“Two magicians shall appear in England…” A Magical If/Then Post


A number of patrons have come in recently talking about the TV adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s masterful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell that will be airing on BBC America this Saturday.  I have to admit, I have yet to tackle this 900+ page meisterwerk (oddly, the new paperback edition seems more intimidating than the hardcover!), but this is a book that readers, critics, and other writers are all praising unequivocally.  The book picked up the TImes book of the year award in 2005, as well as the Hugo Award for best novel, and the British book awards newcomer of the year award.  Astro City writer Kurt Busiek has been singing the praises of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for a while, and is apparently quite pleased with the results (though we both agree that attempting to cover this amount of book in 6 episodes seems pretty ambitious…). Neil Gaiman, whose opinion should be considered in all manners, literary and otherwise, said that Susannah Clarke’s work was “Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.”

And now, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are set to make their television debut.   Bertie Carvel, who has made quite a name for himself on the London stage, and appeared in the film adaptation of Les Miserables as Bamatabois, is set to play Jonathan Strange, and Eddie Marsan, who played Inspector Lestrade in the recent Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr., is lined up to play Mr. Norrell.  Critics already have lovely things to say about this adaptation…so let’s give this a try, beloved patrons, shall we?

And in the meantime, here are a few items to get you in the mood for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell…..

If you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Then check out:

1973523Perdido Street Station: I have a crazy little reader crush on China Mieville’s work….his writing is so inviting and the imaginative details be puts into creating his worlds are so alluring that by the time you realize what a completely bizarre, borderline insane book you have started, it’s just too late.  The world outside his story just seems too dull and too predictable.  And then you finish it, and just need more.  This book itself is set in New Curazon, a squalid city full of humans, ‘re-mades’, and an enormous cast of other, even stranger people, are ruled by a ruthless Parliament and controlled by a brutal army.  But when New Curazon’s most brilliant scientist is approached by the Garuda–a fantastic half-bird, half-man–with a bizarre and fascinating challenge, he has no choice but to accept, and no idea what fate has in story for him.  I realize, even in typing this, how bizarre this story sounds, but if you told me to read a book about two magicians unite forces to defeat Napoleon, I wouldn’t question you so.  So be sure to check out China Mieville’s remarkable, explosively creative, addictive novel soon.

2717096Neverwhere: Some library sites recommend Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as a co-read piece with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell…my only recommendation to you is to read All The Things that Neil Gaiman has written.  The man is a genius, and all of his stories are transporting, inspiring, and, usually, genuinely terrifying in a way that is utterly unique and unforgettable.  Like JS&MN, Neverwhere takes a world that readers think they know and reinvents it.  In this novel, young businessman Richard Mayhew follows a young woman pursued by assassins into the London Underground…and discovers a world of saints, angels, knights, and demons; the people who have fallen through the cracks.  Neverwhere is a fast-paced, exhilarating, haunting novel that will linger long after the cover has finally closed.  And, like JS&MN, this book was also turned into a BBC mini-series that you can check out, as well!

824986The Quincunx: Like JS&MN, Charles Palliser’s epic novel is set in the 19th century, and features the kind of rich details and detailed narrative that readers will savor.  In this weighty tome, which has received a number of comparisons to Dickens, as well as to Susannah Clarke, five families form a sort of five-point key that young, pitifully poor John Mellamphy must unlock in order to save his family.  Though not a quick read, or necessarily an easy one, readers who delve into The Quincunx will have the chance to travel not only to another place, but another time, and will carry the memories of that journey for some time to come.

3579925The Paper Magician:  Though certainly not as dense as JS&MN, Charlie Holmberg’s debut features two Victorian magicians who must join forces in order to defend their world.  In this case, however, the protagonist is Cecily Twill, a young woman who graduated top of her class at a school for the magically inclined–but even she doesn’t have the power to fix her broken heart.  And despite her dreams to work with metal, Cecily is assigned to apprentice under a paper magician.  Nothing seems to make sense–until her tutor is capture, and Cecily realizes she will risk anything to get him back.  There is a light-hearted charm to Holmberg’s story that makes it easy to fall into the world of her story, and readers who enjoy this book will be delighted to know that there are two more books in Cecily’s story to enjoy!

