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Books, London

Blog Anniversary Competition (now closed)


*Update – see below for WinnersCongratulations to the lucky entrants picked at random and to everyone who took the time to enter.  The nominations were so fascinating that I’ve decided to write a post about them next week, so look out for that.*

It’s a lonely road sometimes when you’re a ‘writer waiting to happen’ (as one lovely person called me yesterday, you know who you are). I love writing and am very lucky to have a great support network, but there are still times when I feel I’m talking into a cupboard. It just happens a lot less since I started this blog exactly a year ago.

Until I came up with the snappier On the Literary Sofa, the blog was called Books, Places, Life, and although I had no idea what I was doing when I set it up, it is about those things.

I reflect on LIFE in its Up and Down phases – it seems you know the feeling(s)

I talk about ‘my’ PLACES – and you tell me about yours

But above all, what we do here is talk BOOKS

I must be doing something right. The point is, you read it, and that makes any writer happy. By some extraordinary stroke of synchronicity, the hits counter passed the 20,000 mark today. 20,000! I am thrilled and completely amazed – I certainly couldn’t have foreseen that a year ago. Once again, a huge thank you to everyone who reads and supports On the Literary Sofa and to the talented authors who write books that are worth discussing.

So to celebrate, I’m running a competition. The main prize is on me, and for the impressive selection of book prizes I am very grateful to publishers Simon & Schuster UK, Bloomsbury and Penguin UK, and authors Roger Morris, Miranda France and Voula Grand – thank you all very much.

First Prize – Let’s Do Lunch!

The winner gets to join me for lunch in Central London to talk books on a mutually convenient date – somewhere nice like Villandry or Le Deuxième. Don’t let the talking books thing put you off – I have been known to engage in other topics of conversation such as travel, food, art, films – most things in fact except sport and politics. Clear your diary for the afternoon – my last bookish lunch lasted 4 hours, and there wasn’t even any alcohol involved!


The First Prize of a Literary Lunch in London was won by Claire Snook, a writer based in Bristol.  I’m really looking forward to meeting Claire who sounds like a great person to talk books with!

(BTW I was touched/relieved/surprised that so many entrants were keen to have lunch with me and I would have loved meeting/seeing all of you.  We can still have lunch perhaps, but you’ll have to pay your way!)

Book Prizes

A pack of 4 Simon & Schuster titles I’ve featured On The Literary Sofa: The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood, The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (all reviewed here) and The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace – won by Vanessa Savage

Bloomsbury have also generously offered 4 titles, this time as individual prizes:

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk – newly published and already attracting huge buzz. – won by Louise Walters

Canada by Richard Ford – my answer to the question you have to answer for the competition. – won by Sarah Hegarty

Rook by Jane Rusbridge – stunning ‘accessible literary fiction’, by a favourite author I recently had the pleasure of interviewing at the Ham & High Literary Festival – won by Tricia Wombell

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar – by Suzanne Joinson – one of my Top Summer Reads – won by Susan Elliot-Wright

Penguin UK are giving a copy of Zadie Smith’s new London novel NW which I reviewed this week – won by Helen Mackinven

Roger Morris has given two signed copies of A Gentle Axe, the first title in his St Petersburg historical crime series featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the detective from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. won by Ben Blackman and Caroline Auckland

Miranda France will send one winner a signed copy of her novel That Summer at Hill Farm, also one of my Top Summer Reads – won by Kristin Celms

Voula Grand will sign and send a copy of Honor’s Shadow, her psychological drama about secrets, betrayal and revenge – won by Jackie Buxton

Could all winners who are on Twitter please DM me their postal address.  I will contact anyone else by email later today.


Lloyd Shepherd will be my Guest Author On the Literary Sofa as his debut The English Monster is released in paperback in the UK. I hope he’s feeling talkative on the subject of his second novel, which will be published next year.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


30 thoughts on “Blog Anniversary Competition (now closed)

  1. Thank you for the giveaway! And congrats! 🙂

    My favorite book uptil now is “Wolf Hall” (and its sequel as well) by Hilary Mantel. I love the Tudor period. Even though I really dislike Thomas Cromwell, I loved how the author brought him to life – I loved his depiction as a more complex person than merely a monster.


    Posted by misha1989 | September 19, 2012, 16:09
  2. An impossible question, however I’m going to nominate ‘Started Early Took My Dog’ by Kate Atkinson. I really enjoy her light touch, sly humour and clever plotting. Part of the fun of this particular outing for her laconic hero Jackson Brodie is how Atkinson subverts so many of the ‘rules’ of plotting – a ridiculous number of coincidences and unsolved narrative strands – while still creating a satisfying whole. And who could resist the idea of a world run with the warmth of efficiency of Betty’s tea rooms, with cake and cream teas for all?

    Posted by rowena | September 19, 2012, 18:26
  3. Ooh I love competitions, so I’m going to enter with my favourite read of the year, which is Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a small but perfectly formed literary masterpiece, bizarre, funny and tragic. A unique novel.

    Posted by Louise | September 19, 2012, 21:28
  4. It took me ages to choose but, after much dithering, I am going to opt for ‘Hurry Up and Wait’ by Isabel Ashdown. The characters were really real and as it was a coming of age story set in a small town in the 1980s it really resonated with me. Also, it was the first book this year to make me cry – always a winner in my book! Here’s hoping I win lunch 🙂

    Posted by Amanda Saint (@saintlywriter) | September 20, 2012, 07:14
  5. I’ll leave it up to you if you put me into the competition (after all, we’ve already had lunch in London!), but I wanted to comment with my favorite book of the year thus far, and that is ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan. I was hooked by the writing from the start. Each section is from a different character’s point of view, with changes in place and time, and it works seamlessly. She is a masterful writer.

    Posted by Kristin | September 20, 2012, 08:40
  6. My favourite book of this year (i.e. 21.9.11 – 20.912) was “Must Have – the hidden instincts behind everything we buy” by Geoffrey Miller (Vintage paperback, 2010).

    It is a remarkable fact that we buy stuff (physical objects as well as status objects, such as education) which is very often extraordinarily expensive, impractical, inefficient and wasteful in terms of the utilitarian purposes for which they are, ostensibly, bought. Marketers generally know this and exploit this phenomenon, but their understanding is too crude, argues Miller. The idea of “conspicuous consumption” as a sociological concept goes of course back to the 19th century when Veblen originally studied it.
    Miller, however, offers an evolutionary-psychology analysis of consumerism (don’t be put off by this jargon, it is fun!). The basic idea is that our purchases are fitness signals to others. These fitness signals advertise basic character traits as well as socio-economic status to potential mates for procreation and for social interaction generally. So far nothing too startling, but the evolutionary psychologist is interested in biologically evolved behaviour, and therefore also looks at other animals’ signalling to explain ours.
    Animals’ signalling is often also remarkably inefficient and wasteful in terms of time, energy and effort – the male peacock’s tail is of course the classic example, but all sorts of other animal mating rituals are equally wasteful (excessively elaborate birds song, for example), and therefore, on the face of it, diminish the animal’s efficient functioning and hence its survival chances. Much of such behaviour is biologically evolved, not socially learned. (You can’t teach an animal to grow a fancy tail!). Evolutionary psycology has come up with a delightful concept to explain the phenomenon: “costly signalling theory”. If we, including other animals, find sending the optimum signal too demanding in terms of time, effort and energy (or also money, in the human case) we try to fake it. How can you be sure when another member of your species sends you apparently very high quality mating fitness signals that those signals are not fake? (a fake Rolex, a French chateau bought with the proceeds of crime, a borrowed sports car, a public school and Oxbridge education covering up a psychopathic personality ….).
    Non-humans first solved the problem by devising signals which cannot be faked, for trying to fake them convincingly would cost just as much as the real thing, and their very high fake-resistant cost is precisely their functional inefficiency. The male peacock’s tail is again the obvious example.
    In the world of human shopping, we tend to buy stuff as substitutes for more authentic signals which are much more costly in terms of time, mental and emotional effort. Sometimes we are aware if this, sometimes we are not. Marketers, novelists, playwrights and charity fundraisers know this instinctively, but Miller closely analyses the signals themselves, (which we generally never do ourselves and which are often no quite what we think they are) and demonstrates how, typically, the stuff we buy is not very good at signalling what we really hope to signal. You can have hours of fun – or secret embarrassment – if you look at your own and other’s procurement of stuff in this way. “Darwin in the shopping mall”, as Miller put it.

