If you haven’t got enough to worry about…

You might think that reading romance novels is a harmless little diversion? Well, it’s not so. Apparently women who read steamy romances are putting themselves at serious risk of an unwanted pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted disease!

Cover of Encyclopedia ParanoiacaAccording to British “relationship psychologist”, Susan Quillaum, this is so and she cites a research survey that found that only 11.5 % of romantic novels mention condom use. The report, all scientific of course, found “a clear correlation” between the frequency of romance reading and a negative attitude towards condoms.

And where does this disturbing fact come from? It’s in a delightful book called Encyclopedia Paranoiaca which gives a vast amount of information about things we can worry about.

Reading itself is discussed, especially reading on the toilet which gets a stern absolute “No” from the interestingly named Dr David Gutman, lead physician of American Haemorrhoid Specialists. However, Doctor Gutman recognises that a lot of people like doing this so he suggests that when people have done their business they can resume reading by putting the seat cover down and sitting on that.

Let your worries accumulate by learning about the dangers of photocopiers, pine nuts, skinny jeans, prune juice, drinking from a straw, dental floss, coffee mugs…

Booker hopeful

White tiger
White tiger

I’ve just finished reading one of the Booker shortlisted novels and thought it was so good and so original that it should win but probably won’t! The novel is Aravind Adiga’s White tiger and it is a mix of social commentary, black comedy and original aspects that are entirely its own. The novel is told in the form of a letter to the Chinese premier from an Indian social entrepreneur and it outlines how he rose from being the humble son of a rickshaw driver whose family originated from the rural poor.

A fraction of the whole
A fraction of the whole

The whole book is like an amoral fable in that the main character gets to where he is (running a company who provide drivers for the workers in the I.T. companies that service the first world from the anonymity of the third) by blackmail, graft, working in with the corrupt police force and even murder. It is funny and touching at the same time and any illusions people have get knocked about as the book rattles along at a fast pace.

Will it win? One of the other novels on the list which I’ve read, Steve Toltz’s A fraction of the whole, although bloated in its length, can give this a run for its money in sheer exuberance and originality.

Concept books

It’s interesting how many books are based on a concept, usually connected with human behaviour. We’ve had things like the tipping point and the long tail and recently we’ve had kluge, nudge and sway (sounds like a dance move: the lovely Candy Lane performing a kluge, nudge and sway).

So what’s Kluge: It’s a book by a New York psychiatrist Gary Marcus and it takes its name from an engineering term for something that’s a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem. Marcus uses it to refer to the evolved human brain and says that we should recognise our brain as a clumsy contraption and his book tells us how we should set goals with achievable plans and always have a plan B to fall back on.


And Nudge? Richard H. Thaler, a professor of behavioural science and economics at Chicago University, is the author of the book of this title. It’s about how to reconcile our desire for freedom with the liberal impulse to regulate and nudges are ways that movers and shakers can redirect collective choices into radical improvements for society. Significant in a big election year when nudge comes before election and shove after.

And then there’s Sway. Ori and Rom Brofman, the former an author of a book on business and social organisation and the latter a clinical psychologist, have authored this book. It’s about “blockers”, the people who save us from biases that sway our judgement and decisions that have little rational basis. We tend to have preconceptions and like people similar to ourselves so it’s useful to move into more objective ways of selecting people and making decisions. Interestingly Amazon, at the end of the usual gushing tributes from all and sundry, tells us that if we have been led into buying the book after the endorsements, we have been swayed!

Opening night

Here we are to relate all the thrills and spills of the opening night of the Auckland Writer and Readers Festival

Joyce: Kim Hill sashayed in looking leggy and dangerous, killer heels and swivel hips. Witi was resplendent in velvet and Junot, well he was the epitome of the literary rock star, effortlessly cool, mmmmm… I feel a little breathless. Over to you Philip, dish the dirt baby!!

