After the Apocalypse: Going Underground in Hugh Howey’s Wool

The next Hunger Games? Dystopian-fiction fan Emily Ding reviews Hugh Howey’s Wool and chats with the Florida-based author about his journey from self-publishing sensation to Big-Six author, and how it feels to have his book optioned for Hollywood, possibly to be directed by three-time Oscar-nominated Ridley Scott of Gladiator fame.

The first book of the trilogy. Random House (UK), Jan 2013.

What happens when the world as we know it turns hostile and annihilates any form of life? Fly to space, or go underground. But since other planets aren’t quite ready for human habitation yet, there’s only one option.

In Hugh Howey’s post-apocalyptic Earth, humans live in a “silo” that extends about 150 storeys beneath the ground to seal themselves off from the toxic air outside that eats away at human flesh. This scenario doesn’t sound quite so unlikely when you cast your mind back to the nuclear threat of the Cold War that escalated between the Americans and the Soviets in the sixties. In similar circumstances, it’s entirely plausible that we would build a subterranean refuge in which to live out our days until the world above ground becomes right again, when we could return to rebuild a new civilisation. Although in the end 21.12.2012 came and went without much fanfare, in the build-up to the supposed Apocalypse, some rich people were reportedly buying up USD$2-million luxury apartments to be built into the shaft of an abandoned missile silo underneath the Kansas prairie – an actual relic of the Cold War, with nine-feet-thick concrete walls purportedly engineered to withstand an atomic bomb blast.

Proposed hideout built within abandoned missile silo, Kansas.
Proposed hideout built within abandoned missile silo, Kansas. Photo courtesy of the Daily Mail.

Howey takes this glimmering reality further in Wool with meticulous attention to detail. Like the Kansas silo, Howey’s silo also has its own life-support systems: hydroponics farms, water treatment facility tanks, oil wells, power generators. Unlike the Kansas silo, the one of Howey’s imagination is pretty primitive: it doesn’t come with its own pool, movie theatre or library; and in place of an elevator is a metal spiral staircase, with which it takes about two hours to descend twenty floors – at least, for the elderly mayor Jahns and her deputy sheriff Marnes; the porters who deliver goods and messages daily up and down the silo do it faster. In fact, Howey’s silo seems unlikely to be able to sustain itself for much longer. We get the idea that it wasn’t built for its current purpose nor to last forever, and these humans have lived in it for a long time – certainly long enough for them to wonder about their “Creator” and question how they had come into their current existence while the glass and steel skeletons of buildings, abandoned from a different time, crumble against the “stately rolling crests” of “lifeless” hills in full view from the top floor of the silo. All they know is that a “great uprising” had wiped out the silo’s history.

Before Howey became a full-time writer he was a yacht captain, sailing all over the American East coast and the Caribbean. His inspiration for Wool, he said, had come from seeing the difference between 24-hour news and the world he’d seen on his travels: “They were nothing alike. One was all the bad news, the other was quite a nice place. And so I imagined a society that only knew of the world from looking at a single screen. Like Plato’s cave analogy. But the shadows on the cave wall are all sinister.”

Luxury pool with the illusion of an island. Photo courtesy of the Daily Mail.

As this picture (right) of the proposed Kansas missile silo shows, a circular structure is particularly useful with which to project a panoramic view of any illusion you’d like. Though life in Howey’s silo is pretty basic for most of its inhabitants, IT personnel – less than 24 of them and mostly men – possess sufficient technological capabilities to build a full-wall screen display that wraps around the perimeter of the silo’s top floor, offering its citizens, via cameras above-ground, a view of the world outside: as a hint to the possibility of a different future, but also as a deterrent.

Because in Howey’s subterranean world, the expressed wish to go “outside” is a death wish. Those who commit this and other crimes are mandatorily let out into the upper world to “clean” in a protective suit engineered by IT with the best of their technology to give those condemned to the outside a moment of reprieve before the deadly wind dissolves them into dust. To “clean” is to use a wool scrubber to remove the grime from the camera lenses above ground to bring the world outside into clearer view once again. This view is nothing like the colourful children’s books (the only ones to survive the uprising) the silo’s inhabitants remember; there is no blue sky nor green grass, just a broad, dull palette of brown and grey littered with the “sleeping boulders” of dead bodies. Unfathomably, even faced with this evidence, every single person who has ever been sent outside has always done the cleaning even when, in their bitterness, they had vowed they wouldn’t. This is the mystery: why do they always clean?

Still, while each act of cleaning is a sacrifice, it is also a renewal of hope. Usually, after each clean, a new jubilance and vitality permeates the silo – there wouldn’t be another too soon – but also, people dare to want: couples can hope at a chance of winning the lottery to procreate (via the removal of an contraceptive implant): one down, room for another. More importantly, there would be another chance to test IT’s protective suit, to see if it lasts longer this time against the lethal elements outside. It is the silo citizens’ unspoken wish that one day, the suit would be advanced enough to enable them to venture above ground without dropping like flies. Despite the bleakness of the landscape, “it looked like a scene one could stroll out into, like a gaping and inviting hole”.

In this way then, IT wields considerable power, though on the face on it Mayor Jahns, flanked by her sheriffs Holston and Marnes, reigns supreme over the silo. Mechanical personnel, too, possess the know-how to change the balance of power within the silo as they are well versed in its technical and practical workings (they also control the energy that sustains IT’s operations), but they don’t always realise this because they are kept in the dark within the deepest reaches of the silo, tasked with keeping the great machines running in good order so life in the silo doesn’t break down. Wool, like most dystopian fiction, makes many parallels to our present society, and it is easy to read into the social, political and economical stratification evident by virtue of the silo’s architecture. Also, for every person who yearns to break his confines and explore unchartered horizons, there will always be another who refuses to wander too far from where he lives – both are equally base human instincts.

In Wool, we read the separate but interlinked stories of three main characters — Holston, the sheriff; Jahns, the mayor; and Juliette, a tough-as-nails young woman from Mechanical, who eventually takes over as the protagonist for most of the book. As with most dystopian fiction, the characters don’t know at first that they are living in a dystopia (though we do) – and Howey is really good at dishing the clues out bit by bit, so you are compelled to keep going for answers to the larger puzzle. Still, by the end of the book you’ll have more questions than answers, and some seemingly vital characters feel like they have been barely pencilled in. Having spoken to Howey, however, readers can rest assured that we’ll find all the answers in the upcoming books. Shift, the prequel, will tell us how the silo came to be; and Dust, the last book in the trilogy which Howey is working on right now, will, he says, include “answers to every question you can think of. You’ll see what becomes of the world.”

Part of how Howey successfully keeps us hanging on a drip of information is that he writes Wool in instalments, but this serial way of writing, much like that of writing a TV series, is also what is responsible for its limitations. Howey first self-published Wool as a short story in mid-2011 about Holston and his struggle with life in the silo after his wife Alison – in a fit of sudden clarity or insanity, he didn’t know – chose to go outside, and his own part in having to condemn her to that while carrying out his duty. When Holston’s story became popular with fans, who expressed their desire to read more about this world, Howey decided to write more chapters. Writing serially has its benefits but also some serious challenges – one of which is being able to conceive of the series tightly as a whole, so that all the plot lines hang together coherently as a master piece of work. Wool stumbles slightly in this aspect; the continuity between the instalments isn’t always maintained. Still, this is easily overlooked.

Wool is an addictive, engaging read, and has been much vaunted to be the next Hunger Games (though Wool wouldn’t be marketed as Young Adult) or the next Fifty Shades (except Howey actually writes well). Howey had made his own name and was commercially successful even before his book deals with Big-Six publishers, purportedly raking in a six-figure income a month running a one-man show – being his own publicist, engaging heavily with his fans. So far, rights to Wool has been sold to more than twenty countries, and film rights have been sold to 20th Century Fox with three-time Oscar-nominated Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator) slated to direct it and Steve Zaillian (who won the Oscar for Schindler’s List) to write the script, so it’s fair to say that Wool is set to become a global phenomenon. Read it before everyone else does.

MEET HUGH HOWEY: This Sunday, 3 March, in London at the Old Crown Public House, 33 New Oxford St, from 4:30-8:00 p.m. More details here.
Wool is available from Random House in the UK and Simon and Schuster in the US.
The next self-published omnibus in the trilogy, Shift (the prequel to Wool), is now available on Amazon, and will be available in the UK from Random House come April. Howey is currently working on the last book in the trilogy, Dust, which UK readers can expect from Random House in October.
You can find out more about Hugh Howey at

More Questions for Hugh Howey (**contains spoilers)

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Did you know from the start what was going to happen at the end of the trilogy? 

I didn’t have the plot until I saw the reaction to [the original short story], which was when I sat down and outlined the rest of it.

I knew what would happen at the end of Dust [the final book in the trilogy], which is what I’m working on right now. I did the same thing with my Molly Fyde series. I thought about the last scene of the fourth book while I was writing the first one. That doesn’t mean I don’t allow the story to surprise me along the way, but I have to know where a story is heading. Otherwise, I worry it will meander or that I’ll lose interest.

It was still released serially. I published as I wrote. But I didn’t have the ability to go back and change earlier works while working on later ones. It posed some challenges. I really had to know how the pieces fit together.

Do you worry that by the end of the trilogy you’d want to go back and change something?

If I worried about that too much, I wouldn’t get any writing done. Even when working on a single novel, there’s the fear that you’re making the wrong decision somewhere. You have to trust your gut and press forward.

Serial fiction is enjoying some popularity nowadays. What does it let you do that writing a novel doesn’t?

I think it fits the modern readers’ lifestyle. Not everyone has time to devote to a novel. They can read an instalment in bits and pieces. For those who want it all at once, they can wait and get a compilation for less money. TV has changed the way we view stories. Some people wait for the entire season before they watch the first episode. Books can be read either way. Kinda like how Dickens used to release his works.

Also, readers don’t have to wait a year or longer between instalments. They can stay engaged. But you have to do it correctly. These can’t be mere chapters doled out. They each have to be satisfying on their own. And they have to work seamlessly as a whole. It’s a tricky balance.

