Ever since we read 'The Woman in Black' by Susan Hill for book group, and discussed how modern ghost stories seemed to be rare and unfashionable, I've discovered more and more new fiction exploring this genre. Is it because I wasn't looking before, or is there a new wave of paranormal writing? And has this arisen because of the huge interest in vampires having sprung from the 'Twilight' series for teenagers, or is there another reason? They say that detective fiction is particularly popular when times are hard because its rules and resolution are seen somehow as soothing and reassuring when real life seems out of control. Do ghost stories fulfil some similar yearning?
At this time of year there always seems to be a glut of films I want to see at the cinema. Apparently it is because we are leading up to the Oscars and these are the movies which are going to be in the most contention.
I'm having the same experience at the moment with new fiction - too much talented work being published and not enough time to appreciate it.
There are lists and lists of books we are being encouraged to read: the Costa prize winners, The TV Book Club, Richard and Judy, Waterstone's Debut 11 and Best Children's book, not to mention Open Book, A Good Read and various serialisations on Radio 4, and the World Book Night titles.
I like to keep up with all these recommendations, but the lists are now rather overwhelming. There's no hope of my reading through them all in addition to my own required and selected titles. I wish I could, though, because they genuinely look like interesting books, and I am still disappointed when a Browsers customer comments in shocked tones and wide eyes - 'what, you haven't read it? Oh, you must!'
Are the lists also a symptom of the demise of the bookshop, with the ousting of the need for a bookseller prepared to give a personal recommendation? In our own independent bookshop, will customers be interested in my comments and recommendations when they have so many other sources for 'a good read'?
I have just received my copy of 'The Bookseller' where the cover promotion highlights a book being published in April called 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops'.
Having had my share of misunderstandings and miscommunications in Browsers, this will undoubtedly touch a chord, not least because I wish I'd come up with the idea. I'll have to wait a few months to read the gems but I will use the interim to contemplate and collate my own experiences.
Just the other day a young woman came into the children's bookshop apologetically asking if I had a book called 'Normal is love in a silly shell'. "I've been given this title but it doesn't sound right," she said. Indeed it didn't but I thought perhaps it was a self-help tome and these often have quirky titles. I didn't want to quiz her too much initially as she was obviously quite embarrassed. But I had to ask her to repeat the title three times to be sure I had all the components correct for the search which wasn't offering anything along these lines. Eventually I heard her correctly. And the clue was that she had come into the children's bookshop: she was asking for 'Norman the Slug with a Silly Shell', a picture book by Sue Hendra.
A few days later, my colleague took a telephone query to source a 'Pastoral Bible'. She searched and searched and discovered a Pastoral Bible institute and foundation, and Catholic and Chinese versions, but no one edition to recommend to the customer. She decided to call the customer back to ask for more details. A couple of minutes into the conversation she started laughing - the customer was actually enquiring after a cookery book, 'The Pasta Bible'.
Publishers have always relied on booksellers to display, promote and recommend their titles. Today's technology, though, means the business is no longer about the physical book. According to Faber CEO, Stephen Page, it is instead about reading and writing. And the new task is to narrow the gap between the reader and the story.
Most book purchases have been mediated through another person, says Anobii CEO Matteo Berlucchi. The content is something people want to talk about and now publishers need to harness the conversation.
A recent conference on e-publishing speculated on what form this conversation will take. Perhaps the future will see readers offered rewards for finishing a book, it was suggested. And the big brand authors will be exploited to an unprecedented level. Publishers will need to work across every platform to reach the reader and to make the writer into something much more than they could be by themselves.
The possibilities are endless and, while exciting, also rather overwhelming. Where will we go for trusted recommendations? How will publishers overcome their commercial goals to enter into a valued relationship with the reader? What more do we want from the author and book? How will all this 'noise' of conversation sit with the personal, private and solitary act of engaging with a text, a story?
This year's Booker winner by Julian Barnes may have been a slim volume and much trumpeted by readers and reviewers, but I wasn't drawn to read it. It possessed, for me, a nondescript cover, and the blurb failed to capture my imagination. Only when the shop's last copy was passing through my hands did I think I should cut through my reservations and become better informed. I quickly skimmed through the opening pages before passing back to the customer. It didn't grip me so, when the book came back in stock, I still didn't read it.
A friend insisted I borrow her copy. It sat on my bedside pile for some days. Eventually I picked it up and was surprised to find those first few pages were more interesting this time round. Unfortunately, my enjoyment was shortlived.
I am never particularly drawn to the angst of a middle-aged, middle class man, and I didn't like any of the other characters either. The narrator reminded me of Engleby in the book by Sebastian Faulks. The reader never knew whether Engleby was telling the truth, nor did we know his motives or capability, and ultimately he proved a deeply troubling individual. Yet he was fascinating. Barnes's narrator left me feeling tainted, slightly dirty, irritated and rather bored by his preoccupations.
I'm concerned at my response to the book. I don't think I've seen anything negative written about it, and customers and friends seem to have enjoyed it tremendously. I'd read it again to be sure of my response - perhaps I just wasn't in a happy place when I was reading it - but there are so many other books I haven't tried...