    Posted by Tom Voute | September 20, 2012, 14:31
  7. Congratulations on a wonderful first year in blogging, Isabel. 20,000 hits is no mean feat! I really enjoy your blog and you take such great care over your reviews it deserves every bit of its success.

    I really don’t know if I can choose one favourite. I started commenting last night but gave up because I was dithering between three books. Will I be in trouble if I name them all? OK, the first may not be allowed anyway as I do know the lovely author and was lucky enough to see sneak passages before it went to press – so perhaps I’ll mention this one but eliminate it from my shortlist. It’s Rook by Jane Rusbridge. It’s quite simply, beautifully written, so much so that I had to keep re-reading passages because they made me gasp. The ending is excellent and the characterisation of a pet bird, Rook is so well done. I can’t bear birds in captivity and even I was marvelling at the picture of it pecking at bits of food from main character, Nora’s hand.

    The second is Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson and I’m smiling as I write that as I know it’s an absolute ‘Marmite’ book. I didn’t read it as a thriller more as a drama about the main character’s horrific situation, fearing that the person she is totally reliant upon for her existance may actually be doing her harm. How on earth does she get herself out of this situation without being able to remember any plans she’s made from the day before? The whole concept of memory loss fascinated me too. People say the plot has holes, which I suspect it has because it’s such a difficult framework, but I think I was too lost in the concept to notice.

    The third, and perhaps this is my winner, is Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. I wanted to take 15 year old Esch home and give her a hug. She’s pregnant, her mother is dead and her father isn’t taking his parental duties quite seriously enough and we just don’t know what is going to happen after the hurricaine hits. She’s a wonderfully drawn, feisty yet naive, character living in a world light years away from my own. Again, Ward’s imagery is beautiful.

    Is that enough for you to be going on with??

    Posted by Jackie Buxton | September 20, 2012, 14:35
  8. I adored Marian Keyes’ Mystery of Mercy Close, just as I knew I would. The combination of feminism and current politics wrapped up in such a story – absolutely marvellous. She really knows how to express herself via writing – her own personal issues are explored in a strong by non-preachy way. Wonderful

    Posted by cathbore | September 20, 2012, 20:26
  9. For me, it’s definitely ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn. I haven’t read anything else like it all year. It was really unsettling but so gripping I had to keep reading. The twist half way through is excellent. Aside from the crime/psychological thriller aspect, it’s a really skillful study of how relationships go wrong and the way in which a couple can interpret the same situation in very different ways

    Posted by Sarah | September 20, 2012, 22:56
  10. I’m picking Surface Detail by Iain M Banks: “All you could ask for in a space opera” is the quote from The Times on the cover, and if you want to read a 600+ page space opera (I do) then that’s absolutely spot on. That pick is sticking with the strict criterion that I read it this year.

    However, since Tom Voute above has taken the year as September to September I’m adding in a brief mention for my favourite writer, Russell Hoban, who died last December, although I’ve already read all his adult novels. If I had to pick one, I’d go for The Bat Tattoo, for its lovely opening page set on the steps of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

    Posted by Catherine | September 21, 2012, 17:35
  11. Nicole Krauss – Great House.

    Beautiful and lyrical rendering of the inner lives of the characters. One example: “We move through the day like two hands of a clock; sometimes we overlap for a moment, then come apart again, carrying on alone.”

    She makes me feel that to be a better writer I need to be a bit more ‘New York’ and a lot more Jewish!

