Random Musings: Ending my literary event hiatus

I last attended a literary event in April last year. Prior to that, for several years, I had been averaging around one event a month. I kept an eye on the author talks happening in Bath and Bristol bookshops. I would treat myself to the occasional trip to London. I enjoyed immersing myself in the rarefied literary world – a mostly invisible audience member who made sure never to put their hand up during the final Q&A to make ‘more of a comment than a question’. My fear of attracting the contempt of participants resulted in me keeping thoughts to myself until my write-up.

I became aware of this contempt from following authors on Twitter and reading their blogs. They would post mostly humorous but still biting opinions on aspects of their publicity tours – from the unflattering high stools they were required to perch upon to the boringly repetitive questions they would be asked: where do you get your ideas from? are your characters based on real people? what is your writing process?

Lengthy journeys to previously unknown locations, the loneliness of a strange town, the need to perform – all would be recounted as an adventure yet also a trial. While empathising I began to wonder if authors wanted to take part at all.

And yet, authors write that going to events is a great way of supporting them as they don’t wish to read to empty rooms.

Perhaps there should be audience guidelines as we don’t always know what behaviour is acceptable. Regulars will audibly sigh when a question becomes a monologue. There will be people attending who are genuinely interested in how a writer creates their work, who don’t yet understand there is no formula, and that finding the right words then putting them in the right order can be tantamount to magic. Aspiring authors are eager to feed off success, to learn how this writer got published that they may do the same. I have observed so many audience members who could be fans but obviously covet the literary achievement.

Audience members will not always know what questions have likely been asked before, sometimes ad nauseam.

There are other aspects of events that have unspoken rules. I still cringe when I think of the author I asked to sign my copy of his book before the event, who hadn’t been provided with a green room to shelter in. I regret not taking the opportunity to chat to an author I admire who remained sitting at his little table after the long signing queue had been dealt with. I had forgotten to bring my copy of his title and didn’t feel I could approach him without being able to prove I had made the purchase. Maybe he was happier to be left in peace.

I still don’t know if asking an author to sign a proof copy is frowned upon.

Benjamin Myers recently wrote a fine article on the pressures, sometimes self inflicted, that authors suffer and the difficulty of saying no to promotional work (you may read it here). He is not alone. The last couple of times I made plans to see Joanna Cannon in Bath she couldn’t make it due to health issues. Authors cannot always cope with the demands made of them to promote their work.

I have been lucky enough to meet Ben at a couple of events and he comes across as friendly and genuine – a joy to chat to. Other authors are more obviously performing. Some exude warmth, others remain distant. They are individuals and, in the context of our encounters, are working.

Many writers talk of being introverts. Prolific readers, those of us with an interest in literary events, are often introverts too. Acceptable social etiquette is not always obvious and we will dwell on perceived indiscretions.

There is another side to this coin. Bookshops often rely on the revenue from author events to keep their business going. It is for this reason that I am planning to end my hiatus. I want to support the authors and their publishers. I also want to keep the oasis that a bookshop represents in existence on the high street.

To start with though I am attending a publisher’s roadshow where they introduce the media and booksellers to authors with new work to promote. Events such as these come with few expectations other than to engage and then consider supporting the books. I am looking forward to an enjoyable evening amongst those who share my passion for a variety of literature.

I prefer small, more intimate events to large capacity gatherings. I wonder which of these authors favour – as they hope to sell their books I am guessing the latter.

And here I also encounter a dilemma. One of my prerequisites to attending a literary event is that I have read the author’s work that I may better understand where they are coming from. I write up my impressions within a few days and can add more depth if I am familiar with the book being promoted. I will often still buy a copy on the night, but this is not always a given. I ponder if this makes me welcome at all.

Book Review: Not Working

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“So you abandon wage slavery for some long-term freelance project – a novel or invention or fast fortune or cult blog. You wake up now to vast expanses of time, craving the relief of the regular hours and definable tasks you stupidly gave up, feeling chronically deprived of the urgency, direction and clarity of purpose you’d taken for granted when you’d had somewhere to go and something to do each day.”

