Bookmarks – what’s your preferred choice?

Do you have a favourite bookmark? Do you always use the same one or change often? Perhaps it’s a piece of throwaway card or a receipt. Maybe it’s half a birthday card or a fast food menu. Or a present from a bookseller like a nice bit of tartan or a cartoon rabbit.

Double Deathshead by Jake and Dinos Chapman

This is my ‘dangerous’ bookmark from Tate Modern. It was meant to instil fear in train passengers on the 1607 out of New Street. It didn’t. The man wearing slippers and a tea cosy for a hat did that much better.

Hendrick Goltzius’s Bust of a Man with Tasselled Cap (1587)

This is a well-thumbed and well-travelled one ( hope that’s never said about me). It’s from the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. I wanted something different and everyone else was buying that vicar skating. I like this fella too. He likes a good deal, a nice wine and a cigar.

Boxing clothes label

This one fell off a hooded top I bought and travelled around with PG Wodehouse, Kate Atkinson and Louise Welch. What a great line up of fighters.

Christmas cracker

This one’s from a Christmas cracker but it can nip at pages. Really, your bookmark could be anything. There’s a sauna and swim receipt from Wimbledon leisure centre still marking Andrew Marvell in my Metaphysical Poets Penguin Classic.

Do you have sentimental attachments to a bookmark or will the local Pizza-the-Action menu suffice? Feel free to share…

What happened to General fiction?

I used to read almost anything when I was growing up. I’d pick up comics and magazines, the local sporting Pink newspaper, Ladybird histories, my Dad’s airport thrillers.

Although there have always been categories of books it seems no book can be published these days without being classified as thriller, crime, romantic or chick-lit etc.

I understand that marketers and publishers believe it boosts sales if books are clearly placed in categories. If you enjoy an Ian Rankin you’ll likely navigate your way about the crime-fiction shelves and pick up a Peter Robinson or Fiona Barton or Stephen Booth.

The same follows for romantic fiction and I know a number of book-present-buyers (yes, OK, they’re men) who trawl the tables and shelves of their local Waterstones or Smiths and make their purchases based on the look of the cover. Maybe it has a cupcake and a beach on the front. Or perhaps a man with a firearm at his side. Or a misty graveyard. Or a woman at a dockside in period costume.

This type of branding can lead to very similar covers and Private Eye magazine regularly demonstrates there’s barely a difference between some titles.

Perhaps, then, it’s helpful for the consumer and, yes, it’s a business so it’s really about the buyer.

As a writer it can be tough though. I felt pressured to write to a thriller formula in my early exchanges with agents and publishers and sometimes writing styles or ideas don’t easily seem to fit the market. However, we all want to get paid and get readers so it’s easy to understand why agents and publishers want writers who fulfil a ready made market. Put simply, they deliver on expectations.

A downside to this is it can be hard to place and market, or even find a way to market, for some great writing. I sometimes wonder what has happened to what you might call ‘general’ fiction. In other words books that don’t necessarily fit into these categories above but provide a real page-turning read. An example would be Rachel Joyce’s work (see below) and often comic fiction such as John Mortimer’s trilogy (above) and works by the likes of Leslie Thomas and David Nobbs.

It’s a theory, of course, but I think it’s harder than ever for this type of fiction to break through. There are exceptions and a good book can surprise and break through by word of mouth (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and also The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time being examples). Perhaps it’s just anecdotal and maybe it’s just the covers and marketing strategy that has changed. Or maybe it’s tastes. But these books sold by the wheelbarrow not so long ago and still can – there is always a market for strong, believable quest stories.

I’m reading many of these books again, some for the second time. I’ve had a tough few months and it helps to read purely for joy and escapism – what is wrong with that? We shouldn’t worry about being seen with the kind of book we believe would impress others.