    Posted by Barry Walsh | September 22, 2012, 12:50
  12. Hi Isabel, my best read of the past year has been Shantaram, by Gregory david Roberts.
    I’ve read it through three times now and still it gathers me up and and pulls me in.

    It’s a part autobiographical novel written by a convicted Austrailian armed robber.
    He escapes the high security prison and flees the country, stopping over in India.
    Finding himself drawn to the people he stays, living for a time in the slums.

    The circumstances it was written in are incredible, almost unbelievable.
    The characters he creates and the vividness of the situations, combined with his quite surprising personal insights and wider observations, make a genuinely unstoppable read.
    One evening spent getting to know it and you will find yourself rushing back time and again to fill the void.
    I hope you enjoy this epic personal adventure as much as I did,

    Posted by Murray Begg | September 23, 2012, 10:37
  13. Hi Isabel, great idea! And congratulations on your blog success.
    Well – there’s only one book it can be! I re-read it this year – and like you I rarely re-read books – and it was as fresh, different and gripping as when I first read it nearly 20 years ago. It takes the reader from freezing Copenhagen to the Arctic circle, in the company of a bloody-minded Greenlander, a physicist – and a woman! – determined to solve the mystery of a young boy’s apparently random death. Along the way you learn about physics, the experience of the Greenlandic underclass in Denmark – and some great words for snow!
    Guessed it yet? ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow’ by Peter Hoeg. Beautifully written, atmospheric and tense. The original Scandinavian literary thriller – before that particular pigeonhole was dreamt up….

    Posted by sarahhegarty | September 23, 2012, 13:10
  14. Absolutely loved John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The big question of ‘Why?’ simmers quietly in the background and never goes away. I don’t normally like a last-minute ‘Aha!’ but in this case it was a very satisfying end. Planning to reread, partly for the great writing and story, and to see how it’s different once you know the secret.

    Posted by Jacqueline Pye | September 23, 2012, 13:41
  15. Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is my nomination. I recently read it for the third time. Each time I read it, i find new meanings and deeper subtleties. It’s such a short book, yet is so provocative and sad. A book to read over and over….

    Posted by voulagrand | September 23, 2012, 20:27
  16. I’ve really found it difficult to choose, but after considering the impact that each book has had on me, I’ve decided to go for Archipelago, by Monique Roffey. It’s an incredibly moving story of a bereaved man and his 6-year-old daughter who leave home and take to the high seas after a devastating flood sweeps through their home in Trinidad. They confront the power and treachery of nature, but they also discover its wonder and beauty. The writing is both simple and exquisite, the observations acute and deeply affecting. Just possible the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.

    Well done and congratulations on this wonderful blog!!

    Posted by Susan Elliot Wright | September 24, 2012, 12:37
  17. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is as good as the movie is bad. Incredible prose, both incredibly tender and cruel, and so knowing. It’s one of those books that never really leaves you.

    Posted by Amber | September 25, 2012, 16:36
  18. Congratulations on your blogversary! I’ve enjoyed so many books this past year that it’s really hard to whittle it down to just one but I think The Devil’s Music by Jane Rusbridge is up there. It’s set in a place I know and love (West Sussex), the imagery throughout is beautiful, I adore the way each chapter is illustrated with a hand drawn knot and the whole metaphor of knots within the story. On top of that, she manages to interweave three different points of view, and one of the narrators is a young boy and she manages to write from his POV so convincingly which is so hard to do well, I think. I have thought about it a lot since finishing – always the sign of a good one!

    Posted by alison | September 26, 2012, 11:40
  19. Happy birthday blog! I’ve read a wide range of books over the last year, mainly due to the set reading list from my MLItt course. Some I’ve enjoyed more than others and by the end of the course I just wanted something a bit lighter in tone. After initially discounting Me Before You by Jojo Moyes because of the pink girly cover and assuming that it was chick lit, I fought my book snobbery to give it a go based on great reviews. Wow, talk about never judging a book by its cover! This was an engaging tale of a relationship between an unlikely pair and dealt with the issue of the right to die very sensitively. I would highly recommend it but stock up on hankies first!

