Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is one of those widely acclaimed debut novels that seems to follow you around, even before you’ve read it you see the cover in bus stops, catch the title in magazines and catch the name standing out in strangers conversations. But is there anything more to the hype than a clever marketing campaign?
At first glance, the story has all the elements of a Gothic pastiche: a young bride turns up at her new husband’s house and finds herself at the mercy of his cold, maiden sister with a servant who openly treats her in a disrespectful way. Alone and isolated (in a room bedecked with grizzly artwork depicting meat and game birds no less), she is insulted when her husband buys her a child’s dollhouse to occupy her but soon finds that there is more to this than meets the eye. In itself, not massively compelling.
To reduce the story to this rough plot overview though, would be to do the novel and the author a massive disservice. I think that part of Jessie Burton’s talent is that she sets up the reader’s expectations for a particular kind of plot then through subtle misdirection surprises the reader with the course of events that follows, keeping you only half a step ahead of Nella as she encounters the wonders and horrors of her new life in Amsterdam and making her one of the most credible naïve brides in literature.
The history of 17th century Amsterdam been well researched and certainly well rendered, and the setting is a masterstroke for anyone who thinks of Amsterdam as a shorthand for liberalism and tolerance. While the miniaturist remains shadowy, the city comes to the fore as a contradictory, cruelly capricious character – the home to a society simultaneously obsessed with trade and piety, where neighbour watches neighbour to exert a pervasive social control, a fearful puppet master in its own right.
Though the novel isn’t perfect, it is very, very good and like all good novels it leaves you with questions. Why does the miniaturist come to the church in the first chapter? Why did they want to leave the miniature-miniature there? And most of all, what has compelled such an astute student of human behaviour to hold a mirror up to their subjects lives when the emotional repercussions of their art seem to shake them too?
Though each speaker(Gaynor Arnold and Elizabeth Edmondson, for, and Juliet McKenna and Anita Mason, against) spoke well, their arguments did seem to repeat each other regardless of what side they were arguing for, the main crux of the issue being reduced to, genre is irrelevant, it’s really a matter of whether the book is good or bad.
Gaynor Arnold’s speech stressed that from her perspective the genre and literary fiction have so much overlap that it’s very unhelpful to put authors into these categories. As an author she was quite concerned that her books would be read as historical fiction. She stressed that a book should be judged by, “is it a good book per se, not is it a good book of it’s type?”
Anita Mason argued in favour of retaining a distinction between the two, because she sees a genre novel as being governed by limitations which allow it to meet the criteria of that genre, while literary fiction is governed by nothing and is trying to do something different. She cited Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake as a novel which is rooted in a genre (speculative fiction) but has all the qualities of a literary work, comparing writing to a wheel with literary fiction as the hub and genres as the spokes. The hub holds the wheel together and unites the whole, but it is the spokes which give the wheel its strength.
Elizabeth Edmondson used Jane Austen as an example of a literary author who wouldn’t be published as such today- she’d be shoved into romance or comedy which are very rarely considered to be “literary”. Edmondson speculated as to whether classing certain books as being literary fiction wasn’t just a marketing strategy from the publishers to set certain titles apart, a bid to elevate them to the status of literature without the test of time. It’s an interesting idea… one which brings to mind Penguin’s inclusion of Morrissey in its Classics series. Edmondson reminded the audience that though literary fiction may be considered more profound than genre fiction, profundity has a dark twin called pretension which can result in judgemental and reductive reading. “There are only good books and bad books, which can be thrust into many genres- lit fic is just one of these.”
Juliet McKenna was by far my favourite speaker, she is what the world might term a genre fiction writer and is damn proud of it. She sees literary fiction as attempting to reflect real life while speculative fiction introduces an element of other to discuss major ideas without the restriction of a “real life” setting. She argued that the unfamiliar worlds of speculative fiction need to create a clearer picture of the world that they are set in, as the reader’s mind won’t just fill in the blanks that the author has overlooked, so in this sense it is much harder to write speculative fiction well than it is to write literary fiction. I also liked her point about the increased scrutiny that genre fiction authors receive from their reads, the sci-fi and fantasy genres have very active communities built up around them who are incredibly invested in their genres.
The most interesting part of the talk for me was a brief discussion of the influence of metadata in publishing which came up as a result of an audience member complaining that an agent had rejected her novel because it sat across a range of genres. The influence of key words and tagging means that books in future should have the opportunity to define themselves more broadly and reach out to a more specific audience type that isn’t necessarily restricted by a generic categories.
