Thursday 31 July 2008

A different kind of manuscript to round off the day

Sighhhhh. There are so many books I want to blog about, but here I am at 23.56 on a Thursday night and I've only just finished work (school holiday shift patterns currently in operation). And am feeling utterly devoid of the mental energy required to string more than a dozen words together in a coherent fashion. So, instead, here's a video which has just refreshed a few parts that belatedly listening to tonight's episode of The Archers with a glass of cheap Merlot frankly did not.

Wednesday 30 July 2008

Another little rant about book cover design

How very interesting to read Diane Shipley on 'The great chick lit cover-up' on yesterday's Guardian Book Blog. Particularly given its special mention of Rosy Thornton's wonderful Hearts and Minds, the book which has recently had me spitting about publishers' misguided rush to jump on the 'chick-lit' bandwagon, regardless of whether the books thus branded are actually 'chick lit' at all.

Shipley's piece is so spot-on that I hope she doesn't mind if I quote from it at some length:

'When we look at a book, its cover tells us what to expect. A pink paperback featuring a smiling young woman is most likely a female-centric summer read, whereas a gun on a black background is probably a murder story. A few simple aesthetic rules narrow our options, make life easier and ensure none of us has to wander Waterstone's for hours, wailing in confusion. And yet the rules seem to be changing.

Having cottoned on to the fact that chick lit books sell like cupcakes, publishers are now adding chick lit-style covers to any book written by a woman whether it fits the genre definition or not.

Fay Weldon has spoken out against the use of chick lit branding on her books as she feels it's misleading to readers. And I've talked to several authors of contemporary fiction who hate the way their books have been similarly marketed: one pleaded with her publisher to change her covers, to no avail.

Instead, books aimed at women are becoming increasingly homogenised, girly and bland-looking.

Rosy Thornton's Hearts and Minds has been described as a book which "tackles some very pertinent contemporary issues in education as well as [a] tangle of moral dilemmas" in a large scale, 19th century-style drama. It sounds positively Dickensian, and yet it would be hard to find a book
that looked more like a light romantic comedy. '

To read the full article, click here:

Rosy Thornton herself, in a post on Vulpes Libris, said (slightly tongue in cheek, but, given the awful, misleading cover her publishers have imposed on her own novel, perhaps only very slightly so!):

'Cover design is the enemy of the level playing field: the insidious perpetuator of stereotypical assumptions. Look at that figure-in-a-landscape in oils: Literature. Look at that soft focus photograph of a child’s feet: Fiction. In my brave new world (Aldous Huxley: Literature) all publishers would be obliged to turn out novels in plain brown covers, bearing only the title and the author’s name – rather like those lovely old orange Penguin paperbacks which filled my parents’ bookshelves.'

Ahh, yes, the old Penguin paperbacks - has anything ever touched their perfect, democratising design? I very much doubt it. And how we loved the celebratory re-issues. And how we rushed to buy (or at least rushed to add to our wish lists) all the gorgeous must-have Penguin merchandise.

Why? Because they are timeless and beautiful and they say nothing about the book inside except that it's damned well worth reading. For itself. By readers.

Plain, simple, truthful covers.

The same could be said of Persephone books , which have an army of adoring fans and collectors, who delight in the books' understated, uniform, ultra-cool and tasteful covers.

Book covers matter hugely. We do judge books by their covers. Maybe we shouldn't, but we do. As this recent report pointed out. And here's a blog review I landed on the other day which couldn't have illustrated this more clearly.

Readers of good, thoughtful fiction appreciate good, thoughtful covers on their books. And they don't take kindly to being patronised or manipulated by publishers and their design and marketing departments.

Long-time visitors to Musings will be used to my rants about covers ever since I reviewed this book and mentioned (right at the end of the review) how very much I hated its deeply ghastly cover (for the same kind of reasons I hated the cover of Hearts and Minds - ie it entirely belies the nature of the novel and does a huge disservice both to the author and to potential buyers). The whole issue has become a frequent and long-running topic on the author's blog which is all very amusing but it's also a deadly serious point for a 'mid-list' author for whom every single sale counts.

Ah well, I must climb down from my hobbyhorse and try to relax because I've a very busy day ahead of me tomorrow.

But . . . before I go, I absolutely must add that one of the very best blogs I've discovered in recent months is Caustic Cover Critic (subtitled 'one man's endless ranting about book design'). Though he can be pretty caustic about lazy, sloppy or just plain bad book covers, the Caustic Critic actually offers a constant flow of fascinating posts about the art and design of books. Always full of insight, not just about the covers but the contents of the books as well - because he is fabulously well read and an erudite literary critic as well as a design historian.

If you haven't already discovered this blog (and for all I know, I may be so out of touch that I'm the last person on earth to have done so), for a sample of what this guy is about, I'd recommend this one and this one.

Romance on the Radio

An email today from Katie Hafner brought two extremely exciting bits of news about her excellent book, A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, which I reviewed here (and also held a prize draw for a review copy!):

First, her publishers, Bloomsbury, have decided to publish a UK edition , which will be available in the middle of August. You will see from the reviews on and also those linked here (where you can also read some pages from the book) how enthusiastically the book has been received in the US and in Canada. I'm convinced it will do really well over here, too.

Secondly (and this should really help to boost interest in the UK), Katie is over this side of the Pond at the moment and will be talking about the book on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme tomorrow (Thursday) morning sometime after 8.30 (I think, but best listen from about 8.15 or check the running order in the morning to be sure of catching her).