2411850The Illusionist:  Based on the sensational, and delightfully unsettling short story, “Eisenheim, the illusionist” by Steven Millhauser (which you can read in the collection The Barnam Museum), this is a stunningly beautiful movie about Eisenheim, the inscrutable and subversive magician whose powers threaten to destabilize the whole of the Habsburg Monarchy.  Though the film plays very fast and loose with history (particularly in its treatment of Crown Prince Rudolf, who was, in reality, a pretty awesome guy), the story that sustains it is so good that it’s still worth watching, especially for the crafty final twist that makes the ending its own kind of magic trick.

Happy reading!

Wednesdays at the West: Bringing Together Books, Tea and Readers


Last Tuesday, a group of tea and book lovers gathered at the West Branch Library for what quickly turned into a literary tea party.  It was the first meeting of Literatea, a new monthly event that allows readers to sample different loose leaf teas and chat about books.

First, the tea.  This month’s tea selection was Earl Grey Creme.  Adding a touch of vanilla to the traditional Earl Grey tea lends a nice, creamy taste to this British favorite.  The ladies and gentlemen of Literatea give this tea an enthusiastic endorsement, both for its flavor and its delightful and welcoming aroma.

To learn a bit more about Earl Grey Creme, check out the Literatea June Newsletter, which also includes all the staff recommended titles for the month of June, some news from the literary world and five books that pair especially nicely with our tea selection of the month.

As our tea party progressed, things got even more interesting as the talk turned to the titles that the bibliophile library patrons suggested.  Some of the new and new-to-us titles mentioned include:

pemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, featuring Jane Austen’s much loved characters from Pride and Prejudice.


onceuponatimeinrussiaOnce Upon a Time in Russia by Ben Mezrich, is the latest novel from this prolific, but not always well known author.



palaceoftreasonPalace of Treason by Jason Matthews is another new release attracting the attention of our readers.



troublewiththetruthThe Trouble with the Truth by Edna Robinson is a tale with an interesting backstory of its own.  Robinson’s novel was originally accepted for publication in 1960, but was never released because its publishers believed it shared too much in common with To Kill a Mockingbird (also released that year).  Robinson’s daughter was determined to see it in print and managed to have it published after her mother’s death.

truthaccordingtousThe Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows is causing significant excitement amongst fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (and really, who isn’t a fan?),  since Barrows was one of that charming book’s co-authors.


inthewoodsIn the Woods by Tana French gets accolades from self-described fans of “creepy” fiction.



Then our discussion turned towards some perennial favorites.

no1Anything by Alexander McCall Smith, especially the books in the The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.



companyholmesIn the Company of Sherlock Holmes, which is a collection of short stories written by authors who took their inspiration from Sir Arthur’s legendary character.


extraordinarythingsThe Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman.  Is there anything more intriguing than a book that no one can agree on?  Even those who love Alice Hoffman couldn’t agree on whether to love or hate this one.



Less controversial and much loved is anything by Adriana Trigiani, including The Shoemaker’s Wife and The Supreme Macaroni Company




If you’re a fan of literature that makes you hungry, even as it feeds your mind and soul, our book lovers suggest checking out The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister




If you still can’t get enough books about food, including some tempting recipes (not Weight Watchers approved), our readers suggest you take a look at Delicious by Ruth Reichl, a fictional tale, and also the author’s food related memoirs, Garlic and Sapphires and Tender of the Bone.

forgottengardenOur bibliophiles final suggestion for June was The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.  And if you love it, keep an eye out for Morton’s newest release due out in September.



The next Literatea event will be Tuesday, July 7th at 10am.  Feel free to join us in person for even more from the world of books and tea.

Card Catalog Display: Self Help


Self-help books sometimes get an undeserved bad rep, making readers feel embarrassed for reading one and causing people to not want to check them out. Personally, I think we should put this negative perception to rest. No matter the reason – divorce, grief, trauma, illnesses both physical and mental– everyone feels lost and in need of advice at some point or another. And sometimes it really feels like no one gets it.

Here is where books come in! (Don’t they always save the day?)

