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Author Biographies In Books

A photograph of four books: Shan Sa's Empress, Kieran Shield's The Truth Of All Things, Nichole Bernier's The Unfinished Work Of Elizabeth D, and Sarah Pekkanen's Skipping A Beat

Many hardbacks nowadays have dedicated biographies on the jacket cover, providing brief information about the author and often a photograph. Education details, social media links, family. When paperbacks sport biographies they’re generally more limited, on the front pages, less information, and photographs don’t tend to be included. Biographies are something I consider often because I’ve a default primary action, particularly in the case of hardbacks, whereupon if I’m browsing shop shelves or about to pick up a book I already own to read, one of the first things I do is decide whether or not to read the biography.

If I’m wanting to stay in the dark about the plot of the story I’ll generally skip the biography just in case, especially if I don’t already know anything about the author; in reading the biography first you are unable to read the book without those slight threads of influence the biography may supply.

But because a biography often provides details that enable you to roughly gauge how informed the book might be, for example Kit de Waal’s work history shows that My Name Is Leon will most likely be trustworthy and full of knowledge (she’s worked in the social care system for years and has adopted children) it sometimes pays to read it if you’re undecided about the book.

Sometimes I do want to know more about a book and so I will read the biography to get a better sense of it when the blurb on the back is lacking (think hardbacks and the favouring of praises over summaries – I know in those cases summaries can be found on the jacket flap but they tend to give too much away). Sometimes I want to know as much as the book will tell me through all the various snippets provided.

Meaty biographies have spoiled brief ones for me. The short ‘X lives in location with her X family members and dog, this is her first novel’ disappoints me even though it means there’s little to influence you, not much to make you consider the author whilst reading. They often do not include photographs.

Photographs – good or bad idea? Seeing a smiley face can influence your decision to buy or borrow, just as a poker face might. I sometimes wonder about those poker faces – presumably they help keep away bias but they can bring a feeling of negativity. A biography without a photograph, whilst it keeps the mystery, often makes me want to look the author up to complete the picture – having seen so many biographies include them, those that lack them are surely… lacking.

Can biographies sway opinion? I think so. A person whose biography does not suggest any links to the content of the book might cause pause for thought, especially in non-fiction – why would something, anything, related, not have been included? For example (and made up), ‘Shelley has lived her life on the south coast where she works on a farm’, as a biography in a book about the city of Manchester – Shelley’s likely, hopefully, spent some time there or read a lot about it, so it should be included. It’s not absolutely necessary but, again, consider Kit de Waal, whose biography that shows very clearly why her book deals with all the subjects it does and why you can trust her.

I’m a fan of the biography when it isn’t too brief. A line or two just makes me wonder why it’s so short.

What do you think of biographies in books?

Which Series Would You Have Liked To See Continued?

A photograph of various books from different series

What it says on the tin; looking at series that ended rather than any that may not have been actively finished, if that makes sense. (The photograph is just books from different series.) Most series I read are Young Adult, particularly fantasies, so that’s what my choices are. The series are His Dark Materials, The Hunger Games, and The Chronicles Of Narnia, one paragraph each, and thoughts include spoilers.

It’s kind of (hopefully?) happening now, but like many people I wanted to know if Lyra and Will of His Dark Materials would meet again. I wanted to find out if they were successful in their quest. Should a continuation happen? Whilst this is a mute point now, with the upcoming publication of The Book Of Dust, I’m not sure whether a continuation would work or not. I’ve written about my feelings for The Amber Spyglass; I wonder if Pullman had continued the series at that time, if it would have just got worse. Perhaps The Book of Dust will benefit from the years that have passed since the completion of the trilogy. But I don’t think the story can work without Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel. How a story would work without them I don’t know.

I’ve read many articles and reviews in which people say how much they loved The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, but disliked Mockingjay. I didn’t dislike the last book but I stand with general opinion that it was a poor finale to an otherwise strong series (albeit that I have my reservations due to the similarities with Battle Royale, a book I won’t lie in having read but know a bit about). I think the thing with the first two books is that although the Games are horrific, they are fun in that sort of can’t-stop-reading way, much like people think reality TV is awful but they’ll still watch it. The fast-paced action and also, I reckon, the element of knowing what you’re getting, combined, perhaps, with the shock of it all, made the first two books what they were. Without it, the third book couldn’t win. So I would have loved to have stayed in Collins’ world in terms of the no-holds-barred way she explored her subject but I wouldn’t want to read a continuation of the series as it stands. It wouldn’t make sense for another book to be included unless it had been a book slotted between the first two and the third, or if it was a spin-off. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of spin-offs, Xena excepted, so I’m not sure I would read one anyway. The story has been completed.

