On Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I indulged in a bit of literary nostalgia – going back to 1996! 1996 was an interesting year (for good and bad reasons)… football was coming home (for the first time), Manchester suffered a devastating IRA bomb in the city centre, and it looked like The Sun was on the verge of backing the Labour Party for the first time. Oh, and I finished my A-Levels and left college!
For those of us of a certain age, 1996 feels like a bit of a landmark year, so I thought it would be interesting (given, you know, 2020 and stuff) to see how the world of fiction looked in ’96. Rather than picking (necessarily) the best-selling books, I’ve chosen a mixture of iconic titles and stories that capture that specifically mid-90s vibe.
Do you agree with my choices? Have I missed out your favourite? Let me know in the comments!
Alias Grace is a fictionalized version of the real-life (such as is known) story of the murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada in 1843. Two servants, Grace Marks and James McDermott were convicted of the murders (McDermott was hanged and Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment), and Atwood’s novel focuses on the story of Grace Marks and the question mark over her level of involvement in the murders. Atwood was inspired by the historical account in Susanna Moodie’s book Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush, but weaves this into a narrative with a fictional doctor, Simon Jordan, who is researching the case.
The story begins with Grace, the convicted (and notorious) murderess, being hired out from prison as a domestic servant to the Governor of the penitentiary. Members of the Methodist church (including the minister) are hoping to see Grace pardoned and released, believing that she is suffering from hysteria. The minister asks Dr Jordan, a psychiatrist, to interview her, hoping that he will conclude she is mentally ill, rather than a criminal. As Dr Jordan begins his interviews with Grace, she decides to tell him her life story, including things that happened in childhood and on her traumatic passage from Ireland. She also tells him of her friendship with Mary Whitney, of her meeting with James McDermott, and her relationship with Nancy Montgomery (and Nancy’s relationship with Thomas Kinnear). Dr Jordan is somewhat impatient with her story at first, as he wants to focus on the events of the murder, but Grace’s story draws both him and the reader in, revealing that this is a book about a woman’s life, not just a violent crime.
Alias Grace was adapted as a miniseries for TV in 2017, with Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks and Edward Holcroft as Dr Simon Jordan.
I chose the next book on today’s list because I felt like it captures a particular mid-90s concern. Not that the concern has gone away, of course, but this 90s iteration is like a precursor to the current climate. I’m talking about anxieties around press ownership and impartiality, and the role media empires play in influencing political and social change.
Archer’s novel tells the story of two media barons. One of these is Lubji Hoch, the son of an illiterate Czech Jewish peasant, who escapes the Nazis, changes his name to Richard Armstrong and becomes an officer in the British Army. After WWII, Hoch (now Armstrong) is posted to Berlin and ends up acquiring his first newspaper – and from here he begins to builds a publishing empire. The novel’s other central character is Keith Townsend, the son of an Australian millionaire and newspaper owner. Townsend is groomed as his father’s successor from childhood, being educated at private school and Oxford, and then given a position at a London newspaper – and from there he becomes the leading newspaper publisher in Australia. Armstrong and Townsend become fierce competitors – but will there be tragic consequences?
As the story is based on two real-life media barons – Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch – we, perhaps, might know the answer to that. In reality, Murdoch bought The Sun, News of the World and later Times Newspapers Ltd, and Maxwell bought the Daily Mirror its group. Archer’s novel was written and published after Maxwell’s death, but it reflects back on the period in the 1980s when the two men’s empires dominate newspaper publising. The novel’s title refers to the concept of the ‘fourth estate’: the press is meant to serve as a watch on other three estates (Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal and Commons). But, as we were beginning to seriously ask in the mid-90s: who will watch the watchmen?
In a similar way to The Fourth Estate, Elton’s Popcorn reflects a very current anxiety of the mid-90s – which hasn’t really gone away. It’s a book about violence in popular culture, and the worry that representations of violence can encourage people to act in violent (even murderous) ways. It shares this concern with other 90s texts, particularly Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
Popcorn is set in L.A. (mostly Hollywood), in the unspecified near future. It’s the story of Bruce Delamitri, who makes violent films and is constantly called to defend against the claim that his films make violence look cool. Unfortunately, Delamitri’s defence is weakened when Wayne and Scout, two psychopaths known as the ‘Mall Murderers’, hatch a plan to hold him hostage and make him publicly announce that his films are responsible for their crimes. The novel build to a climactic siege at Delamitri’s house, with Wayne making a bold offer to the watching audience. Arguably, the commentary in Popcorn is even more pointed than in Natural Born Killers, with some direct discussion of personal responsibility and what a ‘blame free society’ might mean. The last line of the book is pretty direct in this respect!
