Value for money is a funny old thing. On the one hand if something is really cheap I tend to assume the phrase ‘and nasty’ follows – I buy stuff in Poundland and Primark but I wouldn’t expect to still be using it after a few months. The phrase ‘you get what you pay for’ leads me to value products which are well made and, well, reassuringly expensive as they say. But books? In terms of fiction, what is a reasonable price to pay for a hardback? How much should not having to wait six months to a year for the paperback cost? For many years the cost of hardback fiction has been creeping up – I recall an era of £14.99 being considered quite pricey and then prices increasing until a couple of years ago when I realised that £20 had become the norm. There was always the odd title sneaking in at a bargain £9.99 but they were sometime a bit, well, underwhelming. I refer you back to my worries about the phrase ‘cheap and nasty’. Recently, however, there seems to have been a spate of hardback fiction coming in at £12.99. I mean, loads of it, and on the whole it has been good stuff. Girl on the Train, Streets of Darkness and The Widow have been stacking up sales in the thriller department and are all by debut or relatively unknown authors but even established authors like Irvine Welsh, Anne Tyler and Haruki Murakami are out there at a price point which works out cheaper than a train ticket from Leeds to York. I seem to have a lot of customers who really like to get their favourite authors in hardback so I’m glad that they are now able to indulge themselves a bit less expensively.
My own personal latest £12.99 read is The Muse, the new novel by Jessie Burton, whose debut, The Miniaturist was a Waterstones Book of the Year in 2014 (and was similarly priced). This is another historical novel but, instead of 17th Century Amsterdam, the setting is Andalusia just at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and London, thirty years later, in 1967. In the 1930s the story concerns itself with Olive, a girl who wants to be a painter, and the extraordinary pictures she produces but feels unable to claim as her own. In the 60s we catch up with one of Olive’s paintings through Odelle, a young woman from Trinidad, who is working in a London gallery while trying to find the courage to be a writer. There are love stories, tragedies and friendships and, eventually, the mystery of the painting is solved (but never revealed). The plot is fairly complex but is satisfyingly put together and I felt emotionally involved with the main characters.
I particularly empathised with Olive and Odelle and with their creative efforts. Olive allows her work to be attributed to a young Spanish artist because she knows her art dealer father would think less of something painted by a woman (and by his daughter in particular). Odelle has a little more confidence – she is a very forthright young woman who has travelled halfway around the world alone – but we see the attitudes of the day towards black women and know that she has a tough time ahead. In fact even when she gets a story published in a literary magazine her name is spelled wrongly – the story is credited to Odell, rather than Odelle, Bastian: her father’s name. The role of women in art has, historically, been that of a muse, an inspiration. In this novel the women are the creators and the men they love are what inspires them to produce their art.