I think The Chronicles Of Narnia could have continued for many more books and people would have enjoyed it just as much – so long as it continued adding characters and new travels rather than looking at Heaven post-The Last Battle. It would be different – perhaps we’d emphasise new characters over Lucy; perhaps Susan could have returned and Lewis made her a more prominent character without the hate – but I think it would have still been just as good. Looking at how wonderful both The Magican’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe are, as very separate parts of one whole, he could feasibly carried on without issue.


A General Post On Discovering ‘New’ Classics: Persephone, Virago, And Apollo

I’m going to start with a couple of quotations because they sum up the whole idea and are just great to read:

“The criterion for inclusion in the Apollo list is that its editors have to feel passionately about the books, and that they should be, on the whole, forgotten or unread. There are novels on the list that have never been part of any canon, but deserve to be, and there are also respected authors like Christina Stead whose absence from lists of essential classics is astonishing to us.” — Neil Belton of Head Of Zeus imprint, Apollo.

“Founder Nicola Beauman’s original concept was to publish a handful of ‘lost’ or out-of-print books every year, most of them interwar novels by women… a grey Persephone cover is a guarantee of a good read. In fact, by far the most important criteria is that we only publish books that we completely, utterly love.” — Persephone’s website.

I’ve been reading quite a few classics lately (or at least what I’ve decided to term classics when it comes to my reading, because it really isn’t straightforward otherwise, as you all know). It’s kind of crept up on me; I had been aware for a long time that I hadn’t been reading many and that my Classics Club list wasn’t getting far (I recently changed the scope for that) and now suddenly I’m reading a lot of them.

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It begun a couple of months ago when looked at the numbers of books I’d read for different categories, but I’ve found myself carrying on choosing classics without much thought. Partly due to review copies and partly due to just being in the zone, it’s happening.

What helps is redefining ‘classic’ and working with books that have been forgotten. You know what I mean: Persephone, Virago. A bit of Pushkin, and now Apollo. Persephone introduced me to Julia Strachey and Marghanita Laski and a whole host of others I should have read by now. Virago – Thirkell. (I’ve also a few from their Du Maurier collection, but the author has never been forgotten; I expect she’ll be around for the foreseeable future!) Apollo is a new imprint from Head Of Zeus so they’ve just started out: Margaret Laurence, Josephine Johnson, and I have Christina Stead on my to-be-read, that book that was daunting but now no longer. [As I edit this post I realise it’s very focused on women. That wasn’t my intention but it does reflect my recent reading.]

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I’ve found something wonderful in reading classics and I’ve found even more wonder in reading forgotten books. It’s not the idea that you’re reading something few have, though that is reason for excitement, it’s that feeling that you are indeed reading a classic. There is just something about a great old book that you can ‘see’, that’s there to notice. Even if you don’t like the book, that reason for it being well-known, or ex-well-known, seeps from it. It’s like reading a wonderful book, that you’d never heard of before you saw it in the shop and bought it, magnified.

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I’m not sure exactly what it is about Thirkell, some sort of semblance to Gaskell, perhaps, and a feeling not dissimilar to the books my mother introduced me to, but with Josephine Johnson it was Little House In The Big Woods, and a feeling of the moors, like it could have been a forgotten Brontë if they’d written about the Southern States of America. Now In November won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935. It’s very of its time, lacking in what we would consider action, but just so good.

Of course its date is more modern classic – 1935, just a year before Margaret Mitchell’s publication – but it still felt good to have read it. It’s hovering just around being forgotten; it’s likely Apollo’s reprint will help it gain ground, particularly given the Prize. Was it forgotten because it was so relevant to a particular period in history, as the Prize might suggest?

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The story behind Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel fascinated me because it’s considered a Canadian classic and from what I’ve found out, it seems it’s still read in the country. It fascinates me because it’s on a topic that will likely never be irrelevant, unlike, perhaps, Johnson’s work – however much the life trappings have changed since, Laurence’s protagonist could be transplanted into a book from today, a person who is oblivious to why her son doesn’t want to look after her any more – we can see why and it’s all to do with her behaviour. Apollo have just published Laurence’s A Jest Of God and thinking it might be similar, I had a look. It is, from the other side of the story – the daughter of an overbearing mother. You can’t see it from the image I’ve used but there’s a quotation from Margaret Atwood who says it’s “An almost perfect book”.

