Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

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I like to browse the shelves and tables stacked with books in my local Waterstones. Like many people, I’ve taken to ordering more books online, occasionally for Kindle, though I don’t really like using it for a novel – I like the real thing: a proper book in my hands to hold as I curl up in a favourite ‘reading’ chair and disappear into a fictional world – but nothing beats a slow walk round a bookshop, picking up books that immediately attract one’s interest and taking a closer look. I invariably buy two books in Waterstones due to their ‘By One Get One Half Price’ offer on paperbacks and thus Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures came to be bought, along with another book, chosen partly from the blurb and because it was long-listed for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Small Pleasures is an exquisitely written portrait of 1950s Britain. The ‘small pleasures’ of the title refer to the protagonist’s ‘small’ life and her collection of ‘small pleasures’: ‘In Jean’s bedroom was a dressing-table drawer filled with things too precious ever to be used. Soaps, cosmetics, perfume. … ‘ There’s incredible poignancy in some of the descriptions of Jean’s life. She is nearing 40, a journalist on a local paper, the North Kent Echo. It sounds glamorous, but her life certainly isn’t. She lives with her mother, a needy, self-centred and difficult woman who rarely leaves the house. Jean’s life seems very grim indeed and devoid of hope of anything better. Her work mainly consists of writing typical women’s articles of the time – what to do with an excess of apples from the garden; how to ‘keep your fingers white and soft’. But then an extraordinary letter from a reader takes Jean along a surprising and life-changing journey.

An article in the paper about parthenogenesis – creatures that don’t need a male to reproduce – is followed by a letter from a woman, Gretchen, who claims a virgin birth. After an editorial discussion about whether they want to ‘encourage these cranks’, Jean is sent to interview Gretchen and find out more. She discovers that at the time Gretchen must have become pregnant with her 10-year-old daughter Margaret, she was hospitalised for a few months, bed-bound with rheumatoid arthritis. Unable to walk, surrounded by nursing nuns and other female patients, how was conception with a man possible?

A hospital takes on the challenge of investigating whether such a conception is possible and Jean takes Gretchen and Margaret along to undergo tests. Remarkably, for a time things look promising, as if a virgin birth might indeed have happened. Chambers manages to maintain a level of real possibility in the reader’s mind despite our natural inclination to declare it impossible. During her investigation into the story, Jean inevitably spends a lot of time with Gretchen and her family – the daughter and her husband Howard, who has always said he believes Gretchen’s story about Margaret’s birth. Jean gets drawn into the family’s life and finds a joy and pleasure in family pursuits that have been absent in her own life. She becomes fond of Margaret, her growing love for the child filling the gap of her own childlessness. For a long time she believes in Gretchen, always so kind and dependable. At first she can’t understand how the rather boring Howard attracted a beautiful younger woman like Gretchen, but as time goes by and she sees his qualities, she grows increasingly fond and then attracted to him. Guilty at first about her feelings, as she sees the cracks appear in Gretchen and Howard’s marriage, that all is not as it seems, she allows herself to grow closer to him and finds a love she never dreamed possible.

Meanwhile, she interviews girls – now women – who were at the hospital with Gretchen; a nurse who was there at the same time. More and more questions are thrown up as the story unravels and we find ourselves caught up in the mystery.

There are inevitable surprises and twists but I don’t want to give away too much, hoping you will read this instead. What we see is that sometimes the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, can be an awful thing and once seen cannot be unseen: ‘Having set out in the pursuit of truth, she had now learned something it would have been better not to know.’

I found this a compelling read and almost couldn’t put it down. There was the mystery of the virgin birth to be solved but mostly I became caught up in the brilliant evocation of 1950s life, particularly for an unmarried woman nearing her forties. The repressed emotions, the stifling limited life and opportunities, were so moving, especially Jean rewarding herself with life’s small pleasures: ‘the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week.’ It’s a kind of social history too with the descriptions of the hardships of ordinary domestic life at the time compared to now; the way marriage and unmarried women were viewed. I loved the book, though have to confess I found the ending just a little too contrived and thus a bit disappointing. But it would be interesting to know what others thought of it. Do let me know if you read the book in Comments below!

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

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I’ve been a great fan of Elizabeth Strout since reading Olive Kitteridge (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008). I also loved the follow-up, Olive, Again, and after reading My Name is Lucy Barton, saw the brilliant stage adaptation, starring Laura Linney, at the Bridge Theatre in London in 2018. Thus buying Strout’s latest book, Oh William!, provided a little literary excitement and I looked forward to reading it. It’s actually been sitting in a book pile for a while – the pile that builds when I’m too busy with my publishing work to read books I’ve bought. But I finally picked it up a couple of days ago and it provided all the delight I’d been hoping for and glorious weekend entertainment.

In Oh William! we meet Lucy Barton again, but years later. Lucy is now 63, a successful writer living in New York and recently widowed following the death of her second husband, David. She has, however, maintained a friendship with her first husband, William, father of her two daughters, Chrissy and Becka, and this friendship, this relationship, is at the heart of Oh William!; a portrait of how a long-term friendship grows and changes.

The storyline follows Lucy supporting William (71) through the break-up of his third marriage, the effects of some night terrors that plague him, and his investigation into his family history. His third wife Estelle gave him a gift of access to an ancestry website and through this he discovers he has a half-sister he knew nothing about. This discovery is not just part of his story and an insight into his relationship with his mother Catherine, it is also about Lucy’s relationship with her mother-in-law, and it is part of their daughters’ story too. Everything in life connects.

Strout’s style of writing is very conversational; it is as if she’s talking directly to us and she creates a great intimacy with the reader. There are even little digressions, in the way we all talk sometimes, which are so clever and give a sense that this is a real person telling a true story. But it is also a device for taking us deeply into Lucy’s world and head. Oh William! is not just about this latter-day friendship between the couple, but the stories of their lives from childhood and how their experiences brought them together in the first place. It is essentially a book about who and what makes us as people. 

We witness Lucy’s deprived childhood, a time of bleak poverty and not just lack of love from her parents, particularly her mother, but cruelty too. There is a moving poignancy in her memory of the support her teacher Mrs Nash gave her, encouraging her and then driving her to college when she leaves school, buying her clothes on the way – you can pay me back later, she says kindly – and Lucy arriving at college wanting everyone to think Mrs Nash is her mother; this is the kind of mother she longs for.

This explains why she is attracted to William, with whom she finds a sense of cosiness; he is the person she’s always felt safe with. But on their present journey of uncovering William’s past, Lucy starts to see their relationship in a different light. She also sees it from the perspective of having enjoyed a wonderful and deeply connected relationship with her second husband David. 

By the end of the book, everything has shifted a bit. Lucy sees William in a different light and she reflects on how we create myths about people and ourselves in response to our experiences and our needs. ‘Oh dear Everybody,’ she says, ‘we do not know anybody, not even ourselves! … Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do … We are all mysteries is what I mean.‘ 

This is a wonderful book, so thought-provoking and such a brilliant examination of life and how we live our lives. But it’s also an easy read in the sense that there’s a lightness to the writing that carries you through its depths and really, who can resist Lucy and Elizabeth Strout’s fantastic writing? 

Still Life by Sarah Winman

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I saw this book reviewed on BBC2’s Between the Covers, a book programme hosted by Sara Cox in which each week four guests join her to discuss their favourite books of all time and new books recently published. Last week they discussed Sarah Winman’s Still Life and I was hooked enough by what they said to order a copy immediately.

The reviewers all loved the book but it wasn’t just this that attracted me, but the theme of art and its meaning in our life, and the setting – of most of the novel – in Florence, Italy. The story begins in war-torn Europe in 1944 when a young British soldier, Ulysses Temper, meets Evelyn Skinner, an art historian, who has come to Italy to help save important artwork. Their meeting is brief but makes a huge impact on them both. This isn’t a story of romantic love between them but that visceral attraction we can feel towards another instantly; it’s about feeling a deep connection and seeing the world through the eyes of someone else and it changing us for ever. Evelyn is much older than Ulysses and gay; he is in love with the wife who will never return his love in the same way but their connection also runs deep enough for them to remain important people in each others’ lives, even once they’ve divorced.

I was pleased one of the TV reviewers said it took them a while to get into the book, for after the short beginning in 1944 Italy, the story moves to London’s East End where Ulysses has returned to take up his former life, and keep going his father’s business making beautiful globes. These aren’t the kind of cheap globes you buy kids to teach them geography, these are works of art, thus this is also another connection to Evelyn. Back home, wife Peg has had a baby – Alys – with an American soldier who seems to have deserted her – a theme of longing and the heartache of unrequited love that runs throughout the book. But Ulysses remains a friend, a rock, and another rock to them all is old Cress. Ulysses lives above Col’s pub; Col’s drinking and violence have caused his wife to leave and his instability rages throughout the story, but underneath his love for all those around him makes them continue to care about him.