Right, and as a writer, does writing serially give you more immediate gratification? That you can know early on whether readers like it, and that encourages you to keep writing?

It does. But there’s also the pressure to keep up a release schedule. One of the benefits is getting feedback from readers as you write. It almost becomes collaborative. You can gauge reactions to certain characters and plot points, which takes the joy of having early draft readers to the next level. And it really gets readers invested in the success of a story. The buzz develops while it’s being released, so there are fans in place before the finished work is bound together.

A lot of these discoveries were happy accidents. I had no idea how any of this would work. I was just enjoying writing something that people were reading. The pros and cons didn’t occur to me until after.

Do you have a specific example in Wool that you’d changed or added because of a suggestion from a reader?

The reaction to the death of main characters showed me how powerful that could be. We are so used to major characters surviving anything. So I continued a trend just long enough for people to assume that I’d kill anyone they loved. And once that pattern was established, I changed tack again. By gauging expectations and reactions, I was able to make sure I wasn’t being predictable. That was a huge asset and a lot of devious fun. :) I believe some readers have cursed me. And I’m okay with that.

So, one thing that struck me about reading Wool was that as readers, we need to have a certain suspension of knowledge, because we know something the characters don’t. For example, you mention the “silo” and “pixels” early on, and I remember I wondered if they were supposed to mean what I know it to mean, or if it was a subverted version of what I knew it to be. How does this work?

One of the things I love about speculative fiction is that they can read like a mystery novel or a suspense thriller. Information is doled out a little bit at a time, like clues. The reader is on a journey of discovery. I think it’s why people find themselves up late at night with this story, unable to put it down. They want to read one more chapter to see what they might uncover next. It really puts them there with the protagonist, who is also trying to figure out what’s going on. They are in it together. John Grisham does this very well, as does Dan Brown. It’s something I pay close attention to as a reader and something I try to emulate.

Speaking of clues being excruciatingly doled out, will we read more about Juliette’s lover George and her relationship with her father in the upcoming books?

Yes. I’m actually saving the George story for a short piece that I’ll release on its own. It brings back Holston, and we get to watch him work that case, meet Jules, and the two interact together. I’ve already started it and have really enjoyed seeing these characters alongside one another. Marnes as well. I might make it free on my website, but also have it available elsewhere.

The relationship with her father will be touched on as well. I was just writing a scene with him in it recently.

Even knowing that going outside is a death wish, many of the silo’s citizens still want to go there. How do you reconcile the fear of a place with, at the same time, the desire to go there?

I think the urge to explore and escape can be strong enough to overcome every other fear. People make irrational choices all the time. They set off in ships with no idea of what’s beyond the horizon. And people elect to end their own lives in sad abundance.

My wife and I plan on sailing around the world one day. The desire to explore and tour is stronger than our wish to be perfectly safe.

Something I found interesting about Jules is that from the outset she seems like an unlikely heroine. She rarely ventures up the silo and is happy to stay where she is.

Two things, I guess: I love the “reluctant warrior” character trope. The person who doesn’t want to fight but is pressed into action. Those are my favourite heroes. I don’t enjoy the people raring for a fight.

Also, I worked as a roofer after working as a yacht captain. I moved from a world of luxury to one of arduous toil. I went from making USD$350 a day to making less than a third of that. And I was happier for it. I loved how I felt at the end of the day. It felt more purposeful, putting a roof over a family’s head than it felt to drive a billionaire around in their boat. I know that might sound weird, but it gave me an appreciation for blue-collar work, that it is more important in many ways to other forms of labour.

What is it about Juliette, do you think, that means she succeeds where others do not? And why was Marnes so keen on appointing her the sheriff?

Marnes and Holston worked with Jules in the down deep, which put her on his radar. It was also a political choice. A woman and someone from a different part of the silo.

Why she succeeds has to do with the knowledge she possesses with the help of her friends. Nobody had ever had these advantages. And her mechanical aptitude always helped her. She’s just a sound thinker, brave without being careless, compassionate and resourceful.

But she isn’t without her flaws. She has a difficult time forgiving her father. She has a tendency to run from some of her problems. And she can be single-minded when she’s tackling a project.

Now that you know what you know about self-publishing and Big-Six publishers, do you think you’ll continue with the former?

Yes. I’ll continue self-publishing, because I don’t want to delay the availability of my work. But if a publisher comes along afterward and wants to discuss taking these stories and pushing them to a wider audience, I’ll always entertain those discussions.

I read that on your home turf, Simon and Schuster has print rights to your book but not ebook rights. Would you say this an unconventional arrangement within publishing and was it hard to negotiate for this?

We didn’t really negotiate for it. We told publishers early on that this is what we would need to sign a deal. We were told it would never happen. What it required was the strength to walk away from very large sums of money before someone finally put the deal together. We turned down two seven-figure deals before S&S finally came up with this. They deserve all the credit in the world for being flexible and innovative.

I believe this was the first such deal from a big-six publisher. There has been at least one other since. And Bella Andre, a romance writer, got a similar deal from Harlequin a few weeks prior.

Your book has been described as “high-concept”. Do you think there are particular kinds of self-published books that succeed better than others?

I think the chances of a book becoming successful are pretty slim no matter how they are published. I worked as a bookseller for years, and it seemed as though only a few works were being discussed at any one time. Which means a lot of luck and good timing is involved. But any story can break out if it strikes a nerve with readers.

In self-publishing, it seems the genre works do the best. Romance, erotica, science fiction, fantasy. I don’t know if this is because the readers of genre have more insatiable appetites, publishers aren’t adequately meeting the demands, or what. I suspect it’s simply an imbalance of supply and demand. And self-published authors are eager to meet that demand.

Publishing houses are largely run by English majors. When I took creative writing classes in college, I was told not to write genre fiction. Everything was to be literary. I think this is a sad state of affairs. Writing is about storytelling more than it is about perfectly flowing prose. Think back to Homer and the oral tradition. Readers want excitement. I think we would be well served to have more English professors embracing genre fiction and more publishers giving it its due.

In the bookstore I worked in, we pushed all the genre out of sight and presented shoppers with the stories that fewer people seemed interested in. I always puzzled over that. The Hunger Games is science fiction. Harry Potter is fantasy. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is mystery/thriller. Fifty Shades of Grey is erotica. This is what people want to read. And we keep insisting that they love whatever is winning the literary awards. We put taste above sales, and I think that does our readers a disservice.

Do you think that is beginning to change though, with these big successes that you mentioned?

Yes. I do. Publishers are beginning to look at what is selling well that they aren’t profiting from, and I credit them with being so willing to adapt. But I don’t think English professors will ever change much. I hope I’m wrong.

Is there definitely going to be a film adaptation of Wool by Ridley Scott?

Nothing in Hollywood is definite, but I just spent a week in L.A. meeting with the production teams and the executives at Fox, and everyone is very excited about the possiblity of getting this on the big screen. I don’t know what the chances are right now, but I’d guess somewhere around 50/50, which is leagues better than I would have guessed a month ago.

So if you could choose, who would be your Jules, Lukas and Solo?

To be honest, I would prefer unknown actors. I like for a character to be himself, not someone famous. But that’s unlikely. Maybe Charlize Theron for Jules and Robin Williams for Solo. I don’t have a good Lukas in mind.

Fun question, since you’re now an author of the same publisher who published Ray Bradbury: If you were to find yourself in a Fahrenheit 451 world, which book would you save and why?

Shakespeare’s complete works. I think it’s the single most important volume of fiction ever set down.

Your Fairytale Fix: In Books, Films, TV, Exhibitions, and on the Stage.

We’ve been revisiting fairytales lately. The Grimm brothers’ annotated bicentennial edition, introduced by A. S. Byatt, was published recently by W. W. Norton, who also published, in 2007, an annotated edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales. Then there’s Phillip Pullman’s retelling of fifty of his favourites, Grimm Tales: for Young and Old, and Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales, in which she explores the forest as not only the backdrop, but also the source, of fairytales. Each chapter is a personal account of her visiting a forest, sometimes in the company of an illustrious friend, so that by the end of it she has visited twelve forests, spanning different seasons—each chapter ending with her re-imagination of a fairytale.

What’s unique about fairytales is how simply they are told. There is no characterisation; actions always speak louder than words. It’s never about what the princes and princesses, hapless fathers and evil stepmothers think; it’s always just about what they do. The tales are told in what James Merrill calls a “serene, anonymous” voice in his long poem The Changing Light at Sandover (1982); and as Pullman wrote, “All we need is the word ‘Once . . .’ and we’re off.”


It is precisely this simplicity that allows these tales to be told over and over again. A fairytale can be transplanted to any time and any place, even across cultures. Take Snow White for example. In this year alone there have been three movies dedicated to it, most obviously the two Hollywood adaptations—one supposedly comedic, starring Julia Roberts as the wicked stepmother (Mirror Mirror); and the other dark, featuring a feral Charlize Theron and the not-your-conventional-beauty Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman), in which the huntsman takes the place of the token Prince. But there is also the lesser known Blancanieves, a silent black-and-white film set in Seville, which screened at the London Film Festival recently. In this version, Snow White is the daughter of a famous bullfighter. When he is paralysed during a performance, she is raised, of course, by an evil stepmother. But instead of seven dwarfs, we have six miniature bullfighters; and instead of the magic mirror on the wall, it is the fashion media who determines who is the fairest of them all.

Each version of a fairytale can’t help but bear the marks of its storyteller. Even in Pullman’s intended “clear as water” retelling (he didn’t want to impose his “personal interpretations” or “compose poetic variations “), he admits—in the foreword to the book—”But even if we want to be serene and anonymous, I think it’s probably impossible to achieve it completely, and that our personal stylistic fingerprints lie impressed on every paragraph without our knowing it.” Some storytellers leave less obvious marks than others—Pullman less than Angela Carter with her collection The Bloody Chamber, for instance—but still discernible.

Fairytales have really enjoyed a revival in film. More adaptations are in the works, among them Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (re-imagined as a action/comedy flick), Jack the Giant Slayer (a spin off Jack and the Beanstalk), Maleficient (which promises to be dark simply by virtue of the casting of Angelina Jolie in the titular evil role), and many, many more. They haven’t been confined to the big screen either. There are two American TV series based on fairytales—Once Upon A Time and Grimm.