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If judging a book by its cover then I’m very interested in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, a ‘portrait of family life in the American South during the 1920s’. The focus is on a particularly mundane year which meant that ‘initial reception of the novel was chequered, with many reviewers challenging the absence of plot’1. Likely what we’d now call a character-driven novel, Apollo’s decision to publish it suggests it’s one to read. Another author who won the Pulitzer, though not for this book, Welty used technology as symbols in her work. Her home in Mississippi is now a museum. Like Kate Chopin’s house it was damaged by fire, but unlike that building there was enough remaining for it to be restored.

I’ll be reviewing Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck soon and as I featured it in my first lines post last week I won’t include it here except to say I’ve since found out it was loved by Angela Carter.

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In terms of other books I’ve not read but want to, Monica Dicken’s Mariana, published by Persephone, has been on my list since I first saw it. It was the cover that drew me mostly because , at the time, it was the first non-grey Persephone I’d seen. Finding out later that Dickens was a granddaughter of the Victorian novelist cemented it. Don’t ask me why I’ve not read it yet – I’ve no excuse.

With Virago, I hope to get to all of Barbara Comyn’s and Du Maurier’s books… if I can say that when particularly in the case of the latter it’s been a good few years since I read Rebecca and I have four other novels on my shelves waiting.

Which little-known books would you recommend, particularly those published no later than 1960? (Arbitrary decade, I know.)

1Wikipedia’s page on Eudora Welty, accessed 17th May 2017.

Classics In The Summer

A photograph of two sets of two classics resting on the grass in the sunshine

For a good few years now – at least three, I’d say – as the sun makes its way higher in the sky and the days warm up, I get a strong urge to read classics, particularly Victorian and late Georgian. It always happens around late April to May and sort of finishes in July at the time the sun’s decent becomes noticeable.

There are certain factors that come into play – the classics I feel most drawn to are ones that for one reason or another I relate to happy, sunny days. Austen gets a big look in; aside from Persuasion, which is full of windy strolls by the sea and which I first read when ill with a cold, all her books I associate with summer. I read Pride And Prejudice in February, but it was a sunny February and there is a lot of summer in the book. I read Sense And Sensibility in April of the same year; Sanditon in July.

Dickens gets a glance or two – usually, on further consideration, I don’t see it as appropriate. My thoughts of Great Expectations in relation to summer rest firmly in the fun chapter of rocking chairs and parental mishaps – I forget exactly what happens, I just know I loved it. But the book in general wouldn’t be a great choice.

Bronte… the windy moors, general trauma, and pathetic fallacy don’t make them good choices. Though for some reason Daphne Du Maurier appeals. I would approach another Hardy with trepidation but would approach it nonetheless.

A lot of it rests on the idea of re-reading; if I read a book I hadn’t read before, who’s to say it would fit the weather?

Actually, re-reading is another part of it – re-reading always seems a good idea come summer. Summer always feels like a holiday even if it isn’t, children off school for weeks being a reminder of your own childhood summer holidays; the possibilities, the feeling that you’ve lots of time during which you can do whatever you want. In terms of books, re-reading feels more of a holiday than reading new books, with less effort required and thus more relaxation promised.

But I’m yet to get round to reading classics or re-reading anything in the summer. A couple of years ago I made a point of sitting outside one early morning with a coffee and Elizabeth Bennett and it was lovely for the time it took to read two chapters. I never got round to carrying on. Last summer I spent early mornings in the garden reading new books. I think it’s the ‘another day’ problem; I can always do it another day. But that day hasn’t come yet.

Do you favour certain genres at certain times of the year?

Analyses Of First Lines #3

I’ve had some pretty great books come into my life lately, whether through acquisition – physical or digital – or just because I’m particularly aware of them at the moment, for whatever reason. Books I want to talk about; I’m realising more and more the value of less rigid thinking when it comes to talking about literature here. Another first analysis post seemed the best approach.

