Friday 30 March 2018

Review: The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball

The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball by Noam Cohen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Where would you be without the internet? You are reading this review on a device of some kind, and if you are like most people then you will have shopped recently on it, chatted with someone on a social website, done a little research, and faffed around quite a lot no doubt. It is now one of life's essentials along with power and water, and if you have teenagers then you know for them it is their lifeblood.

There are a number of people who have been in the driving of this profound change to the way that society functions now, Berners-Lee was the man who created the world wide web that sits on the internet, but this book is concerned with some of the greatest entrepreneurs who have made their mark in cyberspace and the world.

There is a chapter with an interesting profile of eleven of the most influential individuals who have shaped the web that we use today, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook as well as one of the first, Marc Andreessen creator of Netscape (remember that?). They have all become rich from their creations, but though the money is important to these men, and they are all men, , they are driven by the desire to be number one in their sphere and to form the world around them as they see fit, demanding that freedom of speech and individuality should have precedence over regulations and laws. As much as these men dislike and abhor oversight and control of big government, the way that they run the companies is not dissimilar to that of a dictatorship.

These websites now rule our lives, they have permeated our lives in so many ways and we now rely on them. They have countless reams data acquired from us legitimately and surreptitiously, as with a lot of these you are the product. Given the continued fallout from the Cambridge Analytical and Facebook, this is a subject that will have a keener eye turned on it in the coming months. I thought that the conclusion was very sparse as he could have been much more critical of the major players. It could have also had more to say about the future of the web, for example, what happens after Google? However, it was an interesting start to a conversation that has a long way to go.

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Wednesday 28 March 2018

Review: Hampshire: Through Writers Eyes

Hampshire: Through Writers Eyes Hampshire: Through Writers Eyes by Alastair Langlands
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The first instance of the name Hamtunscir appeared in the 8th century, but there has been a human presence in the county of Hampshire since around 12,000 BC when we were still part of the European continent until the sea level rose and we became separate. Since then traces of the people of the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze age have been found. The Iron age brought hill-forts and stability to the region and then 2000 odd years ago the Romans arrived and overlaid their rule on the existing peoples. The county's long and fascinating history is reflected in the way that writers have used it as a source of material and inspiration through the ages.

There are chapters on the three main towns of the county, the ancient capital Winchester, where the rivers meet the sea in Southampton and the naval port of Portsmouth and the authors, poetry and prose that have emanated from these places. But Hampshire is more than a coastal county, there is the 1000-year-old New Forest, seized from the locals by William the Conqueror as a personal hunting ground; it has almost all the world's chalk streams that flow from the downs that cross the country.

Langlands has scoured books and manuscripts to bring the very best of Hampshire writers and writing. There are the people that you'd expect, Jane Austen and Gilbert White as well as a raft of others including Wodehouse, Doyle and even Hardy who had ventured out of Dorset. The subject matter is wide-ranging too, people and places feature heavily as you'd expect, but there are musings on cricket, churches, fishing, war, Basingstoke and of course natural history. My favourite chapters were titled Hinterland and The New Forest and the one on Chalk Streams and Cricketers as well as the one on Gilbert White were equally fascinating. I have lived either side of Hampshire, first in Surrey and now in Dorset, both times fairly close to the county border, travelled through it many times and know parts of it fairly well. This is an interesting collection of writings from those that have had some association or made their livelihoods from the county and is a worthy addition to the Eland Through Writers’ Eyes series.

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Tuesday 27 March 2018

International Dylan Thomas Prize #IDTP18

The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize announced its 10th tenth shortlist shortly after midnight this morning. It is one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes as well as the world’s largest literary prize for young writers and is a commemoration of Dylan Thomas the celebrated Welsh poet who passed away 65 years ago. Seeking to find the very best in international fiction the prize is awared to an author under the age of 39. 

The prize is worth a cool £30,000 to one of these six shortlisted books:

 Kayo Chingonyi (Zambia)

Kumukanda (Vintage - Chatto & Windus

Translating as ‘initiation’, kumukanda is the name given to the rites a young boy from the Luvale tribe must pass through before he is considered a man. The poems of Kayo Chingonyi’s remarkable debut explore this passage: between two worlds, ancestral and contemporary; between the living and the dead; between the gulf of who he is and how he is perceived.

Underpinned by a love of music, language and literature, here is a powerful exploration of race, identity and masculinity, celebrating what it means to be British and not British, all at once.

 Carmen Maria Machado (USA)

Her Body and Other Parties (Serpent’s Tail / Graywolf Press)

In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women's lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.
A wife refuses her husband's entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store's prom dresses. One woman's surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella "Especially Heinous," Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.
Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

Gwendoline Riley (UK)

First Love (Granta) 

Neve is a writer in her mid-30s married to an older man, Edwyn. For now they are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she tells of other loves and other debts, from her bullying father and her self-involved mother to a musician who played her and a series of lonely flights from place to place.Drawing the reader into the battleground of her relationship, Neve spins a story of helplessness and hostility, an ongoing conflict in which both husband and wife have played a part. But is this, nonetheless, also a story of love?
 Sally Rooney (Ireland)

Conversations With Friends (Faber & Faber)

Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed and observant. A student in Dublin and an aspiring writer, at night she performs spoken word with her best friend Bobbi, who used to be her girlfriend. When they are interviewed and then befriended by Melissa, a well-known journalist who is married to Nick, an actor, they enter a world of beautiful houses, raucous dinner parties and holidays in Provence, beginning a complex ménage-à-quatre. But when Frances and Nick get unexpectedly closer, the sharply witty and emotion-averse Frances is forced to honestly confront her own vulnerabilities for the first time.

