Thursday, May 21, 2020

I Recommend To You

Booksellers tend to be cynical about author's recommendations. Well, the ones you see on the backs of paperbacks, anyway. There's always a strong temptation to check if the writers share an agent or a publisher.

The vast majority of such puffs are technically legitimate. Anthony Horowitz did a great job of explaining the nuances involved in a piece he wrote for The Guardian back in 2012. A few years earlier the Daily Telegraph went further, quoting a number of well-known authors, admitting to having given favorable quotes for books they'd only skimmed or hadn't read at all.

Little has changed. If anything it's worse. Books still come plastered with glowing endorsements only now they're on the front cover not the back. Sometimes a casual reader might even be misled by the relative size of the names into thinking the book was by someone else altogether.

It's a shame, because I've found there to be a noticeable correlation between my tastes in fiction and those of writers I particularly enjoy. When reccomendations arise out of interviews, where authors are expressing their genuine enthusiasm for things they've actually read, it pays to pay attention.

I was musing about this as I was reading an interview with one of my favorite writers of recent years, Emily St. John Mandell. I'd been thinking about her because of the pandemic. As evidenced by the awards it won, or for which it was nominated, her breakout novel, Station 11, is one of the finest examples of genre-bending I've read in a long time.

It takes some doing to win the Arthur C. Clarke and also be nominated for the National Book Award and the Bailey's with the same novel. In our store, Station 11 is shelved in both mainstream fiction and S.F., a very rare occurence.

Station 11 isn't about a pandemic but it begins with one. A much more serious affair than the one we're living through right now. A couple of decades later, when most of the action takes place, the world is changed because of it. That's what makes it a science fiction story.

Having read the book I did something I rarely do. I bought all her other novels and read those, too.

There were four of them because like most overnight sensations Emily Mandell had been around for quite a while. It helped that they were published in a clean, austere uniform edition. Books are always to be judged by their covers, don't let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

Photograph by Jessica Marx
They're all excellent. Like the astonishingly wonderful Donna Tartt, Mandell writes crime novels and doesn't tell anyone. Her latest, The Glass Hotel, for which we've been waiting a long time, continues the trend. I haven't read it yet. I'm pondering whether to get it on Kindle or buy the imported U.S. softback. It's not published in the U.K. in hardback until August. I hate hardbacks, too.

Backtracking, I was googling the author because the pandemic had reminded me I hadn't heard anything about her since Station 11. That happens a lot. I love things and then I forget about them. I need constant reminding.

Google led me to the interview linked above. In it, beneath a picture of herself looking maybe seventeen (she's forty), Emily mentions two of my favorite and most respected novels or series of novels (A Canticle for Liebowitz and The Dark is Rising) and two authors with tenure on my "must read" list, whom I've shockingly still to find time for (Toni Morrison, Ali Smith).

In the course of what's only a short interview, Emily St. John Mandell namechecks more than a dozen writers, living and dead. It's what creative artists tend to do and we should thank them for it. I'm probably not going to try Sarah Waters just on the strength of a mention - I already have opinions of my own - but I'll keep an eye out when I'm back at work for Ronan Farrow's account of his part in the Harvey Weinstein affair (inappropriate word...), which somehow passed me by when it was published last year.

The most interesting of all, though, would seem to be Dan Chaon, whose name was completely new to me. He looks to be another genre disregarder, a reccomendation in itself.

I'll most likely give him a try after I've finished the book I just started, Lightning Field. It's the first novel by another of my very favorite contemporary authors, Dana Spiotta. I've read her others, all three of them.

I started with the superb Stone Arabia, which landed in the proof pile at work a few years ago. I seem to recall I wouldn't have looked at it only it had a recommendation from someone I rated on the cover...

Illustrations "borrowed" from the interweb. If they're yours and you'd rather they weren't here, just let me know.

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