I haven’t included every book that I’m working with because there are first lines that just don’t inspire. Copying out all the possible first lines I could have used for this post has demonstrated to me that as important as the first line is known to be, many times this is forgotten. Sometimes the value inherent in a first line is passed to the second. Other times the writing style the author has employed means the concept of the first line is altered (one book had single words as the first few sentences). Yet more times, however, it just seems an opportunity missed.

A realisation upon a realisation, if you will – a magnificent first line can and often does equate to a magnificent book, be the book great for its writing or story or characters. And it can really heighten your desire to read the book. When I received Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck, it wasn’t via the postbox – the postman had to ring the bell. The book is a tome and upon seeing it I felt somewhere in between very interested due to its fairly classic status and relief that I had decided to schedule it – then sight unseen – during a time that was otherwise free. But reading the first line, that worry has gone. One line and I know I’m going to enjoy it, likely a great deal.

Something that has occurred to me while writing these posts: does my knowledge of a book, or lack thereof, change or aid the way I analyse the first line? (By knowledge I mean having read the book previously.) I think it likely does on an unconscious level because I know the answers, but what I am finding, for certain, is that my continuing to analyse first lines makes my analyses more thorough, enough to balance out any bias.

Alexander Weinstein’s Children Of The New World

We’re sitting around the table eating Cheerios – my wife sipping tea, Mika playing with her spoon, me suggesting apple picking over the weekend – when Yang slams his head into his cereal bowl.

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This book is a short story collection, so this line is the first line of the first story, which is called Saying Goodbye To Yang. If the sentence didn’t suggest a death, that title surely does, but then where these two pieces of information are concerned, it’s not a foregone conclusion. If the narrator is the husband of the family and we’ve a wife and child, Mika, do we first assume – title aside – that Yang is a child, too, and thus in all likelihood would be swiftly saved from any drowning by his parents?

Taking the title into it, and the word ‘slams’, we suddenly have a potentially older person, potentially having a stroke. (We could also still have a child having an episode or sudden issue, too.) Taken out of context, ‘slams’ is a pretty extreme word if we were to consider a child playing with his food, and pretty extreme if the cereal bowl is your average cereal bowl and thus difficult to ‘slam’ into if it’s on the table.

In context, it’s a particularly good choice of word. The best short stories tend to get straight to the point and/or leave you shocked by the end and so Weinstein’s first line places you not only in the situation but at the exact catalytic moment. Little time for character description, he gives you the basics – child, wife, husband, leaving you to assume stereotypical ages if you wish – and gets straight to the action. The characters as people may not be important, we don’t know yet, but if their personalities aren’t a focus, you still have enough to go on.

And if you wanted to know location and time period, you’ve Cheerios and apple picking for help – Cheerios suggests present day (no further than 1945 according to Wikipedia), apple picking presumably means near the countryside. Whilst Weinstein could have left out the extra content, could have left out the wife and Mika from the sentence, it rounds off the introduction well.

And whilst it does sound short-story like, if would fit a novel. I love it.

Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck

One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarrelled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad.

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Here we have the line I spoke of in my introduction. There is so much information in this sentence; it may be very long but when you consider the book was written in the 1940s (1946 to be exact) that’s suddenly neither here nor there.

In this one line we get a fully-fledged description of the person who is presumably to be our narrator. She had been in a relationship, possibly an extramarital affair, and whilst the fact the two have quarrelled isn’t too much a sign of anything – other than, perhaps, a signal of why they’re no longer together – her ‘black mood’ is. This isn’t one black mood – it’s written possessively and in the plural. She gets these moods fairly often. They are part of her personality; like the way the rest of the sentence refers to the effects of this mood, the author hints that this may be a difficult character to read about at times. That ‘fruitlessly’ suggests she expected a call – why? Do they often make up? Is she needy? Does she expect an apology? Not everything is apparent yet but you’re given some big clues as to what you’re getting in to from the start.

Whether part of the black mood or just a quirk of sorts, this narrator is likely superstitious, naming the ninth floor unlucky for its number. Either that or something in the novel will render her hotel room or floor unlucky and if the latter then again, she’s telling us up front. And a last hint of personality – she’s feeling bad. This is likely to do with the quarrel, however we don’t yet know if her feeling bad is due to remorse or that quarrels and black moods themselves make her angry.

Does a hotel room on Fifth Avenue speak of wealth? Of hers or of her lover’s? And if the room is lonely had she been staying in it herself or is ‘lonely’ a hint to it having been a room she shared with her lover prior to the quarrel? These are things to find out.