Hansel and Gretel

You can also catch some of your favourite fairytales on the London stage soon. Hansel and Gretel at the National Theatre (7 Dec 2012–January 2013), the Cinderella musical at the St James Theatre (12 Dec 2012–26 Jan 2013), and the Sleeping Beauty ballet at the London Coliseum (9 Jan–19 Jan 2013). Litro contributor Emma Osment also recently reviewed Rachel Rose Reid’s show, I’m Hans Christian Andersen, which will again be showing on Wednesday, 16 January, 8:30pm at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London.

Philip Pullman

More importantly, if you missed Philip at the headline event with Neil Gaiman recently (he was ill) and want to try catching him again, he will be at the Southbank Centre on 6 December, 7:30pm, to talk about his new collection of fairytales. Our Assistant Literary Editor Robin Stevens had the utmost pleasure of interviewing him yesterday, the results of which we’ll bring you soon, so watch this space.

And if you like art inspired by fairytales, head to the Gallery at Foyles (Charing Cross Road) for an exhibition, which will run till 8 December, to celebrate the bicentenary of Grimms’ fairy tales. It’s free; just turn up. While you’re there, make sure you pick up a free copy of our magazine by the counter.

If you know of any more fairytales-related goings-on, please let us know in the comments.

Save 7 December for the Novel Diner’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-themed Supperclub

(c) Quentin Blake

If you love literary supperclubs, make sure you make it to this one. There’s sure to be chocolates galore, though I’m sure there’ll be other surprises too.

The founders of the Novel Diner are Claire Coutinho, an intellectual events organiser, and Mina Holland, a arts and food writer. They have run several literary supperclubs already in London, from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past) to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I reviewed one earlier this year based on Donna Tartt’s The Secret Historya Greek tragedy set in an elite, modern-day liberal arts college in Vermont, New England—and would recommend their efforts. It’s bound to be a night well-spent in the company of book lovers and foodies alike.

Tickets are £35book here. The supperclub is on Friday, 7 December at 7:15pm at the Tea House Theatre on 139 Vauxhall Walk, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, London SE11 5HL (see map).

New Nobel Laureate Mo Yan’s hometown soon to be the Mo Yan theme park

Nobel Laureate Mo Yan

Here’s hypercapitalism at work in the book industry: following the Chinese author Mo Yan’s win of the Nobel prize for literature, Chinese Communist party officials plan to spend a whopping 70 million pounds (about $112 million) to turn his home village—the pastoral town of Ping’an in the eastern province of Shandong—into a “Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone”, starting with his family home.

According to the Beijing News, a local official, Mr Fan Hui, had told Mo Yan’s father, “Your son is no longer your son, and the house is no longer your house. It does not really matter whether you agree or not”, which is vaguely reminiscent of the stories of Olympic glory achieved at the expense of families, such as the 16-year-old diver Wu Minxia, who was told a slighter version of the truth about her mother’s battle with cancer while she was training hard, and only told that her grandmother had died (a year ago) after she won gold at the London Olympics. Her father reportedly told the Shanghai Morning Post, “We accepted a long time ago that she doesn’t belong entirely to us, I don’t even dare to think about things like enjoying family happiness.”

Scene from Red Sorghum. Gong Li in pink.

What’s more, a theme park based on Mo Yan’s 1987 novel and best known work, Red Sorghum (also made into a movie starring Gong Li—her film debut—and director Zhang Yimou), will also form part of the “Experience Zone”. Notwithstanding the fact that sorghum, a type of grain, ceased being planted in the area since the 1980s because it was unprofitable, reports say that Chinese officials plan to bring them back by planting 650 hectares of red sorghum.

It is not clear whether Mo Yan approves these projects.

More prizes for women’s fiction: in UK, Australia and Canada

Earlier in May this year, it seemed the English world’s premier global women’s prize for fiction was under threat. Orange had pulled their sponsorship to focus on film, and in a tough commercial climate it wasn’t clear who would step in to save it. Then, about a month ago, private donors (including Cherie Blair and bestselling writers Jonathan Trollope and Elizabeth Buchan) put up some money to keep the prize going for at least another year. It is now called the Women’s Prize for Fiction (WPF), and awaits another heavyweight sponsor for 2014 to assure its longevity.

Recently, both Canada and Australia also announced their own women’s prizes for fiction—the Rosalind prize and the Stella prize, respectively. This couldn’t have come at a better time, though it comes on the heels of some discouraging statistics. The foundation of both prizes was a response to the gender imbalance in published, reviewed and award-shortlisted and -winning books in their home countries; the Orange prize was itself established in response to the 1991 all-male shortlist for the Booker Prize.

So, do prizes like these help or harm the cause of equality? Some say it could end up relegating women writers to a separate category; after all, you don’t see the Men’s Prize for Fiction anywhere. But considering the hard numbers, it’s clear that some exposure for women’s writing is better than none at all, and the legacy of the Orange prize leaves us much to be hopeful about.

8 Nov, 9pm: Five stories from M. R. James’ 1904 collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

It’s no secret we’re a fan of the short ghost story master, M. R. James. Last week, we ran a Litro Lab episode featuring Robert Lloyd Parry who, in 2005, started adapting James’ stories for the stage in a one-man show, and who delighted us with a reading of “A School Story” (he has also started touring again—see dates here). In 2010, Litro Lab Producer Emily Cleaver had reviewed his performance of James’ short story, “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad“; and more recently, she came up with a short list of “Five Ghost Stories that Scared M. R. James“.

If you haven’t had enough and want to catch more of M. R. James, head down to the White Bear Theatre (Kennington, London) at 9pm tonight to watch a performance of five stories from James’ first 1904 collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. This is the first production of the collective, Never Heard Of It.

Neil Gaiman and Meg Rosoff discuss Phillip Pullman’s new collection of Grimm fairytales

LONDON, Mon, 29 Nov—I’d been eagerly anticipating the Phillip Pullman-Neil Gaiman event on Monday evening, only to see, when I arrived at the Cambridge Theatre’s entrance, an A4 piece of paper tacked on it apologising for Phillip Pullman’s absence, as he was ill. Still, there was Neil Gaiman to look forward to, and as stands-ins: American writer Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife), who read “The Three Snake Leaves” from Philip Pullman’s new collection of Grimm Tales (27 Sep/UK, 8 Nov/US; Penguin)—you can also hear Phillip Pullman’s own reading of this on BBC Radio 3—and award-winning American children’s author Meg Rosoff.

The order of the day was, of course, fairytales, and why they still matter today, with the discussion veering off in different directions—even Skyfall—and often returning to basics—What makes a story?—and the different ways in which American and British audiences take to horror. Wrapping up the event, Gaiman read a new story of his, “Click Clack the Rattlebag”, which you can download for free from Audiobooks (UK / USA / Germany)—and with every download Audiobooks will donate a small amount to a specified charity; in the UK, it’s £0.50 per download to Booktrust, an organisation which inspires kids to read. Do hurry, as the free download is only available through today. You can also listen to Phillip Pullman speak about his new collection on BBC Radio 4.

The biggest publisher in the world: House of the Random Penguin?

The emergence of the world’s biggest book publisher was announced today. Sadly, it won’t be called “House of the Random Penguin”, as our Arts Editor Becky Ayre suggested, but Penguin Random House. Random House owner Bertelsmann will own 53% of the newly created group, and Penguin owner Pearson 47%. Apparently, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, who owns HarperCollins, had tried to gatecrash the wedding, but didn’t get there in time, which probably relieves many. It is estimated that the new mammoth publisher will be responsible for a quarter of English language books worldwide. Is this a good thing, especially for authors and readers? Read Forbes“rapid reaction” piece to the news.

Martina Devlin & Jackie Kay at V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize evening

LONDON—Irish author Martina Devlin‘s story “Singing Dumb”, about a young girl from a rural community whose three-year-old brother is involved in a car accident, won the 2012 V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize—founded by the Royal Society of Literature for the best unpublished short story of the year. She wins a £1,000 cash prize, publication in Prospect magazine, and will join Jackie Kay—poet, novelist (Trumpet) and short story writer (her latest collection: Reality, Reality)—to read from their works at Somerset House on Monday, 5 November at 7pm.

Novel: San Miguel by T. C. Boyle

First edition (UK & US, 2012)

San Miguel is the latest literary offering from the prolific Tom Coraghessan Boyle (14 novels and nine short story collections to date), in which the eponymous island of the novel, rather than its human characters, is the protagonist—or rather, the antihero: an island never meant to be tamed.

Life in late 19th-century San Miguel is uncompromising. Boyle never relents, and throughout the book we are constantly pounded by a barrage of the harsh realities of living on the frontier, notwithstanding the inspiring sights of whales and elephant seals: every day “full of complications”, one cresting on another—each one taken by itself not backbreaking, but taken together make living more difficult by degrees. As part of the Channel Islands, located off the coast of Santa Barbara, California and cut off from the world, San Miguel is a barren, desert-like expanse—except for the fact of the rain and fog and the habitual plummets in temperature, the island almost constantly battered by the “keening, unholy, implacable” coastal winds that whip up earth and sand, which soon turn into a thick coat of batter clinging to every existing thing on the island, the lone house on the elevated plateau half-submerged by morning. And except, of course, for the sheep that populate the island, for which successive families give up everything to come to San Miguel, and upon which they intend to make their living, pioneering for a dream: an independent, self-sustaining life.

Among these dreamers are the Waters and the Lesters, who inhabited the island between 1888 and 1945, after the attack on Pearl Harbour (today San Miguel is part of the Channel Islands National Park). Boyle tells the two families’ stories through three women of different generations—first, Marantha Waters, a tuberculosis sufferer who comes to the island in search of healing air on her husband’s starry-eyed conviction; then her teenage daughter Edith, who dreams of becoming an actress but who becomes a sort of Cinderella to her stepfather instead; then Elise Lester, a newly married thirty-something New Yorker—in a pastoral triptych, reminiscent, according to Edith, of Wuthering Heights, but “it was one thing to picture the scene from a sofa in a San Francisco apartment and another to see it out the window”.

