Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas

It’s nearly December! Are you all excited for Christmas? I can’t wait – it’s the last big break I have before Medical School Finals (how did this happen?), and I really need the time to relax. In the same vein, I’ve decided that rather than focusing on reviews of new and upcoming books, this month I’ll focus on one of my favourite collections of books – Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. I hope you’ll join me in this adventure into one of the best and most ambitious works of epic fantasy of all time! For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Cosmere, here’s a quick introduction.

What is the Cosmere?

The Cosmere is a fictional universe. Many, but not all, of Sanderson’s series’ take place within this universe. Each series can be read individually without requiring any knowledge of the wider Cosmere, but there are elements of crossover and a whole wider mythos for those who want to investigate them. Every world within the Cosmere shares underlying rules for their magic systems and a unifying creation mythos, but each world, their occupants, religions, cultures, and magics remain unique. Sanderson has stated that he plans for at least 36 books within the Cosmere, which is a hugely impressive undertaking! More information can be found on the official Wiki here, but please be aware of spoilers.

Which books are set within the Cosmere?

The main current works within the Cosmere are:

  • Elantris
  • Mistborn Era 1 – The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages
  • Mistborn Era 2 – The Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self, The Bands of Mourning
  • The Stormlight Archive – The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Edgedancer (novella), Oathbringer, Dawnshard (novella), Rhythm of War
  • Warbreaker
  • The Emperor’s Soul (novella)
  • The White Sand graphic novel series

In the future, there are plans for two sequels to Elantris, a sequel to Warbreaker, a third Mistborn Era, and six more novels in the Stormlight Archive. I can’t imagine writing that many epic fantasy books…

You’ve persuaded me! Where should I start?

The short answer is wherever you want! Each series can be read alone, and they all appeal to slightly different audiences. The longer answer is that some books do improve the reading of others – Warbreaker improves the later books in the Stormlight Archive, for example – so are good to read first. Personally, I would recommend starting with The Final Empire or Elantris, and reading The Stormlight Archive – Sanderson’s Magnum Opus – last. But there are no rules, so if you want to start with The Way of Kings, go for it! Check out my reviews over the coming month and see which series – if any – appeals to you.

I didn’t like <insert Cosmere book here>. Should I try another one?

I’m a bit biased, but I’d definitely say yes. All the books are written in Sanderson’s signature style, but they’re very different – The Final Empire is a fantasy heist novel, Elantris is political fantasy, and The Way of Kings is a classic fantasy war novel. If you’re not a big fan of a certain genre of fantasy, you can absolutely skip that series. Personally, I’m not a big graphic novel reader so I’ve never read beyond White Sand volume 1 (I live in hope that a novel version will be published one day…)

Will your reviews have spoilers?

No – this month will be a completely spoiler-free zone! If you want to discuss the Cosmere with me, including spoilers, I’m quite happy to be contacted on Twitter. Please leave the comments spoiler-free for those who’ve never read a Cosmere book before.

Which is your favourite Cosmere book?

Read my reviews to find out!

I hope this brief introduction was useful and that you’ll join me on my tour of the Cosmere this month. Merry Christmas!

Q&A with Henningham Family Press

Henningham Family Press is a microbrewery for books.
Our ingenioous handmade editions can be found in the V&A, Tate, National Galleries Scotland, National Poetry Library and Stanford University.
Our Performance Publishing shows compress the creation of printed matter into hectic live events.
Now our Fiction brings to you authors who are reinventing the conventions of Modern writing.

 

Today I welcome David from Henningham Family Press who kindly answered my questions on his innovative press and the form of the book. I recently reviewed their most recent publication, The Blackbird, noting that as well as being a fine story, the book itself is a work of art.

 

Can you tell me a little about Henningham Family Press and why it was set up?

Ping and myself have been working together since 2006, making fine art prints, Artists’ Books and Performances. Our work is collected by places like V&A, Tate, Stanford University, National Galleries Scotland, as well as by regular people. We started our fiction list in 2018; we wanted to see if we could get the same pages on the shelves of High Street bookshops that we were placing with national collections.