 Emily Ruskovich (USA)

Idaho (Vintage – Chatto & Windus)

One hot August day a family drives to a mountain clearing to collect birch wood. Jenny, the mother, is in charge of lopping any small limbs off the logs with a hatchet. Wade, the father, does the stacking. The two daughters, June and May, aged nine and six, drink lemonade, swat away horseflies, bicker, sing snatches of songs as they while away the time. 

But then something unimaginably shocking happens, an act so extreme it will scatter the family in every different direction.

Gabriel Tallent (USA)
My Absolute Darling (4th Estate / Riverhead Books)

‘You think you’re invincible. You think you won’t ever miss. We need to put the fear on you. You need to surrender yourself to death before you ever begin, and accept your life as a state of grace, and then and only then will you be good enough.’
At 14, Turtle Alveston knows the use of every gun on her wall;
That chaos is coming and only the strong will survive it;
That her daddy loves her more than anything else in this world.
And he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her with him.
She doesn’t know why she feels so different from the other girls at school;
Why the line between love and pain can be so hard to see;
Why making a friend may be the bravest and most terrifying thing she has ever done
And what her daddy will do when he finds out …
Sometimes strength is not the same as courage.
Sometimes leaving is not the only way to escape.
Sometimes surviving isn't enough.
There are som really interesting looking books there, I do not envy the judges picking from that lot! 

The winner will be announced on 10th May. Follow @dylanthomprize and the hashtag #IDTP18 on twitter for more information 

Monday 26 March 2018

Publisher Profile - Eland

For me, independent publishers are the people in the industry who are prepared to take risks on new authors and books where the larger players either don't wish to venture, or where they can't see there being a return on. Each month in 2018 I am aiming to highlight some of my favourite independent publishers, along with some of their books that I have loved and also to have someone from the publisher answer a few questions. This month is the turn of Eland.

One of my favourite non-fiction genres is travel writing, so much so that I usually read around twenty to thirty books a year. To have a publisher that only focuses on travel books is a little like heaven for me. Named after the name of a misremembered elk, Eland's primary focus is finding the obscure and normally unknown texts by writers that are wry, humane, tragic, lyrical, universal, funny and idiosyncratic and intelligently written, but most of all they need to sum up a sense of place. Their cream and rich red branded books are slightly taller than the others on the shelf, making them stand out when I am browsing through the travel sections of a bookshop. I am even doing a personal challenge to read a travel book from every country around the world, called The World From My Armchair Challenge; there are, as you'd imagine, a number of Eland titles on the list.

Not only do they have over 100 classic titles in their catalogue, but they occasionally commission books for their series called Eland Originals. They were generous enough to send me one from that list that was published in 2017, Travels in a Dervish Cloak. This fantastic book by Isambard Wilkinson tells of his travels around Pakistan, seeing how life was for the people in the places he visited and seeing how paganism still flourishes under a thin veneer of Islam in the wilder parts of the country. 
Another classic that was reprinted last year is The Forgotten Kingdom by Peter Goullart. This describes in intimate detail the time that the Russian author spent in the Nakhi Kingdom of south-west China and is such a brilliant book. There are a couple of authors that are key to their catalogue, one is Dervla Murphy, the Irish travel writer famous for cycling from Ireland to India. The other is Norman Lewis, a prolific writen of fiction and travel books, and whose Naples '44 is one of Levison Woods must read books; which reminds me... I have read The Goddess in the stones, a fascinating journey wall away from the tourist routes around the state of Bihar. Warrior Herdsmen is Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' account of living with the Dodoth cattle-herdsmen in Northern Uganda. It is closer to anthropology than travel, but fascinating nonetheless.

Mustn't forget too their 'Through Writers Eyes' series of books. These are collected and curated works of fiction, poetry and non-fiction about different places and countries. They are an excellent publisher, and Barnaby Rogerson was kind enough to answer some of my questions below on behalf of Eland

Can you tell me a little about the history of Eland?

Eland was started thirty-six years ago by John Hatt in a fury that none of the publishers he contacted were interested in reprinting Norman Lewis’s book about Vietnam, Dragon Apparent.  A book which if read could have informed any US politician about the likely end result of the Vietnam War.  On the back of this venture, he was later employed as the travel editor of Harpers Bazaar, which put him in an ideal position to travel and test out the best books on the ground.  

I must have written him a fan letter (in green ink) whilst still a history student, but instead of binning it, he invited me for tea on the strict understanding that he was never going to employ me.  I later became a writer of guide-books and a jobbing travel journalist and tour guide, so we kept in touch.  After 20 years running the business, he wanted to get out, having made a fortune from setting up which also nearly killed him with overwork. 

