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The Rathbones Folio Prize 2019 Awards Ceremony

A photograph of Raymond Antrobus speaking on stage after he was crowned winner

On Monday evening, poet Raymond Antrobus was announced as the winner of this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize.

The ceremony took place in the Entrance Hall of the British Library. It was the culmination of several months of discussion and well over a month of concentrated publicity; the shortlist had been announced early in April; the judges announced last November.

Beginning with live music and time for drinks and conversation, there ceremony was then officially opened. We were welcomed by Rathbones (sponsor) and Andrew Kidd (co-founder of the prize). The shortlisted authors who attended were brought onto the stage for photographs and flowers. The Chair of the judges, Kate Clanchy, then took over to tell us about the judging process, the three judges’ general opinions of the books, and to announce the winner. Alice Jolly, she said, had been a close second.

Raymond Antrobus gains ¬£30,000 for his poetry collection, The Perseverance. Clanchy had introduced him as winner saying it was “an exceptionally brave, kind book – it seemed, in our atomised times, to be the book we most wanted to give to others, the book we all needed to read”. In a show of wonderful humility, Antrobus thanked everyone and noted the poets he spotted in the audience, spending time introducing them. He then read a poem from his collection.

A photograph of Guy Stagg, Alice Jolly, Diana Evans, Carys Davis, Anna Burns, and Raymond Antrobus on the Rathbones Folio stage

Antrobus is a Jamaican British deaf poet. Born 33 years ago in Hackney, East London, he was considered dyslexic and severely learning disabled, his deafness not discovered until the age of 6. He performs his poetry often and was one of the first recipients of an M.A. in Spoken Word Education (from Goldsmiths, London).

The Perseverance, published by small press, Penned in the Margins, in October, explores issues such as his diagnosis, his mixed heritage experience, masculinity, and his beloved father’s alcoholism and later decline into dementia and death. For it, the poet has received the Ted Hughes Award, having included a redacted poem Hughes wrote about deaf children (‘Deaf School’), and writing a response to it; Hughes’ poem showed to Antrobus a lack of understanding.

The Guardian says the book ‘confronts deeply rooted prejudice against deaf people’. In an interview with literary magazine, Four Hubs, Antrobus said: “This book is me trying to find a use for all the things in my life that felt like a disadvantage, a nuisance, the things I once tried to hide”.

Have you read or do you plan to read any of the books that were shortlisted?

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society: The Book In A Book

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society book cover

Allow me a little extraneous backstory. I am constantly going back to The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society; I’ve read it twice since buying it around 2015, and have re-read sections about four times since then. Most recently the reason was the film; it had highlighted to me things I’d not really thought, the cultural aspects of Juliet’s period – clothes, for example. For some reason I’d always pictured her in 1990s gear, so caught up was I in the story of the war. I also think much of my overlooking of things was due to the fact of letters rather than regular prose, description of a certain kind. (Incidently, I enjoyed the film, and thought it handled the source material, the limits imposed by letters, very well.) It’s apt that I was always seeing the book, its cover, everywhere, because this is what led me to buy it – it had seemingly followed me around, taunting me to read it, and since I gave in it’s continued to follow me, if now at my bidding.

It was during one of those later dips into the book that I realised the meta concept – author Mary Ann Shaffers’ book is fictional writer Juliet’s book.

Juliet needs to write an article to ‘address the practical, moral, and philosophical value of reading… I am to cover the philosophical side of the debate’ (p. 28). Over the course of the novel we see Juliet finding material for this article (which ends up becoming a book) and in so creating this narrative for Juliet, Shaffers in turn writes the same book. Guernsey is a book in a book.