We’ve something of a possibility of an anti-heroine to contemplate…

Helen Irene Young’s The May Queen

It was the first thing to come between May and the carnival.

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May likes the carnival and a few things, at least, are going to come between her and its parade. Whether we’re going to read about the carnival itself is not known at this point – first, we have to see how much time the ‘things’ are going to take up. May might not get to go to the carnival at all.

With this sentence, Young shows that her book, or at least the beginnings of it, are going to be about some sort of conflict. This book is going to have issues in it of some sort, unless ‘come between’ is taken literally and there are obstacles on the road between May and the parade. To an extent, we can guess May’s age – she’s likely a child, looking forward to the carnival.

Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep

Mrs Creasy disappeared on a Monday.

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A disappearance and a name. We’re either going to go back in time for a bit, or we’re going to see the after-effects of the disappearance. Monday – does this suggest 7 days’ worth of reports as to what happened/happens next? And the person is married or widowed – will we hear from her spouse or hear the story of her spouse, whose presence or death or so forth, may have caused the disappearance?

This is a short sentence and there’s not much to go on, at least if we compare it to others, but it does tell us what we’re about to read. It doesn’t tell us if the story of Mrs Creasy will make up the entire book or not, but we can assume that if it doesn’t, the rest of the book will be relative – there will be other disappearances or such goings on.

Joanna Hickson’s First Of The Tudors

Flashes of iridescence gleamed like fireflies in the gloom of the small tower chamber.

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This sentence is full of highly descriptive words that draw attention to colour, beauty. Light, which we can expect is needed given the ‘gloom’ of a ‘small’ room. The stereotype of a tower is here in its element and whilst this is historical fiction rather than fantasy, the semblance to the idea of the high unreachable tower works in the context of the sentence, works as a way to set up your image of the scene even if it’s not going to be carried on past the full stop. Besides this, we can assume the scene is a bedroom, possibly an anti-room of some sort. If the former, we are perhaps reading about a squire or other servant, someone who is in a position to be staying in a castle (tower) but not high enough in society to be in a big room.

Given the historical nature, what are the flashes of iridescence? Is a lamp being lit or is a candle burning? Is the person going to bed or are they awake and reading, or talking to someone?

To me this sentence is very much about readying you for an evening of historical fiction, drawing you to the (potential – we don’t yet know!) comfort of what you’re about to read. It sets the historical scene, beckoning you with an image that draws wonder.

Kit De Waal’s My Name Is Leon

No one has to tell Leon that this is a special moment.

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Something positive will likely follow this sentence. A celebration of sorts; no matter whether it’s a special moment in the sense of a surprise party or the start of a friendship, or whether it’s that something positive is to come from something not so good, we’re starting on a high. We also get a name, which is obviously one of our main characters – even if the title did not name him, that his name is given in the first sentence says it all.

We’re going to be privy to this special moment, in a moment, and signs suggest this is going to be a good read.

Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon.

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Is this to be our main character, or does the night and body of water suggest this young man won’t be here long? Is this a report and the man is dead? We haven’t been given his name – will this be a mystery?

It is easy to jump to conclusions with this sentence, to realise the possibility of a mystery or thriller – so often such books employ darkness and water and this sentence has a lot of blues and blacks in it. The bank, the ‘Blackwater’ (although this is the name of the water), cold, moon. But it could be many things – it could be a way of introducing us to a historical setting, to a dock or gloomy alleyway, some place that has Victorian and Dickens all over it.

One thing we do know for certain is what writing style we’ll be dealing with or, at least, if we consider the high usage of prologues recently, the style of the first few pages. In fact the writing very much fits the current prologue style – it would be fair to assume that’s what we have here and if it is indeed a prologue then the idea of mystery may well be true.

In Conclusion

I think it’s interesting to compare sentences from older books, newer books, and different genres – particularly old and new. There is such a difference between now and before, and we’ve this whole new genre of ‘literary fiction’ that a lot of classics may well fit… but not completely because we are applying new concepts to old works. I knew that you could tell a literary fiction book from its writing style, its tone – at least usually – but hadn’t really paid attention to just how soon this becomes apparent. ‘Genre fiction’, I think, is less apparent, perhaps partly because some books cross over but also because the defining lines just aren’t as defining as they are ‘supposed’ to be – something I rather like.

Which recent reads drew you in from the start? And did the books continue to be good?


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