Not Working is strap-lined Why We Have to Stop – an interesting if somewhat impractical premise, I thought, when I chose the book to review. The author is a psychoanalyst and Professor of Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths, thereby appearing well qualified to create a compelling argument. What we have here, however, is more akin to a series of opinion pieces injected with memoir alongside personal critiques of artworks and their creators. As a whole it lacks coherence.

The book opens with a lengthy introduction. The author then tries to shoehorn his views into four sections: Burnout, Slob, Daydreamer, and Slacker. Each of these sections includes a study of an artist the author associates with the anti-work type he is writing about. All those included have created acclaimed output so I struggled with the connections being attempted. They each worked at their craft.

Many examples from the author’s life are included. Patient cases – merged for confidentiality – are also cited but added little to the main argument.

The author posits that modern man regards work as something to be avoided if possible. There is little discussion about: the pride that may be taken in a job well done, the self-respect gained from contributing to a project, the camaraderie amongst colleagues. There is acknowledgement of the potential downsides of not working including: depressive exhaustion, listless entitlement, loneliness, and marginalisation.

I disagreed that ‘serious’ art – however that may be defined – offers more pleasurable satisfaction than science.

Personally I cannot appreciate Tracy Emin’s bed ‘masterpiece’ but understand that the value of artistic works is whatever someone is willing to pay for, or pay attention to. The majority of artists may struggle financially but this is not a modern phenomena. The author does not discuss the quality of outputs beyond his famous examples. Perhaps it is the act of creation rather than the finished product that he finds worthwhile – although most creatives, at whatever level, do seek some form of affirmation.

“Not working has almost always been valued only to the extent that it serves the cause of work. It is time we spoke up for not working, in all its creative possibilities, as its own value.”

The author’s opinions are stated as facts. Assumptions are made – such as that a rabbit being looked after temporarily enjoys a ‘serene emptiness’. Cohen cannot know this as he has never been a rabbit and cites no scientific study of the creature. In many of his stated opinions he comes across as arrogant.

The problem of choice is discussed from several angles in what is described as our overworked and accelerated culture. Parents are blamed for both distancing themselves and being too involved in their offspring’s choices – supportive parenting leading to a fear of disappointing.

“there could be nothing worse than to choose one thing and so lose the possibility of others”

“I barely know how to do anything without wondering if I’m doing it well enough.”

I found no mention of the gig economy or part time working. The pressure to work seemed geared towards the professions who could, perhaps, afford a psychoanalyst such as Cohen. I pondered the author’s privilege and outlook.

When discussing Emily Dickinson he mentions her unwillingness to marry, declaring reasons for her behaviour without explaining how he reached his conclusions. Given the time during which Dickinson lived and the autonomy she would lose to a husband – more than just her own, lockable room – I saw strength of purpose and innate knowledge that her work mattered more than social acquiescence.

Towards the end of the book the author explores how minimal activity can lead to finding a perfect inner state – nirvanic bliss – albeit transient. It can also lead to an inertial void. Few of the arguments made or opinions stated refuted the problems inherent in doing nothing – or that freeing up time only rarely leads to creativity in the arts.

Any Cop?: Overall the writing lacked direction and was too wound around the author personally rather than the subject he purported to be exploring. I found this book hard work to read, and regularly during its perusal considered stopping.

 

Jackie Law

Curbing the seven-year itch

WordPress tells me I started my blog seven years ago this week. How time flies. Actually, it is hard to remember where I put my thoughts before I carved out this space. Although now primarily a book blog, it started out without much focus other than as a sort of personal therapy. Writing has long been regarded as a good way to bring order to the voices in our heads.

It is, however, as a book blog that Never Imitate found its audience. With that in mind, I thought a few other numbers may be of interest.

As of this week I have published in excess of 1500 posts. These include:

  • 865 book reviews, but still none bearing a title beginning with the letter X or Z;
  • 34 interviews or guest posts from independent publishers about their small press, some of which sadly no longer exist;
  • 60 interviews or guest posts from authors to help raise awareness of their work;
  • 75 write-ups of an eclectic array of literary events;
  • an ever evolving review policy as I try to filter the books I accept, to include only those most likely to appeal – we all benefit if my reviews are mostly positive;
  • uncounted random musings when there is something else I wish to try to articulate.

