Though I don't always write about them on here, I do periodically return to books I loved when I was a child. Sometimes that's because I'm reading them to a child or grandchild, but just as often it's simply because they are great books and I want to read them again. And quite a few of them are books that my mother loved when she was a child -- Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott and and Edith Nesbit were her favourites and became mine too. Strangely enough, though, I don't remember ever reading The Enchanted Castle until the other day, when I had a huge downloading blitz on girlebooks -- I don't have a Kindle but I do sometimes read books on my iphone and I've now got a huge stock for emergencies. Anyway, I did enjoy the Enchanted Castle though I didn't think it was quite up to EN's best. Written in 1907 it is the story of four children whose parents go away in the summer leaving them in the charge of their French governess. Exploring a nearby, part-ruined castle, they discover a magic ring which will grant wishes, though there are some grave disadvantages which come with them. The novel is full of delightful adventures, including the terrifying episode when a large crowd of scarecrows come to life and start rampaging around, much to the children's horror. They manage to trap most of these "Ugly-Wuglies" in a cellar, but one of them escapes and becomes a hugely successful stockbroker in the City of London. I think one of the reasons why Nesbit goes on appealing to kids generation after generation is the wonderfully informal and direct way she addresses her readers -- you really feel she is telling the story straight to you and you alone. Great stuff.
As for An Old Fashioned Girl, this is a book I've been looking for for decades. I remembered the story, which I must have read when I was about nine, I think, but I had no idea who wrote it or what the title was. So many many thanks to girlebooks -- I might never have solved this dilemma were it not for their catalogue. Re-reading it after all this time is a really interesting experience. First published as a serial in 1869, it's the story of Polly, a sweet, innocent teenager from the country who comes on a long visit to her friend Fanny, a sophisticated city girl. Polly is overwhelmed by the grandeur of Fanny's home and often shocked by the behaviour of her friends, but her gentle goodness slowly makes an impression on the family. It really is a moral tale, and what I'm wondering now is what I made, aged nine, of its tendency, at times, to preach. But Alcott is too good a writer for this to become a problem, and there's a great deal of fun here too, as Polly goes sledding with Fanny's brother Tom, shows her little sister how to make dolls' clothes, or hears stories about early nineteenth-century childhood jinks from Grandma. Lovely, and makes me want to re-read Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men, and Jo's Boys...
If you are a regular visitor here you may remember me going on about Andrew Taylor, an astonishingly prolific and varied British crime writer. Though I've had reservations about a few of his novels, those have been far outweighed by the ones I've really loved -- especially the Roth Trilogy, probably his masterpiece, and the Lydmouth series. Earlier this year I discovered Caroline Miniscule, his first ever novel, which narrowly missed being in my top ten this year, and which I really appreciated for what one critic called its "shocking amorality". But though I got hold of a couple of others in this series back in June, they went onto the shelf to await their moment.
That moment finally came a few days ago, after I'd hit a patch of reader's block -- I must have started about half a dozen novels and abandoned them after a few pages because they just didn't hit the spot. Both An Old School Tie and Waiting for the End of the World feature the laid-back William Dougal, erstwhile PhD student turned amateur private investigator, and his charming, wicked nemesis James Hanbury. Though the plots are OK, it's really these two characters, and their relationship, that give the novels their interest -- William, who'd always rather stay on the sofa with a glass of whiskey and a cigarette, and James, his fingers constantly in some dubious pie or other, seem inextricably linked despite William's unwillingness to get involved in James's dodgy practices. All very entertaining stuff.
Meanwhile I have been listening to Taylor's most recent novel, The Anatomy of Ghosts, courtesy of Audible. This is a full-blooded eighteenth-century romp -- a pastiche, even -- set in a Cambridge college and featuring duplicitous dons, unbalanced undergraduates, fallen women, standoffish aristocrats, and a great range of secondary characters including Tom Turdman, the night-soil man, and, of course, a ghost. Taylor does a great job of invoking the world of 1780s Cambridge, complete with its vomitings, purgings, prostitutes and pox. Amazing, really, that anyone ever got any work done. Very skilful, great fun.
Well, everybody else is doing it so why not, I say. Unlike some people I have no idea how many books I have read this year -- the blog is no help as I've read far more than I've written about. But if I have written about them it generally means I liked them, so here's a very rapidly done whizz through the year. Links will take you to my original reviews.
Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent. I haven't read a great deal of Spark but this is certainly the best of what I have read and I absolutely loved it -- I see I described it as "managing effortlessly to combine being witty and serious, entertaining and thought-provoking, extremely readable and highly intelligent". Lightly and delightfully post-modernist. Wonderful.
EH Young, Miss Mole. My first introduction to the great Emily Hilda Young, though I've read a couple more since. She's a terrific writer, funny and clever, and her work is astonishingly psychologically acute. This is a highly entertaining novel.
Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter. Another writer I had a bit of a blitz on this year. I've loved all the books of hers I have read but this I think is my favourite. It's strange, certainly, and sometimes sad, but beautifully so. Hard to describe but hugely recommended.
Steig Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yes indeed. I actually listened to this, and the two sequels, as audiobooks and was absolutely rivetted. The plots are exciting, of course, but it's Lisbeth Salander who makes these novels so extraordinarily good. Great thrillers with serious issues -- what's not to like?
Hillary Mantel, Wolf Hall. This was a long, slow read for me, but a hugely enjoyable one. I got completely sucked into the world of Thomas Cromwell and the richness and harshness of the Tudor world in which he lived. Will we get a sequel? I really hope so.
Dorothy Whipple, Someone at a Distance. Another author who was new to me this year. I'd heard so many people raving about her that I thought, perhaps rather perversely, that I probably wouldn't like her at all. But I did. This is mid-20th century domestic fiction at its best, quietly perceptive and highly readable. I still haven't read another of hers yet -- must remedy that in 2011.
JG Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur. Oh how I did love this novel. It made me laugh out loud at times but it deals with deeply serious and difficult issues to do with colonialism and race in a story which is absolutely unputdownable. Superb.
Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took my Dog. The fourth in Kate Atkinson's detective series, featuring the wonderful Jackson Brodie, this is crime fiction at its best, for me at least. I described it at the time as "intelligent, perceptive, thought-provoking, humane, witty" -- I guess I use those words a lot but they are what I most admire in a novel.
Annie Proulx, Postcards. A novel which manages a huge sweeping perspective of America through time (1940s t0 1980s) and space (Vermont through many other states) as well as a stunning and tragic portrait of an unforgettable character. A great novel by a great writer.
Emma Smith, The Far Cry. My most recent read and one by a writer I knew nothing at all about. A wonderfully perceptive psychological portrait of a troubled young girl and her equally troubled father and sister, all set in an India which is extraordinarily vividly brought to life. Fascinating, unpredictable, highly original
You might notice that only one of these (Atkinson) was published in 2010, one in 2009 (Mantel), one in 2008 (Larsson), and the rest any time between the 1930s and the 1980s. I would say that is pretty representative of my reading in general, as is the fact that all but two are by women.
Oxford has a great many cinemas (unlike Skelmersdale, where I used to live, which doesn't have any). My favourite is not the Ultimate Picture Palace, which is quite close to where I live, but the Phoenix, the other side of the city centre in trendy Jerico. Not really sure why, as both show a good selection of independent films, but so it is. Anyway I was there a week or so ago and got talked into buying a year's membership for £25, which is a bargain when you consider that the three free tickets you get will almost pay for it. I used one immediately to pay for a film called The American which, despite the presence of George Clooney, I thought was stylish but pretty forgettable. But while I was in there I saw a trailer for The King's Speech and immediately started to long to see it. I thought I'd have to wait till next month when it goes on general release, so imagine my pleasure when the Phoenix sent me an email offering me a free ticket for a special members-only preview. And yesterday morning I struggled through the snow which has enveloped the city and had the most enjoyable time in a blessedly cosy cinema, surrounded by ageing intellectuals, watching what proved to be just as good a film as I'd hoped.
In case you haven't heard of it, the film is the true story of King George VI, who became king in 1936 most unwillingly, after the abdication of his older brother Edward VIII, who bunked off to marry Mrs Simpson (you may have seen a rather unkind but historically accurate portrayal of these two in Any Human Heart on Channel 4 recently). George, or Bertie as he was known to the family, was unwilling partly because he liked a quiet family life, but certainly a large part was played by the fact that he had a severe stammer, so that public speaking was pretty well impossible for him. This, or rather his attempts to overcome it, is the subject of the film. After many failed attempts he started working with an Australian speech therapist by the name of Lionel Logue, played in the film by the wonderful Geoffrey Rush. Largely self-trained but clearly brilliant, Logue -- the only "commoner" the king had ever met -- not only managed to get Bertie speaking but also became his close friend.
If you think this is going to be a predictable period drama with lots of cosy stuff about the British Royals, think again. The Windsors do not come well out of it at all. Bertie's father George V, played brilliantly by a bearded Michael Gambon, is an unpleasant and unkind father whose bullying certainly lay at the root of Bertie's problems, and Edward is a selfish weakling, given to teasing his brother about his speech difficulties. Many of the usual suspects are here too -- Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Timothy Spall as a very convincing Churchill and lots of others too numerous to mention. As for Colin Firth's Bertie -- well, he's tipped for an Oscar and maybe he will get one, but even if he doesn't he is as good as I've ever seen him. I cried a bit towards the end (OK, I often do) and left feeling very cheerful. You can watch the trailer here.
Painted by the Flemish painter Ambrosius Benson (1495-1550), this is actually a portrait of Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy. Born in 1480 she was an extremely well-educated and learned woman who owned a fine library. There are other paintings of her but none as lovely as this -- she looks surprisingly modern here, I think. It's in the Louvre should you wish to see it in the flesh.
So we had a good idea, perhaps you heard about it.
December 16 is Jane Austen's birthday and we thought to celebrate by giving away free ebooks of a number of our bestselling Jane Austen-inspired works, plus special ebook editions of Austen's 6 novels including the famous Brock brothers' illustrations. The goal? A one-day only extravaganza giveaway just for her birthday, and we'd offer it everywhere ebooks are sold.
One of the things we're trying to do on the Sourcebooks Next blog is talk about digital experiments from the point of view of those actually doing the work. So this is the short story of our Jane Austen promotion - and how it went wrong.
Let me start by explaining what went wrong: simply put, on the morning of December 16, the books in the promotion were not free. And people noticed of course – everyone who'd so graciously spread the word of the promo was now justifiably taking us to task.
So what happened? Here are the challenges we faced, whether we knew them or not (and in a number of cases, we just didn't know).
Challenge #1: Not Enough Time For starters, we came up with the idea for the entire promotion on December 3, less than two weeks before the date. Within days we had announced the program internally, drafted our releases, and begun the gears turning. It turns out, though, that when we run promotions across multiple etailers, they need at least two weeks to ensure proper setup and we've found it's usually best to have about six to eight weeks of total processing time (and cushion) to ensure that all our external retailers can process the information and set it up to happen at the same time. Is digital retailing and cataloguing instantaneous? No, it's not.
Challenge #2: Multiple External Systems Every one of our external vendors has a different system and schedule, so we work individually with the iBookstore, Google, Nook, Kindle, and everyone else. Each of our etailers has a different timeline and process for implementing promotions. We have a mix where we manually adjust prices at some accounts and we submit price changes via spreadsheet to other accounts. We generally cannot specify an exact time for these promotions to take effect, though most of our accounts let us specify the day. So it's more complicated than you (or I obviously) would expect.
Challenge #3: "Available Everywhere Ebooks Are Sold" This would've all been easier if we'd just done something like offer the files on a designated landing page on our website, right? Certainly, it would've been easier for us, but what reader wants that kind of restriction? With some devices, we know you're restricted to where you can get your ebooks. So we were going for ultimate ease – no extra clicks, syncs, or heaven-knows-what workaround to try getting these ebooks on your device. Turns out that goal complicated things.
Challenge #4: "One Day Only!" We've run countless ebook promotions with our ebook partners, but I don't think we'd ever tried a one-day-only promotion. Usually a special offer runs a week, two weeks, a month. A day? Didn't know if we could do it. And the answer is yes, many of our partners can run one-day offers. But not all of them. A few places can't or don't run one-day offers. Well, we didn't know that at the beginning of this process.
Challenge #5: Territory Restrictions Here's one that frankly didn't occur to us. If you wanted to download an ebook from the promotion and you were in Australia, the UK, or elsewhere, could you get it? The answer was sometimes no. In some cases underlying territory restrictions on the publishing rights side may have gotten in the way, and in some cases the territory restrictions may have come from your account at an etailer. This too was a result of our attempt to have the books available with each retail partner. And what happened with those partners when some of the books were available but some were not? Well, that turned out to be new learning too.
So what did we learn? Well, as with so many things, your results are often determined by communication, time, and raw effort. Our lack of time probably knocked down what we could accomplish with the other two. And I really have to give kudos to our etailing partners, many of whom scrambled to help us through these unforeseen problems. Indeed, as the morning of December 16 ticked along, the promotion went live at store after store. And we quickly chose to extend the promotion an extra day to make up for the awkward start.
In close, we first and foremost offer our apologies – we tried, we screwed up, we're sorry. We hope those who wanted the books were able to get them, and that readers have been able to discover the work of these wonderful authors. We believe that all the stores now have them free except Sony (who will shortly). And we've added one more day as a Bonus Jane Austen Birthday Celebration!
Feel free to tell us what you think. It's been an exciting day. And did I mention, we launched a new website (the new sourcebooks.com) and an incredible new initiative, Books Change Lives in conjunction with awesome partners Friday Reads and Shelf Unbound today too! Can't wait to see what tomorrow brings!