How is the company organised today and how many people work for you?

Eland is passionately independent and is entirely owned by its three directors, has no other shareholders, and (at the moment) no debt. It takes no subsidies from the UK or any other government or pressure group. It is currently run by a husband and wife team (Barnaby Rogerson and Rose Baring) in an attic (a three storey walk-up above a popular London street market) who make use of a dozen skilled freelancers who either work from home or pop in once a week or once a month and hot desk in this attic while we feed them cups of tea.  The freelance sales force in the UK is supplied by PGUK, the physical books are stored (and invoiced) by the incredibly efficient GBS/TBS.  There is a network of freelance reps for our various foreign territories plus two stock holding distributors in AUS and the USA.  We also sell to individual readers through our own website, which though it only achieves a tiny 3% fraction of our turn-over helps keep us in touch with our customer base. 

What is the company philosophy when it comes to selecting for your catalogue?

We can never quite define what we are looking for until we stumble across it but it needs to be observant of others, capable of summing up a spirit of a place and catching the moment on the wing– aside from such everyday literate skills as being funny, wry, intelligent, humane, universal, self-deprecating and idiosyncratic – plus the whole book has to be held together by a page-turning gift for story-telling. Increasingly we look for travel books that are not defined by heroic adventures but the ability to listen (and maybe understand) other cultures – ‘anthropology lite’. 

How do you go about choosing the titles to be included in your portfolio?

Eland is essentially a co-operative of passionate readers.  Some of our best book suggestions come from our customers, who write in by postcard, letter or e-mail  (typically listing half a dozen books that they adore about one region and that we do publish) then casually mention “but why not this as well”.  This happened yesterday for instance.  Our other principal sources of information come from the well-read staff who run bookshops and of course writers.    

Tell me about your process after selecting a book for publication - how much effort goes into the design of the book, for example, the cover design, font selection and so 

Sometimes it takes a year to find the right image. We pride ourselves on getting the mood right for the cover of an Eland book, and have a loose rule of thumb that fiction can be best expressed by a painting and fact by a period photograph.  Various versions of a cover get created, pinned to the wall, then after a bit you find the most appropriate one.

Are there any up and coming books that you are publishing soon that we need to look out for?

We are thrilled that we have recently acquired the entire back-list of one of the greatest post-war British writers, due to a supportive literary agent who admires what we do. In May 2018 we will release Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory, Arabia: Through the Looking Glass, Hunting Mr Heartbreak, Coasting and For Love & Money.  He is wise, irreverent, clever, wicked and funny. 

What debut authors are you publishing this year?

None. In 2018 we are back to our principal role of reprinting travel classics, which will however include the first English language publication of the iconic French travel-writer Nicolas Bouvier’s Selected Works.

How did you come across them?

My wife, Rose Baring, who reads in French and Russian, discovered Bouvier.

What title of yours has been an unexpected success?

The Road to Nab End by William Woodruff.  

What would you say were the undiscovered gems in your catalogue?

Some of our publishing rivals/friends would say half the Eland list! But off the top of my head - Warriors by Gerald Hanley, Peking Story by David Kidd, Living Poor by Moritz Thomsen, People of Providence by Tony Parker

How do you use social media for promoting books and authors?

Our publicist Stephanie Allen, who used to work at John Murray and helps run the Literary Magazine Slightly Foxed, has led the way.  Getting us to send out quarterly chatty newsletters (that do not endlessly try to flog our books), which she then supported by setting up an Eland Facebook page, then twitter, then instagram.  Her recent round of energy has been connecting Eland up to the fascinating world of freelance literary bloggers (whose motivation is often very similar to that of Eland).  Beside this we continue with traditional means like drinks parties, launch parties, lecture, pop-up shops, not to mention sending books out to review to the print medium of magazines and newspapers.  

Is working with book bloggers becoming a larger part of that process now?

Yes, there seems to be a natural and immediate sympathy between the thoroughly independent nature of Eland and the world of book blogging

What book do you wish you had first published?

Lords of the Atlas by Gavin Maxwell, which we now have on our list – even though I know he was in many ways a total monster, as revealed by Douglas Botting’s biography – which we reprinted last year !  

What does the future hold for Eland ?

After 36 years of work, we have now built up the Eland backlist to over 145 titles, which you can have a look at on the website.   So Eland has now probably become the world’s leading independent publisher of classic travel.   There are at least three dozen travel books which I would like to add to the list right NOW, but we like to work within our own capacity and budget.  So there is no immediate danger of scraping the barrel. 

We now have probably just as many travel books written by women as men, but the next challenge will be to expand out of our Anglo-American identity and start including much more of the world.  We got a great kick out of translating Evliya Celebi’s travels, and showing the world a 17th-century version of Orhan Pamuk, an Ottoman Bruce Chatwin.

Thank you to Barnaby and Steph for taking time out of their hectic schedules to answer those questions for me. I really appreciate it. Eland's books are available from all good bookshops and their most recent catalogue can be seen here. I would urge you to buy them from an independent bookshop if you can as this support them, the publisher and of course the author with one purchase. 

Previous Publisher Profiles: