4 of the best

October 1, 2008

There are good reasons why I normally do a blog post on Saturday nights – because if I don’t, it just doesn’t happen once the week gets underway. And this week is especially busy, with lots of reading, a submission, contractual stuff, and thinking towards (a.k.a. worrying about/prevaricating) the various upcoming speeches, on both continents, I’ve not yet started preparing. So a bit of midnight-oil is being burned most nights as the rain gently patters down outside the plantation shutters of the Greenhouse.
But I wanted to let you know that I’ve been reading some excellent books recently. Have you? Would you like to tell us about them? I’ve also read some that just haven’t really excited me, despite expectations (or the amount of money I know was paid for them!). It’s a very subjective thing, isn’t it – what you love and what you don’t. The extent to which agents and editors disagree with each other might also surprise you, because yes, we do sit down and chat quite passionately about books when we meet up. As a publisher I was in many an editorial meeting where someone would be looking completely baffled as another person extolled the virtues of a particular manuscript. But this range of opinions is a good thing. Because if we all agreed it would lead to an incredibly narrow publishing scene with everyone fighting for exactly the same book and rejecting all the rest. So hurrah for diversity, idiosyncracy, and that weird thing called ‘personal taste’!

Would you like to know which books have lit my fire recently? Here are four:

Top of the list has to be THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. Yes, yes, I know, you’ve all heard lots about this one and everybody’s going on about it. But there’s a reason why. It’s fabulous! Every now and then I read a book that makes me think, ‘How come no one has come up with this idea before?’ Or even better: ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’ This is one of those. Set in a dystopic future when North America is in ruins, a new nation called Panem has emerged. At its centre is a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Every year the Capitol exerts its power by choosing one boy and one girl from each district to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. When 16-year-old Katniss steps forward to take her little sister’s place, she knows she’s going to die. However, Katniss is a survivor and almost without meaning to she becomes a serious contender. But to win she’s going to have to make terrible choices between survival, her humanity, and love.

Fantastic because: It’s a great concept – strong, original, convincing, and oh so dark. It weaves moral issues with questions about the media and political power, while giving us a growing love story at its heart. Plus the writing is taut and pacy. (Oh, it’s also pretty violent.)

Next I’m going to choose the very different AUDREY, WAIT! by Robin Benway. Again, it’s a ‘Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?’ kind of book. When Audrey decides to break up with her less-than-attentive boyfriend Evan, a wannabe rock star, she little dreams that he’s going to write a song about it. A song that proves to be extraordinarily catchy. In fact, a song that blasts its way up the charts and launches Evan and his band to big-time success. But what happens when you’re the heroine (oh no, make that the villain) of the song, and everyone suddenly wants to know you and blame you for the break-up? Now Audrey’s world famous – and suddenly fame doesn’t quite look all it’s cut out to be! (Please note: lots of ‘bad’ language here.)

Fantastic because: It’s a great concept (again) – smart, funny, and instantly makes the reader wonder, ‘Suppose that was me?’ Plus the voice is fresh and genuinely funny, in a genre where you’d think it’s all been done before.

Third up is a book by one of my favourite, tip-top authors. It’s HERE LIES ARTHUR by Philip Reeve. Yes, that’s the Philip Reeve of the awesome MORTAL ENGINES quartet, the last of which – A DARKLING PLAIN – won the Carnegie (Britain’s equivalent of the Newbery). HLA is set around AD 500, when people in Britain spoke a language similar to Welsh and when the country was torn apart by feuding war-bands, including one led by a brutish soldier named Arthur. When the bard Myrddin sees Gwyna’s swimming abilities, he rescues her and takes her in, immediately seeing a way he can ‘magically’ turn Arthur into not only the most powerful leader of his day, but also an awe-inspiring hero. But as Arthur’s power grows, Gwyna’s life becomes increasingly dangerous as she’s turned from a slave-girl into first a boy, then a goddess, and finally a spy. Can Gwyna survive these perilous times? Is Myrddin really on Gwyna’s side? And is Arthur quite the hero that legend has made him out to be?

Fantastic because: It’s a great concept (er, have you heard this before?) – but vintage Reeve in the skillful interweaving of historical erudition with a child’s-eye view of a virtually unknown period of history. Truly masterful, it gives a completely fresh insight on the age-old story of Arthur and how it might have come to be. Plus (also vintage Reeve) every word is crafted, every word counts, and some sentences you just have to pause and reread.

And finally, I’m picking THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher, the bestselling teen novel that many of you may have read. Clay gets home from school to find a strange box with his name on it. Inside are some cassette tapes, recorded by Hannah Baker – the girl he once went out with – who committed suicide a few weeks before. Hannah’s voice tells Clay that there are thirteen reasons why she ended her life, and Clay is one of them. Following Hannah’s voice he roams the town that night – and starts to understand Hannah’s pain and the truth about himself. Truth he never wanted to face.

Fantastic because: What a superb concept – tight, clever, and enabling the author to create an incredibly powerful story taking place over a short period of time for maximum intensity. This is a thriller, but with a real beating heart. Plus the writing is effective and spare.

Four books for the month of September. Four books I really enjoyed and admired. How about you?