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British Book Awards 2019: Non-Fiction Narrative Book Of The Year

A photograph of the Non-Fiction Narrative of the Year shortlist - the books are stacked on top of each other on a wooden surface in front of a brick wall in the sunshine

An update is at the bottom of this post.

Tonight, at a large awards ceremony in London, the winners of the British Book Awards (‘Nibbies’) will be announced. A set of prizes that have been given out yearly since 1990, the Nibbies are the awards of The Bookseller magazine, which has itself been around since 1858. Called ‘the BAFTAs of the book trade’, the Nibbies are comprised of eight awards which are judged by eight different panels and the idea behind them is that they champion books that are ‘well written and brilliantly published’ – honouring both author and the publishing team. There are then a variety of awards for industry people, publishers, and book shops.

The categories for books are: Debut Book of the Year; Children’s Fiction Book of the Year; Children’s Illustrated & Non-Fiction Book of the Year (new for 2019); Fiction Book of the Year; Fiction Crime & Thriller Book of the Year; Non-Fiction Lifestyle Book of the Year; Non-Fiction Narrative Book of the Year; Audiobook of the Year. It’s a lot of categories but, as I noted when writing this, it ensures books are compared with others that share a subject, whilst not being too niche.

Philip Jones, editor of the magazine and chair of the judging panel, has said that the shortlists ‘showcase the breadth of talent available to publishers in the UK, after a year in which international writers… have shown that there is a real hunger for stories, well-told, that originate elsewhere but reflect back on us… today’s books sit at the intersection between culture and politics, and between entertainment and reality’.

As the awards are tonight I thought I’d look at the six books in an ‘at a glance’ fashion; I’ll be reviewing one or two in the weeks to come.

A photograph of Dolly Alderton's Everything I Know About Love

Everything I Know About Love is a memoir about Alderton’s teenage and early twenties years, told in a sort of essay fashion; it goes back and forth between various places and times, detailing Alderton’s experiences with drink, drugs, sex, and relationships both platonic and romantic, an open account of her growth as a person. Alderton is a journalist for The Sunday Times and a radio presenter; through reading her book you learn about her shorter periods of time in television and about her freelance career. The book is written in a casual, carefree, manner which suits the content, enables the humour to work very well, and means that the book is an easy read in a very good way. Speaking at the Curious Arts Festival last year, Paul Blezard, who interviewed Alderton, said the book is about ‘the honesty of growing up and learning from it’. (My post on this is here.)

A photograph of the book The Secret Barrister

The Secret Barrister by someone known only by the title of their book, this is a collection of stories of life inside the courtroom. It’s ‘both an account of the human cost of the criminal justice system and a guide to how we got into this mess’. Written in a jovial tone, it’s about the issues in the system and what needs to change; it’s won a couple of awards already. The author cites themselves as pretty average; it’s the everyday of someone who deals with things we don’t tend to consider everyday things.

A photograph of Ant Middleton's First Man In

First Man In by Ant Middleton is a memoir of Middleton’s various careers and what he has learned through them. The author is a former soldier, adventurer, and is currently the ‘Chief Instructor’ for Channel 4’s show, SAS: Who Dares Wins. (This year 25 people will go to the Andes; people eat, sleep, live together, whilst completing a tough course.) Middleton has been in the Special Forces. He spent time in the Special Boat Service, the Royal Marines, and the 9 Parachute Squadron Royal – the three are the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the Elite Forces.

A photograph of Christie Watson's The Language Of Kindness

The Language Of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse. The author of the Costa First Book Award winner, Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, Watson’s prose has a particular flow; even if you’ve not read the novel, as I haven’t, you can see the writing background. Beginning with a short summary of how she came to be a nurse – a previously indecisive sixteen year old finding reward working for patients with the charity now called Scope – Watson details many periods of her career, individual stories of hospital stays, good health and happiness alongside sadness, with a close attention to privacy for those involved.

A photograph of Michael Wolff's Fire And Fury

Fire And Fury is Michael Wolff’s ‘Trump era exposé’, an account of the early days of Trump’s presidency by a journalist who was afforded particularly good access to the White House in the first hundred (and more) days of the time, and also followed the campaign. As Wolff details, few on the campaign team thought that Trump would be elected, and Trump had a concession speech prepared. And as the election was very different to others, there was a lot to get used to. Told in a style that’s anything but dry, and featuring mirade interviews, it’s proved a popular book so far.