The authors on our card catalog display carry all different types of experience: some have degrees affirming that their advice is helpful and constructive, others have the life experience and relativity you need, and many just want to offer inspiration or courage to readers by recounting their own struggles and triumphs. There are also CD’s recommended for meditation and audiobooks.

mindfulwaythroughdepressionThe Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States, and we consistently see advertisements for pills and treatments to cure depression. But these authors offer a different approach: mindfulness. With a supplemental CD, this book offers anyone who suffers from depression methods to cope and exercises to find internal peace. Sharon Salzberg, author of various books on seeking happiness, describes this book as “an invaluable resource not only for those who suffer from depression, but for anyone familiar with the downward spiral of negative thinking and self-doubt. The authors of this book explore the reasons for depression and give us guidance and support, along with useful tools to find a way through it.”

To anyone who struggles with depression or suicidal thoughts: you don’t have to do this alone. Call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK  or visit their website if you ever need someone to talk to.


practicallyperefectPractically Perfect in Every Way by Jennifer Niesslein

For two years, Jennifer Niesslein – a successful magazine editor and parent – tried various self-help books and methods to see which, if any, made her feel more fulfilled. Niesslein didn’t just read the books, she really dedicated herself to these programs (much more wholeheartedly than I can safely say I would assert myself).  She attempted everything from feng-shui-ing her home, to following the advice of Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Dr. Phil, to Dale Carnegie and “Dear Abby,” to Oprah and Cosmo magazine. Her writing is thoughtful and funny, covering topics such as finances, marriage, parenting, health, spirituality while making readers laugh and think. If you’re unsure where to start, Practically Perfect offers second-hand insight into some of the most well known self-help methods, so you can try a taste through Niesslein’s experiences to decide which sounds right for you.


palmerThe Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Indie musician Amanda Palmer’s best-selling book is the memoir of an eclectic artist’s journey towards success. A continuation of the inspirational TED talk Palmer gave in 2013, this book teaches readers that it is okay, even advisable, to ask for help. “Whether it’s in the arts, at work, or in our relationships, we often resist asking not only because we’re afraid of rejection but also because we don’t even think we deserve what we’re asking for,” Palmer explains. But this isn’t your typical self-help book. Palmer details her younger days as a statuesque street performer in Harvard Square dressed as a white-faced bride – her first experience in the art of asking others for help – as well as some other quirky jobs she held prior to her success in music: stripper, ice cream shop attendant, and dominatrix. She goes onto explain how she ditched her major record label and asked her fans for help in kick starting her own album, which soon became Kickstarter’s most successful music launch to date. This book will not give you a day by day “happiness” regimen, but Palmer’s personal tone and wild stories will continue to inspire and motivate you long after you’ve finished reading.


At the Movies: Testament of Youth


As part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, the British Film Institute has released a new adaptation of Vera Brittain’s classic memoir, Testament of Youth.  The film details Brittain’s early life, from her experiences as one of the first women admitted to Oxford University, to her engagement to her brother’s best friend Roland Leighton, to her war experience as a nurse in the First World War, and her grief at the death of her brother, her fiancé, and two of her closest friends in that war.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will come out and say it: I really don’t like Testament of Youth, especially compared to some of the other First World War memoirs listed below.  This is primarily because, whenever anyone teaches or discusses this book, they focus on the men in Brittain’s life who died, and not Brittain herself.  We never get to hear much about Vera Brittain’s own war experiences, or how she herself changed (apart from the loss of the men in her life).  Essentially, this book is used to perpetuate the idea that women in the First World War (and in war, in general), are passive, which is a terrible fallacy.

This is not to say that Testament of Youth is not a good book, or a good learning tool.  It is a stunningly beautiful piece of writing, and a heartrending story of loss.  But Vera Brittain was so much more than the sum of the men she knew.  An active suffragette and pacifist, she became so popular as a spokeswoman for the Peace Pledge Union that the German Army was under orders to arrest her immediately, should the invasion of England ever take place.

Fortunately, this adaptation of Testament of Youth does take on Brittain’s active role in the growing anti-war movement, and her own wartime experiences, using her letters and diaries to flesh out the sights and sounds of her hospital days far more than her memoir does.  It’s a timely reminder that this war, especially, was a generational one, that affected men and women in equal, and often unspeakable, measure.

