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A Short Biography Of Jean Saunders And Agora Books’ Latest

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Agora Books, previously Ipso Books and established in 2015, is the digital-first publishing arm of literary agency Peters Fraser Dunlop. The publisher releases two sorts of work – brand new books, and the books of forgotten authors of the past decades, such as Anne Melville’s 1980s historical novel which I reviewed last month.

Their latest reprint, Taking Heart, will be released tomorrow; it’s the first book in a historical series by Rowena Summers (a pen name for Jean Saunders), originally published in 2000. It’s a book that will interest you if you like pre-war (WWII in this case) family sagas. I received a copy of the book; I’d thought I’d introduce you to the author in case she’s someone whose work you’d like to look into yourselves, and I’m posting the synopsis here in lieu of a review.

Jean Saunders, who also wrote under the names Jean Innes (her maiden name), Sally Blake, Rachel Moore, and, once, Jodi Nicols (for her solo erotic novel), became a writer in 1974. Born in 1923, she passed away after an illness in 2011. Her second novel was her first published, and following this she received several rejections. It’s a bit different to the usual story.

Saunders wrote just over 100 novels, and published approximately 600 short stories in magazines. Her 1970s début was in the gothic romance genre, in which she continued until the 1980s when she switched to regular historicals. Her books under the name Rowena Summers were the most popular.

The author was the 17th Chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, holding the post for two years between 1993-1995. In later years she lectured in writing, often on cruise ships, and wrote a number of books on the craft.

Agora Books have so far published 6 of Saunders’ books; Taking Heart will be the first under a pen name. Here is the synopsis:

Imogen and her sisters are fighting to save their childhood home and remain in Bristol. Their father has announced the sale of the family business and everything is about to change.

But when a terrible tragedy tears the family apart, the Caldwell girls must forge their own paths in life. And with the Second World War looming over England, their lives begin to change more drastically than they could have imagined.

Through love and heartbreak, fear and loss, can the Caldwell girls make it out unscathed? Or will they be swept up in the chaos of the changing times?

And here’s the first line:

As the family gathered in the sitting-room of the tall Bristol house that Sunday afternoon, Quentin Caldwell looked at his three daughters with immense satisfaction and pride.

Agora’s books are available on Amazon; both ebook and paperback copies of Taking Heart are here.

The Launch Of The Death Of Baseball

A photograph of Orlando Ortega-Medina sat in front of book shelves, listening to a question being asked

A few weeks ago I received a lovely hand-written invitation to an event I couldn’t miss…

Last night, Orlando Ortega-Medina’s The Death Of Baseball launched at Waterstones Kensington, a brilliant turnout of people on the basement level, canapés and wine on offer, seats surrounded by the well-known black shelves. Train strikes meant that I unfortunately had to leave early, so this post isn’t a full reflection but should give you a good idea of the book following on from my review last month. (Needless to say, I still recommend it.)

The book, a psychological thriller which opens on 5th August 1962 and continues through the 1970s, is about two young men. One, Japanese American Clyde, was born on the August date – the day Marilyn Monroe died – and as he grows up he comes to believe he is Monroe reincarnated. The other man, Syrian American Raphael, struggles with kleptomania and the affects of being told he is a special person within his Jewish faith.

Helen Lederer, interviewing, introduced Orlando; the actress (who herself became an author) met him a few years ago and they share some background – both are parents of immigrants. The star of the evening was wearing particularly appropriate attire – his shirt sported prints of Marilyn Monroe alongside other actresses.

The book begins with a first-person note to the reader in Monroe’s voice. Orlando started it that way to give the reader the belief that there might be something in his premise of reincarnation. The follow-on from the prologue, the textual transition to his character Clyde, was a part of this. (The author later said that the book cover depicts Clyde – with its rendering of Monroe, this is a fascinating idea.)

Of the idea in general, and in the context of the abuse Clyde suffers from his father, the author spoke of Clyde protecting himself by protecting Marilyn Monroe inside him. Clyde is Japanese because Orlando thought that would look interesting, a Japanese Marilyn walking down the street. In order for Clyde to embrace his identity as Monroe, he feels he must dress as her. (In the book, Clyde thinks of transitioning but it’s in the context of becoming Marilyn rather than becoming a woman.) Clyde thinks he’s Monroe because the evidence is there – the author noted Clyde’s father talking about spirits inside of his son and Clyde’s believing the idea but not what kind of spirit his father believed it was. Helen asked about why the child abuse; Orlando cited his normal upbringing, that he’s interested in bad behaviour because of the difference.