How do you select the titles you wish to acquire?

The books we hunt for have the same playful, intellectual spirit as the work we’ve been making since 2006. We look for formal invention, like Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths, or books like The Blackbird by Claire Allen or Now Legwarmers by Pascal O’Loughlin, which take the conventions of the novel in new directions. Vivid imagery or process-based writing is good for us, as we can develop them as Artists’ Books. We aren’t ideal for the debut novelist; we can accomplish so much in our studio that the newbie tends to be overwhelmed by the possibilities. So we most often work with people who have already cut their teeth in another discipline, such as the poet Chris McCabe, or Griffiths’ music criticism and librettos.

What about the form of the book – what do your buyers want?

We make a paperback and a handmade deluxe edition of every novel, using the same offset litho printed pages for both. All the covers, paperback and deluxe, are handmade in our studio, most often on our foil debossing press. The paperbacks are bound by TJ International. We insert handmade additions and hand-bind the deluxe editions in the studio — we make them up as we go along.

The Blackbird is no exception. Both editions are illustrated in black and yellow. One of Claire Allen’s characters, Robert, was a civic sculptor in his prime. As a Sculpture MA (Slade), this was something I understood very well. I did drawings from life as he would have done for his public artwork Hide And Seek. We took children to the park to play the game. When they were discovered, they had to remain still for as long as the countdown had taken, and my drawing was executed within that time. 30, 10, 5, even 1 second. This way the pose was natural. I also did charcoal sketches of a Blackbird that took up residence in our back garden. We’ve never had one before, so — thank you Mr Blackbird.

We were approached by G.F Smith papers, to see what we could do with their new Urban range. The paper is, I believe, literally concrete. It has a varnished concrete texture, which goes with the Brutalism of the Blackbird estate in the novel very well. And a slight glitter, like paving stones have. We like to choose papers that have a thing-character like that. Mr. Beethoven had recycled coffee cup lining (Extract), a nod to the composer’s love of coffee houses. As pulp-dyed papers they don’t crack or scuff and feel nicer than laminate. We pay close attention to typesetting too. The Blackbird pays homage to William Golding,
author of The Spire. We chose two classic Faber fonts to support Claire Allen’s equally accomplished voice: Minion and Albertus, plus Futura as a nod to the Brutalist architecture of the Blackbird estate. The chapter titles sort of represent 2014, and the body text 1941. Ancient and Modern.

These days readers are used to a nice white gap between the text and the page numbers and headers, but in the olden days that would have required a sackful of lead and they always abutted. To evoke the ‘40s, but avoid distraction, we printed the page numbers and headers right next to the body text, but in yellow so that it would sit back. Black with a dash of yellow makes each page a little blackbird too! The strictly limited deluxe version will have a cloth spine (half-bound) and a unique hand-drawn fold-out insert. We will make about 20 of these. They tend to sell-out before we even make them.

What is the most rewarding aspect of independent publishing, and the most challenging?

Being able to invent in collaboration with an author and have nobody put their oar in and sink it. Books are often engineered for the middle of the road, but that’s a dangerous place to be!

Promotion is the most challenging. It is back to front. You have to announce a book and show everyone the cover seven months before you make the book. It would be better to be able to say what you have when you have it and reveal the process as you go. That is where we are heading, I think. Once we are established enough, I think we will have enough people following our books to be able to reveal information in a logical order.

How do you connect with booksellers and readers?

A condition we imposed on ourselves before starting the fiction list in 2018 was getting the agents we needed to sell books. Inpress Books voted us in unanimously, and their sales reps are amazing — their support and training peerless. Arts Council England have also supported us with funding and training to reach readers. We also had a great partnership with Gemma Seltzer, who was at Kickstarter back then, and now with John Mitchinson at Unbound; these were to run direct-to-reader presales. We do a lot of Social Media, but basically we let the experts do the selling so we can concentrate on doing impossible things with books.

 

You may visit the Henningham Family Press website here.

This post is a stop on The Blackbird Blog Tour 2020. Do check out the other varied and interesting stops on the tour, detailed above.