Philip:  All I can say is that Kim looked like a predatory femme fatale she slunk across the stage in way that Sharon Stone might do. Continue reading

Auckland Writers and Readers tomorrow

I feel a certain amount of enthusiastic anticipation and an equal amount of trepidation about going up to the Festival in Auckland tomorrow: the former because the chance to hear and see some of the big names and the latter because I am not sure whether my blogs will be stream of consciousness ramblings or something approaching journalism. There’s also the fear that you might ask a wrong question at a session and risk a withering putdown or, just as bad, a kindly rebuff.

Whatever – I am looking forward to hearing Booker winner Anne Enright, Booker nominee Peter Ho Davies (whose novel “The Welsh girl” I’d thoroughly recommend, Michael Pollan, Luke Davies, John Gray (whose controversy rating is always high – the temptation to ask him a question about Mars and Venus and see if he knows there’s another John Gray is quite strong but I wouldn’t dare do it), and so many others. Let’s hope we’ll all be writing something blog visitors will want to read and enjoy

Book into movie

The Memory Keeper's daughterOne of the biggest selling novels of recent years is The memory keeper’s daughter by Kim Edwards. It raced to the top of the bestseller list and became a staple of book groups worldwide. It has now been made into a film – featuring Emily Watson and Dermot Mulroney in  the leads – but it won’t be coming to a theatre complex near you as it has been made into a television film as part of the Lifetime network.

Interestingly, Jodi Picoult may be one of the top writers of female fiction yet three adaptations of her novels have ended up as television movies (which usually means less well known actors and not the prestige and the publicity of a cinema release). Ditto for Sue Monk Kidd and her bestseller/book group favourite The mermaid chair – it became a television vehicle for Kim Basinger.

Five Nora Roberts titles also ended up as Lifetime Television movies and Rosamunde Pilcher may be a library and bookshop favourite but you will not have seen the majority of the many television films of her novels and short stories: this is because they were adapted for German television as co-productions of Germany and the U.K. and mostly filmed in Britain with second string English names alongside German actors. They have now mostly run out of material and have now turned to the novels of Mrs Pilcher’s son Robin.

Once upon a time these books would have ended up on the big screen and it is interesting to speculate on why they haven’t. Do women watch more television than men?  Given that some of the top popular male authors – Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum – have ended up as big budget franchises on the big screen, it has been suggested that women will go along with a man to a film he wants to see but he will be reluctant to go along to something she particularly wants to see.  It may be just that stories with a domestic focus might never be first choice for the bigger screen while stories that demand huge budgets, action, stunts, explosions and lots of noise may be more suited to a night a the multiplex.

What’s true and what’s not

The recent publicity over various books which had been marketed and produced as true stories but turned out to be either partially false or totally fabricated has led to people (mostly staff) asking that the book be classified as “fiction.” In all these cases we have replied that we can’t do that as the book is not fiction.

Forbidden loveNorma Khouri, that shrewd character whose bestselling book, Forbidden love, is the best example. She had certainly read the market right when she concocted a tale of the sad and sorry lot of Arabian women and the book became a bestseller. Shame it was all made up. Shame too that James Frey’s A million little pieces upset Oprah when she found that a book about a terrible childhood told things that weren’t necessarily true – or as terrible.

And, most recently, we have Margaret Seltzer’s Love and consequences which was an eye-opening account of gang life in L.A. The problem was whose eye as the author came from a very different background.

There’s also the book about the girl who trekked 1,900 miles across Europe with a pack of wolves in order to find her parents. Okay, it wasn’t exactly what happened said the author but she found it was hard to differentiate what happened with her imagination.

Where does all this end: are all the truckload of so-called misery memoirs coming out of Britain all true? As the ante is constantly upped with memories of horrible childhoods becoming more and more outlandishly horrible, questions are being raised about whether the decision to publish so many of these is purely commercial: the market is there so let’s supply it.