Book cover of The Death of Baseball

In the case of Raphael, he thrives in his religion. Orlando cited him as his favourite character. The kleptomania is not his fault, he said, it’s a psychological condition for which he needs help and support. The familial support is something he doesn’t receive; his mother doesn’t understand him and thinks he can change, easily.

Of the sexuality of both characters, the author noted wanting to make it just another part of them. The relationships/sort-of relationships in the book deal a lot with unrequited love, but Orlando, whilst having a firm opinion himself, leaves the last situation of love in the book to the reader.

The author wanted to explore how people find their identity, having felt himself a foreigner at home having been born in the USA whilst his parents had immigrated there from elsewhere. He’d wanted to explore identity in his previous book, Jerusalem Ablaze, but the opportunity had not arisen.

Orlando’s writing method gels with what you might expect upon reading the book – he writes automatically, writing down whatever flows, and goes where the inspiration takes him. Of the reading experience of the book, Helen summed it up: ‘you do have to concentrate but it’s not difficult to concentrate’.

This reader can only agree.

My thanks to the author for inviting me. The Death Of Baseball published today.

When In The Reading Process Is It Best To Know About The Author?

A photograph of Daphne du Maurier surrounded by journalists

This 1947 photograph of Daphne Du Maurier is from the International Institute of Social History.

Spinning off from something I spoke about on Monday, I thought I’d look at the ‘methods’ of reading I questioned. They were:

Is it better to read the book and then find out about the author?
Is it better to find out about the author and then read the book?
Is a mix of reading and research the best way?

Each method will create different thoughts, and highlight different aspects of the book due to the added or lesser background information you have at that time.

I find working on a per-book basis best. However, I’m not sure I should say it’s always the case; there are enough occasions where the preferred method of doing something changes over time. (The ‘how’ of reading sounds like it should be an easy description, but it’s not. I think that’s interesting in itself.)

So then, is it better to read the book first and then find out about the author? Doing this will provide context and meaning after you’ve read the book. It’s the most likely method to induce those ‘aha!’ moments, where you learn something new about something you thought you understood, or you learn something new about something you did indeed understand. However, reading by this method means you’ll probably miss the little things, things so small you wouldn’t think to jot them down – words, short sentences, that might have been funny if read in context. Note taking is important in this method, particularly if the book is long and/or complex – it helps you remember the little things, but again, it won’t help you if you don’t realise that something should be noted for later research.

Is it better therefore to find out about the author and only then read the book? Doing this means you can read the book in context in real time, and all the little things you might have missed will be shown. The downside is there will potentially be a lot to keep in mind from the start; invariably you might still miss things. But also, you risk applying aspects of the author’s life and thoughts to the story that may not be relevant. (I’m thinking here of the oft-debated concept of judging a book by its author and how much we ‘should’ allow the author’s worldview to impact our reading of their books.)

So, is concurrent reading and research the best way? This will naturally slow you down as you move between book and references, but it is surely the richest choice in terms of literary enjoyment, reading for study purposes whatever that study may comprise of. By being so close, in terms of time and literal space, to both the text and the meanings behind it, you’ll learn the most. A word confuses you? The answer is right there. As such, this is not the way to read if you just want escapism; for all its studious pleasures, it can become dull, grating, as at some point you’ll almost certainly want to forget research and just read the book. You also have to be near research material, which could lead to further distractions.

And what’s the impact if you can’t find any/only a little information about the author? That in itself may be a point, like Elena Ferrante and the possible difference caused to readings of her book – those who read them before she was unmasked, and those who read them afterwards. If, however, it’s simply a case of a lesser-known writer, you do have to just read the book without knowledge of them, and this effectively forces your hand in regards to further research. In this way, the only context in which to read the book is in the context of the genre or the author’s other books. Perhaps the authors’ thoughts and background are included in the book; one could presume that any themes or aspects that are dwelt upon at length might be of importance to the author, but then again they may not be. It’s an interesting topic to consider.