Elise’s story is infinitely more encouraging than Marantha’s and Edith’s, with its moments of levity, even happiness, to balance out the hardships. Elise shares her bipolar husband Herbie’s idealistic dreams of complete self-reliance and arrives at the island determined to make the best of everything; and unlike Marantha and Will, they are a happily married couple. Marantha, who had enjoyed middle-class comforts in San Francisco, is unable to get used to the facts of her new “devolved” existence: the mice infestation, the rain leaking through holes in the roof, the outdoor toilet without a flush and a good distance away, and her ever-present worry that Edith will end up with someone beneath her—Jimmie, the servant boy—for lack of other options. Marantha, who had harboured hopes for a warmer climate to alleviate her condition, feels betrayed by her husband’s misleading optimism, which serves only to mask his selfishness.

In her self-conceived prison, Marantha grows bitter every day, and one day, when she stumbles upon another betrayal, it all comes to a head—or so I thought it would. But actually, nothing quite comes to a head in San Miguel. Every time I think something’s going to happen, it doesn’t. Despite this, and to his credit, Boyle still manages to propel me along, so that I want to keep reading. Somehow, he manages to infuse his descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life with a narrative force that involves me entirely in the trials and tribulations of the women and their families, even though it never comes to a satisfying culmination.

T. C. Boyle. (c) Pablo Campos.

In the end, San Miguel doesn’t exactly read like a novel; it’s more like reading about three distinct lives through extracts of their biographies. I struggled to find a steady thread tying the three stories together, and it’s often jarring to move on so abruptly from one woman’s story to another; having invested myself in one character’s life, I find it difficult just to leave it behind—all of which serves to highlight the fact that although the island’s inhabitants may come and go, live or die, San Miguel is constant—it alone remains.

My initial feeling was that, although this book is based on real events and real lives, it is primarily a work of fiction, and as such, Boyle hasn’t taken the licence he could have to go further. But when I look at it as an insight into the history of the island, as a way of engaging with a real place in our world, as avid travellers are often inclined to do, then it takes on an altogether different hue. This is best read as an exploration of a place that serves as more than just a mise en scène, and of humanity’s relationship with nature.

San Miguel was first published on 18 September 2012 by Viking/Penguin (US) and on 11 October 2012 by Bloomsbury (UK). It is now available in hardback and ebook. For more on T. C. Boyle, visit Thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a review copy.

Lit News Round-up: 13 October 2012

Lena Dunham in Girls

We were all agape—and green with envy—when Lena Dunham‘s yet-to-be-written debut collection of coming-of-age essays, tentatively titled Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned, sparked a heated bidding war and finally received a jaw-dropping advance of reportedly $3.5–$3.7 million from Random House. Of course, Dunham is the creator and star of HBO’s much talked about and Emmy-winning TV series, Girls, and has been vaunted as the voice of her generation—or at least, a voice—and she is only 26. Writer Jason Pinter delves into the economics of Dunham’s deal, and the Huffington Post looks at some of the biggest book deals ever made.

You can still book tickets to watch the Man Booker prize shortlisted authors (here’s a Guardian piece where they each introduce their novels) read at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall at 7:30pm on Monday, 15 October. The winner will be announced shortly after 9:40pm the next day on 16 October on the BBC News Channel and BBC World. The winner’s event, held for the first time ever, will be on Thursday, 18 October at 7pm, at the Apple Store in Covent Garden; the winner will discuss what it feels like to win the coveted award. This is an exclusive event, but you can win tickets via the TelegraphBookhugger, and, amongst others.

Mo Yan

Speaking of literary prizes, Mo Yan, 57—author of several novels including Red Sorghum, which was successfully adapted into a film by Zhang Yimou, and Big Breasts & Wide Hips—is the first Chinese citizen, though not the first Chinese, to win the Nobel prize for literature. Gao Xingjian (Soul Mountain, One Man’s Bible), a Chinese-born dissident now living in exile in France with French citizenship, won the prize in 2000; however, his work is laden with criticism of the Chinese communist government and banned in China—so his win was a point of ignominy for the Chinese government. Not so for Mo Yan, though not everyone is celebrating either. The artist and political activist Ai Weiwei recognises Mo Yan’s literary achievements but calls his win “an insult to humanity and to literature” because of the cosy relationship he enjoys with Chinese authorities. Mo Yan has managed to placate Chinese censors by employing what the Swedish Academy describes as “hallucinatory realism“—a mixture of folk tales, history and the contemporary—for which he has been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William FaulknerAs a son of the cultural revolution, his pen name “Mo Yan” means “don’t speak”, and as such he has surprised many by speaking up for jailed fellow laureate Liu Xiaobo. SOAS professor of Chinese Michel Hockx is reported saying, “I don’t like the idea that Chinese writers are only good if they challenge the government—a good writer is a good writer. It’s not a good yard stick of anything; are the only good British writers the ones who speak out against the war?” The Millions has a round-up of Mo Yan’s work.

Private donors, including Cherie Blair and the novelist Joanna Trollope, have come forward to save what is now called the Women’s Prize for Fiction after the mobile services company Orange announced its withdrawal of sponsorship earlier in May. The Prize is awarded for the best novel of the year written by a woman writing in English—whatever her nationality, country of residence, age or subject matter—and published in the UK. The winner receives a cheque for £30,000 and a bronze figurine known as “the Bessie”.

One of the most-awaited literary adaptations this year, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road hit the big screens yesterday here in the UK. It might interest you to know that the original manuscript on which the author famously typed his streams of consciousness in 1951 is a 120ft-long roll of paper, which is now on display at the British Library until December 27.

After more than a century, the stories of “Miss Gladden”, the first female sleuth of British fiction, is in print again. The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester (1832– c.1909) was first published in 1864, and is now republished by the British Library. The book features several cases—typical of detective fiction at the time—and also contains a foreword written by Alexander McCall Smith, author of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Available here.

HarperCollins is also to publish J.R.R. Tolkien’s never-before-seen 200-page poem, The Fall of Arthur, next spring. In the epic tale, King Arthur tries to protect his country from Mordred the usurper—not inspired by Middle Earth.

Lit News Round-up: 6 October 2012

Quirky food artists Bompas and Parr, who specialise in designing weird and wonderful culinary experiences on an architectural scale (notably with jelly), have created “The Waft that Woos“—a mirror maze navigable only by nose, as you follow the scent of what they call the “Shakespearean love oil”. Influenced by Shakespeare’s comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, you can catch it for free at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon from 6 October to 7 April 2013. The dynamic duo have also invented: a Willy Wonka-style flavour-changing gum that changes flavour as you chew; a chocolate waterfall; and “Alcoholic Architecture”, where gin infuses the air like mist. Like magic!


The 56th London Film Festival kicks off soon at the British Film Institute in Southbank, from 10 to 21 October. Some adaptations of great literature to look forward to: Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein twisted for an animation film: Young Victor’s dog is killed in a car accident, but the boy finds a way of bringing the canine back to life with a bizarre science experiment), Mohsin Ahmad’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Rushdie will be at the BFI on 15 October at 6:30pm to talk about the process of adapting his Booker Prize-winning novel.

The director of We Need To Talk About Kevin has secured financing for her sci-fi film Mobius, which retells the tale of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in an unusual setting: outer space.

Daniel Radcliffe

Daniel Radcliffe will star in another film adapted from a novel, but this project is a million miles away from the Harry Potter franchise. Radcliffe takes up the lead role in an adaptation of Joe Hill‘s 2010 novel, Horns. His character wakes up one day and discovers a pair of horns protruding from his head, and it gets stranger still as these ghastly pointed features provides him with the power to discover other people’s darkest emotions and thoughts.

To mark National Poetry Day on 4 October, London’s Piccadilly Lights were emblazoned with words from the poem I Am The Song by the Cornish writer, Charles Causley. Faber also celebrates by giving away an audio download of sixty poems from Carol Ann Duffy’s anthology, Jubilee Lines.

Myrmidon and Canongate are to co-publish one of this year’s Man Booker prize shortlisted books, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, to help it reach the widest possible audience. Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, another shortlisted book published by a small press, And Other Stories, has also been co-published with a mainstream publisher, Faber & Faber, to meet major demand for the book.

Teenage Writers: Bonafide Wunderkinds?

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and Frank McCourt (1930-2009)

We live in a culture that fetishises youth. When we’re young, all mistakes are forgivable; we’re just finding ourselves, testing our boundaries. We make excuses for our younger selves: we’re just late bloomers—it’ll happen, in good time, whatever “it” is. We make such allowances for young people because they have something their elders no longer do: potential—that whisper of possibility, of change. Of course, there is the occasional author who makes it when they’re past their fifties—Raymond Chandler published his first short story at 45, and his first novel, The Big Sleep, at 51, only after losing his job during the Depression; Frank McCourt published his first book, Angela’s Ashes, when he was 66, and won a Pulitzer for it—but “potential” is a word usually reserved for the young. On X Factor you’re considered “old” if you’re above 28; luckily, we writers have more time to fulfil our ambitions—until we’re 35, or 40. Just as we are heartened that someone “past their prime” can still start doing great work, so we are understandably impressed when young people—kids, even—show themselves to be early achievers. Some might say prematurely, but it doesn’t matter. Put youth and genius together, and we are seduced totally. It’s the dream, and we badly want to believe in it. As we’ve seen, however, writing a bestselling book has little to do with writing a good book—so are these teenagers bonafide wunderkinds, or one-hit wonders successful only by virtue of having done something so unexpected for their age?

Anne Frank (April 1941)

When we think of teenagers turned writers, Anne Frank, whom the Pulitzer prize-winning American novelist Phillip Roth (The Human Stain) once called the “lost little daughter” of Kafka, leaps readily to mind. Between the ages of 13 and 15, she wrote in a diary—calling it “Kitty” like it was a real friend—while she was in hiding with her family in the secret attic of her father’s office building in Amsterdam during the German occupation. She wrote about the quiet upheaval of her family’s life and her own coming-of-age experiences: her fears, her hopes, her relationship with her family, her first love—”I give myself completely. But one thing, He may touch my face, but no more.” She wrote her last entry on 1 August 1944; someone had betrayed the Frank family’s whereabouts to the Nazis, and Anne eventually died of typhus at a concentration camp in Germany in March 1945.

