Not reading about Alexander Hamilton

It’s that time of year when your mind turns to all of your failed new year’s resolutions from January.

Earlier this week, I looked back at my list of resolutions and actually, I’ve done okay on some of these. But today I wanted to re-visit number 3 in particular which was: read more non-fiction. I noted at the start of this year that the only non-fiction I ever seemed to read is ‘those non-fiction books that literally everyone has read’.

Let’s cast an appraising eye over 2017 and see how this is going. Fortunately for me, and you all, I have succeeded in my resolution of keeping a list of all the books I’ve read this year, and so here is how the non-fiction tally looks so far:

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Option B by Sheryl Sandberg
The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

And that’s it. Apart from business books read for work, this is the entire non-fiction list in all its glory. All of these books were excellent in their different ways and well worth reading. I would recommend them to you were it not for the fact that 5,000 other people have already done so because they are indeed ‘the non-fiction books that everyone has read’. They are the non-fiction books that people who basically prefer to read fiction have read. They are to 2017 non-fiction publishing what Despacito is to 2017 summer holiday tunes.

I realised this some time around mid-October, but in just the same way that in mid-October, it still feels entirely possible that you can lose a stone by Christmas, I decided in mid-October that it was still entirely possible that I could read an 832-page biography of Alexander Hamilton by 9 December, the much-anticipated date on which I was going to see the show.

hamilton

The eagle-eyed among you will note that 9 December is now just two days away. So let me share how this is going so far. I have read about 80% of the free Kindle sample of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It is very good! I know almost everything that happened to Alexander Hamilton before he got to age 15! Plus quite a bit of stuff about his parents! And in my defence, because the book is so long, the Kindle free sample is also long.

Around mid-November, realising I had three books to edit before 9 December, and with my goal of the whole 832 pages looking increasingly unlikely, I scaled down my expectations and decided that maybe reading a novel about Alexander Hamilton was more achievable. So I downloaded this one. Which I still haven’t started.

So. I now have less than 48 hours to go (I’m going to the matinee) and know virtually nothing about Hamilton apart from what I can dimly remember from my history degree 20 years ago and what he got up to as a young child – which I’m guessing probably isn’t the focus of the musical. Even reading Hamilton’s whole Wikipedia page at this point is starting to feel ambitious. So if anyone wants to sum up the key points of his life in a tweet or a brief email, that would be great. And any recommendations for shorter and more surprising non-fiction that I could polish off in the next three weeks would also be much appreciated.

 

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On Option B and leaning in

I’ve just finished reading Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. It’s all over the place at the moment, so I’m probably telling you what you already know, which is that it is part memoir, part self help, part study of the psychological impact of death and bereavement, inspired by the death of Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg, at the tragic age of 47. I thought it was very good indeed.

option b

I was a qualified fan of Lean In. Like many others, I had issues with it – yes, it was overwhelmingly focused on the privileged; yes, it wasn’t focused enough on how you can lean in all you like, and some combination of bad circumstances, bad employers, the inequalities of the parental leave system (or, in the case of the US, no proper parental leave system at all) and societal prejudice can still keep pushing you right back; and yes it hugely underplayed the family sacrifices that are required from anyone – female or male – who chooses to get to the top of their chosen field.

But for all of that, it contained a lot of excellent advice and was an overwhelmingly positive contribution to a conversation in which there are still, every day, so many overwhelmingly negative ones. And one of the strongest sections of all to my mind was the one that I immediately thought of when I heard that Dave Goldberg had died – the chapter ‘Make Your Partner a Real Partner’ in which Sandberg says that one’s choice of life partner is hugely important to any woman who is serious about pursuing her career post-children.

Interestingly, this seems to be one bit of Lean In that Sandberg now regrets: ‘When I wrote Lean In, some people argued that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they don’t have a partner. They were right. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home. I wrote … about the importance of couples splitting child care and housework 50/50. Now I see how insensitive and unhelpful this was to so many single moms who live with 100/0’.

Sandberg’s loss has given her a new, undesired, radical change of perspective. She is being somewhat unfair to herself and her earlier book here, because the fact that a married parent has no conception of how hard it is to be a single parent does not change the essential rightness of her advice: for those who are in a relationship and have a career, the division of labour is of vital importance. But her disarming honesty about her own experience in Option B, coupled with the research in the book, and the genuinely ‘practical’ approach of steps one can take to deal with and move beyond loss (Sandberg and Grant are careful to distinguish ‘moving beyond’ from ‘getting over’), make the book very powerful.

My father died in 2013, and when he died, all the usual good people in my life did all the usual good things. But one of the best things that bookish people do in virtually any situation, however serious, is recommend books that you might want to read, and that they think might help you. And so during this period (much like all those other life periods) I read a lot. The majority of the books I read were memoirs, and the highlight among them was the brilliant Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which I’m sure needs no introduction. I have since seen the film, scripted by Nick Hornby, which I loved almost as much as the book. But as much as I loved Wild, it is generally inspirational, rather than specifically useful.  ‘I’m going to walk my way back to the woman my mother knew I could be’ says Strayed in the film. Who doesn’t want to be able to do that? In the months following my dad’s death, I was mainly spending 10 hours a day in the office whilst looking after a small child and suffering from debilitating morning sickness. It felt almost possible that if I could somehow get myself into a position where I was hiking the Pacific Coast Trail like Strayed (something which, I should add, I would be utterly incapable of doing at even the healthiest and happiest time of my life) then perhaps I would discover some important life lessons that could help me through this difficult phase. But that clearly wasn’t an option for me – A, B, or C.

But the book that I felt I was lacking – or at least the book that I didn’t come across at the time – was a book like Option B. It has a strong combination of personal experience, efficient how-to-ness and reassuring statistical findings, that one can’t help but speculate appeals to someone of Sandberg’s get-it-done mindset, not to mention someone with her phenomenal workload. Unlike Lean In, it goes to great lengths (arguably too obviously so) to ensure that all types of suffering and loss are covered – as well as Sandberg’s personal story, she and Grant talk about the experiences of children who have lost parents, people who have lived through natural disasters, refugees who have fled persecution in their home countries and even Holocaust survivors. But my sense, without being able to speak for anyone else, is that there are things here that a lot of people recovering from a lot of different types of loss would find valuable.

And if I can end a post about such a serious book on a completely trivial note, Option B reveals that Sandberg is often in bed earlier than I am, a fact that I find almost as inspirational as anything in Lean In. I always suspected that my career might one day be limited by my need to be in bed by 10pm on a week night – but Sandberg is a shining example that this needn’t be the case. So I can now hold my head up in pride, lean in and admit that I haven’t watched Newsnight since early 2009.

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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2017 reading resolutions

I’ve seen a lot of people writing and heard a lot of people talking in the last few days about how they are not making any new year’s resolutions this year. Well, I am making loads, possibly more than any year in living memory. I was given a lovely engraved notebook at the end of last year:

notebook

… and so have even gone to the effort of writing them all down in it, and they add up to an impressive nine. Ten would obviously be rounder, and I’ve tried hard to think of a realistic tenth one, but I can’t and I don’t want to overreach.

But now, time for some reading-specific ones. In the interests of this post not seeming too ‘me, me, me’, I’m also going to selflessly include some books that *you* should all read during 2017.

But first, the resolutions:

1. More non-work reading. This is every editor’s equivalent of ‘lose weight’ as resolutions go, i.e. we resolve to do it each year, and the whole enterprise has collapsed by halfway through January. Nonetheless, it’s an important goal. We all know how lucky we are to read for a living, but it’s hard (yet important) to read beyond the books we are publishing and considering for publication.

2. Keep a list of all the books I read this year. Those who know me will be astonished to know that I don’t already keep such a list, but I don’t, and it makes things tricky when people ask for recommendations (as they usually do around holidays and Christmas) and all you can think of are the books that you yourself have published. I used to keep a list as a youngster, complete with a 5-star rating system, and am planning to start again for the coming year.

3. Read more non-fiction. Fiction is what I love to read most, so with the limited time I have for extra-curricular reading, it’s what tends to get read. But whenever I do read some non-fiction I think: oh this is good, I should do it more often. The list of non-fiction I’ve read in the last few years is random and faintly ridiculous, tending to be made up of things I’m interested in (a bit of history and biography, a few books about if, how and when women can ‘have it all’, latterly some stuff about digital publishing) combined with ‘those non-fiction books that literally everyone has read’ – Being Mortal, Do No Harm and so on. So, if you have any surprising yet essential suggestions, do send them my way.

4. Bit more of a niche one, this: seek out more legal thrillers. A friend kindly sent me The Plea by Steve Cavanagh just before Christmas and told me I had to read him, so I shall. But beyond this, why aren’t there more legal thrillers being published and why aren’t more people talking about when and how they are going to make a serious comeback? I know of two excellent ones due for publication in 2018, but beyond this: I must hunt them down. Three of my favourites here, here, and of course here, for anyone else who may be looking.