The book wasn’t made into a film, but Elton adapted it into a play in 1998.
This next book, though, was most definitely made into a film! Fielding’s wildly successful second novel (based on a column she had been writing for The Independent) was published in hardback in 1996 – though, admittedly, the real success came the following year with the release of the paperback edition. It’s credited with kickstarting the boom in chick lit.
Bridget Jones’s Diary is, in essence, an epistolary novel – as the title suggests, it’s written in the form of a diary, and the story is told through twelve chapters (one for each month), beginning with a list of New Year’s resolutions. Bridget lists her intended calories intake, alcohol consumption, weight loss and personal goals, and then each subsequent chapter notes how well she’s done that month. In many ways, this personal critique and impossible ambition to be ‘good’ was the book’s defining feature – but in other ways, it was the romantic storyline that characterized it. Bridget meets a man named Mark Darcy, a wealthy lawyer that her parents like, but she’s not initially enthused. Instead, she ends up dating her boss Daniel Cleaver, who’s charming but unreliable. Will Bridget choose the right man? Or should she focus on her career? Will she finally reach her ideal dress size? (These are the questions that kept readers hooked.
I probably don’t need to say that Bridget Jones’s Diary was adapted into a film in 2001, starring Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. Fielding wrote two sequels to her original novel: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (1999) and Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy (2013).
The next book on my list is also well-known from its film adaptation – though note, the book’s title has a sneaky definite article that was dropped for the film. I must admit a slightly unorthodox reason for including this title on the list – I’ve added it because I do really love the film!
Grisham’s novel, as you might expect, is set in the world of the courtroom. Celeste Wood, whose husband has died of lung cancer, has filed a suit against a tobacco company, Pynex. She’s hired lawyer Wendall Rohr and his team, who has decided that the trial should be held in Biloxi, Mississippi, because they believe that state has favourable tort laws and sympathetic juries. But it’s going to take more than that for Rohr to win the case… various parties are acting behind the scenes to influence the outcome. First up, there’s ‘stealth juror’ Nicholas Easter, who’s plotting something with a woman called Marlee. And then there’s Rankin Fitch, some sort of consultant who ‘directs’ trials, and has a good track record of getting the tobacco industry off the hook in similar trials. Fitch’s brand of ‘consultancy’ involves rigging and manipulating the jury through blackmail and bribery. Will he be able to deliver the verdict Pynex wants? And what result do Easter and Marlee want?
The book was adapted (without the ‘the’) into a film in 2003, which starred John Cusack as Nick Easter, Gene Hackman as Rankin Fitch, Dustin Hoffman as Wendell Rohr, and Rachel Weisz as Marlee. In many ways, the adaptation was pretty faithful, but the film switched the tobacco industry for a gun manufacturer.
Speaking of adaptations…
Well, what can I say about the final book on today’s list (except look! another article that was dropped for the adaptation!)? If you’re only familiar with the HBO TV series, you may have been surprised to Martin’s novel on this list, but the first novel in the A Song of Ice and Fire series was indeed first published in 1996 though it only became an NYT bestseller in 2011. The book series so far goes: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1999), A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005), A Dance with Dragons (2011), The Winds of Winter (forthcoming) and A Dream of Spring (forthcoming).
Although A Game of Thrones didn’t hit all the best-seller lists right away, it did win a number of awards and was very popular in SFF circles. The first book in the series introduced three principal storylines that would run through the series. I doubt there’s anyone who wants to know, but doesn’t, that the book introduces the Seven Kingdoms; Eddard (‘Ned’) Stark, lord of the North; the Lannisters; Ned’s daughter Sansa; King Robert Baratheon (who overthrew the ‘mad king’) and his son Joffrey; Queen Cersei Lannister and her twin brother Jaime Lannister. And also the Wall (an ancient barrier of stone, ice and magic); the Night’s Watch; Jon Snow, the illegitimate son of Eddard Stark; the exiled prince Viserys Targaryen, son of the ‘mad king’ and his 13-year-old sister Daenerys; Khal Drogo and the nomadic Dothraki. Martin’s series earned him the soubriquet of the ‘American Tolkien’, but the series’ focus on political intrigue, machinations and moral grey areas definitely differentiate it from Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
As if you need me to tell you, A Games of Thrones was adapted for TV (without the ‘a’) in an HBO series that was broadcast from 2011-2019.
To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again on the player here: