Little Face: “every mother’s nightmare”

In a world full of uncertainties, one thing is for sure: the worst thing that can happen to anyone is to have a baby and lose her or him a week later. The paranoia and tension associated with such an event are at the core of Sophie Hannah’s novel Little Face.

The opening chapter describes how Alice, mother of week-old baby Florence, leaves her mother-in-law Vivienne’s house, where she lives, to visit the local exclusive health club to activate the membership recently given to her by Vivienne. The visit is surreal; throughout the chapter I was internally screaming at Alice to go home to her baby: I could not imagine how someone could overcome the strength of hormonally fuelled separation anxiety a week after giving birth to view a health club. Such is the dominance of Vivienne, who can overwhelm the feelings of those around her and control their actions, the health club episode being but a harbinger. When Alice returns home, she finds that the baby asleep in the cot is not hers.

The plot unfolds in an initially irritating temporal style, with chapters alternating between the beginning and end of the following week; and between the police investigation and the unsettling dynamics of Alice’s life with her increasingly distant husband, his son by his first marriage (yes, the first wife was murdered), his mother Vivienne, and the imposter baby — events which spiral out of control into simple but nerve-shredding episodes of sadism. 

I eventually got used to the strange rhythm, and could see how the author is using it to keep the reader as on-edge as her characters. This is one book that you just have to keep reading once you start it.  The ending is a bit of a let-down: just too complicated to be believable even though I couldn’t really fault the logic. Never mind, Sophie Hannah’s first crime fiction novel is a fantastic debut. I can’t wait for her next, whether or not it features any of the same characters.

Competitions, collaboration and competitiveness

A few pieces of news via the Bookseller (9 Feb edition).

The wiki novel by Penguin is apparently getting more than 100 edits an hour, by 7 February having mushroomed into at least 3 separate novels. The project began on 31 January so heaven knows what it is like now, although the site is now being closed for a few hours each day to avoid overloads. I don’t think I can bear to go and look.

National Book Tokens has opened a "not yet published" competition, open to all unpublished booksellers in the UK and Ireland who are aspiring authors. Submissions must be no more than 10,00o words and the deadline is 29 June 2007. The prize is a publishing contract with Faber. If you are an Amazon marketplace seller, I wonder if you are eligible? If so, it will increase the potential number of entries rather dramatically.

Writing of Amazon, the company is under fire for selling US editions of books through its UK site. Publishers are upset at this practice because it violates their international rights agreements. It seems that it is Amazon marketplace sellers who are to blame, rather than Amazon itself, and a digital solution is being sought (I didn’t fully understand it but get the drift). I am not sure what I think of this; the law is the law of course, but  it is very frustrating to have to wait a year for a mass market paperback to be published in the UK when it is already available on the US Amazon site, and can legally be purchased if you are prepared to pay the same price in international postage as the cover price of the book and wait 4-6 weeks.  I  can’t believe that a huge number of sales happen via US editions being sold on the UK Amazon site; I suspect the purchasers are a relatively small number of  enthusiasts that is not going to dent the sales figures of a UK launch of a title.  No figures are given in the Bookseller article.

Quick Reads questions

Apparently the UK "Quick Reads" initiative is in danger of ending after this year due to lack of support from some publishers and interest from the public. The next batch of eight titles (short novels, price £1.99 each) will be published on World Book Day (1 March), accompanied by a BBC dramatisation of The Grey Man by Andy McNab, one of last year’s books.

Quick Reads are short books written in simple language, aimed at people who don’t usually read books at all.  According to the Bookseller, some publishers have been reluctant to support the initiative on the grounds that there are no "semi mythical reluctant readers", given the plethora of celebrity biographies et al.  Even so, about one-third of the UK population is estimated never to read a book, lacking basic literacy skills or just not interested. The Bookseller opines that the first two years of the programme missed a few opportunities by a "slightly patronising" generic approach, weak covers and including some authors "who don’t command real consumer recognition".

This year’s batch includes media names such as Kerry Katona, John Simpson, "Dr Who" and Ricky Tomlinson. As last year, the Sun is a partner in selling these books and the programme, and lots of organisations are working "beneath the radar" to try to capture these hundreds of thousands of potential new readers.

The Bookseller believes that publishers and retailers should back the initiative with money and long-term support. It does not opine as to the long-term goals of the programme. Is the idea to persuade these non-readers to read 10 short books every year and that’s that? Or for these books to be a platform to encourage readers to attempt a "full length" work? Why is it considered a "good thing" for someone to read a short book by "Dr Who" or other TV celebrity rather than do something else? The Quick Read programme does raise rather more questions in my mind than it answers.