Anne’s diary was published two years after her death; however, the English version only surfaced in 1952, as The Diary of a Young Girl. It hadn’t found immediate favour with American and British publishers; Alfred A. Knopf had apparently dismissed it as a “dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” That soon changed, and now, almost seven decades later, Anne’s diary continues to stand the test of time. What I found especially interesting about Anne’s diary was that it hadn’t been intended simply as a private, personal record. It certainly began as such, but Francine Prose‘s Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife revealed that when Anne heard an exiled member of the Dutch government on radio announce his intention to create a public record—including letters and diaries—of the German occupation, she began re-reading her old entries, editing and rewriting them—even creating pseudonyms for the people she wrote about—with the hope that it would be published some day. This reveals Anne as a precocious young writer, for whom publication wasn’t simply an “accident”, but the result of some deliberation.

Christopher Paolini

It began pretty much the same way for American fantasy geek Christopher Paolini, who was only 15 when he started writing his boy-meets-dragon tale, Eragon. He’s said in interviews that publication wasn’t his motivation; he wanted to write a story he would enjoy reading himself. In the Writer Magazine, he wrote, “Like a lot of kids my age, I’d sit with my math book open, and stare out the window and daydream about what I’d really want to be doing, which is riding around on a dragon and fighting monsters. Basically, I wrote down my daydreams.” But it soon became a serious project.

Christopher first self-published Eragon with the help of his family. Rolling Stone described it as a “mom and pop—and brother and sister—business run by a clan of introverts living on the prairie”—Paradise Valley, Montana, to be exact. They did everything themselves—editing, typesetting, marketing; Christopher designed his own cover and drew the accompanying illustrations. When he travelled across the country to peddle the book from door to door, dressed up in medieval costume, the whole Paolini clan went along. Still, it wasn’t quite working out, until the son of writer Carl Hiaasen brought the book to his attention, and he to his publisher, Knopf. In 2003, Christopher—aged 19—became a New York Times bestseller; and in 2006, Eragon was adapted into a Hollywood film. The last of the series was published last year, and its deluxe edition will be available on 23 October.

Almost ten years have passed, and Paolini is now something like 28. It remains to be seen how his writing will mature, if he will be known for anything else other than this seriesAlready, Christopher is no stranger to criticism: his writing hasn’t exactly won fans over for its sophistication, and he has been widely accused of being derivative, taking inspiration one step too far—particularly of Tolkien. His critics gleefully quote him often from an essay he wrote, saying: “In my writing, I strive for a lyrical beauty somewhere between Tolkien at his best and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf“—surely an earnest expression of a boy who loves what he does, but which you can imagine they didn’t take to kindly.

Nancy Yi Fan loves birds

These kids get even younger. Nancy Yi Fan, who was born in China and moved to America when she was seven, published her first, bestselling book in the Swordbird trilogy (2008, Harper Collins)—an allegorical fantasy about tribes of warring birds and the struggle for peace—when she was merely 13. She hadn’t even gone through an agent. she’d simply emailed her manuscript straight to the big publishing houses, aiming right at the top: one of them was Jane Friedman, then the CEO of Harper Collins. Within a month, she had a book deal; the Telegraph reported that Friedman had admitted, “We were planning to enter the Chinese market so, yes, the idea that she was Chinese was appealing.” Still, Nancy was much celebrated, and appeared on Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey as one of the world’s smartest kids—proof: she also translated the books herself into Chinese for a bilingual edition (that’s right, English is her second language). Sword Mountain, the final book in the trilogy, was released earlier in July this year. She currently studies at Harvard.

Alec Greven

America also lays claim to the youngest writer ever published (I think): Alec Greven, who was just nine when he first published in 2008. He is your new-age, self-help kid guru, with five titles already under his belt, including the tongue-in-cheek book that shot him to fame: How to Talk to Girls, which started as a hit school project. A bestseller, it was also dignified with a review in Time magazine; he’s also appeared on Ellen DeGeneres (instrumental in getting his book published), Conan O’Brien, and Jay Leno. Here’s one of his tips on love: “If you are in elementary school, try to get a girl to like you, not to love you. Wait until middle school to try to get her to love you. Otherwise, you have to hold on to her for a long time and that would be very hard.”

Helen Oyeyemi

Britain is no stranger to budding talents, either. In fact, it boasts a legendary example that goes far, far back in time: Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein when she was 19, though it was published two years later, in 1818. More recently, there was the 2005 novel, The Icarus Girl, by then 19-year-old British-Nigerian Helen Oyeyemi, who migrated to London when she was four and completed her first book in a jaw-dropping seven weeks while she was still studying her A-levels. By the time she received her results, she had already signed a two-book deal with Bloomsbury for a reported £400,000. Helen has impressed many with the quality of her writing—the New York Times said it was “[d]eserving of all its praise”, a “masterly first novel”—and she is incredibly prolific, even while juggling her studies at Cambridge: since 2005, she’s written three other novels and two plays. Her third, supernatural novel, White is for Witching, won the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award for writers under 35.

Abigail Gibbs

Two more British young writers are set to join this line-up, one of them recovering British ground in a field now populated by American writers. Abigail Gibbs, who is 18 and about to start studying English at Oxford University, has secured secured a six-figure sum for a two-book deal with Harper Collins—the first being The Dark Heroine: Dinner With a Vampire, which was inspired by Twilight. It centers around 18-year-old Violet Lee, who witnesses a horrific mass murder in Trafalgar Square before being kidnapped into a world of vampires. Abigail began writing at 15, self-publishing online as “Canse12” on Wattpad, an online community where users can publish their stories; she has been read over 17 million times. She’d published 20 chapters of her novel online (which you can still read here) before she was discovered by a literary agent, who advised her not to post the rest of the novel. Those who want to find out the ending will have to buy the book; it is already out in ebook, and will be out in paperback on the 11th this month. You can read an extract here.

Samantha Shannon

Another Oxford undergraduate, Samantha Shannon, has also landed a six-figure book deal for her debut, The Bone Season, and two prequels with Bloomsbury. She is not strictly a teen—she’s 20—but she has already been compared to J. K. Rowling: by virtue of them sharing the same publisher, and of her intention to spread out the entire adventure over seven books. It is a dystopian adventure set in 2059 London, and centers around Paige, a 19-year-old clairvoyant—whose “gift” constantly endangers her life—and member of a criminal gang. The Man Booker shortlisted novelist Ali Smith was apparently the one who recognised Samantha’s talent during a workshop and recommended she send the book to an agent. The Bone Season is Samantha’s first published book, though not the first she has written; in 2010, she sent her fantasy novel, Aurora, to ten agents, but was rejected by all of them. With her persistence and hard work (she reportedly writes up to 15 hours a day), however, The Bone Season will be published in August 2013. You can keep up with her publishing journey here.

Many have questioned the wisdom of young writers rushing to land book deals, instead of waiting it out a few more years—perhaps until their vision and writing have matured, until they have experienced more of life. In a Guardian blog titled “Teen authors should be encouraged, but not always published“, Imogen Russell Williams suggested that Harper Collins should have waited to publish Nancy Yi Fan, though she should be “praised for her perseverance” in completing the trilogy. This will certainly be true in some cases, just as it is true for books written by adults. The considerations that go into deciding whether a book should be published should be the same regardless of how old the author is, and the fact is that some books, regardless of their “literary” merit, are published and become bestsellers–sometimes for good reason, sometimes not so much. For instance, I think the writing in the Twilight saga leaves much to be desired, but I really enjoyed it while I was reading it—I was so caught up in What happens next? I finished all four books in a weekend—though it is not the sort of book that now, having left it, I find myself missing. Still, I’m glad that I ever got to read it. I can’t say the same for Fifty Shades of Grey—I couldn’t force myself more than halfway through—and when people ask me about it, I tell them it’s like Sweet Valley with soft porn. Judging from the skyrocketing sales, though, many people like it, and surely that’s enough justification for its publication.

I think what’s more important than the age of the author is the audience they’re writing for. Notably, most published works by young authors are aimed at their peers (which is not to say adults won’t read them), and they tend to deal with supernatural/fantasy/dystopian themes, in which plot action is what carries the story through, so perhaps life experience doesn’t count so much towards writing; it’s not the same as doing a Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road), who ranks for me as one of the most perceptive writers of the human condition I’ve ever read (but then again, they call him an “author’s author“, which is to say, he wasn’t very much read). We read them for their ingenuity and their unique voice. For many young readers, reading a book by someone of similar age means reading someone they can relate to. I’ve picked up a book by an author several times on the strength of how I feel I can relate to them through their biographies, of the extent to which it’s likely to influence what they write about, and consequently, what matters to me.

Personally, I think it defeats the point of it all to try to separate the work of teenage prodigies from who they are. When it comes to the books of young writers, their relative youth is part of what makes them great; it is part of their allure. You think, Wow. I have to see this!  (This isn’t the same as saying, of course, that there aren’t “bad” books written by teenage wunderkinds; they exist, and so do “bad” books written by adults.) Generally, I think that when we read a book for the first time, written by an author we’ve never read before, we read without having a care as to who the author is—unless we enjoyed it so much and want to read more of their books, and unless the author’s biography particularly stands out. Inevitably, whenever a writer’s story is out of the ordinary, it, too, becomes part of the story—and teenage authors are very much out of the ordinary.

Lit News Round-up: 28 September 2012

Jeffrey Eugenides. Photo by Grant Delin for Interview.

There has been much talk about the gender imbalance in literature, especially encouraged when VIDA, an organisation founded in 2009 to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women, came up with some pie charts in 2011 that track the number of women and men both reviewing and being reviewed at some of the most popular publications on both sides of the atlantic. The latest author to weigh in on this debate is Jeffrey Eugenides (The Marriage Plot, Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides). In an interview with Salon, when asked if books by men and women on similar topics are received differently, he dismissed the issue, saying that he didn’t know why Jodi Picoult, a commercially successful author, was “belly-aching“: “It seems to me that there’s a difference between the kinds of books that Jonathan Franzen writes and Jodi Picoult writes – so it’s not surprising to me that they’re treated differently in terms of review coverage or literary coverage. I don’t think that’s based on gender.” Yesterday, Linda Holmes of NPR incisively unravelled the merits of Eugenides’s comments.

