Tuesday, May 23, 2006

More MNW

Macmillan New Writing, the imprint which specialises in first novels by as yet unknown writers, is publishing books at the rate of one a month. Here are some notes on a couple of recent ones, the first published in May, and the second due on 7 July. (The June book was reviewed here on 25 April.)

Edward Charles: In the Shadow of Lady Jane

Edward Charles has written a historical novel, set in the mid sixteenth century. This is a period of English history which, in my youth, I spent a great deal of time studying. The ruling family of that era were the Tudors, and two of the Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, have been rich sources of material for novelists and dramatists -- particularly the latter. Just to give a couple of examples, Charles Laughton made a famous Henry VIII movie in 1933, and Cate Blanchett was nominated for an Oscar for her 1988 performance as Elizabeth.

Unfortunately, because of my extensive studies of the Tudor period, I know rather more about them than is good for me. My considered opinion of the Tudor monarchs, and particularly the hatchet-men who did their dirty work for them, is that they were a nasty, vicious, unprincipled lot, with little to recommend them. So, as far as this reader is concerned, Edward Charles has set himself a difficult task.

In the Shadow of Lady Jane is told in the first person by a young man of relatively modest background who finds himself in the service of the Grey family. In 1553, Henry VIII's sickly son, Edward, finally died, at the age of sixteen. A brief attempt was then made to proclaim Lady Jane Grey as Queen, and she held on to that title for nine days; but she was soon overthrown, and Henry VIII's elder daughter, Mary, was recognised as the lawful sovereign.

In other words, these were dangerous times, and a young man had to have his wits about him if his head was to remain attached to his body. Several of those involved in the Lady Jane Grey conspiracy were beheaded.

Edward Charles has a good solid story to tell, weaving fiction with fact, and he does it well. The book is written in a reasonably modern style, and the author has avoided, for the most part, the prithees and mayhaps which litter the pages of most historical novels. I would expect this book to do well in the library market, but I don't expect to see it on the bestseller lists, either hardback or paperback.

Aliya Whiteley: Three Things About Me

The principal virtue of Three Things About Me is that, despite the title, it's quite different from the average first novel -- which is normally all about Me Me Me. And perhaps that's because this isn't the author's first novel: Aliya has her own web site, on which we learn that she is the author of Mean Mode Median, published by Bluechrome in 2004. (Having work published in the past does not rule you out as a potential MNW author.)

Three Things is about seven young(ish) hopefuls who are just starting a company training course which is designed to turn them into 'customer service representatives'. The man in charge of the course is Rob Church, whose boss warns him at the outset that the level of applicants is extremely poor.

Each chapter of the book is related from the viewpoint of one of the trainees, or Rob himself. This makes for quite a number of people to keep track of -- perhaps rather too many, but the reader gradually gets to know them.

I was just wondering if it was fair to describe the characters as losers when I noticed that that's exactly what the publisher's blurb says about them. 'Each of [Rob's] charges, with one exception, is a loser. As he works his way through the embarrassingly formulaic training set-pieces with never a doubt about the value of his corporate objectives, the awful reality of the appalling quality of the human material he has to work with becomes clear.'

And, er, that's about it. I can't classify this book for you -- not easily, anyway -- because I don't think it fits neatly into any particular genre. It certainly isn't science fiction, fantasy, crime, or romance. I wouldn't call it literary. Neither is it chick-lit. Or lad-lit. It's a piece of mainstream fiction about a group of (mostly) 20- and 30-somethings. And that is where it's readership lies: mainly female, I suspect, and among those who have had similar experiences, and probably wish they hadn't.

This is a perfectly competent novel, but, given the nature of the competition, and the MNW publicity budget, it is not, in my opinion, going to generate huge sales.

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