Of course this idea contains a fair amount of conjecture on my part; if there’s something I’ve learned over the time spent planning this post it’s that we unlikely to find more background to the writing of the novel than we have. Shaffers’ death before its completion – happily, she knew it was to be published, after having handed it to her niece to finish (if I recall correctly, Barrows’ input was mostly in the editing of it1) – means that what we already know, partly from Barrows, will likely be it. We have a brief background, that’s included at the front of the book – at least in the UK edition; it was a trip to Guernsey that American Shaffers made, as well as persuasion from her book club to write, that got her started. Given the content of the book, the fictional literary society (which we can give the catch-all term of ‘book club’ to), together with the ‘value of reading’, as quoted in the previous paragraph, it’s fair to say that Shaffers mixed her day-to-day reality with her experience of Guernsey2 – we can see why she wrote what she did, the further content than the occupation. Juliet needed to write an article, needed something to continue the success she found in being a best-selling novelist. Shaffers needed a book, needed to write something after her peers told her she should. It’s pretty similar.

So then, in effect, Shaffers is the writer ‘part’ of Juliet. Shaffers uses Juliet’s experiences to look at the affect reading can have on people, to look at the way it can be used, both conventionally and unconventionally – if we consider its role as a loophole for which the residents of Guernsey could get around the banning of meeting in groups – and the way it brings people together in various ways. Most obvious is the use of the literary society with its colourful cast of characters; there is also the beginnings of Juliet’s trip – the love of Charles Lamb uniting two people, as well as the fact of the secondhand book trade in itself. There’s the use of what we can call marginalia for its effect – the name of a reader written into a book, which forms a connection as the book passes hands. (Here Shaffers brings in the musings of a reader who finds evidence of a previous owner, connecting the two readers in her fictional reality.) Reading brings Juliet and Dawsy together, it brings residents of an occupied island together, and its final result is that it brings the history of Guernsey to a wide readership, both the off-stage readers Juliet is looking to reach and the real-world readers of Shaffers’ novel. All those values of reading that Juliet lists, Shaffers satisfies in her work. And as to the practical, educational side, well, that’s what the literary discussions are for.

On page 34, Amelia Maugery notes that Juliet’s bestseller (Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War3) had provided her with an update on what those in Guernsey didn’t know about the war elsewhere. Juliet’s response, page 35, includes, ‘…the Spectator felt a light approach to the bad news would serve as an antidote and that humour would help to raise London’s low morale. I am very glad Izzy served that purpose, but the need to be humorous against the odds is – thank goodness – over. I would never make fun of anyone who loved reading.’ This somewhat coincides with Shaffers’ book – a happy tone where appropriate – and as much as she provides the bad, it is in effect an antidote to it, showing the humanity in an otherwise inhumane situation. (It’s interesting to compare the book with Caroline Lea’s more recent When The Sky Fell Apart – a book about occupied Jersey that uses a different method to tell a similar tale (the occupation of the Channel Islands). Happiness in the face of occupation, friendship and society doing what they can.

I’ve wanted to explore this topic without too much contemplation of facts because I found a lot more there for the taking than there was when just looking for the book’s backstory. There is so much of the idea and reasons for literature in itself in this book and the crafting of it that we’re not going to hear about directly from the authors. However there is this, at the end of Shaffers’ part of the acknowledgements that needs to be looked at:

If nothing else, I hope these characters and their story shed some light on the sufferings and strength of the people of the Channel Islands during the German Occupation. I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art – be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music – enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.

It surely does.


1 From the acknowledgements of the book (Bloomsbury edition): “…Annie, who stepped in to finish this book after unexpected health issues interrupted my ability to work shortly after the manuscript was sold.” Barrows took it on once it had been passed to an editor. Wikipedia (n.d.) notes, ‘After the manuscript had been accepted for publication (2006), the book’s editor requested some changes that would require substantial rewriting’, however there is no citation for this.
2 From the acknowledgements: “I had travelled to England to research another book and while there learned of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands. On a whim, I flew to Guernsey and was fascinated by my brief glimpse of the island’s history and beauty. From that visit came this book, albeit many years later.” Shaffers also notes her daughters insisting she sit down and type, to get the book written.
3 Issac Bickerstaff was the pseudonym Jonathan Swift used as part of a hoax to predict someone’s death.


Shaffers, Mary Ann and Barrows, Annie (2008) The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, Bloomsbury, London.
Wikipedia (n.d.) The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, accessed 16th May 2019.

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 ‚Äď 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?


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