To learn more about women’s involvement in the First World War, check out some of these titles:

1717131Not So Quiet…: Evadne Price was an Australian journalist and popular romance author who was requested to write a comedic parody  All Quiet On The Western Front (seriously?).  Infuriated at the disrespect of the publisher, Price yelled, “What you want is someone who will write the women’s story of the war!”.  And, being a reasonable man in the end, her publisher agreed to commission that manuscript instead.  Price borrowed a diary from a FANY (First Aid Yeoman Infantry–a division of women ambulance drivers and front-line medics, and considered among the most difficult jobs for anyone to hold during the war), and wrote Not So Quiet under the name Helen Zenna Smith.  Most reviewers at the time considered the subject matter and tone too ‘unladylike’ for the general reading public, but it is precisely because the descriptions of war wounds, psychological injuries, shelling, and the filthy conditions of warfare are so graphic that this book is so powerful.  Though Smithie does have a fiancé serving in the Army, he is mentioned only once or twice in the course of the story; instead, the focus is on the relationships between the nurses and the FANYs, and how the war specifically changed the women who served at the front.

2430825The Blood of Our Sons: Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War:
Nicoletta Gullace’s book deals with a fascinating, and terribly under-studied part of history–the work of British suffragettes during the First World War, and their continued advocacy for the vote through war work and participation.  She shows how suffragette’s lobbied for full citizenship not only by supporting the war, but by denigrating men who were not ‘doing their bit’, arguing that they were more entitled to vote than men who never fought in France.  A wonderfully readable, insightful work, Gullace also looks at how the war itself was a gendered event that pitted men against men in the goal of saving women, making war a moral imperative, as well as a national endeavor.

3576026No Man’s Land: Fiction From a World at War, 1914-1918: This terrific collection features a number of the authors whose work we don’t have individually.  For instance, check out the selection from The Forbidden Zone by Mary Borden.  Borden was a wealthy college graduate from Chicago, and married to a millionaire when the First World War broke out.  When the Red Cross refused her application to work as a nurse (because she was married), Borden declared that she would fund a hospital all by herself, and demanded full control over the hiring and firing of all staff.  She served in the hospital (which was stationed near the front lines in France, near the site of the Battle of the Somme) for the duration of the war, often working 18-20 hour days.  The Forbidden Zone is a collection of her experiences, written during her scanty breaks, detailing the world of her hospital and the bizarre environment of life behind the lines, including women shopping at a street market with the sounds of gunfire in the background.  Borden was a gifted and empathetic writer, and her work alone makes this collection a stellar one.

2357816Her Privates We: This is my favorite memoir of the First World War, and while it tells the story of a soldier (and thus, isn’t necessarily and ‘alternative’ view of the First World War), it does so in a way that no other memoir manages to do.  Frederic Manning was an Australian of Irish descent who was traumatized by his war experience.  He continued to fight only out of love and respect for the men in his battalion, and each time he received a promotion for bravery or service, he promptly committed some transgression (drunkenness, staying out past curfew, etc.,) in order to get demoted again, and return to the men and to the trenches.  His book is a memorial to those men, describing them all in their mundane and wonderful individuality, making this book unexpectedly funny, bizarre, touching, and utterly heartbreaking.  Manning doesn’t sugar-coat anything, presenting soldiers as they were (and not as the public wished to believe they were).  Thus, his book is full of obscenities and rude slang, and after the first printing, the book only appeared in an edited form, with all the ‘bad words’ judiciously removed.  This anniversary printing offers readers the chance to see the startling honesty of his work in all its original power.

Saturdays @ the South: The Last Five Years

MV5BMTA2MTMwMjIxMTdeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDAwMTYxNzMx._V1_SX214_AL_“Will you share your life with me / for the next 10 minutes…”