5. Read The Goldfinch. Why haven’t I done this yet? I have no idea. I know I would love it, so think I have just been being contrary. Also it’s very long of course, which relates back to the point about non-work reading. It may have to be done in August or December, but it shall be done.

So there are my five, and five being a rounder number than nine, I will stop there and move on to what you should be reading in the early months of 2017:

little-deaths

Little Deaths by Emma Flint. I have banged on about this relentlessly on twitter, so here is my final shout-out as it publishes next week. What everyone raving about it says is that it is ‘more than a thriller’, which is undoubtedly true, although at the same time vaguely insulting to books that are ‘just’ good thrillers. However, what everyone means is that it is simultaneously a mystery with a strong one-line pitch – you wake up one morning and your children are gone, and you are accused of their murder – and a brilliant literary novel about much more than just its mystery.

the-breakdown

The Breakdown by B. A. Paris. I have mentioned briefly already, but this is a must-read for everyone who loved her Behind Closed Doors last year. Someone on a blog somewhere said (sorry, blogger who I have forgotten – if you can identify yourself I will link to you!) that it reminded them of those old black and white ‘woman in peril’ Hollywood movies, which is exactly what I thought too, and it very specifically reminded me of Sorry, Wrong Number, one of my faves in that genre. It is gripping and great.

persons-unknown

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner. Not out until June but my final read of 2016 was Missing, Presumed, which again, is ‘more than a thriller’ but also introduces DC Manon Bradshaw, possibly my favourite new fictional detective since I met Jackson Brodie. I thoroughly recommend the first to anyone who hasn’t yet read it, and Persons Unknown is thankfully going to be published in time for my summer holiday.

Taking pictures of books

When I was a teenager, I had a little notebook in which I’d write down bits of books and poems (and, let’s be frank, Doors lyrics) that I particularly liked or meant something to me. Thank goodness I no longer have this notebook as I’m sure it would make horrifying reading. But perhaps I have not advanced that far since. Because now, despite being about to embark upon a role as a digital publisher, and despite all the technology available to me, my means of recording bits of books I like is: taking photos of them with my iPhone and never storing them properly or labelling them in any way, and then just coming across them later and thinking ‘oh, that’s good’ and then trying to remember what they are.

But. What is accidentally brilliant about this non-method is that when I flick through my phone, I see something, and am reminded of why I took a photo of it just then and why it meant so much to me. So, I thought I would share a few iPhone highlights from recent months.

First, from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which I read on my summer holiday this year:

gilead

Not bad hey? It speaks for itself really. It’s like a distilled version of everything that is brilliant about this book and Robinson’s writing, which I came to shamefully late. But its essential truth is always worth keeping in mind if you’ve just spent hours wrestling with a toddler car seat in Barcelona airport on the way to said summer holiday. Helps to keep things in perspective.

Next up! Belinda Bauer – one of my favourite crime writers. This is from her new novel, The Beautiful Dead. I think I was having an especially bad day when I read this back in September. Although I should clarify that even my worst, most stressful publishing days have thankfully never involved blood.

bauer

Fortunately both Eve Singer, the heroine of the book, and I lived to fight another day. But this is an excellent description of a terrible one.

Next, something more cheerful. This is from Johnny Marr’s autobiography, Set the Boy Free. With apologies for the bad light and for the poor formatting – I was reading a converted PDF on my kindle before the book came out.

marr

I love this because a. I’m a sucker for these ‘pivotal moments that changed everything’, and this one describes Marr’s first encounter with Morrissey, which became the incredible songwriting partnership that those two were; and b. I read it when I was on my way to first meeting my new employers, and I thought ‘oh, I’m reading about a significant moment in someone’s life at what may be a significant moment in my own’. (And I say this with all due humility – I don’t believe I can ever achieve anything in any job I will hold that will come close to ‘What Difference Does it Make?’)

And finally this, from Stephenie Meyer’s The Chemist, which is basically my philosophy of life.

meyer

The way Meyer writes it suggests that perhaps it isn’t a fail-safe approach, which is alarming news because I’ve been relying on it for quite a while now.

Books of the year 2016

Obviously mine is the most anticipated literary list of the year so I’ve left it especially late, leaving you almost not enough time to buy my recommendations for your loved ones for Christmas.

But before the lists, some rules and qualifications:

First, a reminder that what I have spent 99% of my year reading is either submissions – as yet unpublished books that have been sent to me by agents – or books I am actually editing and publishing. So if you feel that the list below is somewhat lacking in undiscovered gems, this is the reason why. Often I’ve read these books because they have shouted quite loud to get my attention. ‘My book may have gone undiscovered if Jenny hadn’t recommended it as one of her books of the year’ said absolutely no-one in the list below.

Second, this is a list of books I have read this year, and not necessarily books that have been published this year, although some of them also have been.

Third, this list excludes all the books I was involved with publishing at Arrow, and all the books I have read in anticipation of starting at Bookouture. Obviously both lists contain a huge number of excellent books, but they are sadly not allowed here. I have spent and will spend enough time telling you all how brilliant they are in other contexts, mainly on twitter.

So, rules over. Here they come:

little-life

First, A Little Life. This was the first book I read this year and as soon as I finished it, I knew it was likely to be the best book I read all year. I was right and it was. In order to keep us moving swiftly through the list, I won’t linger on the reasons why I thought most criticism of it was misguided and unfair (though I may linger on that some other time – something to look forward to… ) but I did think it was. It isn’t a perfect book, but as a friend of mine said when she recommended it to me ‘I have a very high tolerance for the sort of thing that is wrong with it’. And I shared this feeling exactly. Yes it could have been shorter, but I loved every word of it.

.behind

Behind Closed Doors is my thriller of the year, in a year during which I read approximately 3 million thrillers (so, no mean feat). Publishers have spent a lot of time discussing why exactly this book worked so well, and much of that discussion has focused on publication model and pricing. Useful discussions to have, and the book was brilliantly published by  HQ (then Mira) but it is also literally unputdownable and it is hard to imagine someone reading it without telling all their friends this vital fact. My one small quibble with it is that one of the ways in which the psychopath husband demonstrates his awfulness in the book is by arriving at the airport 3 hours before his flight leaves. Which as any fool knows is entirely normal behaviour. I have just been lucky enough to read an advance copy of B. A. Paris’ second novel The Breakdown, out in February 2017, and it is every bit as gripping as her first.

gustav

The Gustav Sonata was the best of an excellent bunch of books I read on a holiday in North Norfolk in May. (The other two were This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell and Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty, both of which I also loved. A 100% holiday hit rate is always satisfying.) As with so many of Tremain’s novels, it is perfect. Moving, intelligent, gripping, not a word out of place. So it won ‘The Book of my  Norfolk holiday’, that much-coveted literary award.

olive

Elizabeth Strout was my author discovery of 2016, and I read three of her novels this year: Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle and My Name is Lucy Barton. Any of them could have had a place on this list but I’ve gone for Olive. It’s an unshowy book but that’s not another way of saying ‘it’s a bit slow and has no plot’. Strout is an outstanding observer of human behaviour and also of the ways in which people can get each other wrong, with devastating consequences.

small

I have been reading Jodi Picoult for years, and have always enjoyed her, but with her last three – The Storyteller, Leaving Time, and this one, Small Great Things – she has moved up a notch. All three have made me cry, and Leaving Time I loved despite its containing a supernatural element, which is an almost automatic strike against a book for me. When Hodder sent out proofs of Small Great Things, they did so ‘blind’, as it were – with no author and title on it, so readers did not know what they were reading. As you’ll see if you read the book, this ties into its themes but also I imagine they wanted readers who had never read Picoult before, and who had a set idea of the ‘sort of thing’ she is, to read this book without prejudice. If you never have read her, this is a good place to start.

miss-you

The last novel on my list is the one I most wanted to publish this year, but sadly missed out on. (‘All in the game, yo’ as Omar from The Wire would say, were he an acquiring editor.) And that book is Miss You by Kate Eberlen. Sleepless in Seattle meets One Day is my best publisher-speak one line hook, but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s upmarket commercial fiction at its best. I laughed, I cried, I lost the auction, and now I’m showing how not-bitter I am by suggesting you buy someone a copy for Christmas.

And finally – an honourable mention for something a bit different, which is this, The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k.

If you have anyone in your family who has inclinations towards control freakery, perfectionism and anxiety (I can’t imagine why someone told me I should read it), then this is the perfect Christmas gift. The title gets across the core message, but it is engagingly written and genuinely helpful on the topic of how to spend less time doing the things that are wasting your time and holding you back, and more time doing the important things that you love. I have absorbed its key message so successfully that I am not bothering to send Christmas cards this year. And hopefully any of my friends reading this will now realise ‘it’s not because she’s selfish and doesn’t want us to have a nice Christmas’ (which of course I am not/do want) but rather that’s it’s part of a vital life change. I will be equally understanding if you can’t be bothered to send me a card, and you can spend your time on more worthwhile activities like reading one of the wonderful books on this list.

Happy Christmas everyone!