I find myself choosing between the three methods by genre and popularity. When the book is a classic or otherwise older book, the reading and research tend to happen at the same time. I generally limit myself to research that seems too important to ignore because I do still like to read classics without spoilers. When the author is very famous and more modern, the author information is most often learned early on, by everyone; if I’m not in the know I’ll tend to read about them first because it can help. A lesser-known book, especially modern, will be read before any research.

How do you read in this context, and has it changed over time?

Authors And Contexts And Referenced Works Redux

A photograph of copies of Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, side by side facing outwards

Several years ago, when I was in the first blush of my ‘new’ reading style, I wrote a post about the impossibility of disconnecting an author from their work. I’ve posted on it at least twice since; it’s a topic that won’t go away.

I haven’t changed my opinion on it, in fact I’ve become more firm in my opinion – you can’t always disconnect the author, no matter how much you want to. You can, of course, in literal terms, but you’d get so much less discussion, thinking, and so forth from it I’d hazard to say that in terms of certain books (a good number) the discussion might be worthless. (I’m thinking here of the books I’ve read in the past, where my initial thoughts have become irrelevant when finding out about the author.)

I find the philosophy of reading in a vacuum fascinating – how would opinions of books be if people read without any context of anything, if they had no knowledge of the world at all, or only limited knowledge? The reality of such a concept is of course awful, and you’d need information to learn to read anyway, so an idea for philosophy it must stay: we can only imagine how opinions might change or be different with different knowledge. We sometimes achieve something similar, such as the point I made above about not knowing about the author before you read, and those times when you read a review and you finish it thinking ‘that’s all very well you didn’t like it, but you missed the point of the book entirely’. (Often those sorts of reviews are so well written and considered, that you really do wish the person had got the point or had the context necessary because their review would likely have been excellent.)

I’ve missed points before, and likely will do again. It comes with the territory; we can never read everything, and we can’t remember every single aspect of every single book.

This subject of contexts came back to me recently when I was reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover and seeing a – perhaps tenuous – link with Anna Karenina, the way both writers are pining for something that’s important in their lives. Would I have enjoyed Lawrence’s musings without being able to contrast it to Tolstoy’s? Probably, but being able to do so wasn’t just interesting, it was downright fun, tenuous or not.

I’ve found it interesting that reading in context covers all kinds of books – I think what I’d consider the problematic aspects of Outlander, for example, are somewhat explained by knowing the reason Gabaldon wrote and the ‘place’ she was coming from. Without that, I’d say it’s just a good book with a bit too much sex. now, I’d say that it has a bit too much sex regardless, but knowing it was a writing project and continued because a small group of Gabaldon’s fellow readers and writers wanted to read more brings a few ‘aha’ moments1.

In contrast, I found it fascinating to read Anne Of Avonlea, the second book in L M Montgomery’s Anne series, that I thought far surpassed the first book, and then discover that the author hadn’t wanted to write it2. Perhaps Montgomery’s feelings, and the little insight you get into the mind of her publisher via her written opinion on the whole thing, shows a publisher who had a belief in their author and knew she wasn’t yet at her peak. (And so then it’s interesting that she hated writing it yet it was so good.)

With my current reading ‘theme’ of reading around the subject, I’m seeing the advantages in taking author context even further. Researching Louisa May Alcott’s literary influences (I’m reading Little Women – it’s a horrible, wet, June, and feels appropriate) leads to seeing, for example, exactly why Jo March is reading a particular book. It’s seemingly the smallest thing: in chapter three, titled ‘The Laurence Boy’, which introduces the previously off-stage Laurie, Jo reads Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Heir Of Redclyffe, and it makes her cry. If you hadn’t already heard of Yonge’s book, it was very popular in its day. This information, in the context of Jo reading it, is something I found out a few years ago; I had been researching Yonge rather than Alcott, so the path to the discovery was different, but the result the same.

However, whilst that fact of popularity accounts for Alcott’s using it as Jo’s reading material, what I discovered yesterday when having another read-up on Yonge’s book was that there was a lot more to it than popularity. (Spoiler incoming for Alcott’s series – skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know.) It has been said that Alcott uses Yonge’s book in this chapter as a sort of clue as to where Jo and Laurie might end up, not together. Apparently, The Heir Of Redclyffe features a similar set up to the place Alcott takes her story. Perhaps in years gone by, when the March sisters were first introduced, people found more in Alcott’s decisions about Jo and Laurie than we can today. Yonge’s book is mostly forgotten, and we can’t relive the literary world as it would have been when she was famous.