Well, I suppose I’ll really be asking you to share 90 minutes as any day now, the South Branch’s copy of The Last 5 Years will arrive and be ready to circulate. Why am I telling you this? Because The Last 5 Years is easily one of the most underrated musicals of the 21st Century (in my humble opinion, at least). Two off-Broadway productions and cast recordings have given the show a bit of a cult following and when it first came out in 2001, Time magazine voted it one of the ten best musicals of the year. Unfortunately, it arrived off-Broadway shortly before the World Trade Center attacks and during the chaos and tragedy of that time, never quite garnered the steam it needed to move to Broadway proper, despite the amazing cast and soaring songs penned by Jason Robert Brown. Fortunately, director Richard LaGravenese took Jason Robert Brown’s one-act gem about a relationship that begins and ends in the span of 5 years (no real spoilers here, the movie opens with the relationship’s end) and immortalized it on film in a remarkably faithful production that captures the poignancy, emotion, optimism and heartbreak that couples can endure when trying (and failing) to make a relationship work. Unfortunately, the movie is nearly as underrated as the stage production with press mostly in the independent circuit and few advertising spots.

Innovative in its storytelling, the movie recounts the relationship of Jamie and Cathy as each alternates to tell his/her story. Cathy begins at the end and she works her way backwards to the couple’s first date. Jamie starts at the beginning and follows through to the couple’s inevitable (though still heartbreaking) end. Their stories cross over in the middle, at their wedding, with the show’s only true duet. The movie is able to capture New York almost as well as the relationship itself, with the City taking on a near-character role in a way that a stage production simply can’t offer. A slight temporal shift and a few contemporary updates keep the movie fresh, distinctive and relevant. There are also a few delightful treats for fans of the stage musical as several people involved with the original and revival productions (including Jason Robert Brown) appear in the movie, demonstrating just how much attention to detail went into this production.

The Last Five Years is almost entirely sung-through so, as much as I love it, I wouldn’t recommend it to people who don’t like musicals on principle. However, if you are an open-minded fan of a good story that examines the ups and downs of young love (or if you just plain love musicals), I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. It lends visuals to those who have loved the cast recording but never saw a live production, and is completely mesmerizing, making it easily stand on its own. Anna Kendrick (Cake) and Jeremy Jordan (Smash) both give stunning performances that, unless you’re singing along (<cough> like me), could make you forget you’re even watching a musical at all…

If after seeing this movie you just itching for similar experiences, here are some recommendations explore (also an option: watching it 3 times in one weekend, like I did):

Into the Woods:

3606324If The Last Five Years leaves you in the musical mood, give Into the Woods a try. This is easily my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical (sorry, Sweeney Todd) and, like TL5Y, it examines the complexity of relationships. This dark take on classic fairy tales takes a closer look at what happens *after* “happily ever after” and it’s not always so happy… (Bonus pick: try checking out the recorded original Broadway production.)


Pitch Perfect:

3239830If you simply can’t get enough Anna Kendrick but want a storyline that is inherently more cheerful, Pitch Perfect is an antidote to the tear-jerking you experienced in The Last Five Years. Light, funny and with a similar generational appeal as TL5Y this is a great option for laughing out loud with some musical flair. If they lyric “I will not be the girl / stuck at home in the burbs…” particularly resonates with you, this movie’s girl-power message will definitely hit home.

Sliding Doors:

2373668If you liked the time-shifting storyline in TL5Y, try (re)visiting Sliding Doors. While not the same concept (this is much more about alternative timelines, rather than the same timeline told from different angles), the back-and-forth play makes this a bit of a precursor to Brown’s concept. Plus, there’s Gwyneth Paltrow quoting Monty Python, so what have you got to lose?

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver:

200px-Poisonwood_BibleKingsolver is a lovely storyteller and there are some truly beautiful and moving passages here. While this book takes a look at relationships in a broader scope than TL5Y, it takes a similar approach of alternating between characters’ perspectives, this time representing  five women, each relating her experience as a member of a missionary family in the Belgian Congo, Africa. If you enjoyed the concept of characters offering an individual perspective of the same events, this book is definitely worth the read.

One last note:

2982269The Last 5 Years original cast recording:  If you interested in hearing the original cast with the two Broadway powerhouses (Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz and Tony nominee Sherie Rene Scott as Jamie and Cathy, respectively) lending their talents to originate these characters, take a listen and compare.

Five Book Friday

And so, beloved patrons, we come to another Friday…a mercifully sunny one after the frigid temperatures of earlier this week.  We hope this week’s selection of new books gives you some ideas for your weekend reading.  Make sure to let us know your newest literary loves in the comments!


