As I’ve mentioned before, being in the bookstore world gets me invitations to parties where I get to mingle with other bookish sorts, eat and drink, and best of all meet authors in a cozy setting. Recently, HarperCollins hosted a soiree at Piperade (a longtime favorite San Francisco restaurant) with three of the writers topping their spring/summer list: Trent Dalton, Sadie Jones, and Sara Collins.
This was one of those “I’ve died and gone to heaven” evenings. I’ll restrain myself from gushing about the food. If you haven’t been to Piperade for ages or never been, drop everything and go now. Often in San Francisco the new flavor-of-the-month places get all the attention; Basque chef/owner Piperade has been steadily turning out some of the best food in the city for almost 20 years. He’s earned his accolades.
The three authors were a stellar bunch: Trent Dalton is an exuberant Aussie journalist with a background that provided such rich material for his debut novel that Sara Collins said she almost wishes her father had been a heroin addict, as Dalton’s was, to give her such enviable stuff with which to work. I haven’t read his Boy Swallows Universe yet but it’s racking up awards all over the place and it’s at the top of my list.
It was almost impossible to focus on Sadie Jones’s novel as she’s so stunning it’s distracting. The Snakes, her fourth novel, is a highly intelligent thriller about the corrosiveness of money, family cruelty, high minded principles, and deceit. I liked it a lot and intend to go back and read her earlier work.
The prize for me was Sara Collins, whose first novel is The Confessions of Frannie Langton. She introduced herself by saying she didn’t get down to writing her first novel until after she had raised five children and worked as a lawyer for 17 years. Wow. After doing that I’d just want to take a very long nap.
Collins is of Jamaican descent and Frannie’s story begins on a sugar planation in Jamaica where she’s a slave. Actually the novel starts as Frannie sits in jail in 19th-century London awaiting trial for a brutal double murder, and works its way back to Frannie’s coming of age. This is a Gothic tale that brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. It’s a story of race and class and oppression. It’s also the story of horrific work done in the name of science, in this case Frannie’s debauched master’s attempt to prove the inferiority of the African race.
What stood out for me was hearing Collins and even more so reading the book is how much she loves her main character. Frannie is smart; her first master’s wife teaches her to read and the book is chock full of references to the likes of Voltaire and Milton, which she shares with her opium-eating mistress and lover the tragic Marguerite. I came to love Frannie too for her inherent feminism, strength, humor and sheer aliveness during the course of this intriguing, compulsively readable books. Watch for it: it comes out in late May and I think it’s gonna be big.
In other news, I have a new column for the San Francisco Chronicle. On books! Imagine that. It debuts April 23 in the Datebook section and will run every other week. I’ll send you all links and you’re free to opt out if you wish. Better yet, subscribe to the Chronicle, digitally or get the real paper one. I, for one, don’t want newspapers to go away and the only way to ensure they stay around is to subscribe. And yes, it’s now in my own self-interest.