    Posted by helenmackinven | September 27, 2012, 10:57
  20. Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson, because this is one of the most beautiful books I have read in a long time. The prose is highly stylistic and reminiscent of the Scandinavian legends of old with heroes fighting for survival against terrible odds. It verges on the poetic, especially with the descriptions of places. It tells the story of a group of Icelandic fishermen in the nineteenth century, who go out most days in terrible conditions to fish. Told from the perspective of a teenage boy, he soon realises he’s not cut out for the fisherman life and bonds with another man called Barður over their love of literature. You have to read this for the images he creates, they stick in your head for days afterwards.

    Posted by Claire | September 27, 2012, 11:29
  21. Hi – the book I’ve enjoyed reading most this year was ‘The Maples Stories’ by John Updike. I read it on the way to the John Updike Society (http://blogs.iwu.edu/johnupdikesociety/) conference in Boston, Mass. The book fictionalises the break up of Updike’s first marriage and his, fictionalised, 1st wife and four children appear in the stories. The beautiful writing in the book was coupled with the thrill of meeting the real wife and children at the conference and being allowed to visit the house where the stories were set.

    Best wishes to all who love reading and the heft of a book.

    Posted by Andrew Moorhouse | September 27, 2012, 11:58
  22. Hi – definitely Gillespie and I by Jane Harris. The voice of the narrator was so strong I felt she was right next to me. I loved the fact that it took me by surprise and turned into a darker, different kind of book to the one I was expecting. Felt excited to read it every day but also didn’t want it to end, so I eked it out, like a lovely dessert.

    Posted by Eleni Kyriacou | September 27, 2012, 13:59
  23. I couldn’t decide between two books (well, three actually – I LOVED Me Before You by Jojo Moyes but it’s already been mentioned above) so I’ll say both of them – The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall, both for the gorgeous writing and beautiful, evocative language.

    Posted by Vanessa Savage | September 27, 2012, 19:15
  24. My favourite read of the year so far has been Soonchild, by Russell Hoban. This is a beautiful, funny and moving collage of narrative, characterisation, myth and illustration, technically for children but of enormous value to readers of any age.

    Posted by David Birkett | September 27, 2012, 22:26
  25. The book I loved the most this year was ‘Damage’ by Josephine Hart. I read this in almost one sitting, or rather one lie-in. Through the night to be precise. When Martyn and Martyn’s Father and Anna meet on the stairway, I woke my husband up with my ‘NO’. I had to read it to the end and then sat in bed, staring into space with tears falling down my face. I was bereft.
    Then I had to write blog about it- it had moved me so much. Three people at work read it after me as I couldn’t stop talking about it.

    Posted by Caroline Auckland | September 27, 2012, 22:58
  26. To choose only one? That is so difficult. This is the one that is on my mind, I read Junot Diaz’s This is How you Lose Her on holiday last week and don’t understand how I’ve missed his earlier work. The writing is brilliant, the subject though largely love stories, tough and complex. I’ve bought all his other books since getting back, which I know is a bit of a teenager’s thing to do, but I am looking forward to seeing how his work evolved.

    Posted by Tricia | September 27, 2012, 23:29
  27. The book I most enjoyed reading this year was (is?) Fibber in the Heat by Miles Jupp. A wonderful account of a man (Archie from Ballamory no less) searching for something to love, and finding that ‘the dream’ is not always what you think it would be. Maybe the grass isn’t always greener but it has taught me to get off your bum and make something happen regardless. Beautiful, extremely funny and inspiring. And all this, about a tour of India, pretending to be a cricket journalist!
    Pick me, pick me, I want to win the competition. This book is great and I’m so good at eating lunch and talking it’d just be a shame to miss out.
    Ben Blackman

    Posted by benmblackman | September 28, 2012, 07:40

    Posted by Isabel Costello | October 1, 2012, 12:04

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