My most viewed post remains a paean to one of my many teddy bears.


Edward reads Mawson’s latest book, She Ran Away from Love

However, most search terms that land a reader here include the title of a book or an author’s name.

Viewing figures vary, often inexplicably, and I try not to dwell on these. Naturally it feels good to be read and appreciated but I exist among a multitude of book bloggers and many have bigger personalities that garner attention. I understand there are steps I could take to raise my profile but prefer to continue to run this blog in my own way. Its title reflects a personal tenet I have no wish to compromise.

Lovely though it is to have a reader take the time to comment on one of my posts I am often unsure how or if to respond – I find all social situations tricky to navigate. I’m never ignoring readers but rather mulling over potential responses, probably more than anyone imagines.

I have observed many bloggers come and go over the years as their lives and motivations change. I too sometimes question why I continue to devote so much of my time to writing about the books I read. My answer has been to cut back rather than walk away. I may at times feel jaded but there are still moments of joy when I feel myself to be a small part of my beloved literary world.

Thank you to all who take the time to read my posts, especially those who then share them across their social media platforms. With so many good books still to shout about, I hope to remain here for some time to come.

Book Review: Splice 1

Splice was set up by Daniel Davis Wood in 2017 (you may read more about their aims here). It has three main pillars: a small press that publishes short story collections by outstanding writers; online, in-depth book reviews; a biennial anthology showcasing previously unpublished work by three of the press’s authors, each of who selects and introduces the work of another writer deserving more attention. These selected writers will then be

“commissioned to publish new work in future and to nominate new and interesting writers of their own.

In essence, the anthology functions as a way of consolidating the Splice community and broadening its scope.”

Splice 1, as its title suggests, is the first anthology. It opens with a foreword by the editor, Daniel Davis Wood, who also writes the introduction to the work of the three Splice authors included: Dana Diehl, Michael Conley, Thomas Chadwick. After each introduction there is a complete short story from the author plus an extract from a further work by them (the full second story is available to read on the Splice website). The author then introduces their chosen writer whose contribution is presented in the same format – a short story and an extract.

Having read and reviewed the three featured authors’ short story collections, it was interesting to read the editor’s take on their work – what drew him to want to publish them. The short stories included here are all impressive examples of the form. One features an apartment that is carpeted in three feet of soil. Another has a character whose hair starts to talk when he allows it to grow. A story written entirely in dialogue is set on what I assume is a distant planet. Fantastical though these concepts may be they do not read as fantasy. The authors have grasped the essence of writing fiction and created distinctive and mesmeric voices.

As a reader I will have personal preferences but can recognise fine writing even in those stories I don’t enjoy so much. The final writer, Victoria Mansfield, includes vivid imagery that I found unpleasant in Whitegoods for Your Daughters. She describes sex, food and even travelling by public transport in ways that made me recoil. Yet I can appreciate her way with words and the emotional resonance. For those less squeamish than me her work may be better appreciated.

Despite such a strong field, my choice of standout story was by Abi Hynes. A conversation recorded before the end of the experiment presents man and alien attempting to communicate. The arrogance of humans is skillfully foiled by the encounter. Man is trying so hard to be reasonable, failing to comprehend the purpose and place in this new world that he has been granted. It is a fabulous tale, perfectly paced, both humorous and tragic.

Honourable mentions must go to Dana Diehl’s The Earth Room and Renée Bibby’s That Boy. Both stories draw the reader into the day to day difficulties individuals face and how they regard themselves, particularly when dealing with others. They are quirky and clever but never too much of either. The tales flow and entertain while offering much to consider.

I also enjoyed Thomas Chadwick’s The Unsuccessful Candidate. Office workers rarely wish to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of becoming a target for blame. The idea that someone could turn up daily for work, despite being rejected at interview, and co-workers would be flummoxed about how to deal with them, was just delicious, especially as the successful candidate was proving far from ideal.

The extracts included in the anthology provide tantalising tasters. I must find time to seek out the rest of Thomas Chadwick’s Politics. It opens

“David killed the Queen. It was nothing personal he said. It was just politics. All he wanted was to make a political statement about the abuse of power in the country”

The media twists the facts to fit their agendas. Peers are interviewed and quoted out of context.