This London period is when the characters are gathered – Ulysses, Peg, Alys, Col, Cress and piano Pete – and we witness the strong bond that ties them together. It was here that my interest waned a bit though before the big change: Ulysses inherits a large apartment in Florence. It has been left to him by Arturo, who in 1944 he rescued from a suicide attempt. Should he sell the apartment or go back to Florence? Uncertain at first, he then sets off with Cress in an old van, and with Alys. Peg finds motherhood too hard, cannot get over the pain of her daughter’s likeness to the missing father. Ulysses has become a father to Alys and so he takes her. They also take Claude, the parrot that lives in the pub and is constantly abused by Col but loved by all. Once in Florence, it soon becomes apparent they will stay, this will be their new home.

Florence brings new characters: Massimo the lawyer who handled Arturo’s will and is to become a close friend; Michele who runs the local restaurant. A whole cast of characters. Meanwhile, Evelyn is back lecturing in London but she hasn’t forgotten Ulysses. She comes to Florence a few times, the city she loves, and their paths almost cross but not quite. It will take many years before they are reunited. As Alys grows she shows huge talent as an artist, returns to London to art school, is touched by Evelyn’s lecturing, but the connection to Ulysses is not yet made …

There are a lot of coincidences, there is a lot of magic. In many ways the book is a fairy tale for the characters are larger than life and even the parrot talks – not just repeating words but words of wisdom; trees talk too. Ulysses’ inheritance is a kind of fairy tale; Cress has vivid visions of the future that result in him being able to place bets on, for example, Geoff Hurst getting a hat trick in the 1966 football World Cup, that make a huge amount of money but he’s also the source of spiritual wisdom and he tells them at one point that he was once a friar.

The years go by, loves are found and lost, friends are made. Florence has become Ulysses’ home and he opens a workshop to make globes again. It’s not until the great flood of 1966 that almost destroys Florence, that Ulysses and Evelyn are finally reunited: not as lovers but soul mates.

I ended up loving the book. Yes the characters are a little unreal; their experiences rely so often on convenient coincidence not to mention that magic I mentioned. But they are real to the reader in the sense that you come to really care about them. And the writing is beautiful with some glorious descriptions of Florence and life there. Winman adopts a conversational style that creates an intimacy with the reader and also a sense of wonder – just as every good fairy tale should do. It is a book about love of all kinds; of the deep bonds of friendship; the wonder of life and the unknown aspect of it. There is a spiritual, metaphysical dimension.

For me, it was also a delight to read a book set in Florence that centred around my favourite part of the city – Santo Spirito, in Oltrarno, the other side of the River Arno to the famous sites, a more bohemian area. I recognised the names of piazzas and roads and bridges, even the famous gelateria, Vivoli. Winman’s knowledge of food is superb and this also appealed. I could picture Piazza Santo Spirito so clearly, where my favourite restaurant, a simple Osteria, is the place I always want to head to first to eat (see my food & travel blog post: click here).

It was one of those books that will keep you up late at night and you are so sad when it ends, although memories of it stay with you.

What does a freelance book editor do?

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Most people’s jobs are a mystery to some extent. We may have an idea about what an accountant does, what a teacher does, what a plumber or a car mechanic does, but it’s usually just a rough overview of the basics. We’re mostly unaware of all the skills learnt and used; the day-to-day experience of actually doing the job.

There’s a certain glamour to saying you’re a book editor. People usually imagine you tucked up comfortably just reading a lot of lovely books with little idea of what we actually do. I’m not sure there’s much glamour in the freelance world of book editing, but when I was a full-time commissioning editor many years ago, well-known authors and personalities would come into my orbit and I have to admit to some excitement meeting many of them. As a freelancer such things are rare and mostly nowadays I don’t even meet – actually meet – the various editors and editorial assistants who contact me to offer work. Everything is done virtually via emails – they contact me about work which is sent either as a Word document for a copy-editing job or an Adobe PDF file for a set of proofs to correct.

I used to do a lot more reading work than I do now, though still occasionally manuscripts are sent for me to assess. I have to look at whether I think they’re good enough to be published, looking not only at how well written (or not!) they are but their commercial potential. A report requires not just a critical analysis of content and an assessment of how well it reads, but it’s important to offer constructive comments on how it might be improved, what work might need to be done before it would be seen as publishable.

Most of my work now is either copy-editing or proofreading. Let’s start with copy-editing as that stage comes earlier, though not first. The first stage ‘editing’, or ‘structural editing’, is usually done in-house – i.e. by the editor who has bought or commissioned the book. They will read it to see if more work needs to be done: perhaps it’s too long or too short; maybe some character or event in the book needs more clarity or expansion; maybe the main character needs to be expanded so we know more about them. In a book I worked on a few months’ ago a guy who’d appeared in an earlier book in the series had behaved badly. In the new book he was going to end up marrying a lovely central character and I said I thought the guy needed to be made nicer as the new book progressed or we wouldn’t want him marrying her!

Copy-editing a book involves not only correcting spelling and grammar but checking consistencies. If the book spans a few years, do people’s ages and years of events match up? As an editor you have to make notes and have a timeline to check against as you work. If real people or products, towns and cities, are mentioned, you need to check spelling. I just happened to find myself working on lots of thrillers featuring terrorists a while ago and had to keep checking the spelling of guns and weapons. I joked that if I was being ‘watched’ the terrorist squad would be at my door soon. You also have to check dates for historical events. To a certain extent it’s the author’s responsibility to make sure references to real people, places and events are correct, but as an editor you have to be ready to question anything that doesn’t sound right.

My age helps sometimes and I’m able to pick up things that a younger editor might easily miss, e.g. the current age at which you can claim your pension. I once years ago read a book set in Rome, which I know well, and immediately saw that a description of a major road in the centre of Rome was incorrect. Having walked along it many times, I knew it was very wide – not the narrow street described in the book. It turned out the author had relied on someone else for the description and had never actually been there.

Most of the books I work on have UK spelling but occasionally US, so I have to know or check some spellings which are different, like ‘kerb’ (UK) but ‘curb’ (US) for the pavement kind of kerb; a block of flats with five ‘storeys’ in UK, but ‘stories’ in US. As a copy-editor you make a style sheet and one will be sent to you for a proofread. Of course most spellings are standard but a few are down to choice or house style (i.e. the publisher’s preference). The important thing for the editor or proofreader is checking consistency, that the same spelling is used throughout.

A copy-editor also looks as ‘clunky’ sentences. I’m sure you know the kind of thing I mean, where a sentence is a bit too convoluted, unclear or simply goes on too long. You also look out for repetition – giving details in almost exactly the same way as earlier in the book.

I always read a book I’m copy-editing as a reader – someone who has bought the book – would do. I don’t skip to the end, I need to make sure everything makes sense as I go through, that things tie up and everything that needs to be explained – perhaps later in the story – is explained.

Once a book has been copy-edited and returned to the publisher, it’s usually looked at by the commissioning editor and the author. The author is given the chance to approve or not any changes; they will also look at and answer any queries.

Then the book is ready to go to the printer. The book is typeset and then sets of proofs made to be checked before actual printing.

As a proofreader you expect that most of the actual editing has been done in the earlier stages, but you might still question some repetition, a clunky sentence or note that some of the dates or events don’t match up. In essence you’re really checking for typos – errors that have occurred in the printing, but there will always be some ‘author’s errors’, things that have been missed at the copy-editing stage. Even an experienced copy-editor and proofreader won’t usually catch 100% of the mistakes and major books which are expected to be bestsellers are often sent to more than one proofreader, as well as being checked by the author.

I rarely work on a book that’s really awful as I work for major publishers and often the authors are well known or have had a number of books published already. Of course, they are not always books I’d actually buy to read for pleasure. This means I’m often working on books which are okay, and I’m happy enough working on them, but I wouldn’t have chosen to read. It also means though that I often find myself reading something I might not have chosen but really like, so it’s a nice surprise. The drawback, of course, to the books I don’t particularly like is that I have to read every word. But I’ve also found myself enjoying a read so much that I want to go on reading past my usual ‘stop work’ time but know I wouldn’t be able to sustain the concentration needed to do a good job for longer. The concentration required is for all described above but also includes things like noticing when a comma should be a full stop, or that a quote mark or apostrophe is the wrong way round – really minute detail. Both copy-editing and proofreading are jobs you can’t do non-stop for hours on end; you have to take regular breaks not just for your eyes but for your concentration. It’s not like working in an office where the day is usually a mix of things, with meetings and phone calls, chats with colleagues. Freelancing is truly head-down, high concentration stuff and over the many years I’ve been doing it, I’ve learnt of ways to break the day up and get a bit of light relief before I get back to the computer with full-on concentration again.

I’ve always loved reading, right from when I was a small child and reading my first books, so how lucky was I to find my way into work that enabled me to do something I’m passionate about.