Monday 28 July 2008

Extreme cello playing

Bizarre, but rather romantic. Here are the Extreme Cellists playing on Higger Tor in the Peak District. They've also climbed and played on Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike, to raise money for two causes: Aspire, a charity which helps rehabilitate people with spinal cord injuries, and Mountain Rescue.

You can read their blog here and visit their website for more info.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Race for Life - Essex University 27 July 2008

Today's Race for Life at Essex University was the last one of 2008, with over 2,000 women from the Colchester area taking part to raise, we hope, in excess of £128,000.

Race for Life is the UK’s largest women-only fundraising event. In 2007, 665,000 of us walked, jogged or ran 5k and raised £40 million for the vital work of Cancer Research UK – the world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to cancer research.

The sun beat down on us relentlessly today. 30 degrees, with no shade and no breeze (hazard of venturing inland!). Even by the end of the gentle aerobic warm-up I had a thumping headache and it was clear that (a) I should have brought a hat, (b) my nocturnal so-called training had not really prepared me for this, and (c) my bottle of water was far too small!

But the tremendous atmosphere banished any qualms about striding out in the heat. I had planned to part-run, part-walk the course, but as it turned out I ran for longer than I'd intended. As last year, I found myself carried along by the wonderful sisterly esprit de corps; the overwhelming sense of purpose displayed by all the participants - from ages 5 to 75, and of every size, shape and fitness; the deeply moving two minutes' silence before the race; reading the names and photos on the other runners' backs; and thinking about those known to me who have won, and those who have lost, the battle against cancer - and most of all, those who are fighting right now.

Here are some pics.

Anyway, I got round in one piece, received a medal to prove it, wolfed down a very welcome ice-cream, then came home for a soak in a refreshing lukewarm bath. Put my feet up with a large pot of tea and a good book . . . and woke up several hours later!

A million thanks to all my sponsors. My fundraising page stays open until the end of September, so if you haven't yet, but would like to, you can contribute to the life-saving work of Cancer Research by clicking here.

Mersea Carnival

Just a few pics from yesterday's carnival . . .

My little rhinoceros!

Saturday 26 July 2008

Still haven't . . .

. . . had time to put together any bookish posts. And I feel particularly bad about this having unexpectedly received the accolade of a BRILLANTE WEBLOG PREMIO 2008 blog award from Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Kerrie is, by her own admission, 'seriously addicted to crime fiction'. Her blog is always immensely entertaining and informative, and I visit it often. Thanks Kerrie!

It's been a week filled with the unexpected. New clients, new friends, even a new mobile phone (rendering the impulse-bought half-price bottle of supermarket plonk which killed my previous phone the most expensive bottle of wine I've ever purchased)!

Today was Carnival Day at West Mersea. SD#3 processed with her dance school's Lion King themed float. Stalls were visited, bouncy slides bounced and slid down. There was a dog show and a vintage car show and lots and lots of cake. Blazing sunshine, too, in defiance of the BBC weather forecast's constant promise of Heavy Showers (it's been promising Heavy Showers Tomorrow for several days, but they keep getting shunted on a day, so that it's always sunny today, wet tomorrow).

Was just back home and cooking supper for the troops when there was an unexpected knock at the door and I was unexpectedly invited for a quick evening's sailing.

The troops cooked their own supper.

So here are some quite bad and blurry pics from the other side of the familiar stretches of water featured on this blog.

Thursday 24 July 2008

Afternoon off

This is what the sky was like today.

So this is where I went after lunch.

And this is what I did there.

And this is what I saw on the way home.

Which all made for an exceptionally pleasant afternoon.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Today's incidental music


Apologies for lack of posts of bookish (or indeed any) interest this week. It's the last few days of term. Things have been a bit hectic, to say the least.

So here are a few more pics from Sunday evening's stroll at East Mersea. They're not very good because the camera really is on its last legs and the light was fading. (I thought the camera had died again today, but it roused itself briefly and took a photo of my feet and the kitchen floor, just to prove to itself that it could and to prove to me how very much the floor is in need of a darned good wash.)

Anyway, here's how Mersea - along with the rest of the Essex/Suffolk/Norfolk coastline is gradually disappearing into the sea.

This is nothing new - it's been happening for a very long time indeed. But it is still quite a shock to note exactly how much has been lost just in the 20-odd years since I first started visiting Mersea.

Things are much worse further up the coast. Historically, perhaps the most notable instance is Dunwich, a large medieval port which fell into the sea over the last millennium - a genuine Lost City under the waves. All that remains today is less than a tiny village. And it didn't happen gradually, either, but in catastrophic bursts. In a single prolonged storm in the fourteenth century, for example, 400 houses and two churches, as well as shops and windmills, were taken by the sea.

Not only dozens of churches and chapels have disappeared at Dunwich, but also a royal palace, hospitals and of course thousands of people's homes. Naturally, many legends have arisen. The most famous of these is that if, during stormy weather, you stand on the bleak stretch of beach now covering what was once the heart of the city, you can hear the bells of the churches ringing underwater. Sailors and fishermen allegedly will not put to sea when the bells are heard, as it is said to be a sure sign of a coming storm.

I'm planning a trip to Dunwich and neighbouring Walberswick (beloved of artists, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Philip Wilson Steer) over the summer hols. So, with any luck (and hopefully a new camera, too), I'll post some pics of the waves beneath which the Lost City lies. Meanwhile, you can read more on this blog.

Back to Mersea, and some of the fall shown here was so new that it hadn't even been touched by the tide. Sharp clods of orange sandy soil lay scattered on the sand.

Few of the WWII pillboxes are still intact (you can see one of them here). Many, like this one, have tumbled right over the cliffs.

Hope to be back soon with some reasonably coherent thoughts on books recently read and films recently watched.