3624006My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past: Though not, perhaps, the most artistic of titles (or perhaps an overly-provocative one), Jennifer Teege’s book is still a fascinating one.  At it’s heart is Teege’s discovery, as an adult, that her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the commander of the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List.  Teege’s biological mother was Monika Hertwig, who gave birth to Teege after a brief relationship with an Nigerian man, and put her into a Catholic children’s home when she was a month old.  It wasn’t until Teege was in her thirties that she saw her biological mother’s picture on a cover of a book dealing with her relationship with Goeth that Teege began to realize her family’s complicated legacy.  This book is not only the result of her research, but a deeply important reminder about how close we all are to the events of the past, and how much power that past still holds over us all.

3620304Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News: Most of us have heard at least some of the story that grounds this book: in 1938, the Mercury Theater Company produced a dramatized version of H.G. Wells’ War of the World that treated the events as if they were happened in real time, and in New Jersey.  The result was mass panic and one alleged death when a listener had a heart attack induced by fear of the imminent alien invasion.  But how much of that story is true?  A. Brad Schwartz looks at the letters that Orson Welles and his company received in the days and weeks following the broadcast and finds that what people feared wasn’t aliens, but the power of technology, specifically, the radio, to influence their lives.  The book itself is an incredibly engrossing, readable story, and, like Teege’s book, has a number of wider implications, especially in our world of breaking news and constant updates.

3634134Dearest Rogue: This is cheating, just as little, as this book came in at the very end of last week, after our last Five Book Friday post, but any time Elizabeth Hoyt comes out with a new book, I throw a little party, so we are including it in this week’s round-up.  In this 8th installment in Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series, Captain James Trevillion is charged with protecting Lady Phoebe Batten, who is gradually going blind, and needs all the help she can get to allude the kidnappers who are pursuing her.  There simply aren’t enough characters in romance who face issues that cannot be healed by love alone, whether that is emotional scars or physical handicaps, but in this book, Hoyt gives us a heroine who is vivid, strong, and utterly sympathetic–and also losing her sight.  Her condition doesn’t matter a whit to James, and it won’t change the way that readers feel about her, either.

3592632Finders Keepers: Stephen King’s newest.  I personally don’t think much more needs to be said on the matter, but then again, I grew up thinking he was a family friend because so many of his books were in our house.  In any event, this is another story in which King plays with the relationship between readers, writers, and the characters that bind them together, and feature the same three protagonists from Mr. Mercedes.  I really don’t want to spoil too much more of this twisted, suspenseful, and genuinely unsettling book so…just put it on reserve today!

3140489Anna and the French Kiss:  This book is new to our shelves, but has been garnering praise from readers and romance writers alike (Maureen Johnson, author of the Star of London series, declared it “Very sly. Very funny. Very romantic. You should date this book”).  Not only will those readers will a perennial case of wanderlust delight in the adventures of Anna, who is sent to a French boarding school by her father for a year, the hardest of hearts will not help but be softened by the relationship that develops between her and Etienne, a sweet and savvy half-English, half-French student…even though he has a girlfriend already.  Does this mean he and Anna can only be friends?  And would that be a bad thing, necessarily?  This is a unique romance, that doesn’t rely on tragedy or special powers to keep its plot moving, but instead focuses on two people who genuinely enjoy and respect each other.  I admit, I was skeptical going in, since so much high praise always makes me a little wary, but I have to admit, Stephanie Perkins’ book lives up to all of it.

Fancy a Baileys (Prize for Fiction)? An If/Then Post…



Yesterday, it was announced that Ali Smith’s How To Be Both (which was also shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize) was awarded the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Previously known as the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Baileys Prize is the only literary prize specifically awarded to women.  The reason is for this is that, like it or not, while women make up a significant percentage of employees within the publishing industry and, obviously, a significant percentage of published authors, they are massively underrepresented in terms of leadership positions within the publishing industry, and in terms of prizes.

According to the Baileys Prize website,

“The inspiration was the Booker Prize of 1991 when none of the six shortlisted books was by a woman, despite some 60% of novels published that year being by female authors.  A group of women and men working in the industry – authors, publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians, journalists – therefore met to discuss the issue.