A photograph of Michelle Obama's Becoming

Becoming is Michelle Obama’s memoir, a hefty tome of a book that, though I’ve only read a couple of chapters so far, is surely worth every one of its pages. Told in a lovely detailed and, dare I use the word everyone else has, honest, tone, she tells the story of her early years to the present, with stories that hold particular memories – the preface contains a brief summary of life as First Lady and the return to life outside the White House; the first chapter is focused on early piano lessons in her aunt’s apartment against a background of her general family situation. The book is also on the shortlist for the Audiobook of the Year category (and it’s narrated by Obama herself). A book by and about someone well loved and respected for a great many reasons, who is incidentally also known to be a big reader – this is the book I’d be betting on and would be happy to see win.

Update at 11PM: Michelle Obama won this category as well as Audiobook of the Year. In a video message she said to those gathered at the ceremony: “This is an incredible honour. I want to thank the British Book Awards for this recognition, as well as Penguin Random House UK and everyone who helped bring this book to life – especially the readers. It’s been such an uplifting an powerful experience to share my story with everyone across the United Kingdom these past few months. I especially loved the opportunity to connect with so many bright young women, like the incredible students at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Mulberry schools in London, whose stories reminded me so much of my own. Two years ago, when I started writing this memoir, I wasn’t thinking about awards; my biggest hope was simply to create something meaningful for the people who read it, something they might be able to connect to their own lives. Because I know that my story isn’t unique. It’s the story of a working class black girl learning to make music on the piano with broken keys, of a high school student who wondered if she’s good enough, of a mother trying to balance a career, two daughters and a husband with big goals, while carving out a better sense of herself. I want to thank all of you for allowing me to share my story. My greatest hope now is that each of you will share yours too.”

Have you read any of these or have any thoughts as to which might win?

Mudie’s Select Library And The Three Volume Novel

Charles Edward Mudie

Born in 1818 in Chelsea, London, to newspaper shop keepers originally from Scotland, Charles Edward Mudie wasn’t the first person to create a circulating library but he was the person who brought it to prominence. He had the business background to build his library upon. He opened his first bookshop in 1840, ‘a little shop in Bloombury’ as The Times called it1 (The Times, 1913).

In 1842, Mudie began lending books to students of the University of London. For a guinea a year (equal to 20 shillings – in today’s currency a shilling is roughly 5 pence) a student could borrow one volume at a time. The system was so successful that Mudie moved to a better location and soon had branches of his library in other cities, including Manchester and Birmingham (Wikipedia n.d. a). Deliveries in England were made with vans and trains. Ships took orders overseas (ibid.).

The reason Mudie was so successful is summed up by George Landow in his 2001 [1972] review of Guinevere Griest’s 1970 work, Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel. Landow notes the ‘famous guinea yearly subscription’. (For a higher fee you could borrow more than one at a time.) Landow also notes the advertising that created ‘something very like a best-seller list’, a new market that established Mudie’s power. Mudie also ordered books in large numbers, sometimes entire print runs. (A print run would comprise of up to 1000 copies.)

Readers didn’t have to wait long to read the books they wanted. At the height of the library’s popularity, Mudie boasted over a million titles (Spiegel, 2011). The Library catalogue for January 1860 notes, in letters rather than numbers – possibly so that it looks even better – ‘rate of increase exceeds one hundred and twenty thousand volumes per annum’, and genres include history, biography, religion, philosophy, travel, and, in all its pomp and capitalisation, the ‘HIGHER CLASS of FICTION’ (Catalogue of New and Standard Works, 1860, contents page).

Mudie had originally started lending to provide wider access to non-fiction; the genre was a good amount of the stock, and it was this that made the consumption of scientific volumes a success – Mudie bought 500 copies of Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species; Darwin’s own reading was thanks to Mudie (Wikipedia n.d. a). But Mudie recognised the market for fiction.

It was Mudie’s influence that led to the popularity and full adoption of the three volume novel; Mudie demanded publishers produce only three volume novels, which allowed one work to be divided between multiple subscribers, increasing both stock and the number of borrows. Why Mudie was so successful here is due to the fees he set and the accessibility of his library. Lending libraries were crucial to the middle class’s access to literature. Books were expensive to buy, costing the equivalent of half the weekly income of an average household but the guinea per year set up at Mudie’s was relatively lower cost. Mudie’s influence over publishers, due to this social mobilisation of the middle class, effected the morality, subject, and scope of what was published for the next 50 years (Landow 2001). He was all the more powerful because other libraries began to follow his recommendations. Books were censored or not published at all if Mudie didn’t like them (he took note of his customer’s opinions on books)2. Authors were often contracted for a specific number of pages and if their books weren’t quite in line with the format they were asked to change them so that they were in line. (This is likely why Charlotte Brontë, when writing to her sisters’ publisher – her own potential publisher – noted that Jane Eyre was a work in three volumes, and is also perhaps why Emily and Anne’s novels were sent together as a combined three volumes. Despite a rejected first novel, she knew what needed to be done in order to succeed.) Mudie’s advertising informed subscribers of new works and reminded them of the service in general3.