Manuscript to Book: A Short Guide to the Book Publishing Process

A lot of my freelance book publishing work is copy-editing and proofreading. People often ask me what the difference is and so I thought it might be useful to guide you through the basic steps of a book journeying from manuscript to a published book. Of course, nowadays, your ‘manuscript’ will most likely be a ‘typescript’ – not many authors write by hand still! And mostly it’s typed on a computer and so you may automatically think of sending it as an email attachment to a potential publisher or agent. But it’s always wise to check out the requirements of different publishers and some will want an actual paper submission sent through the post. I’m going to write more about ‘submissions’ another time but for now, I’ll outline the basic steps.

Manuscript (or Typescript)

You’ve finished your work and it’s all ready for you to now find a publisher. It’s often easier to find an agent to act for you, but more of how to submit your work another time. So let’s move on to the point when your book is accepted by a publisher. This basic copy forms of the foundation of what will become a book. First of all, it will be read by the editor who commissioned or bought it. ‘Commission’ means they approached you to write it; ‘bought’ means it was sent to them by you direct or an agent.

Structural Editing

It’s most often – though not always – the commissioning editor who will read the manuscript first to decide whether any major changes or improvements are needed. ‘Structural’ is just what it says: does the structure of your book, the storyline, or maybe in a non-fiction book the way the information is put together, work well. The editor will identify things like a particular character needing more or less work – an important character who perhaps needs more depth and to be more strongly described; but perhaps you’ve given too much time to a minor character who then detracts from the main storyline and characters. An editor will perhaps get you to expand certain parts of the story but maybe suggests cuts for parts that are too long and affect the flow of the story, losing the reader’s attention. Once all the book is in good shape and you and the editor are happy, it will be passed to a copy-editor.

Copy-Editing

The copy-editor is concerned with correct and consistent spellings and good grammar. They will also look at the flow of the book, whether it reads well and may make basic rewriting suggestions – perhaps switching the order of words, adding or taking away odd words or sentences, expanding or rewriting something that isn’t clear or makes easy sense. They will check for consistency, and this includes things like keeping a track of time: e.g. if a character is, say, 20 at the beginning of the book and the story moves on 10 years, their age should be given as 30. Likewise relationships between characters: that an ‘uncle’ is always an uncle and not sometimes a ‘great uncle’. The copy-editor will check for repetition – whether you’ve already said something or described or explained something. They make sure any ‘facts’ are correct – historical dates, spellings of real people or places.

Once books were copy-edited by hand: paper copy with the changes marked in pencil. But now I always copy-edit on-screen – the book is sent by email and I edit it with track changes and comments for my queries, and it’s returned by email. At the end of the copy-editing process, the book should be in good order to go to the printer. The author (and commissioning editor) will get the chance to check through any changes though and answer any queries the copy-editor has had before the book goes for printing.

Design

The copy-edited book will now go to the Production Department for design. This can be a fairly simple process for perhaps a novel – what font and font size to be used; the general layout of the page, whether a new chapter always begins on the right-hand page, and ultimately the cover design. For a more complex or non-fiction title, the design will require a lot more creative thought.

Typesetting and Printing

The next step is to typeset the book – arrange the words on the pages; decide on the layout of special things like quotes of verse, letters or other text that is often indented or in italics. The book needs to be ‘set’ in just the way it will appear in the finished book. This is sometimes done at the printers or by a separate typesetter. Once the book is typeset then the printer will print off ‘page proofs’ or email them to the publisher.

Proofreading

I still receive proofs as paper copy, i.e. printed out on paper. Occasionally a quick job or short job, particularly on an e-book (one to only be published that way) may come via email and I proofread on-screen, but by far the majority of my proofreading work comes via the post as a large parcel of paper! I then proofread it with a red pen, blue pen and pencil to hand. Red pen is to mark printer’s errors – things that haven’t been printed exactly as they are on the copy-edited typescript (I will always have a copy of that to check against); blue pen marks errors missed by the copy-editor (there are invariably a few, though rarely many); pencil is for any queries I might have – sense, an unusual word  or spelling. Once I’ve finished, I will parcel it up and return to the publisher. Usually the author will receive a set of proofs too so they can check as well; an important or ‘big’ commercial title by a bestselling author may be proofread by more than one professional.

The Finished Book

The next thing of course is for the printer to print the book – print the pages and bind the book, either as a hardback or paperback. But publication isn’t just about the arrival of finished books at the publishers, it’s about marketing and PR, it’s about distribution to bookshops, etc. And often now an author will be expected (and want) to be involved in the PR with book signings, talks, etc.

This is a basic guide but hopefully helpful to you. Do let me know if you have any questions!