A few days ago Peter Stothard, the chair of this year’s Man Booker prize judges, told the Independent that blogging is destroying literary criticism. Some responses herehere, and here.

Paul Hilton in Doctor Faustus

Shakespeare on the big screen: You can now catch three stage plays that originally ran at the Shakespeare’s Globe last year—All’s Well That Ends Well (from 26 Sep/UK), Much Ado About Nothing (from 10 Oct/UK), Doctor Faustus (from 24 Oct/UK)on the big screen at local cinemas in the UK, USA, Australia, and New Zealand. Visit for more details.

Penguin sues authors for failing to deliver books they were signed up to write. Here’s apparently the full list by literary blogger Edward Champion.

T. S. Eliot

The Huffington Post celebrated what would have been the 124th birthday of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) on 26 September with a gallery of his best quotes and images. One of them—”I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”—from the poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It is probably worth also going back to his Paris Review interview.

As we mentioned here, J. K. Rowling‘s new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, launched at the Southbank Centre yesterday. Here is a video of the highlights.

The Southbank Centre has some great literature and spoken word events coming up in the next few months. D. T. Max (author of the biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story), Richard Ford (Canada), Orhan Pamuk (Snow, Museum of Innocence), Pat Barker (Toby’s Room, the Regeneration trilogy), New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon), Edna O’Brien (The Country Girls), Phillip Pullman (the His Dark Materials trilogy), and this year’s shortlisted Man Booker prize authors will all be making an appearance. Phillip Pullman will also be comparing notes with Neil Gaiman at the Cambridge Theatre, London on Monday, 29 October at 7:30pm—bound to sell out so get your tickets here now!

The Verdict So Far on J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

Have a look here at other new releases today.

J. K. Rowling’s new, long-awaited first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, has finally been set free into the world today after a watertight security lockdown enforced upon it by the commercial cogs of the publishing industry.

More than a few stories have been told of the heavy handedness of Rowling’s publishers: the Guardian‘s Decca Aitkenhead and the New Yorker‘s Ian Parker were both granted early access to read the book, but they could only read it under tight supervision in the UK and US offices of Little, Brown, and only after they had agreed to sign, as Aitkenhead puts it, “more legal documents than would typically be involved in buying a house”; Parker reported that the first draft of the non-disclosure agreement he signed had even prohibited him from taking notes. The Independent was also required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before an advanced copy was hand-delivered to them, but refused because the terms were too onerous. Matthew Bell revealed, “Embargoes are normal, but within the legalese, [Literary Editor Katy] Guest found a clause stating that even the existence of the agreement could not be mentioned. A sort of publishing superinjunction.”

The merits of The Casual Vacancy will slowly become more apparent over the next few weeks, months and years, but for the moment, the book seems to be most notorious for showing what Bell described as “the ruthless, bullying side of publishing that has become all too common.” Bell added, “But the real losers in all this are the readers. Two million orders are thought to have been placed worldwide for The Casual Vacancy before its release. Yet nobody knows if it’s any good.”

In the spare, early glimpses we’ve had of Rowling’s new book, Ian Parker’s was mildly encouraging (“The Casual Vacancy will certainly sell, and it may also be liked. […] But whereas Rowling’s shepherding of readers was, in the Harry Potter series, an essential asset, in The Casual Vacancy her firm hand can feel constraining. She leaves little space for the peripheral or the ambiguous; hidden secrets are labelled as hidden secrets, and events are easy to predict.”) and Decca Aitkenhead’s positively ecstatic (“When I tell [J. K Rowling] I loved the book, her arms shoot up in celebration. “Oh my God! I’m so happy! That’s so amazing to hear. Thank you so much! You’ve made me incredibly happy. Oh my God!” Anyone listening would take her for a debut author, meeting her first ever fan.”) But today, upon the book’s release, comes the real reckoning.

J. K. Rowling

London’s bookshops opened earlier than usual this morning to try to catch more sales of Rowling’s new book, but it hasn’t panned out as they had hoped. The Evening Standard reported that “The Harry Potter author’s foray into adult fiction with The Casual Vacancy sold only four copies in the first hour of trading at Foyles’s Charing Cross Road branch, despite it opening an hour early and ordering 1,000 copies to cope with the demand.” But this could be because most people who want to read the book have already ordered a copy, hitting a record 2.6 million in pre-orders.

And what do the reviews have to say? They’ve been flooding in since midnight today and so far they have been mixed, but what they seem to agree on is that The Casual Vacancy is bleak and pitiless, and its characters unlikable. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote, “Instead of an appreciation for the courage, perseverance, loyalty and sense of duty that people are capable of, we are left with a dismaying sense of human weakness, selfishness and gossipy stupidity.”

What all critics also concur on is that this book is not for children. Laden with scenes of prostitution, rape, domestic violence, drugs, swearing and phrases like “that miraculously unguarded vagina”, will parents have to keep the book at arm’s length from their kids? In her interview with Ian Parker, Rowling defends her decision to write such a book: “There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher.” But this is a debate for another day.

The big question is: can The Casual Vacancy live up to the hype? Ever?

The answer seems to be leaning towards “No”, even for critics who enjoyed the book. Understandably, it would be difficult for any act to follow the stratospheric success of the Harry Potter series.

The Mirror Books Editor Henry Sutton has the most affirmative review for Rowling new venture, giving it five stars:

Perhaps the biggest surprise after months of secrecy and false leads is that the world’s best-known, best-loved and best-selling author, is the real deal, more than equipped to tackle the grown-up world.

But other critical reaction has been rather lukewarm, or downright negative.

Theo Thait of the Guardian describes the book as a “solid, traditional and determinedly unadventurous English novel”.

The Casual Vacancy is no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny. I could imagine it doing well without any association to the Rowling brand, perhaps creeping into the Richard and Judy Book Club, or being made into a three-part TV serial. The fanbase may find it a bit sour, as it lacks the Harry Potter books’ warmth and charm; all the characters are fairly horrible or suicidally miserable or dead. But the worst you could say about it, really, is that it doesn’t deserve the media frenzy surrounding it.

Allison Pearson of the Telegraph gives it 3 out of 5 stars:

Invariably, the author is best when she is back on home ground, dealing with the teenage characters, their inchoate yearnings and lonely friendships. She gets under the skin of Andrew, Krystal and Fats in a way she fails to with the adults, all of whom are unlikeable or annoying, except Barry Fairbrother. And that’s cheating, because Barry is dead.

The book is at its weakest when it is most angrily political, satirising what JK’s friend, Gordon Brown, calls “bigots”. And the novel pretty much explodes towards the end, losing shape in its fury at the dirty, unfair England that we Muggles have made for ourselves.

David Sexton of the Evening Standard:

The problem for Rowling’s legions of fans will be that she has forgotten to include any basic likeability in her characters here or any real suspense as to what will happen – or deliberately chosen not to supply it, now she no longer needs to do anything other than what she wants. The book is quite punishing to read and the view of human nature it takes is more fundamentally lowering than that of the most cynical French aphorist.

Jan Moir of Mail Online describes the novel as having “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat.” She writes that it won’t live up to expectations…

Not unless you happen to be, like J.K. Rowling herself, the kind of blinkered, Left-leaning demagogue quick to lambast what she perceives to be risible middle-class values, while failing to see that her own lush thickets of dearly held emotions and prejudices are riddled with the same narrow-mindedness she is so quick to detect in others.

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times:

Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that “The Casual Vacancy” is not only disappointing — it’s dull.

It’s as though writing about the real world inhibited Ms. Rowling’s miraculously inventive imagination, and in depriving her of the tension between the mundane and the marvelous constrained her ability to create a two-, never mind three-dimensional tale.

Rowling told the Guardian that “The worst that can happen is that everyone says, ‘Well, that was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids’ and I can take that.” Well, at least one reviewer thought that.

Monica Hesse in the Washington Post:

Throughout ‘The Casual Vacancy’ I could not stop from having one overarching thought, which the devoted fan in me loathes to share since I’m certain it’s the one Rowling is most loath to hear: This book would be a little better if everyone were carrying wands.

So, if you’re a fan of Harry Potter, would you read The Casual Vacancy? If you’re not a fan of Harry Potter, would you read it?

Event Tonight
J. K. Rowling will be at the Southbank Centre tonight to launch The Casual Vacancy. Tickets have, of course, sold out, but you can watch her read live on the Southbank Centre's YouTube channel from 19:30 BST. The live stream will end at 20:25 and will not include the audience Q&A or the book signing.

Lit News Round-up: 21 September 2012

Stephen King

Happy 65th birthday, Stephen King! There’s a lot to look forward to next year for fans of the author. Thirty-six years after The Shining, we will soon find out what happens to Danny Torrance, the boy who survived the horrific events, in the sequel Doctor Sleep, which is set to be published in September 2013. King will also release a new novel, Joyland, in June next year under the Hard Case Crime imprint. Many of King’s novels have been adapted for film; The Shining was directed by Stanley Kubrick and starred Jack Nicholson. Cary Fukunaga, director of the most recent Jane Eyre starring Michael Fassbender, plans to take on King’s 1986 bestselling ITpreviously adapted into a 1990 mini TV seriesand split it into two feature-length releases.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, about Captain Ahab’s obsession with destroying the big white whale, is regarded as one of America’s finest novels, but many haven’t read it. As such, the artist Angela Cockayne and writer Philip Hoare have kicked off a new project to democratise the mighty magnificence of Melville’s writing: Moby Dick Big Read, launched September 16. This could be your new daily ritual: listen to all 135 chapters from Melville’s monolithic tome read out loud—then broadcast online in separate downloads—over 135 days by a range of writers, musicians, artists, scientists, and academics. Notably, Tilda Swinton, who previously starred in We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Chronicles of Narnia, has performed the first chapter, “Loomings”. You can also look forward to upcoming recordings by sci-fi author China Miéville, actor Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Sir David Attenborough (who needs no introduction), and UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Moby Dick Big Read supports the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), so although the readings are available for free, you are invited to make a donation to the charity. And if you want to see Moby Dick Big Read live, click here to find out more.