Research showed that women’s literary achievements were often not acknowledged by the major literary prizes.  The idea for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction – previously the Orange Prize for Fiction – was born.”

The prize has had a major influence on the reading public and the publishing landscape, primarily within the past few years, as people have begun to question if “we” still need a prize for women (I am still not sure who this “we” is, honestly).  A.S. Byatt and Zoe Heller have both publicly argued that ’cause’ this prize endorses is a specious one, as it treats women’s fiction differently from men.  While I personally would love to believe that reviews and popular support of fiction is blind to either authors’ or characters’ gender/sex, the truth of the matter is that books about male characters win more awards than books about women, and books by men tend to win more awards than those written by women, despite the fact that women are publishing more books overall.  See this graph from The Huffington Post for more details:


Why is this?  Some argue that books about men deal in broader themes, or have more ‘sweeping narratives’…but is this because men make better characters, or because women’s books (both by and about women) get so easily slapped with the tag “chick lit”, and their themes and narratives are obscured by bright pink covers, despite the fact that they deal with real issues, serious subject matter, and focus on life-changing themes, as well?  Is it perhaps because women have been kept out of so many jobs, so many roles in society that it is assumed that they cannot inhabit the same space as men in literature, as well?  And if so, if this really a valid excuse? As Sarah Ditum said in The Guardian today, “It is a terribly simple, terribly important point, but art is how we show ourselves that we exist, and art is how we know each other. As long as women are patronised into obscurity, it is impossible to tell each other that we’re alive, impossible to work together to invent more just worlds for ourselves.”

So, as well all take a minute to ponder our position on this matter (and possibly consider Baileys a little bit, as well…), we offer you an If/Then based on the Baileys Prize, and its past winners….

If you enjoyed Ali Smith’s How To Be Both (and fiction by women…and Baileys….), Then be sure to check out:

3544404A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing: Eimear McBride’s book was nearly never published–after being rejected by publishers for nine straight years, it was finally picked up by Gallery Beggar, “a company specifically set-up to act as a sponsor to writers who have struggled to either find or retain a publisher.”  In a wonderful underdog story, the book went on to win the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize in 2014.  This book is a prime reason why the Baileys Prize is so important–McBride’s book may not deal with sweeping or broad themes, but instead, it delves deeply into one women’s personal tragedy with an insight so searingly honest that it is both heartbreaking and beautifully cathartic.  By no means an easy read, McBride’s work is shocking and wonderfully original, and deserves a much bigger audience, particularly in the United States.

3199166May We Be Forgiven: On the surface, A.M. Holmes’ book (which won the 2013 Baileys Prize) is about brothers, none of whom are particularly lovable, and one of whom is is a vicious murderer.  But in telling the story of their relationship, and the events that bring about their downfalls, Holmes is able to bring in a startling amount of philosophy, from Camus to Hedgier, whether its in the course of her narrative, or in the flashes of whimsy that fill this book (at one point, the firm of “Herzog, Henderson & March” is referenced, a tribute to the works of author Saul Bellow).  The New York Times published a review that relentlessly compared Holmes to a number of male authors, and lamented that she didn’t write quite like them, but the Independent said, instead: “Homes is a very, very funny writer, brilliant at pinpointing the ridiculous nature of 21st-century living, and May We Be Forgiven has something of the feel of Catch-22 or The World According to Garp. Homes is a more engaging and empathetic writer than either Joseph Heller or John Irving, though, and she is immensely readable – I raced through these 480 pages faster than anything else I’ve read this year.”

3213272The Song of Achilles: Madeline Miller’s book (winner of the 2012 Baileys Prize) is, broadly speaking, a retelling of The Illiad.  But while Homer tells us what happened–specifically, that the death of his friend Patroclus sent the great warrior Achilles into a killing rage–Miller attempts to explain why these events took place.  A scholar by training, she studied ancient Greek texts for any mention of Patroclus; and rather than giving us the story of the great warrior he became, she shows us the outcast child he was, making this story far more personal, the love between these characters that much more powerful, and the eventual tragedy of The Iliad that much more moving, even though the ending of this story was written thousands of years previously.

Here is the list of all the Baileys Prize (and Orange Prize) Winners.  Come on in and pick out a winner today!

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass