Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Exactly the Same. Only Different

Book publishing is a crazy game. Anyone who indulges should get their head examined.

Let me tell you what’s led me down this path today: there are two books in front of me. They are equal. In fact, if they had been published in different years, I would have thought one had inspired the other. But they were published within a few months of each other. There was no time for cross-pollination.

I’m currently reading one of them. There’s been a lot of buzz about Child 44 and it’s everything it’s been cracked up to be. And it’s been cracked up to be a lot. Everyone is taking about Tom Rob Smith’s first novel and they’re right: it’s a great book. Set in Russia during the early part of the Cold War, this is a view we’ve not seen often and with a tone and attitude we’ve arguably not seen at all.

I read the other book earlier this year and commented on it briefly in this space. Pavel & I is a debut novel by a fairly young author, Dan Vyleta. It is set in Berlin during the earliest part of the Cold War and, just about anything you want to say about Child 44 can be said about Pavel & I. The book is nuanced and practiced and intelligent and brave. It’s a thriller and it thrills. If anything, Pavel & I is a little more edgy than Child 44, a little more stylish, slightly more raw, but that might just be a matter of taste. The point is, these books have more in common than not. Both authors are youngish. Both went to Cambridge -- Smith graduating in 2001, Vyleta in 2002, but with a PhD. And, most importantly, both Vyleta and Smith have created complete and beautifully rendered fictions with their debut works.

Why then, with all these things being equal, have you probably heard of Child 44 and have probably not heard of Pavel & I? And that’s where the nuttiness of this business comes in. See, both books are well published -- in the United States, Child 44 is published by Grand Central, Pavel & I by Bloomsbury. Both are great houses with loads of cred, respect and other top authors in their stables. Rights for both books were sold internationally right out of the gate. And yet…

There is no moral to this story. No happy ending. Not even a solid question. I’ve chosen these two books for my example today -- Pavel & I and Child 44 -- because they’re right here and they’re what brought this to mind. However, it would not take much for me to dig back over the last five years and come up with example after example of very similar stories. Two equal books, one with a starkly different result than the other.

And both of these really are terrific books. But you don’t have to choose one over the other: read them both. If you liked Child 44, you will definitely love Pavel & I. Midway through 2008, and it’s still the best thing I’ve read all year.


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