The talk hasn’t revolutionised my views on genre vs literary fiction, I still think genres are useful categorisations for readers. I was a little disappointed that the whole panel was made up of women- even if it is as a result of the Hilda’s college connection. There can only have been two men in the crowd, probably because they saw the genre debate was among a panel of women and thought it would be about chick lit and this genre wasn’t really touched upon. Call me a gender traitor, but I think that putting a man on the panel might have shaken up the debate a little bit- it was a little too collegiate with everyone ultimately agreeing with one another.
If The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in A Ship of Her Own Making is to be compared to The Wizard of Oz for its tale of astounding journeys, unlikely friendships and a plucky heroine standing up to a sinister figurehead, then The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led The Revels There must be compared to Alice Through The Looking Glass.
Returning to Fairyland, September finds that the magic is bleeding away as shadows fall away from their owners and seep into the dark realms of fairyland below. Being a plucky lady, September is forced to investigate and finds herself in a strange land of anarchy and mischief, accompanied by the shadows of A-through-L and Saturday who, while looking a lot like her friends, aren’t quite the friends that September remembers.
Another plucky, darkly amusing novel from Catherynne M Valente. I can’t wait to read the final instalment of the trilogy.
Image by BadgerHero, used under the terms of Wikimedia Commons License
Badgers remind me of my childhood. Mysterious woodland animals who usually played a noble role in fiction, defending the weak, standing up for what was right… They remind me of more innocent days in my naive youth. A time when I believed that a democratically elected government had to listen to the views of the people, or, if they insisted upon taking a paternalistic approach, the mainstream of scientific opinion… you know, silly things like that…
Given the UK government’s current foray into badger fiction* (fiction in the sense that they are flying in the face of the facts/a ten-year independent scientific study into badgers and Bovine TB) I thought I would share my top five badgers in actual fiction.
1. The Badger Lords of the Redwall Series by Brian Jacques
I was obsessed with the Redwall Series by the late, great Brian Jacques when I was small. I’ve always had a fondness for rodents. The Redwall books are a little like what Lord of the Rings might be if you take out the magic and replace hobbits, dwarves and orcs with mice, squirrels and wildcats. My favourite characters always the badgers and the mice. Though the badgers are noble characters, they suffer from bloodwrath which turns their eyes red, the sign of a great warrior who will not hold back or even be able to restrain themselves in the heat of battle.
2. Badger in The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann
If you’re of a similar age to me, you’ll probably remember The Animals of Farthing Wood as a television series in which a diverse group of woodland animals who are threatened by man’s interference in their wood, form a motley crew and journey to the safety of a woodland reserve. It doesn’t look as though this will go ahead, due to the smaller animals natural fear of the carnivores eating them, until Badger suggests they take an oath of mutual protection. It’s a very nice story about understanding other people’s limitations and supporting them (Badger carries Mole on his back because he can only walk very slowly). Someone should also read it to the Environment Secretary because it makes the point that animals under threat migrate.
3. Tommy Brock The Tale of Mr Tod Beatrix Potter
Now Tommy Brock is a very naughty badger, the kind of badger you could imagine the government wanting to do something about. Don’t be fooled by his smart waistcoat and downturned gaze. This is the kind of badger who would steal a nest of baby rabbits and hides them in Mr Tod’s oven. Now you might say that badgers don’t commonly eat rabbits in the wild. To that I say, foxes don’t commonly own ovens. We’re suspending our disbelief here. Suspended? Thank you. Many people love Beatrix Potters “good characters” but I’ve always had a soft spot for the villains. Yes, I prefer Samuel Whiskers to Tom Kitten, and I salute Tommy Brock for stealing the baby rabbits and making everyone wonder why Benjamin Bunny decided to sire a family with his first cousin Flopsy. Well, that’s rabbits for you.
4. Mr Badger The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graeme
I admire any badger that wears a dressing gown, and the solitary Mr Badger may have attempted to stage one of the first interventions in literature when he tried to dissuade Toad from his path of self-destruction by placing him under house arrest. Interestingly, Badger and Mole are driven out of Toad Hall by a crew of stoats and weasels. Did you know that the TB virus can survive for a very long time in empty badger setts, infecting any badgers which move into the area. Interestingly, since rats and weasels move into Toad Hall, rats, weasels and ferrets can also carry the disease. As can foxes. And deer… shoot anything that moves will be next.
5. Trufflehunter Prince Caspian C S Lewis
This Old Narnian badger rescues Prince Caspian and hides him when he is fleeing from his evil, murderous Uncle Miraz. As a good and true Narnian, he surely lives on in Aslan’s Country, the true Narnia. But you have to wonder what fate lies in store for less vocal members of the meles meles if the government proceed with this madness.
Honourable mention should go to Bill of Rupert the Bear fame and Captain Ramshackle of Automated Alice but I felt that we had one randomologist too many in the form of Owen Paterson at this time.
* Even if your name isn’t Sherlock, you will notice that I have used this post on fictional badgers to ram home my views on the cull. I make no apology for that, it is madness. A ten-year study has shown that culling will not solve the problem of Bovine TB. It may in fact make it worse as studies showed TB decreasing in cull zones but rapidly increasing in surrounding areas. 92% of the surveyed British public are against the culls so both the scientists and the people the government have been elected to represent are being ignored.
If you’re a UK resident and as annoyed about this as I am please sign this petition. It’s already been debated once and the cull was postponed. Hopefully a second debate will see the cull cancelled altogether and Bovine TB managed through vaccination, improved husbandry and better biosecurity.
In 1576 a ship sails from Constantinople to Venice carrying both life and death in its hold.
Death comes in the form of a dying man, a victim of the Bubonic Plague, sent by the Sultan to spread the disease through the city and bring his enemies to their knees. Life comes in the form of a talented young doctor, Feyra, a stowaway, running from the Sultan’s advances and carrying an important message for the Doge of Venice. But Feyra has few allies in the plague ridden city, and time is running out…
Taking real historic details as a starting point, Marina Fiorato has created an enjoyable story which, though clearly very well researched and brimming with historic detail, feels natural and engaging. Those with a passing interest in history will be pleased with the detailed reconstruction of plague struck Venice, with its saints and quacks, while those reading for adventure and romance will not be disappointed.
The characterisation is decent, there being enough complexity to prevent Feyra becoming the stock plucky yet virtuous maiden, and enough warmth to prevent Annibale becoming a Renaissance Mr Darcy in a bird mask. The relationships which develop between characters are for the main part credible, if a little oversimplified, though the author uses a subjective narrative to understate or overstate the bonds between characters to great effect at times.
The novel relates some very dramatic moment- births, deaths and destruction- without seeping into hysterical melodrama. And though there were occasions when the novel felt a little awkwardly paced, or when characters felt a little more like plot devices than characters (Columbina Cason) I was impressed with the way the author managed the pace and scope of the novel.
Looking at the cover with its beautiful woman in a low-cut corseted dress against the backdrop of Venice, you could be forgiven for thinking that this would be something of a bodice ripper and dismiss it as a result. Don’t. The cover is beautiful in its own way but really doesn’t do the story justice.
On the whole this is an enjoyable read, which is suitable for young adults but which has enough flair to impress an adult reader as well.
Oleander is named for its resemblance to the leaves of an olive; deadly nightshade is called belladonna, the beautiful lady, for its luscious looking black berries; poison hemlock is easily mistaken for a parsnip.
It’s not always easy to spot a poison, especially when you have limited experience recognising the things that mean you harm. Jessamine has lived a sheltered life in the ruins of an abbey with her apothecary father, and knows enough to stay out of the poison garden which is hidden behind tall walls and a strong chain. But when Weed, a mysterious but attractive young man with a strange knowledge of plants, arrives, Jessamine quickly learns that love and obsession can be more poisonous than the most deadly plant.
I picked The Poison Diaries out as a Christmas present for my brother having fallen for the best blurb I have ever read:
IS A POISON
Someone promote whoever wrote that copy! The book comes very close to living up to the blurb, which is no mean feat.
Narrated from the perspective of Jessamine, the reader is drawn through an exciting mixture of thriller, romance and fantasy which twists and turns with every chapter. I find myself frustrated by obvious foreshadowing in novels, even subtle foreshadowing when you feel you have predicted the outcome and I loved the fact that this was peppered with red herrings to mislead and trick you.
It was clear that the author was in control of her plot, but at no point did you feel that the author was present, the characters were the ones telling the story. I don’t want to give the ending away, but I will say that I was impressed by the way in which the author wrote with conviction and refused to shy away from the strongest ending to the book. My brother said that he went to sleep feeling cheated, but woke up feeling quite impressed by the brilliance of it. It’s nice to see an author with the courage of their convictions.
This book is equally well suited to young adults and old adults alike (I use the word young adult to describe teenagers, because that seems to be common practise though I’m not sure I should be an old adult at twenty-five. It was called teen fiction in my day and was good enough for us!) as the themes and content are relevant to both age groups, which is quite an achievement. It’s rare to find a book that fits both age categories perfectly but this is one.
I’d never heard of Maryrose Wood (given her name you can understand the fixation with plants…) before, but I was so impressed that I will keep an eye out for any books by her in future.
Hello all, as you can see I still have lots of copies of Life of Pi to give away. As in my last post, all you have to do is email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your address. I won’t keep your details after sending the books, don’t worry!
As part of the World Book Night 2011 Million Book Giveaway, I will be giving away 11 copies of Life of Pi by Yann Martel for World Book Night via this blog.
Life of Pi is the thrilling story of Pi, a young indian boy who survives a ship wreck, only to find himself stranded on a life boat with an injured zebra, an orangutang, a hyena and a hungry bengal tiger. What follows is a strange and maginficent tale of survival and an incredible relationship between a young boy and the tiger. I gave this to my boyfriend, who does not enjoy reading, while we were away from each other during the university summer break and he loved it. I think that says more than the fact that it won the Man Booker Prize.
Unfortunately, due to the risk of bankrupting myself in postage costs, I will only be able to send one of the eleven books internationally- this will be via surface mail. The other ten books I will send via second class post to winners in the UK. The books will be sent on a first come, first served basis to those who send their full name and postal address to email@example.com .
My older sister bought me Fallen and Torment by Lauren Kate for my birthday back in December, and though I’d like to think that I’m generally not very snooty about which books I will or won’t read I have to admit that I was wary- like much of the world I have been suffering Twilight Sickness, and these books are in a similar vein.
In Fallen, Lucinda Price is sentenced to time at a school for young offenders having been implicated in a terrible accident. Her strange testimony about shadows gathering has everyone thinking that she’s crazy, or worse, has something to hide. Once there she finds herself torn between two handsome men (as all good heroines in teen romance books seem to do…) the dark and edgy but considerate Cam, and the aloof and somewhat unfriendly Daniel. Now, to most women that would seem like an obvious choice, but Luce has a feeling that she has known Daniel for a very, very long time. Torment is the sequel to this story, in what will be a four part deal.
So, the comparisons to the Twilight books are inevitable. Intelligent young heroine is placed in an unfamiliar environment and relies upon the charms of two supernatural (oh come on, you saw it coming) young men to help get her through. We also have the Twilight love triangle going on, and the character of Daniel is a lot like the character of Edward (an annoying, controlling know-it-all). They’ve even pre-empted the Edward Cullen effect by having some blonde weightlifter pose for promotional material, which I found quite funny. The young man was more a pretty teen than eternally beautiful angel, but I suppose you have to work with what’s available.
Despite this, I think that the Fallen books are infinitely superior. Luce is a lot less annoying than Bella, challenging Daniel’s decision to establish himself in the role of authority figure instead of playing the insipid little wife. I also like the way that the author has made the lines between good and evil a lot more blurred than they are in Twilight making elements of the books less predictable than they might otherwise have been.
Having said that, I suspect that parts of the books might just be a little predictable. And I can’t wait to read the next book to find out how the author will unfurl the story to prove me right!
Oh, and in case you wondered? I’m team Cam. I’m starting that bandwagon rolling.
Season of The Witch tells the story of Gabriel Blackstone, a professional computer hacker who is secretly able to connect to other people’s minds. When he is agrees to investigate the disappearance of his ex-lover’s step son, he soon realises the boy has been murdered, and traces this to the mysterious and beautiful Monk sisters. As he delves further into the sisters’ world, he finds himself falling in love with both women, at the same time knowing that one of them must be the murderer.
This book has been loitering on my shelf for months now, and I only got around to reading it because I saw a film of the same name advertised on TV and I didn’t want the story being given away. I needn’t have worried because this is a different book, but I am glad that I got around to reading it.
Natasha Mostert has created an intelligent though untaxing thriller, which explores the capacity and potential of the human mind, in thrilling and terrifying ways. The concept of remote viewing is subtle and serves as a compliment to the story, rather than being the crux of it. The action is well paced and consistently engaging, though if you are a native of the UK you may find the dialogue a little unnatural. This was a bit of a nagging issue, but became less noticeable as the action of the book gained momentum.
Sexy, dark and dangerous; I would recommend this to anyone looking for a grown up and credible supernatural novel.