An advertisement for Mudie's

Thus the three volume novel became the standard in the 1800s; before that there had been novels in volumes of varying numbers. Shorter works were simply divided into chapters. The format had first been produced by publisher Archibald Constable in the early 1800s; however his influence over the three volume novel was small – publisher Henry Colburn (who had worked at a circulating library) made it more popular. The format made it easier for new authors to be published. Their reputations were more in Mudie’s hands than the critics, who in turn often hoped bad novels would just not be ordered by libraries – but the system put a barrier between authors and readers, and discouraged several generations from buying novels (ibid.). In an article published in 1965, Guinvere Griest said that there were single volume novels – mostly books previously published in three – but that there was an ‘aura of dignity and worth’ to three volumes which eclipsed all other forms (1965, p. 117).

The three volume novel remained popular as a form until 1894, when Mudie (the library), along with W H Smith’s (first founded in 1792 as a news vendor and, according to Griest, Mudie’s only rival) stopped buying it.

Mudie himself died in 1890. His libraries continued to run until the 1930s when public libraries began to rise with services that were even cheaper. (They had first begun to gain traction in the late 1800s and thus Mudie had experienced the lessening of his empire.) But interestingly, as Landow says, Mudie’s lost its power in particular due to its own decision to abandon the three volume novel (2001). ‘The end of the Victorian circulating libraries, however, does not coincide’ says Griest, ‘with the end of [Mudie’s and W H Smith and Sons] but rather with the extinction of the three-decker, a method… so closely entwined with [circulating library] prosperity that the end of the one spelled doom of the other’ (1965, p. 104)4. As publishers began publishing very cheap second editions comprising of all three volumes, the libraries had trouble keeping their capital and not finding themselves faced with a ton of books that were no longer being borrowed. They tried to tie publishers’ hands but now the publishers were worried about the effect a return to higher prices would have on the industry and readers. Mudie’s successor, his son, Arthur, chose to kill off the three volume novel rather than raise subscription prices, believing higher prices would not help (ibid, p. 123). He said later that he didn’t believe in the three volume novel. How his father would have taken that, we can never know.


1 The Times notes that circulating libraries had been in existence since at least the Middle Ages, though they state as the pioneer one Samuel Fancourt (1678-1768).
2 Straight after the list of genres included, and the Catalogue says, in italics, ‘Cheap reprints, Serials, Costly Books of Plates, Works of merely Professional or Local Interest, and Novels of objectionable character or inferior ability, are almost invariably excluded’. (At least they gave a capital letter to those Novels!)
3 Landow’s referenced writer, Griest, said in an earlier article about Mudie, ‘Publishers’ advertisements of newly issued fiction in the middle and late years of the nineteenth century frequently proclaimed to interested readers, “Popular New Novels, at all the libraries, each in three volumes, crown octavo,” or “This say, at all libraries, in three volumes…,” thus revealing the importance of these great lending organizations in book distribution and, by implication, the dominance in the fiction lists at the libraries of the novel in three volumes. In other words, novels were announced not for sale, but as available to the public through lending organizations.’ (Griest, 1965, p. 103).
4 We can assume Griest meant W H Smith’s in its historical form – Smith’s survives still today though it is now a combination of bookshop, newsagents, stationers, and often post office.

Book References

Catalogue Of New And Standard Works In Circulation At Mudie’s Select Library (1860) Charles Edward Mudie, New Oxford Street London

Article References

Griest, Guinevere (September 1965) A Victorian Leviathan: Mudie’s Select Library, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 103-126, University Of California Press, accessed 10th May 2019.
Landow, George (2001 [1972]) Mudie’s Select Library and the Form of Victorian Fiction, The Victorian Web, accessed 10th May 2019.
Spiegel, Nancy (2011) Circulating libraries: library history and architecture, University Of Chicago Library News, accessed 10th May 2019.
The Times (2nd September 1913) London Circulating Libraries, accessed 10th May 2019.
Wikipedia (n.d.-a) Charles Edward Mudie, accessed 8th May 2019.
Wikipedia n.d.-b Three-volume novel, accessed 10th May 2019.

