Incoming Books (and Their Sources)

I think you all know by now that I am very weak-willed when it comes to books. I have periods of almost feverish book acquisition, followed by periods of… more moderate consumption. Abstention is rarely, if ever, possible. So I thought it would be interesting (at least for myself, if for no one else) to see what are the reasons for recent acquisitions. What are the drivers for my book choices? Alas, in many cases, I read a review and then rush so quickly over to buy the said book that, by the time the book arrives in the post, I have forgotten just where I first saw it mentioned, but I suspect most of the initial impulse came from Twitter.

Barbara Demick: Her latest book, Eat the Buddha, about life in Tibet under Chinese rule, has been out since summer of 2020, but I only recently came across a review of it in Asia Nikkei. When I heard about her previous books (about North Korea and Sarajevo), I thought she sounded exactly like the kind of anthropologist I wanted to become, delving deeper beneath the headlines but investigating people’s current problems and lives. Perhaps investigative journalists are the anthropologists of today, if they have the luxury of spending time in those communities. So I went on a bit of a spending spree and got all three of her books: Besieged (about Sarajevo), Nothing to Envy (about North Korea) and Eat the Buddha.

Yulia Yaklova: Punishment of a Hunter – I saw Poppy Stimpson, the publicist from Pushkin Press, talk about this one on Twitter (or maybe I saw it on the translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s feed) and was intrigued by the 1930 Stalinist Russia setting in Leningrad (written however by a contemporary Russian writer). So I immediately asked Poppy for an ARC, and she kindly sent me one. I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, as well as a lot of their other publications.

Catherine Fox: Angels and Men – This one comes a little more out of the left field. I was jubilating on Twitter about my older son going off to study at Durham, and one of my friends, Con Martin, who blogs as Staircase Wit, mentioned this book, which is set in a northern cathedral town (obviously Durham). I have only passed through the town twice, once as a tourist, once for university open day, so want to get more of a feel for the place, and what better way to do it than through fiction.

Joy Williams: Breaking and Entering – The American writer Joy Williams has a new book out Harrow, which is all post-apocalyptic and dark. I read some contradictory reviews about it, but I also read that most people thought some of her earlier work was well worth reading, and quite a few raved about this particular one: ‘Two young married drifters break into vacation homes in Florida. Ferocious and perfect.’

Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer – This is quite a funny story. I had read many enthusiastic reviews and recommendations about this from fellow writers, so much so that I was convinced that I had bought it. I went to search for it on my bookshelves recently and discovered that no, I did not own it. Mad scramble to get hold of a copy, as it has that wonderful approach to ‘writing craft’ that Lucy Caldwell also advises: ‘When you cannot figure out how to do something in writing, read examples from writers who do it well and try and figure out how they make it work. Then develop your own solution.’

H.P. Lovecraft: The Dunwich Horror – To my utter surprise, this was a request from my younger son. He hasn’t been much of a reader in recent years (perhaps GCSE English didn’t help), but he read Orwell’s 1984 over the holidays and then tried The Call of the Cthulhu by Lovecraft and was eager to read more. I found this edition in Waterstones Gower Street, which is snugly and fortuitously placed halfway between my place of work and the Tube station.

Maryla Szymiczkowa: Karolina or The Torn Curtain – I have mentioned this before: as part of Noirwich, I attended the interview with the two (male) Polish authors and their translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and was so intrigued by the concept and the charisma of the authors, that I had to get my own copy.

Ann Quin: Berg – I first heard Quin mentioned on Backlisted podcast, made a note of the name and planned to search for her in the Senate House library. Then I saw several people whom I follow on Twitter also mention her: Charlus Kinbote aka TotheHappyNone recently bought several of her books, David Hering has been doing a Quin readathon in September, and there was a review of about her books being reissued in the Sydney Review of Books.

Not visible on the pile above are the books I downloaded on my Kindle recently. Quite a few of them are because I know the authors in real life and want to follow their latest releases. That is the case for the following:

  • Rebecca J. Bradley: Seconds to Die (Rebecca is the organiser of our Virtual Crime Book Club and I’ve been following her blog and her work for 7-8 years now)
  • Nikki Dudley: Volta – I attended a writing for Mums workshop with Nikki, and she was a wonderfully encouraging tutor for experimental fiction, but this is a bit of a departure for her, as it’s a psychological thriller.
  • Claire Dyer: The Significant Others of Odie May. I met Claire virtually during lockdown, as she is one of the organisers of the Poets’ Cafe in Reading (which went online for a while). I have always appreciated her poetry, but this book is crime fiction.
  • Matt Wesolowski: Deity. I’ve met Matt at several Orenda events or crime festivals, and have read all the books in the Six Stories series, with the exception of this one.