Perhaps it is this snobbishness that dogs general fiction. Writers such as the excellent Jonathan Coe are seen as literary exponents of general fiction and that’s acceptable, but perhaps other general fiction writers are sent down the genre path. In her book ‘Write to be Published’ the entertaining and humorous Nicola Morgan says…..’be cautious of calling your book ‘general fiction’ in your approach to publishers. Only use it if it genuinely doesn’t fit one of the other genres, but still ask yourself whether it is going to be easy for a publisher to sell.’

I’ll be reading a lot more general fiction and unearthing a few seventies and eighties titles. And maybe I’ll have a go again myself when I’ve regrouped in 2022.

Snobbery is also playing its part here. How else was Morrissey’s bio published as a Penguin Classic when the sad, funny, tragic and beautiful The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin is yet to make even the 20th century classics list?

Please let me know what you think about general fiction? Do you read it and what are your favourites?

The Offing by Benjamin Myers

The book

Yes, the cover attracted me and then I remembered I’d read Ben Myers’ novel The Gallows Pole. That breakthrough novel is to be filmed by Shane Meadows later this year and I’m very much looking forward to it.

The Offing is Myers’ latest and is beautiful in its descriptive language, simplicity and understanding and capture of nature.

It’s set in Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, immediately after the Second World War. Robert is a young lad from Durham who, realising he’s not cut out for following his forebears down the pit, sets off south to explore.

He reaches Yorkshire and the novel beautifully contrasts the coast blighted by coal and industry further north with the fishing and minor tourism of Yorkshire.

Robert is hungry and meets Dulcie, an eccentric character who has dined with DH Lawrence and others and introduces the young man to poems, rich food and the opportunity for sea swimming. He does odd jobs for food and a bed beneath a lean-to in the fields.

The book is gentle but rewarding and there are beautiful passages such as when Robert rambles down the dark, subterranean clefts from the moors towards the sea. He traces the ‘claw-marked calligraphy’ of the badgers. He touches kissing gates whose tops were worn ‘skull-smooth by the clammy palms of several centuries of passing land workers and hill wanderers.’

Robert learns a great deal from Dulcie and this chance encounter changes his life. There is a sadness behind Dulcie’s fascinating and well travelled exterior but you’ll need to read to learn what it is. You could read this book for the descriptions of nature, the endless possibilities in life….or you might wonder what chance can throw up and learn how new-found friendships can change everything for the better. Roll the dice like Robert.

The Terror

I’m enjoying watching The Terror on BBC iplayer. Ciaran Hinds, Jared Harris and Ian Hart are always great to watch and it’s incredibly tense and atmospheric.

Conflict is key for drama and being stuck fast in the ice, hunted by a beast, with food supplies toxic and dwindling certainly makes for tension.

I’m fortunate in that I picked up this book pre-lockdown from our brilliant local Oxfam. It’s fascinating reading and chronicles Erebus’s two ambitious naval expeditions – the first being a voyage further south on the planet than anyone had been before.

The second being the expedition to find the North West Passage. This is the basis for The Terror- the name of Erebus’s sister ship.

Michael Palin’s writing is full of interesting facts with plenty of humour. Those who hate horseradish with their Sunday roast would learn they’d eat an awful lot of wild cabbage (tasting of horseradish) to avoid scurvy. There’s plenty on Hobart nightlife, flying fish, discipline and the vastness of the Antarctic… ice plateau the size of France.

I’ll review in a little more detail later. But it’s hard to imagine the hardships these men tried to withstand.

The Fatal Shore

I’ve recently begun to read this and 100 pages in we’ve just landed in New South Wales such is the scope and detail of this work. I’ll return to discuss again on these pages but I’m struck by the level of research and delighted it took in Stafford’s wonderful William Salt library.

Indeed a Stafford man was among the first poor souls to be transported…

Among the first fleet was one Thomas Hawell, a labourer, sentenced to 7 yrs transportation at Stafford Assizes for stealing a live hen and a dead hen to the value 4d.