Friday, June 01, 2012

You can't judge a book by its cover

Writing matters... of course. But no author in pursuit of readers can ignore the importance of his book's cover. The writer Craig Mode is worried that covers are an endangered species as e-books account for an increasing proportion of sales. He worries in a lengthy article that the browsing experience and even the reading experience is suffering, although he also has some optimism with regard to possible future developments.

"And so we don’t want the cover to disappear. And yet the cover as we have known it is disappearing, rather quickly (nearly eradicated on hardware Kindles). This doesn’t mean it won’t be replaced. Whatever it’s replaced with, however, will not serve the same purpose as the covers with which we’ve grown up."

And so my Kindle does not unfortunately display the cover of Alexander McNabb's 'Olives' the book he has finally successfully self-published after years of travail and frustration. And this after all the trouble he took to get the artwork just right.

And so let's just accept for now that the writing matters most of all.

* * * * *

McNabb's olives languish on trees that grow on land the Palestinian owner is forced to neglect; it is on the wrong side of the Israeli wall. The setting of the novel is unhappy terrain, Jordan and the West Bank. The story ends... as it surely must... on a sad note.

Happily the storytelling and plotting is proficient, the characters without exception clearly drawn and the pace... with only rare lapses... consistent.

A perfectly satisfactory thriller, then, which any fan of the genre will enjoy? I wonder.

For me it was perfect, for I have visited Amman, found the city amazing and enjoyed the comfort of Starwood's Sheraton at the 5th Circle.

From the Mövenpick resort, featured in the book's climax, I watched the sun set over the Dead Sea with the horizon taken up by the West Bank. I even saw and wondered at the sign pointing visitors to the Christian baptismal site. That even this superficial familiarity with the setting of 'Olives' made the book for me that much more enjoyable is hardly surprising.

It is also true that my pleasure in reading Ian Rankin's novels is enhanced by my own recollections of Edinburgh. But can the troubled Middle East be accepted as a propitious setting for popular fiction by those who have never ventured far from the Middle West... or the Home Counties?

It is not impossible. I would never have predicted that so many readers worldwide have warmed to the storytelling arena which is cold Scandinavia.

'Olives' has no single villain. But neither are any of the protagonists wearing immaculate white hats. The central character, Paul, is gullible, flawed and conflicted. He has the added disadvantage of being... like the author and this reader... a Brit. And was it not the hubris, the arrogance, the ignorance and the sloth of British envoys a century ago which paved the way for the anguished surreality which Araby has become today?

Central to Alexander McNabb's next novel, 'Beirut', is the compellingly awful spymaster who in 'Olives' is almost completely without redeeming qualities. It promises again to be a great read which will not have a happy ending.

Yalla, habibi!

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