Latest Acquisitions (April 2019 – Thanks To My Sister)

A photograph of the books: Anya Seton's Avalon, Dragonwick, and Katherine; Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists Of Avalon; Jean Plaidy's Royal Road To Fotheringhay, and Murder Most Royal; Victoria Holt's My Enemy The Queen; Agatha Christie's Death On The Nile; Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver, Linger, Forever, and Sinner

Considering this is a different sort of post and also considering I wrote a latest acquisitions a couple of weeks ago, I’ll keep this short. Suffice to say, as I imagine you’ll all understand, I was excited to see the above books in the collection. Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy are one and the same; as Holt the writer’s books can be difficult to get hold of and I’d been recommended them. The Christie is several books into the series, but if what I’ve read is correct, the stories can stand alone – is that right? I’ve wanted to read Anya Seton for years but never knew where to start; that the copy of Katherine has been incredibly well-read made me look it up online and it sounds as though it’s a favourite of her readers. I’d also been wanting to read Maggie Stiefvater but after losing track of her publications I put her books on the ‘maybe’ list; I’m now able to move them back up.

I’m guessing almost all of you will have read at least one of these books or other books by the same authors. Where should I start?

April 2019 Reading Round Up

I did fairly well this month, all told. I’ve still got a number of books ongoing but I finished the two below and am not too far from finishing two more. In related news, my sister asked me if I’d like to look through her historical fiction before she unloaded a number of boxes to the charity shop and it was very exciting to see her collection included old Anya Setons and Jean Plaidys (she also had an unopened bundle of Maggie Stiefvater. I’m considering a special acquisitions post. (On this note, she had a copy of Castle Dor attributed to Daphne Du Maurier, and whilst I didn’t take it has an interesting backstory. It seems to be news to most people – it’s actually the completion of a draft by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (‘Q’); Du Maurier was given it by his daughter. Although it’s based on an interesting story – Tristan and Isolde – readers have stated that due to a seemingly hands-off approach to the initial draft, it’s very noticeable where Du Maurier comes into the picture, and unfortunately this leads to a disjointed text with a beginning that’s very much at odds with the values suggested in Du Maurier’s own books.) Books aside, April has otherwise been good, a busy but fun Easter, and many days without rain – being able to have breakfast outdoors has been wonderful.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

Book cover

Anne Melville: The House Of Hardie – Two sets of siblings in late 1800s England work towards their wishes for life which mostly go against the norms of the day. It feels repetitive considering my last post was the review, but ‘fantastic’.

Book cover

Orlando Ortega-Medina: The Death Of Baseball – The night of Marilyn Monroe’s death, a Japanese American boy is born and as he grows older he finds a particular kind of kinship with her; meanwhile a devout Syrian American Jewish boy is struggling with extreme, dangerous, compulsions. This is out in June and I’m reviewing it then so for now I’ll just say if you like psychological thrillers and films from Hollywood’s golden age, you’ll appreciate it.

Quotation Report

In The House Of Hardie the irony of women having the strength to get through multiple births is noted alongside the expectation that they also be completely afraid of mice. Noted also is the fact an education is important in moving up in the world, and that novels ending with wedding ceremonies doesn’t account for the wedding being a beginning.

May will be about finishing more of my current reads, and I’m likely to choose one of my sister’s books to add to the list.

What are you currently reading?

Anne Melville – The House Of Hardie

Book Cover

Revolution at Oxford, and the early expeditions to China.

Publisher: Agora Books
Pages: 288
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1st July 1987; republished in ebook format by Agora 2nd May 2019
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

In 1874, Gordon Hardie ran away to sea, joining a botanist and becoming an assistant. He comes home to take his place in the family wine business but agrees with his father that before too long he may go to China in search of a legendary lily. Meanwhile, his sister Midge is preparing to attend tutorials at Oxford University; she wants to work in a school and some sympathetic professors are agreeing to teach women so long as they don’t use the main entrances to the colleges. Also preparing for Oxford is Archie Yates, the grandson of a marquess who isn’t too good at studying and plans to have fun. His younger sister, Lucy, longs to see more of the world – she’s hardly ever away from home – and delights in visiting him. With the Marquess a loyal patron of the Hardies, the siblings will meet. It is likely to have a great impact on all of their lives.

The House Of Hardie is the first book in a trilogy, a family saga set in the Victorian era. A story of class, gender, and exploration, it looks at two pairs of siblings and their relationships with each other, as well as the ways they work to achieve their differing dreams.