It is true to say that libraries can only categorise books by the intended genre of the book and a novel is written as a work of fiction and therefore something intended as a nonfiction title (however made up it is) can’t be a novel. Hopefully the books that are almost totally fabricated may die out but I wouldn’t hold my breath: the dreaded Tuesday Lobsang Rampa is still in print despite the fact that he wasn’t really a Tibetan lama but a plumber’s son from Devon and everyone accepted that the Baptist minister who had his hugely bestselling 90 days in heaven wasn’t making it up.

See also our post on Autobiographical Honesty: fact or fiction.


Miss PettigrewThe way publishing works these days is very similar to the movie industry – no surprise as the big ones are all multimedia – in the way that things are thrown out to the market and if it works that’s fine and if it doesn’t, move on. The result of this is that backlists – once a source of pride to some publishers – have become a thing of the past and there’s not much republishing done except for the more well known classics and cheap versions of the tried and true.

It has been interesting to watch the success of a small British firm called Persephone Books whose object is to publish fiction and some nonfiction by “unjustly neglected” authors. A lot of the material is similar to the Virago Classics series and they have been produced in similarly attractive and striking trade paperback editions with excellent introductions by enthusiasts (rather than ponderous intros by academics!)

Because small presses aren’t that well known – you won’t find their work in airport bookshops nestling up against the likes of Dan Brown and Nora Roberts – they rely on specialist bookshops and of course libraries to support them. Our library has a number of these titles and readers who don’t want to bother with the big brassy bestsellers nor with the instant depression of some literary fiction may like to try some of these. It is a chance to look at titles by writers from the past such as Mollie Panter-Downes, Dorothy Whipple, Marghanita Laski and Denis Mackail.

One of their most successful titles has been a likeable curiosity called Miss Pettigrew lives for a day by Winifred Watson. This droll tale about a put-upon governess who finds unexpected happiness in her encounters with a racy upper crust set has just been filmed with American actress Frances McDormand in the lead and it has real potential to be a sleeper hit.

Man Booker Prize 2007

It will be a great coup for New Zealand if Lloyd Jones wins and it doesn’t look like it is out of the question. As usual there has been a lot of controversy about what and what didn’t get on the shortlist. It is a strange shortlist in that it contains novels which have sold less than 400 copies in the U.K. and one that has sold over 100,000 – Ian McEwan predictably. The McEwan novel isn’t bad but I don’t think it’s that great anyway and it suffers from his usual sometimes ponderous seriousness.

Jonathan CoeNovelists who do comedy or write about serious things in a light fashion don’t get a look in (same thing with the movies where Oscar usually throws awards at big clodhoppers like “Gandhi” or issues movies like “Crash” which give an industry devoted to money push an image of moral seriousness) and that’s possibly why my favourite British writer, Jonathan Coe, didn’t get in. Interestingly his omission from the shortlist has been noted in most of the literary pages and the irony is that his new novel The rain before it falls is his most serious book yet.  If I was able to get down to Ladbroke’s and pick a winner, I’d pick Lloyd Jones and I really hope that the judges ignore literary merit and tell each other that Ian McEwan has had enough kudos and doesn’t need this one.


Tess GerritsenOne of the more interesting phenomenons in fiction these days has been the mystery genre taking off into greater popularity and leaving behind the old detective story as the genre delves into more and more gruesome territory. Forensic carryings on are the order of the day and many of the top selling authors give their readers increasingly graphic descriptions of bodies being sliced up on the lab slab.

One of the top selling authors in this genre is Tess Gerritsen who said that her readers, mostly women, have a liking for the graphic and a penchant for serial killers. This comes at the same time as the horror movie has taken on more explicit violence than ever before (the genre has recently been named “gorno”) and the interesting thing is that, contrary to the once held view that it is teenage boys that like this sort of thing, it is young women who have been some of the most enthusiastic viewers.

What does this prove? Who knows but there can’t be too many more trips to the well either in book or film form before we return to genteel murder over the vicarage teacups.