Another new live storytelling night makes its debut in London. Presented by Future Perfect, Juke Box Story is an event series of tales inspired by music. The first meet-up is tonight at 7:30pm, featuring a line-up of stories, each inspired by an ’80s pop song, at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. Get tickets on the door.

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie, whose memoir Joseph Anton was published just a few days ago, has already been longlisted as one of 14 titles for the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, worth £20,000. It is written in third person about his years in hiding under the threat of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, which condemned Rushdie to death on Valentine’s Day, 1989 in the wake of the publication of The Satanic Verses. Apparently, the fatwa still stands; and not only that, it was reported last weekend that an Iranian religious foundation headed by Ayatollah Hassan Saneii had raised the bounty on Rushdie’s head by half a million dollars to $3.3 million (£2 million). The reason: outrage over a film insulting the Prophet Mohammad that has nothing to do with Rushdie. Hassan Saneii reportedly said in a statement, “It [the film] won’t be the last insulting act as long as Imam Khomeini’s historic order on executing the blasphemous Salman Rushdie is not carried out.” Rushdie has dismissed this as mere “talk”. You can catch five extracts from the book on BBC Radio 4 from 17-21 September, 9:45-10:00 a.m.

This isn’t exactly literary news, but since Time Out London is such a great source of literary and cultural events in London, we thought you’d be excited to know that… Time Out London is going free. Yes, FREE! From next Tuesday, 25 September, you can pick up your free copy at tube stations and at big museums and galleries. More information here. Also, an interesting look at its radical roots.

Lit News Round-up: 14 September 2012

The 2012 BBC International Short Story Award shortlist will be announced on Front Row tonight at 7:15pm. The shortlisted stories will be read by some of Britain’s most popular actors on Radio 4 every day at 3:30pm from Monday, 17 September. You can also catch the shortlisted writers on Monday, 15 October at 7:30pm at the Southbank Centre; buy your tickets here.

Anne Hathaway performing “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”

The Literary Death Match, a worldwide live reading series featuring famous authors—and judges—wants to get on TV. Back their pilot episode, which will feature, amongst others, Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief; Rin Tin Tin) and Diablo Cody (Juno; Young Adult).

This isn’t new news, but in case you haven’t heard, following the sucess of Samuel L. Jackson‘s reading of Go the Fuck to Sleep, announced the launch of the A-List collection last year, which so far has the likes of Anne Hathaway performing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Susan Sarandon The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, Annette Benning Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Nicole Kidman Sylvia Plath’s The Lighthouse, and Diane Keaton Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays by Joan Didion about her experiences in California during the 1960s, amongst others, and with more to come. Based in the UK? You can buy some of the books here.

There’s been a lot of brouhaha over the state of book reviews recently—whether positive, benign, or negative. The Millions has published an article rounding-up different aspects of the debate so far, which then goes on to dissect some book reviews. The conclusion: “Reaction. Summary. Aesthetic and historical appraisal: these are the four classical elements of literary criticism.”

Ponte Milvio. Photo by Jon Worth.

The Guardian reported that Roman officials are putting a stop to the trend of young couples attaching “love padlocks” to the ancient Ponte Milvio and then disposing of the keys in the river, a trend which has spread to other parts of Europe including Paris and Prague. The amorous tradition was inspired by the 2006 Italian teen novel I Want You by Federico Moccia, who had this to say: “The removal of the locks is inconsiderate,” he told La Repubblica. “Rome is handing Paris the ‘bridge of love’ tradition, which was born here and should stay here.”

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

Yesterday was Roald Dahl Day. The Huffington Post commemorated the event by collating 20 best humorous quotes from the well-loved author’s books, like “Whipped cream isn’t whipped cream at all if it hasn’t been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn’t poached eggs unless it’s been stolen in the dead of night,” from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. There is also the Dahlicious Dress Up Day in aid of Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Charity to alleviate the lives of seriously ill children. What happens: primary school children all over the country pay £1 to go to school dressed as a Roald Dahl character. The Guardian has some ideas.

Novel: John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

UK hardcover (Sep 2012)

Early signs of Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast are promising, especially if you a judge a book by its embossed cover—and the intricate illustrations contained within its pages—made more potent by its synopsis, which made me really want to read the book. Sadly, in the end this early promise doesn’t extend to the entirety of the novel, but for the first third of it at least, I remain enthralled.

There is something mythical and fairytale-like—in the Grimm sense—in the way the story begins:

The packhorses crept down the valley. Swept by waves of fine grey rain, the distant beasts lurched under pack-chests and sacks. At their head, a tall figure leaned into the drizzle as if pulling them away from the dark village above. Standing beside the wooden bridge at the bottom, a long-faced young man peered out from under his hat’s dripping brim and grinned.

Instantly, it incites my curiosity. I want to know what the packhorses are carrying (I especially like how Norfolk calls them “distant beasts”, a small detail which really magnifies the feel of the novel), what the dark village is, who the long-faced young man is and what business he has with the tall figure descending the valley. The importance of a strong start to a novel can’t be understated, and this is possibly one of the best first paragraphs I’ve ever read.

Soon, we learn that one of the packhorses is carrying a boy to Buckland Manor. The boy is John Sandall, now an orphan. He had lived with his mother on the fringes of a village in Buckland Vale, at turns shunned and sought after; his mother was a medicine woman who delivered many of the newborns in the village and cured the villagers’ ailments, but many believed she was capable of such powers only because she was a witch. They bore John and his mother with grudging tolerance, until the plague came; then they blamed her for it, and drove her and her son out into Buccla’s Wood, so named for the witch who, according to legend, had bewitched the whole Vale with her Feast until Saint Clodock reclaimed it “for God”.

While they took refuge in the woods, John’s mother passed on to him everything she knew, and together they conjured feasts of their imaginations even as they subsist on apples and bread made from chestnuts. Soon, she reveals to him that in fact, Buccla wasn’t really a witch; she was Bellica, who had brought her Feast to the Vale after the Romans abandoned Britain. Buccla’s Wood is the only thing—that is, besides John and his mother—that remains of Saturnus’s people, who in those days lived and feasted in the valley as equals. It turns out that John is, in fact, not John Sandall but John Saturnall, a descendant of Saturnus and as such, like his mother, a keeper of the Feast.

This becomes John’s calling: he must keep the Feast—and he seems right for the job. He has inherited from his mother the ability to merely breathe and know any smell. Once he is deposited at Buckland Manor, where his mother also used to work, he is swiftly taken into the subterranean kitchens. Slowly, he works his way up from kitchen boy to become the Master Cook of the manor. Many challenges come his way: when Lady Lucretia refuses to eat in defiance of her father, John must tempt her into surrendering; when the King visits, he must conjure a feast fit for royalty; when supplies run into the ground during the civil war and starvation threatens, he must think of ways to keep everyone at the manor alive. As John and Lucretia fall in love and defy social boundaries, they too bring the rest of the manor together, living and feasting together as equals.

Beyond this though, what does keeping the Feast mean? The word is capitalised throughout the novel, and I kept waiting for that “Aha!” moment when it would all crystallise, but it never did—perhaps I’m just missing something. Then I realise that perhaps it is simply that the Feast is everything: it is faith, it is love, it is war. In a recent article in the Guardian, Norfolk writes, “We care about food in literature not when it is deployed as a symbol but when it becomes a language.” It is in this way that food and sensory pleasure is deployed in John Saturnall’s Feast.

Still, considering how much emphasis has been placed on the Feast, I feel like I am left chewing on thin air, and I suspect this has to do with the mythical promises the novel seemed to have made on the outset. I hadn’t pegged the book as historical fiction until about halfway through, and the beginning had set the tone strongly for me, and so eventually disappoints because it can never go far enough, limited by the realism of history, which in this case is seventeenth-century England besieged by political turmoil and religious persecution. The interplay between myth and history don’t sit well together.

What I most enjoyed about this book are the worlds Norfolk brings to life, especially that of the underground kitchens at Buckland Manor—a heaving, steamy, aromatic operation. The language Norfolk uses is perfectly in tune with the sense of place and time of the novel, though as a reader you would have to do your fair share of work with the arcane—but poetic—food and cooking vocabulary, which often breaks the flow of the story for me, and which I often have the urge to skip over after one too many. (If you decide to read this book, it may be helpful to have this glossary as a companion.) As such, the archaic recipes from John Saturnall’s cookbook that precede each chapter, though exquisitely illustrated, do nothing for me—but keep in mind, this would be a great book for a literary supperclub. Still, every little detail sits perfectly in the balance to create an entirely believable world that inspires a sense of wonder, and I admire Norfolk his meticulous research in bringing back a state of being which no longer exists.

Lawrence Norfolk

Where the novel ultimately falls, however, is in its characters. There are too many of them to begin with, and I never feel as if I know John or Lucretia. The portraits of them as children are the most deeply etched but other than that, they appear as mere sketches, simply running through the motions of the plot lines; as such, their actions never take on the consequence they should for me. The funny thing is: a lot happens in this novel as we journey with John from boy to man, and yet, this tale never reads like a narrative-driven story; somehow, every new turn never quite comes as a revelation. I often felt that I was waiting for something to happen that would make me feel like I’d reached the turning point I’d be waiting for, for it to move me—but it never did.

First published on 13 September. Available in hardcover and ebook. Paperback out on 9 May 2013.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a review copy.

Big September 2012: Notable New Releases

Mortality, a memoir by Christopher Hitchens on his battle with cancer (1 Sep, Atlantic Books).

NW by Zadie Smith (6 Sep, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin). Read extract.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, a portrait of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max (6 Sep, Granta). Read extract.

Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf (6 Sep, Virago). Read extract.

Winter Journal, a memoir by Paul Auster (6 Sep, Faber & Faber). Read extract, or watch a video of the author reading.

This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories about love and infidelity by Junot Diaz (6 Sep, Faber & Faber).

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (6 Sep, Granta).

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (6 Sep, Serpent’s Tail).

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (11 Sep, Fourth Estate/Harper Collins). Read extract.

A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks (12 Sep, Hutchinson/Cornerstone/Random House). Read extract.

John Saturnall’s Feast, a historical novel by Lawrence Norfolk (13 Sep, Bloomsbury). Read extract.

Summer Lies, Bernard Schlink’s short story collection (13 Sep, Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Orion/Hachette). Read one of the stories: “Johann Sebastian Bach on Ruegen“.

Dodger by Terry Pratchett (13 Sep, DoubleDay Childrens/Random House). Read extract.

Joseph Anton, a memoir by Salman Rushdie (18 Sep, Jonathan Cape/Vintage/Random House). You can catch five extracts from the book on BBC Radio 4 from 17-21 September, 9:45-10:00 a.m.

The Lives She Left Behind by James Long (27 Sep, Quercus), the sequel to Ferney.

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (27 Sep, Penguin), about Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s personal experiences of, and reflections on, one of his country’s most tragic civil wars.

Grimm Tales: for Young and Old (27 Sep, Penguin) by Phillip Pullman, bestselling author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. You can hear his retelling of “The Three Snake Leaves” out loud by the man himself on BBC Radio 3 and hear other retellings of other stories from Michael Morpurgo, Carol Ann Duffy, Terry Pratchett, and John Agard in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Grimms’ fairytales. Phillip Pullman will also be reading from his new book and comparing notes with Neil Gaiman at the Cambridge Theatre, London on Monday, 29 October at 7:30pm. Get your tickets here before they sell out!

And of course, the novel we’ve all been waiting for… A Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (27 Sep, Little, Brown/Hachette). However, it has been locked down in absolute secrecy and the only thing we’ve been allowed to see is the cover.

Book Club Review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

What are Book Club Reviews?
This is a new series of book reviews on Litro. It’s exactly what it says on the tin: book reviews by book clubs in London or elsewhere in the world. The idea is to have the opinion of more than one person to help you make a decision on whether to read a book (the opinion hopefully more discerning after being subjected to discussion), and also to go beyond Amazon reader reviews. So, have a book club and want to get involved? Contact me.

The Post-Apocalyptic Book Club

Headed by Leila Abu El Hawa, the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club (they also have a Meet-Up group) gets together every month in central London, reading dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. They've burnt through an impressive 45 books since they started in 2009, including classics like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and more recent novels like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Hunger Games (they've only read the first in the trilogy so far, so look out for the next two!)

Leila (center) and her group members at one of their meet-ups

What's great about them though is that they also organise events, such as the Dark Societies series in collaboration with Waterstones: a panel discussion or interactive Q&A with authors of dystopian fiction. The first of this series was with Naomi Wood, author of The Godless Boys.

The Club also holds similarly themed writing competitions, and has just published an anthology of writing by their members, which is available for £1.54 (inc. VAT) at Amazon UK; any money made from sales will go towards the running of the group.

I've been to one of these post-apocalyptic meet-ups and like how, after the discussion, we all take our turns to rate the book and give reasons for why we rated it as such; then at the end, Leila records the average rating. This is probably one of the best-organised clubs I've been to, and I think Leila probably has a little Club diary by which she can tell you, in the Club's four-year history, which book attracted the most numbers of people, which rated the most highly, or which caused the most arguments.

Last week, the Club met up to discuss The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. This is their review for Litro.

Published 5 July 2012 by Canongate, UK.

Introduction by Leila Abu El Hawa

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers is a tale told from the point of view of an ordinary 16-year-old girl, set in the world of today where a scarily plausible CJD/AIDS-like disease, the “Maternal Death Syndrome”, horrifically wipes out pregnant women and could possibly result in the end of all human life.

Jessie has always led a normal life, but as her parents’ marriage starts to fall apart and the horrific disease weaves its deadly trail around her, she decides something must be done. She wants to volunteer for the sinister Sleeping Beauties programme, by which girls are put into a coma so they can bring to term frozen embryos which then receive a new vaccine against MDS. Her parents, of course, object (even though her father is a research scientist trying to find a cure for MDS), and take drastic measures to stop her. Are her actions heroic or are they simply a result of an impressionable and innocent young girl determined to have a cause?

This novel was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker prize and won the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction—impressive considering it is Rogers’ first venture into speculative fiction.

This book polarised the group and gave us a lot to talk about. You’d think that the science of the disease and its global consequences would dominate conversation, but it was Jessie’s voice and character and her relationship with her friends and family that created the buzz for discussion, which follows the book’s more inward, intimate focus on Jessie’s personal life.

Twenty-eight people attended the meeting and the book scored an average of 6.34 out of 10.

First published in 2011 by Sandstone Press, then on 5 July 2012 by Canongate.

Reviews by Club Members

Andrew Baguley, 56, actor.
Role within group: The New Guy
Rates book: 6/10
Favourite dystopian book: The Stand by Stephen King

Testament is a lovely Sci-Fi idea. Ok, it’s been done by Children of Men and other books but this story of death by pregnancy via AIDS-like CJD is a new and clever twist. That’s the good part. The bad part: the book wallows in slow plot development and takes forever to get to its point. It’s easily a hundred pages too long. The main voice is Jessie, whose character arc is promising, but once she’s made her mind up it plateaus. After some middling teenage fiction dramas, I really wanted to know more about how the world is coping with the existential threat to the human species, but apart from a few men being nasty, life seems to go on much as normal with people planning holidays and buses running on time. The only time my emotions were affected was when I read about the hopeless life of the dysfunctional aunt. This book could have been a hugely moving testament to human struggle and impossible choices, but instead it reads like teen fiction and struggles to find a home in the science fiction genre.

Jill Griffiths, 41, business systems analyst.
Role within group: The Devil’s Advocate
Rates book: 8/10

Favourite dystopian book: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro for atmosphere; A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick for humour

Initially, I struggled with this book. I felt that the complete breakdown of society around an event that directly affected only a relatively small number of the population was unrealistic. On reflection, having seen the reaction to CJD which touches only a tiny proportion of the population, I now accept the state and public response as plausible. As MDS advances, state resources are poured into research centres and the controls around ethical testing are under extreme strain as a cure is sought. The value of individual life, human and non-human, is questioned, and this sets up fault lines between special interest and protest groups that have suddenly gained huge teenage followings.

At the heart of the story is an idealistic teenage girl on the brink of adulthood making some drastic decisions, which her father opposes. The strong relationship between a father and daughter, where reason is used as the main channel of communication and as a way of showing mutual affection and respect, becomes a trap for both of them. Her father’s reaction is entirely believable, although almost certainly criminal even in times of crisis. This was the key point of tension in the book club discussion—some felt that Jessie was mature enough to make these decisions without adult intervention, others felt that she needed to be protected from herself. Interestingly, the difference in opinion didn’t fall cleanly along age or gender lines. Almost all of us could identify with being an idealistic teen; few (if any) of us have had the experience of parenting one.

Abraham Orchard, 33, in marketing.
Role within group: Trouble with a capital “T”
Rates book: 4/10
Favourite dystopian book: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

Not liking a book is sometimes different from thinking it’s a bad book, though this can be an easy trap to fall into.

I’m not sure the author intended to add to the current crop of books bulging with adolescent female first-person narratives; I prefer to think that the clichéd setting is simply a backdrop for humanity’s war for survival. Think of Jessie’s story as a parable of today’s children finally freed completely from parental control by the doctrine of individual rights, struggling to make major decisions in a very tough world. Indeed, the falling away of any parental support seems to be something that happens to almost all of the adolescent characters in the book.

Younger readers might take something positive and real from the way Jessie and her friends’ react, but overall I found their actions too stereotypical and the adult characters weak, flawed, and like the setting, rather too much like a backdrop. It makes me wonder whether at that age I too saw the people around me as quite so unimportant, corrupt and incompetent. Perhaps I had more faith in the world or a better relationship with my parents.

If nothing else, this book has been thought-provoking.

James Murray, 27; I write things, design things, and think about things.
Role within group: The Optimist
Rates book: 9/10
Favourite dystopian book: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Much of how you might feel about this book hinges on a single choice: would you, if you believed it would help to continue the human race, give your living body to science? There are two major complications to this question:

1) The procedure is uncertain—it might fail or it may be rendered pointless by a scientific breakthrough; and

2) The person making this choice is a 16-year-old whose motivations are constantly thrown in doubt: is she really a heroine, or is she just running away from a complicated world where her parents don’t have enough time for her, where her friends are dysfunctional, counter-productive, and deluded?

It’s a fascinating subject for debate—Do you think Jessie is rational? Would you follow her into her chosen fate? Would you support or condemn the people who allow or prohibit her from making her decision?—but a problematic one. It’s easy to try to put yourself in Jessie’s shoes, find they don’t fit, and cast them away along with the rest of the novel, but you’d be missing out. This is not a straightforward apocalypse: it calls on its characters to redefine it, to step up to the challenges of a radically changed world. It drags you into the debate. Really, it’s everything I look for in apocalyptic fiction.

Carina Wardrop, 30, physiotherapist.
Role within group: The Peacekeeper
Rates book: 6/10
Favourite dystopian book: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

While reading the book, I found myself wondering if I would make the choice that Jessie did and I felt at times that the ideas and thoughts she had were not really realistic for a 16-year-old, and for that reason I couldn’t really identify with her. The supporting characters were sometimes more interesting than Jessie, although we only see them through her eyes since the book is written as her journal. Her parents’ relationship is tumultuous and although they both obviously love her, they don’t seem to show much interest in what she’s doing with her life, until it’s too late. Her father’s desperate reaction to her decision, I felt, may have also been tainted by guilt, as it was his very adult discussions with her about the volunteers that may have pushed her in that direction. A lot of the other characters in the book seemed a bit stereotypical—the man-haters, the animal rights activists, the kids who want to run off to the country to escape, the pervert, the friend/boyfriend—but I still enjoyed reading about them through Jessie’s eyes. In some ways I wish the book were written further down the track so we could find out what eventually happened… Did the scientists prevail and find a cure or did the sacrifice of the volunteers actually save the human race in the end? Overall though, I found the book very easy to read and thought-provoking.