously few children’s books and films manage, in its genuine dual appeal to children and adults alike. The majority of its intended readership does not 100% ‘get it’. Right now, my 2-year-old thinks it’s just a book about a big scary monster and a load of animals larking about in a wood. Perhaps as he gets closer to 4 or 5 he will understand it a bit more. But even then, he won’t understand what adults understand, i.e. the reasons why reading The Gruffalo every night for years is so much more tolerable than doing the same with its many competitors. Its total perfection. Its words, illustrations, rhyming and cadence. The not one but two clever confidence tricks pulled off by the mouse – first on the hungry animals of the wood, and then the same trick reversed, and played back on the Gruffalo himself. The way in which the end so brilliantly echoes the beginning – from ‘a fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good’ to ‘the mouse found a nut and the nut was good’. In just a few pages, the mouse goes from being potential food himself, to enjoying a peaceful meal having vanquished all the other animals, as well as the fearsome Gruffalo. It is the ultimate story of success against the odds. The Gruffalo’s perfect name and his perfect appearance – theoretically scary whilst still being charming enough to appear on stages and at shopping centres throughout the land without terrifying the toddler population.

Why mention this now, given that I’ve been reading The Gruffalo and thinking all of these things about it pretty much non-stop for the last 7 years? Because, in the last few weeks, I’ve had a rare spell (mainly on the holiday from which I’ve just returned) of feeling a similar sense of publishing justice about my other most recent reads.

First: The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney and Silent Child by Sarah A. Denzil. The bestselling psychological thrillers of recent months in physical and digital respectively. Neither is anywhere near as close to perfection as The Gruffalo, and The Gruffalo has better twists than both (sorry J. P. Delaney and Sarah A. Denzil) but with each of these books, I finished them thinking ‘yes, I can absolutely see why that is such a massive bestseller, phew’. From the titles, to the pitches, to the page-turning unputdownability of the books themselves, reading them was reassuring as well as massively enjoyable.

Then I read My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella. I’ve written at more length about my love of Sophie Kinsella, and my thoughts on the belittling of her type of commercial women’s fiction here. So I won’t repeat myself, except to say that this latest is everything that all of her books are: witty, clever, and effortlessly of-the-moment. Brilliant for its piss-takes of the word ‘bespoke’ and of how city people behave in the countryside (that was me last week), as well as for its insights into the assumptions that working women make about one another.

And finally … on the topic of working women, I read City of Friends, my first ever (I know, I know) Joanna Trollope, and thought ‘oh good, everything everyone has been telling me about why I should read Joanna Trollope for the last 20 years turned out to be right’. In a world where people give you so much bad advice so often, this is pleasing, plus it takes care of my holiday reading potentially for the next 20 years. Am off to book a few more holidays in which to read her backlist now.

A literary history of the radiator

Those of you who know me in real life know that, family and friends aside, there’s nothing I love more than a radiator. Between the months of October and March I’m often found standing next to one in my house whilst having a conversation. I once went on holiday (a British holiday in December, I hasten to add) with two portable radiators in the boot of our car. I was mocked on arrival, but the enormous old house we were staying in turned out to be freezing with no central heating (I was young, it’s not a mistake I would ever make now) and we all ended up fighting over those two radiators like hungry animals with a scrap of meat.

I am wary of attempts to undermine and belittle the radiator. These come in many forms. ‘Don’t you just love a real fireplace?’ No, it makes one room unbearably hot, it makes my cheeks go red and scratchy, and then when you leave the room where the fireplace is, you’re freezing again. ‘Central heating dries out your skin.’ A necessary price. ‘Doesn’t the Aga create a lovely warmth in the room?’ Sadly, not as much warmth as a radiator, although I will settle for standing next to an Aga in a serious lack-of-radiators situation.