This book is sensational. Placing an emphasis on the middle class and looking at lesser-known subjects, it offers everything you might want in a historical novel, and then some. (This is provided you don’t mind some romance.) It’s clear that Melville did a lot of research and had a mind to create a work that would be as immersive as possible. Rather like Elizabeth Chadwick, who started publishing her medieval historical fiction in the early 1990s, Melville looks to draw her readers fully into the world she’s writing about. She does not use the sights, smells, and similar details in the way Chadwick does, and she limits her description, but the effect is the same; this book will steal your time and you’ll be very happy for it.

One of the major themes, the success of the social commentary is down to Melville’s dedication to presenting everyday life for Victorians in Oxford and limiting the inclusion of the aristocracy. The Yates’ position, the aristocrats without an inheritance – both a narrative device and realistic – enables Melville to take her discussion where she wants it to be; the inevitable romances allow for further discussion. It’s difficult to move up in the world, and difficult to move down, and where the class lines are less defined – high-born, penniless; profitable ‘every-man’ – there’s another layer of conversation when sparks fly. Needless to say the characterisation is fabulous. There’s a fair amount of introspective but Melville never scrimps on dialogue. And the employment of the second major theme – education for women – allows for a lot of forward-thinking, and brief references to books.

“A woman in England is expected by her husband to shriek at the sight of a mouse but to endure without complaint the pain of having a baby every year, and she fulfils both those expectations. If she were given a different pattern to follow, she would take the mouse to bed with her as a pet and think nothing of it.”

Oxford University is the place of education for the sons of aristocrats, and, as the years pass, women too. More than anything else, Midge wants a degree, and whilst as a woman she can’t receive a certificate she’s allowed to do everything that for a man would mean receiving one. In the space for exposition Midge’s studies create, the author gives a brief history of the early movements towards women’s equal access to education, using Midge’s experiences as a sort of case study to show specifics. This together with the chapters focused on Archie who stays in Magdalen College proper, equate to a well-rounded history – quite apt for a book that looks at two students of the subject. And the author never misses a chance to add to your mental image of Victorian Oxford, having the river freeze over for ice skating, involving everyone in Eights Week (yearly since 1715), and making time for walks and other excursions. It’s a championing of Oxford to rival Philip Pullman.

The romance threads in this book are strong, as well written as everything else; the book is historical romance but not quite at the level the label implies. The class issues are forefront, and Melville puts career above romance. Both relationships evolve in ways that come as a surprise, Melville wanting to look at another aspect of relationships than the easy happily-ever-after. She’s quite diligent in this, including concepts that are the opposite of romance when she wants to show historical context or indeed imply the drawbacks to these siblings of different social classes knowing each other. When the romances had previously been moving along well, these changes can be hard to read, but they make the stories less predictable.

The final section is absolutely fascinating, a story high on adventure in a literal manner. The basic narrative (obvious fiction aside) is as good as any non-fiction account and the author handles the differences between what a Victorian explorer would have written and what we expect to hear about now, with aplomb. For example, her white western characters often think of their discomfort amongst those of an entirely different culture that doesn’t match English standards of behaviour, and then Melville uses description to show the goodness in these ‘savage’ people; at other times the characters try to learn a little about the people around them, hindered only by the author’s concern that they adhere to the thoughts of their time.

Why, then, is this well planned and well executed book not the recipient of the highest rating here? As the story heads towards its final section it starts to focus more on one set of characters, swiftly cutting out the other set altogether. This is all well and good as the look at education and the relationship there had previously been at the forefront, but the narrowing down to one set of characters has an immediate effect on the atmosphere of the book; though it’s right that the atmosphere changes to fit the change in the story, the beauty of the book was in the way Melville switched between the characters and the variety of commentary and content that was provided, the result of the good writing. This naturally becomes a bit lost.

With this comes a change in the way the romance is written. Whilst there had been problems to overcome in the relationships prior to this, the problems in the final chapters are magnified because of the decision to look at the one couple. Maybe it’s the relative silence of the new location, but it becomes repetitive, leaning towards that particular sort of angst that is more device than anything else. And, due to it, the perhaps surprising way in which the other romance unfolded becomes less surprising-but-powerful choice and more way-to-cull-character-count.

The good thing is that these factors only affect the section they are included in – the book might not end quite how you were hoping or thinking, but that doesn’t change the success of the rest of the book. It may be ironic that this is due to the final section changing location and structure but, regardless, it applies.

The House Of Hardie is a great feat. An adventure, a number of lessons, some romance, and a particular attention to storytelling that is at the top end of the scale. Recommended to anyone who likes the idea of taking a trip to the era and reading history in the context of history. You’re not going to be able to put it down.

I received this book for review.

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