Last but not least, I do try to get books from the library as well. I am currently reading (and very much enjoying) Tokyo Redux by David Peace. I have also requested (and am on the waiting list) for Magpie by Elizabeth Day and hope to read the most recent Louise Penny soon. After spending September binge-reading the Cazalet Chronicles, I wanted to find out more about their author, Elizabeth Jane Howard, so I just borrowed a biography written by Artemis Cooper. The best thing about libraries, however, is the haphazard finds while browsing the shelves, and I came across a book by Freeman Wills Crofts: The Groote Park Murder. A Golden Age crime author who appears in the British Library Crime Classics series (especially in anthologies), he has also been favourably reviewed by trustworthy blogger friends such as Fiction Fan (with one exception), Booker Talk and Classic Mystery Blog.

Clearly, most if not all of my impulsive physical book purchases are a result of recommendations by people whose opinion I trust, i.e. bookish Twitter and blogger friends. Articles in literary journals only serve to reaffirm (and justify) my decision.

I also want to support writer friends and acquaintances, and although I don’t much like Amazon and don’t want to order physical products from them, I know that buying e-books at least helps their Amazon ranking. (I should also make more of a habit of leaving reviews on Amazon, rather than just Goodreads or my blog)

Finally, when it comes to libraries, I can afford to be more adventurous and rely on serendipity, knowing that if I hate a certain book, I can just return it without any fuss or expenditure. Sadly, the local libraries are getting less and less adventurous, with a tendency to spend their limited budget only the sure-fire bestsellers or literary prize winners. Still, I suppose that saves me from having to buy any of those… More money left for the smaller, quieter, quirkier books, authors and publishers.

23 thoughts on “Incoming Books (and Their Sources)”

  1. I was about to comment that I’m much like you, and leap into wanting a book as a result of some review. But my first port of call is the library, and I’m happy to say they do buy a reasonable amount of less obvious fiction. So it’s my civic duty to support them, to make sure this policy continues!

  2. PS.. I’ve just ordered from the library the Barbara Demick, and Angels and Men (Durham was my son and daughter-in-law’s university city) and Maryla Szymiczkowa (oh, no, p’raps not. CD only), and a different Matt Wesolowski from your choice. Now to find some time …

    1. Alas, acquisition does not equal instant consumption, so I’m not sure when I will get round to it. Maybe with my Russians in Winter initiative (in December).

  3. It’s funny how often we get interested in a book just from the Twitter buzz or someone’s website. I do the same thing. And you’ve got some nice choices here, Marina Sofia. For me, the strangest feeling is when I get a book, and then don’t remember where I found out about it.

    1. That does seem to happen rather regularly with me. I suppose I see several people enthusing about it, but I don’t remember where it originated or what gave me the final nudge…

  4. Reading (critiques, blogs, recommendations) begets reading (all the books you acquire, which you eventually read) begets more reading — sounds like the equivalent a musical moto perpetuo or a serotonin treadmill! My choices tend to be more serendipitous, but I’m certain there’s a subconscious bias influenced by blog reviews like yours…

    1. That is why I wanted to trace the influence upon my book selections, because I am pretty sure that even in the cases where I think I am being very independent, there is some subconscious bias there…

    1. They do both appeal so much to me. I wanted to do my Ph.D. on the social costs of the transition to a market economy in former East Bloc states (with an emphasis on DDR, Romania and Hungary), but nobody was willing to fund that at the time. I had already started talking to factory workers who were suddenly mass unemployed in Bucharest as a Wild West period of privatisation started. It was eye-opening, and I’m pleased there is still room for this kind of reporting as well.

      1. Such an interesting project! We’re in dire need of properly researched, in-depth reporting given the influence of social media from which most people get their information now.

  5. I am as weak willed as you, and Twitter plus book blogs are a terribly bad influence!! In fact, I have just sent for another book…. All of your incomings sound fascinating! I have read one Lovecraft and enjoyed it very much though it was a tad scary so I may not feel the need to explore him any further…

  6. You’ve got some good ones there, as a reader I found the Francine Prose helpful in trying to understand what appeals to me in a book. And for sheer enjoyment the Maryla Szymiczkowa books are great fun. I posted about the first, ‘Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing’ back in January and then ‘Karolina…’ just a few months later. Bookish temptations on Twitter and blogs and independent and small press catalogs are truly legion…

    1. Have to go and check out your reviews then… I hadn’t heard about them before, have the feeling they weren’t that heavily marketed in the UK, which is a shame.

  7. I was not to be separated from Waterstones Gower Street (then Foyles) while at uni. I’d be bankrupt if I had to walk past it twice a day, going to and from work. Am envious of the Yakovleva ARC. Pretty sure I’ll purchase it soon – liking the sound of Russians in Winter …

  8. Thanks for the mention.
    I have got into a muddle so many times because I forgot to note where I heard of a particular book – now I try (don’t always succeed) in making a note on my wishlist.
    Our library system has never been great at stocking titles beyond the predictable – obtaining books in translation from them is a particular problem and they rarely have any of the Australian authors I get to hear about. They used to offer the inter-library loan system but I gather that it’s very much on an informal basis now where the librarian rings chums in other parts of the country to see if they have the book.

  9. I relate to everything you describe in your first paragraph Marina Sofia 😀 I’d be completely broke if I had to walk past Waterstones Gower St every day – although I’m pretty much there anyway due to an excellent charity bookshop directly opposite my flat…

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