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.

 

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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:

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… 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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

Your new favourite writer

Having failed to provide you with any undiscovered gems in my books of the year list, I’m going to do so now. This is a post in which I recommend a great author that you have quite possibly not heard of (especially if you’re reading this from the UK), you go and buy books by said author, and come back and tell me that she’s brilliant and I was right. Easy.

And that writer is Maddie Dawson. I have struggled to describe exactly what her books are for some time, but luckily Dawson herself has managed to do it pretty eloquently on her twitter biog, where she says: ‘Writer of novels with crazy families, secrets, and reasonably happy endings. Like life.’ I would query only the ‘crazy’ part, as her families are only crazy to the extent that all of our families are. These are books about love, family, relationships, parents and children, siblings etc. They are acutely observed but also well plotted. They are my dream type of book. To give my own view on this, without consulting the Amazon ‘also bought’ links, I would say they would appeal to you if you like writers such as Emily Giffin, Jennifer Weiner, Kristin Hannah. They are a type of book that the US have always been better at selling than we have here in the UK.

The first of Dawson’s books that I read was The Stuff that Never Happened. A US colleague gave me a copy on a work trip in 2014, and I stayed up to read the whole thing on a night flight home. It’s a book about ‘the one that got away’, essentially, but if you feel you’ve read a version of that before – you haven’t read many as good as this.

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Having loved this one, I tracked down all the others, and here they are: The Opposite of Maybe and The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness (her latest, about adoption, which I have just finished reading and which is available as an ebook, including in the UK). And there are also two written by the same author under another name, Sandi Kahn Shelton: Kissing Games of the World and A Piece of Normal.

I loved them all and hope you will too. If you’re in the UK, you may have to order copies of some of them from the US or a third party seller on Amazon, but I promise you it will be worth it.

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Beginning

About a decade ago, when I worked in digital marketing – though it was a decade ago, so it was called ‘online’ back then – I used to blog, mainly for Pan Macmillan, which was where I then worked. I moved across to editorial, where I have been ever since (first at Pan Macmillan and then at Arrow) and where I’ve been busy editing, publishing, reading and not blogging for over 8 years.

And now, about to move to a new role as Publishing Director of digital fiction publisher Bookouture, I suddenly decided to begin again.

When I used to blog back in 2008, it was still a new-ish thing. I read a few book blogs, I knew of a few more that I didn’t follow quite as closely, but book blogs did not play the critical part in the publishing landscape that they now do. Broadsheet newspapers have always focused on literary fiction and non-fiction and what has been interesting, watching the rise of book bloggers, is seeing how far they’ve gone towards filling a gap as a recommendation engine for readers of commercial fiction, both physical and digital.

Publishers spend a lot of time talking about the books we are publishing, but I hope that this blog might be an opportunity for me to talk about books and bookish stuff that isn’t just my own. I’ll kick off shortly with my own books of 2016, which for the last 8 years, I’ve very much struggled to cram into tweets.

Hopefully I won’t wait another decade to post again. Although you never know.