This of course all links back to what I said recently about lost contexts and authors of yore not necessarily thinking about the potential pitfalls of dating their books.

Reading related books is obviously difficult – as I’ve said before, where should you stop, and what path should you follow? – but gaining author and background context is generally easy, what with the Internet and so on. What I’m personally yet to decide on is what order works best – is it better to read the book and then find out about the author? Is it better to find out about the author and then read the book? Or is a mix of reading and research the best way? Each method will produce different thoughts and highlight different aspects of the book; I think the biggest thing to keep in mind is that once you’ve chosen a particular method, you’re not going to be able to go back and wipe the slate clean. Any thoughts you have of a book or of a part of a book will necessarily build on top of what you’ve already thought.

That is both compelling and kind of scary – you might still miss the little things. But without that vacuum it’s going to happen.


1 On her page about the background to the book, Gabaldon says: “I became a member of the Compuserve Books and Writers Community (then called the Literary Forum), somewhere in late 1986. […] So – with trembling hands and pounding heart – I posted a small chunk (three or four pages, as I recall) of the book I was calling CROSS STITCH. And people liked it. They commented on it. They wanted to see more!”
2 “I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick. I feel like the magician in the Eastern story who became the slave of the ‘jinn’ he had conjured out of the bottle.” (Montgomery to Weber, 10th September 1908)

Birgit Vanderbeke – You Would Have Missed Me

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They certainly might have.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 114
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-90867-052-6
First Published: 2016; 15th June 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Ich freue mich, dass ich geboren bin (I am glad, that I was born)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Birthday number 7; a kitten is still wanted but won’t be coming, mother still brings up her wealthy ex-fiancé, and father remains emotionally distant. As does mother. As the days move on our young narrator talks about her life as a new resident of West Germany where life is plentiful but, for her, still troubled. She misses family friends, struggles to understand house rules, and would like it if her mother let her have a drink more than twice a day.

You Would Have Missed Me is a novella written in the style of a stream of consciousness. A semi-autobiographical work, the book shows the realities of everyday life in 1960s Germany (both sides), and the further realities of life for a child whose parents could be a lot better.

The narrator works through her past, wrapping memories back around every so often, showing the impact of a life of neglect on the psyche of a child. The affect of this neglect, and outright abuse – both emotional and physical – causes problems for the girl who isn’t yet fully able to understand what is going on; she has a fair idea, but there is a lot more for the reader to pick up from the subtext of what Vanderbeke is saying. The abuse is accounted for very slowly, dripping through the narrative.

The differences between East and West Germany are shown often, mostly as items and social mores in the background. In the context of the narrator’s childhood life, the particulars are obviously more noticeable than the general, political, aspect, but there are moments when these are covered enough to clue you in to the wider social contexts. Sometimes the parents’ insults can seem to meld with the standards of living – it’s worth having a quick read up on the intricacies of life in Cold War Germany if it’s not a topic you know much about.

Between these strands, created by them, is the narrator’s fantasy of travel, escaping from everything that has happened in her life to somewhere better, if only for a moment. A snow globe, a gift from a friend in the East who knew a lot about the world, and their later gift of a book she had been wanting to read, H G Wells’ The Time Machine, are key.

The age-appropriate prose has been translated by Jamie Bulloch, who has worked on a good few other Peirene Press publications. Bulloch has opted for a mix of general comprehension and word-for-word; the book both seeming to echo what is surely the original language whilst translating into the English emotional dialect, if you will, the few things that would not work so well, the end result a careful, wonderful, rendering.

As a slice-of-life story that nevertheless recounts a lot of details on a specific few themes, You Would Have Missed Me is very character-driven, almost topic-driven, and whilst it does have an ending, there is a fair amount left for you to decide; the narrator’s story is only on year 7, and so there is plenty of scope to decide the likelihood of the various directions her life could go in regards to the personality she presents you, and how much her fantasies of better places are a part of it (looking at the book as a work of fiction). This is a book about the impact of the Cold War on the general public, and of an upbringing on the rest of someone’s life. It’s difficult to read, it’s sometimes shocking, but it’s a good dose of reality, history, and things that still today need improvement.

I received this book for review.


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