Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Man Like Any Other

Mary Cavanagh is an author who we've got to know and love since opening at the shop. But just in case you think we boost her books because she's a mate - you should go check out reviews from as far afield as The Big Green Bookshop, dovegreyreader and Ex Libris in the US. Last year we did an evening event with Mary and discussed her book The Crowded Bed in the shop - and we've watched with excitement and trepidation as Mary's new book - A Man Like Any Other - approached launch date. We were therefore delighted to welcome her back last week and have the chance to hear something about the book - and Mary's development as a writer.

Great first novels from writers with bags of potential are one thing - but the 'tricky second album' syndrome often means the next book is disappointing; it's as if the author got everything they wanted to say out into the open in the first book - and now they are simply going through the motions. What you want to see - as a fan - is the writer developing, keeping a firm hold on the style and themes that you liked in previous books, whilst showing ambition in terms of moving in new directions. A Man Like Any Other (or AMLAO as I'm already referring to it as) delivers on this last score. We think the book is fantastic - but, as I say, you might think we're biased so go read the cracking review that Miranda Stock has written on Oxford's Daily Info - the book is garnering plenty of rave reviews elsewhere. I was trying to think of exactly why I like Mary's writing. I think - and I can only speak personally - it comes down to how I got to where I am as a reader, and my shameful past of reading vast quantities of 'success literature'. Like any genre, there are the one or two great books, a few other good ones - and the rest also-rans which are usually fairly derivative. I think the good ones tell you something about the tools you need to achieve your goals, whereas the great ones tell you about the goals themselves. That covers the journey and the destination, but most success books tend to fall-down on the embarkation point, knowing who you are and where you are starting from. This is where great fiction steps in. Forget work-through exercises trying to identify your personality type, instead map yourself onto different characters in challenging situations and ask yourself questions: Would I have done that? Why does this feel wrong? Mary gets under the skin of her characters (particularly the men) in a way which is often discomforting - which usually indicates that there are truths lurking around nearby. Whilst the situations and plot twists may not always be strictly realistic, this is storytelling after all - and bold storytelling at that. Keeping the reader turning the page and teaching them a thing or two about life is not to be sniffed at; you often get one without the other. On Wednesday night Mary read from the book, and gave us some fascinating insights into the development of the main character. When Mary contributed a short story to the book The Sixpenny Debt, she imagined how the little boy in that story would have grown up, and the ain character in AMLOA is the result: Father McEwan. She also shared her journey in terms of getting the book published (which I won't go into here, but is at times as dramatic as her writing). Suffice to say it was an illuminating evening. A Man Like Any Other is published by Troubador - and it goes without saying that we have plenty of signed copies in the shop.

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