I am going to shoehorn something about books into this post soon don’t worry, it’s coming up…

Where is your favourite place to read? In bed, on the sofa, in the bath, on the train, on a sun lounger? I will read in all of these places, though if you’ve got your holiday booking right, you should really be on a holiday that is so hot, you can’t bear to read sitting on a sun lounger, and you will need to read like this, my favourite holiday reading position. Here I am reading I Am Pilgrim in Greece with my feet in a swimming pool.

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But my first ‘place to read’ love was on the floor next to the radiator. It’s where I always used to read books as a child. I had a beanbag when I was younger. I can remember many specific books I read on this beanbag, from Flowers in the Attic to Zola’s Germinal (#range). And then when I was a teenager, my parents bought me a lovely second hand green rocking chair, and I abandoned my beanbag. I’m fairly confident I didn’t read sitting next to the radiator again until my children were babies, and when they had a night of bad sleep, I used to sit outside their rooms waiting to make sure they were properly asleep before I went back to bed. I read The Help during the night sat next to a radiator like this with my older child, and I read Beautiful Ruins during the night sat next to a radiator with my younger child. Happy days!

But in this freezing cold week when everyone else is talking about the magic of snow, and I’m complaining about how bloody freezing it is, it occurred to me that reading next to the radiator need not just be an emergency scenario for lack of furniture or awkward children, it could be a planned location. And it’s still pretty good. It’s been my first week in my new job at Bookouture this week, and this is where I plan to do my Bookouture weekend reading:

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I have a significant birthday coming up later this year, and I’m hoping someone might take pity on me and buy me a beanbag whilst I’m still young enough to stand up easily from the floor.

 

What I did in my holidays

Tomorrow ends my extended holiday, my hiatus between jobs at Arrow and Bookouture, and I’m very much looking forward to rejoining the working world, remembering how to publish books and use my oyster card, and eating lunch and dinner later than noon and 6pm.

In the interests of keeping my 2017 reading-record resolution, I thought I’d end my time off with a list of everything I read during it, so here it is:

1. Lots of Bookouture reading, too much to list here, and I’m trying my best to keep the blog extra-curricular. But if you’re in search of something good to pre-order on ebook for the next few months, you can’t go wrong with this, this or this. (And you surely can’t have failed to spot this – still riding high at number 1, where it’s been throughout most of the festive season.)

2. Miss Jane by Brad Watson. An utterly beautiful book, both inside and out.

3. The Breakdown by B. A. Paris, which I’ve written about at more length here.

4. The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight. More here. And as well as reading the book, I spent much of my holiday not bothering to do a load of the things that the book had convinced me were a waste of my time.

4. Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx. I’m a longtime fan of Docx’s, and have been eagerly awaiting this one. It’s about three brothers who are taking their father to (possibly) end his life at Dignitas. It is funny and moving and sad about family relationships and life and death, but when I finished it, I tweeted this highlight about camping, which entirely chimes in with my own holiday world view:

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5. Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. More here.

6.  The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson. More here.

7. Some reading on digital publishing, and most recently The Everything Store by Brad Stone, about Jeff Bezos and Amazon. This is great story for all the reasons you already know, about the ways in which Bezos fulfilled his ambition for Amazon to be ‘the everything store’ and the perfect customer experience. But in addition to all of this, you get some fabulous stories of Bezos’ childhood which may help to reassure you about the oddities of your own children. Apparently when he was three he dismantled his cot with a screwdriver, because he wanted to sleep in a bed. So if your toddler does this, you no longer have to think ‘how extremely annoying’ but can instead think ‘excellent, perhaps this shows the dedication and drive that means s/he will grow up to be one of the world’s most successful business people. Hooray’.

I have also, with my 7-year-old, read parts of/watched parts of/ discussed at *great* length all things Harry Potter. I have never previously done the Harry Potter thing, magic and stuff being of zero interest to me personally. But despite my own muggleish reading tendencies, my exposure over the last few months has forced me to acknowledge what I already knew about J.K. Rowling from her adult books, i.e. that she is a fantastic storyteller. I may not know my wizards, but I do know my first chapters, and the one we have just read, The Riddle House from Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire is everything that a first chapter should be.

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