Under the Reader’s Radar – celebrating the quiet novel

There are thousands upon thousands of books published each year. Only a small percentage of those make it to the best-seller list. That doesn’t mean that the rest aren’t worthy of reading. It may be that they are written by self-published authors who don’t have the marketing knowledge or a small independent publisher who doesn’t have the marketing budget to spread the word. Even the larger publishing houses have a limited marketing and publicity budget so can’t promote all the novels they publish to an equal degree.

So in each post I’ll aim to highlight a couple of titles that may have been missed from your reading awareness. Hopefully you’ll discover a treat or two. And please do let me know if you have any books you’d like to suggest.

The first suggestion is from Matt Cook, who’s book Life on Other Planets was published by Lendel Press on 10 June 2021. His pick was The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington, published by Penguin on 29 September 2005.

One of the first things ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby overhears when she is given an ornate hearing trumpet is her family plotting to commit her to an institution. Soon, she finds herself trapped in a sinister retirement home, where the elderly must inhabit buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes, endure twisted religious preaching and eat in a canteen overlooked by the mysterious portrait of a leering Abbess. But when another resident secretly hands Marian a book recounding the life of the Abbess, a joyous and brilliantly surreal adventure begins to unfold. Written in the early 1960s, The Hearing Trumpet remains one of the most original and inspirational of all fantastic novels.

Here’s what he had to say:

“Written in the early 60s and published in the early 70s, it’s available as a Penguin modern classic (with disturbing pen illustrations) but not that many people know it, as far as I can tell. Carrington’s life story is incredible. She was a 19-year-old debutante who ran away to join the surrealists in the 30s. Her paintings are extraordinary, and so are the stories of the things she used to do – like serving guests an omelette for breakfast that had hair in it. Hair she had cut from their own heads while they were asleep.

The Hearing Trumpet is about a 92-year-old lady, Marian Leatherby, who is given an ornate hearing trumpet as a birthday gift. The first time she uses it she hears her family plotting to have her committed to an institution. It’s a black comedy (the best kind), and basically a surreal, mystical adventure as she goes to this horrible retirement home where many things prove to be not as they seem – all written in very matter of fact prose. It’s a gem.”

The second suggestion comes from Josh Cohen. His book, How to Live. What to Do, was published by Ebury on 11 February 2021.

He selected Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle, published by Myriad Editions on 14 May 2020.

Before the devastating ‘loss of her marbles’, Mrs Royle, a nurse by profession, is a marvellously no-nonsense character, an autodidact who reads widely and voraciously – from Trollope to Woolf, Tennyson to Foucault – swears at her fox-hunting neighbours, and instils in the young Nick a love of reading and of wildlife that will form his character and his career.

In this touching, funny and beautifully written portrait of family life, mother-son relationships and bereavement, Nicholas Royle captures the spirit of post-war parenting as well as of his mother whose dementia and death were triggered by the tragedy of losing her other son – Royle’s younger brother – to cancer in his twenties.

At once poetic and philosophical, this extraordinary memoir is also a powerful reflection on climate crisis and ‘mother nature’, on literature and life writing, on human and non-human animals, and on the links between the maternal and memory itself.

Here’s what he had to say:

“Nicholas Royle’s beautiful Mother: A Memoir, a portrait of his late mother which is also a lyrical meditation on love, memory, writing and the climate crisis. It’s that rare thing, a book of subtle and elusive ideas which is also a great pleasure to read. It deserves a much wider readership.”

Yet again two more books that had passed me by. Have you read them? Do you have a quiet book you’d like to shout about? Do let me know.

You can find both of these books on the Under the Reader’s Radar list on Bookshop.Org (an affiliate link, I may get a few pence of you buy from there).

7 Comments Add yours

  1. The Hearing Trumpet is amazing, I agree! Almost semi-autobiographical and Carrington’s own surrealist paintings are also worth exploring too! There is one book I’ve recently added to my TBR shelf: Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art by Susan Aberth.


  2. Lovely pairing here, Janet! I read the Carrington some years ago and recall it starts out fairly straightforwardly and ends up totally bonkers – but quite brilliant!! As for the Royle, having just loved his latest book I need to look out for this one! 😀


  3. Both of these sound wonderful! I’ve never read Carrington though I keep meaning to.


  4. heavenali says:

    Leonora Carrington is definitely someone who is on my radar. Not sure why I haven’t read her. The Hearing Trumpet sounds right up my street, Marian Leatherby sounds like a fabulous creation.


  5. JacquiWine says:

    Like Madame Bibi, I’ve often thought about trying The Hearing Trumpet, so I ought to pick it up at some point. Carrington’s art is wonderful. There was a spectacular exhibition of her work at the Tate Liverpool a couple of years ago, but sadly it was just a little too far away for those of us in the South East.


  6. Very keen to read this one Janet.


  7. BookerTalk says:

    This is a good idea, there are so often times when you wonder why a certain book didn’t get much more attention. I suspect part of the issue is that they are produced by small independent companies who don’t have big marketing budgets.


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