“”Who told you that?”
“We can’t say.”
“Was it Charles? Because if anyone needs locking up, it’s Charles. He thinks wealth trickles down. He knows all the verses of the national anthem. He sleeps beside a copy of Atlas Shrugged.”
David was told that for all his sins Charles had not shot the Queen.”

Splice 1 provides excellent and varied reading. It is also a fine introduction to a literary endeavour that deserves wider attention from readers.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.

Book Review: Gentlemen and Players

Gentlemen & Players, by Joanne Harris, is the first book in the author’s Malbry Series. The story is set in and around St Oswald’s, an old and long established boys’ grammar school in the north of England. The timeline moves between the present – when a new cohort of teachers arrive for the start of the academic year – and the years when one of these individuals was a child enacting a daring deception in a bid to reinvent themselves.

The child is nine years old when their tale opens. Living in the school gatehouse – a perk of Father’s job as porter – they are aware that the grounds and school are out of bounds. Nevertheless, they dare to sneak in, thereby discovering that no action will be taken so long as they remain invisible.

The child grows bolder. Keys are taken from Father and the main building breached. Over time the old building’s layout, the school timetable, and many of the teachers become familiar. The child covets the privilege of the wealthy pupils in their rarefied existence.

The child’s mother left her little family and does not maintain contact. Father is a drunk who at times grows violent. Being small in stature and lacking sporting prowess, the child is a victim of bullies at the local state schools attended. To escape this misery, a St Oswald’s uniform is pilfered and – renamed as Julian – the child starts to blend in occasionally as a pupil. A friendship is formed with another misfit. Leon and Julian delight in breaking rules within school and in the town when freed.

In the present day, the new teachers are observed by Roy Straitley – a Latin master nearing retirement who attended St Oswald’s as a boy and has worked there for more than thirty years. During this time scandals have been weathered – including improprieties and tragedies. Now Straitley is resisting changes being enforced as the new head attempts to modernise. Straitley’s caustic wit and underlying humanity make him a valuable character in portraying what a school can be.

“The reality is the stone; the tradition; the permanence of St Oswald’s. Staff come, staff go. Sometimes they die. Sometimes even boys die; but St Oswald’s endures, and as I have grown older I have taken increasing comfort from this.”

Now an adult in the guise of one of the new teachers, the child has returned seeking revenge. Plot development gradually explains what happened back in the day and why they wish to bring St Oswald’s to its knees. From the opening line the reader knows that, in this teacher’s opinion, ‘murder is really no big deal.’ The illicit St Oswald’s boy who remained invisible seeks both retribution and to finally be seen.

It took me some time to differentiate between voices – to work out, chapter by chapter, from whose perspective the narrative was being written. The many teachers and pupils introduced need to be remembered if threads are to be followed and understood. Although not difficult, this required a degree of concentration and occasional rereading.

Knowing that the author was once a teacher adds to the humour of many staff room observations. I enjoyed her comment to colleagues in the acknowledgements:

“any of you who may fear to meet yourselves in the pages of this book, rest assured: you’re not there”

Her characters are expertly drawn and recognisable as those who have haunted the corridors of every British school I have experienced as pupil and parent. Perhaps these didn’t all harbour a murderer but jealousies and resentments amongst both staff and pupils run as deep as depicted. The tension and mystery are tightly woven around more poignant revelations. The denouement is chilling but retains enough heart to leave the reader content.

Although perhaps not as well known as some of the author’s other works, the Malbry series is a personal favourite. The variety of characters along with the fine balance between dry humour and compelling thriller make for an enjoyable read.

Gentlemen & Players is published by Black Swan.

Book Review: Real Life

“life was a big soup in a mixer where you had to try and avoid being shredded by the blades”

Real Life, by Adeline Dieudonné (translated by Roland Glasser), is – understandably – a multi-award winning novel that is now being brought to readers of English by the excellent World Editions. It is a coming of age tale but with a voice that raises it above bland attempts to pigeonhole. The richness of the taut prose and devilishly dark humour make it a standout addition to the genre. The story is of a girl growing up but that is merely its frame.

The narrator is ten years old when the tale she is recounting begins. She takes delight in her younger brother, six year old Sam. They are a close and companionable unit because their parents cannot be trusted. Father is a brutal bully who only seems to find joy in hunting and killing animals. Mother is described as an amoeba and lives in fear of the beatings she takes.

The narrator’s life is forever changed when she and Sam witness an horrific accident. Thereafter, Sam loses his sunny smile and willingness to play happily with his sister. Determined to recover what has been lost, the narrator decides she will build a time machine – as she has seen done in a film. She will travel back to the fateful moment and change its outcome.

Over the next couple of years she strives to accumulate the knowledge and materials needed. Sam, meanwhile, is developing worrying habits and bonds with his father. Distressing as his behaviour is, the narrator makes no attempt to intervene. She is convinced that their present is temporary.

When the knock back happens the girl must find a way to continue. She proves resourceful but, for now, must still live in the fearful familial shadow of violent disdain. Puberty brings with it added danger although also warmer feelings that, with her scientific reasoning, she is drawn to explore further. The denouement is tense but handled impressively.

In fact, the entire character and plot development are impressive. The girl’s situation may be disturbingly bleak but her outlook remains focused and forward thinking. Woven within are nuggets of comparative lives that are mined with understated skill, adding both a degree of light and breadth. Much is revealed without the need to explain.

An original read that I devoured and relished. The brutality the girl must live with is unsettling but this remains a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, World Editions.

Book Review: Black 13

Black 13, by Adam Hamdy, is the first in a proposed new series from the author of the high octane Pendulum trilogy. It introduces the reader to Scott Pearce, a former operative with MI6 who was driven out of the service when he refused to stand down after an horrific engagement in Islamabad. He believes the perpetrators are still at large and seeks some form of retribution. Scott is a formidable individual whose skills, strengths and lack of personal ties allow him to make clear decisions that may put him in mortal danger but for what he believes is the greater good. He is loyal to the former colleagues who have remained loyal to him.

The story opens with the murder of one of these colleagues, Nathan Foster. Like Scott, Nathan is no longer working for a government agency but is struggling to get by as a civilian. When a young lawyer, Melody Gold, recruits him on behalf of a shadowy client to investigate goings on at a bank, Nathan is drawn to the chance of some danger and glory. He has grown bored with his mundane work as a private investigator for suspicious wives or employers. However, what he discovers at the bank terrifies him and ultimately leads to his demise.

The action then moves to a beautiful beach location in Thailand where Scott is working under an assumed identity as a climbing guide and tutor while seeking gunrunners he believes are connected to what happened in Islamabad.  He is appalled when Melody turns up to recruit him in place of Nathan as only three people in the world should have known Scott’s location. With his cover compromised and powerful enemies on his tail he returns to England. On confirming the details of what happened to Nathan he plots revenge.

Scott asks another of his trusted former colleagues, Wayne Nelson, to act as bodyguard for Melody who is now also in danger. He contacts Leila Nahum, a disabled Syrian refugee and accomplished IT expert with an horrific personal history, whose life Scott saved during an MI6 operation. This small team works to find out who Nathan’s client was and who was behind his killing. What they uncover goes to the heart of the British establishment and beyond, into global networks of politics and wealth.

This is a slick, tense and fast paced thriller. Beneath the vividly described action – the fights, car chases and imaginative means of escape – the author effortlessly slips in thought-provoking social commentary. Arguments put forward can be made to sound reasonable to the disaffected who see their concerns being ignored by those in authority. The narrative explores how ordinary people can be radicalised and how some will go on to commit indefensible atrocities. It is a warning, a clarion call, for what could be happening in Britain today.

The varied and well drawn characters add to the enjoyment of what is an intense and compelling story. It offers escapism but is inventive enough to carry the reader through the many battles and complex conspiracies. Explication never detracts from the adrenaline fuelled escapades. Recommended for those who enjoy well written and electrifying action thrillers.

Black 13 is published by Macmillan.

I am touched and grateful for the limited edition proof I received, with a personalised inscription from the author.