May I urge you to buy the book? Click here.

 

The Republic of Consciousness Prize 2020

Long time readers will know that I have covered The Republic of Consciousness Prize on my blog since its inception. I was delighted to be on the judging panel in 2018.

This year, for a variety of reasons, I felt unable to become as involved as previously. The prize has grown and I was pleased to see that its website offered interviews and extracts from longlisted publishers and authors in the run-up to the announcement of the winner. It has provided a book of the month through its Patreon. Readers are being offered the opportunity to discover some fabulous reads.

The longlist

The shortlist

I had accepted an invitation to attend the winners’ announcement in London last month but then this had to be cancelled. Instead, the announcement was made on Twitter earlier this week. A note from the founder, Neil Griffiths, may be read here.

The winner

As I have, so far, only read one of the longlisted books I cannot comment further on the judges’ decision. What I was pleased to see was that the prize pot was being divided equally to help all the shortlisted presses. In these strange times, and especially with the closure of bookshops, our fantastic small, independent publishers need all the support they can get.

If you are able, where possible, do please consider ordering books direct from small publisher’s websites.

And well done to the organisers of this year’s prize for obtaining sponsorship along with wider coverage in the media, and for running the best book prize so well.

Gig Review: Venetia Welby at Bowood

When I heard that Venetia Welby, author of Mother of Darkness, was to be guest author at Bowood‘s monthly literary lunch I knew I wanted to attend. The venue is within walking distance of my home and the book being discussed has so many fascinating themes I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to find out more about how the story came to be created. I was grateful to be granted permission by the organisers to slip into the venue after the ladies attending had finished eating in order that I might listen to Venetia’s talk. This proved to be as interesting as expected.

The following is taken from notes I jotted down on the day. I cannot write fast enough to capture everything that was said but I hope it offers a flavour and is of interest.

Venetia opened by explaining the importance of the setting of her novel – London’s Soho. She loves the stories that come out about the place – of its former decadence. Now its skylines are dominated by cranes as work for Crossrail proceeds. Iconic clubs and other venues have been replaced with chain coffee shops. Her protagonist, Matty, lives in a flat that is based on one Venetia lived in. He feels he was born in the wrong era, hankering after the former velvet jacketed debauchery that was once accepted.

Matty considers his drug dealer to be his only friend. He struggles to deal with reality. There is a novel within the novel as Matty tries to rewrite his past. He considers himself a ladies’ man but treats women badly.

At the beginning of the novel Matty appears to be a lost cause. Venetia wished to explore if he could be brought back from the brink. She read an extract where Matty is considering his surroundings – the house on his street where Sebastian Horsley once lived that bears a plaque, ‘This is not a Brothel’; the classical literature he no longer reads but keeps to impress women; the luxury apartment blocks replacing the Soho he would prefer to live in.

Ventia talked of both Soho and Matty undergoing an identity struggle. In writing Mother of Darkness she wished to explore delusion and madness. Matty sees a therapist whose notes are included in the book. Venetia spoke to three experts as part of her research to ensure these came across as authentic.

The first was her flatmate, an NHS psychiatrist who was working in Soho and studying for exams, including the work of Freud. Matty’s mother died in childbirth and he maternalises girlfriends.

The second person she spoke to explained about the various types of separation issues that form in childhood: secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidance attachment, chaotic attachment. Matty suffered a domineering father and can’t form a coherent narrative about what happened to him in childhood. His self destructive behaviour is an attempt to protect himself from the world. He tries to remove himself from reality in order to survive reality.

The third person spoken to introduced Venetia to: primordial images or archetypes (Jung wrote that an image is called primordial when it possesses an archaic character that is in striking accord with familiar mythological motifs); the eternal boy and associated narcissism. Matty has dysfunctional relationships with women. He elevates himself to god like status.

Venetia was interested in how, for example, a founder of a cult comes to believe in themselves.

She also looked to her classics education: the stories of Dionysus; the Oresteia trilogy (written by Aeschylus, concerning the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes, the trial of Orestes, the end of the curse on the House of Atreus and the pacification of the Erinyes). Matty identifies with Orestes. The internal experiences and slide from reality makes perfect sense to him. By rejecting benevolence and embracing his animal nature, Matty can justify his behaviour. He sees everything through the lens of apocalyptic delusions.

A second reading – from when Sylvie tries to tell Matty she is pregnant – illustrated the world as Matty sees it. He observes the streets of Soho as radioactive and drowning in blood. He believes he will transcend the abyss and that Feracor – whose voice he has been hearing – will save him.

Questions were invited from the audience.

Q: Where did Matty come from?

A: He was skulking in the corner of another story I was writing. There are two types of people – those who party too hard and end up with drug induced psychosis, and those who swap their hard partying life for an alternative obsession such as religion. Dark cults – those who believe they are the next Jesus – display an innate arrogance. I am interested in how they can think this way.

Q: Your book is so relevant for current times, more should read it.

A: Thank you. I think also there is a crisis among young men. Drug use is a part of this.

Venetia was thanked and information shared on upcoming events, including the creative writing workshop detailed below. There was then the opportunity to purchase Mother of Darkness and have it signed by the author.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak briefly to Venetia. She is a lovely person and I look forward to chatting to her again at my next literary event – the Republic of Consciousness Winners’ Announcement – which, it turns out, we both plan to attend.

Mother of Darkness is published by Quartet Books

On Tuesday 21 April, Venetia will be running a Creative Writing Workshop at Bowood, specifically designed with beginners in mind. To find out more and book a place click here.

Gig Review: Adam Scovell in Bristol

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to Stanfords bookshop in Bristol to hear author, Adam Scovell, in conversation with bookseller, Callum Churchill. Having enjoyed both of Adam’s novels – Mothlight and How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, I was interested in hearing from an writer whose style strikes me as haunting and original. I discovered that he has been compared to Sebald, an author I am unfamiliar with. Adam’s books reference many people and works that I could say the same of – I have not come across them. This did not detract from my enjoyment of his books but does give me pause for thought. I wonder how many links I have missed in the plot threads woven.

I arrived early at the bookshop so had plenty of time to enjoy my complimentary glass of wine and peruse the shelves. Callum was busy recommending books to Adam. When I spotted a copy of Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul on a book table I caught myself doing the same to his colleague. I’m not sure random customers are supposed to recommend books to booksellers…

Stanfords is a lovely bookshop. If you get a chance to visit be sure to admire the map of the city that covers the entire staircase wall from ground floor to basement. I spotted several small piles of Adam’s book strategically set out around the store.

As is customary with my gig reviews, what follows is a write-up of notes I took on the night – some sparse, and not a complete record of all that was discussed. Nevertheless, I hope it is of interest.

The event started with an introduction by Callum followed by a brief summary of How Pale the Winter Has Made Us from Adam. He told us that he split the narrative into two voices. The protagonist, Isabelle, is a stressed academic living alone in Strasbourg when she hears of her father’s suicide. The second voice is that of Isabelle’s research and is more academic in style. Adam then read to us a section of the book in which Isabelle is preparing to meet a market trader who sells her old photographs. The scene is set in the early morning. The language used has a dream like quality.

Callum asked about the Erl King and was told this mythical creature came from a poem by Goethe.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us came from Adam’s wanderings around Strasbourg where his girlfriend has a flat (the one Isabelle’s partner’s is based on).

Callum asked about Adam’s interest in objects that are old and battered.

Adam talked of his fascination with inorganic demons from weird fiction – the sense of what has accumulated in them over time. He mentioned books he read while writing, including Georges Perec’s Life: A User Manual. Isabelle lists objects seen in the streets she walks. Adam views objects as portals to history, their aesthetic a part of the city to be absorbed.

Callum mentioned that both Adam’s novels have a sense of crumbling.

Adam talked of his love of detective fiction such as that written by MR James. In these, what is real is presented convincingly, only to have this reality broken down. The banal and ordinary becomes unexpected, not of this world.

Callum asked about using hurtling towards mania as a trope in writing.

Last month Adam was interviewed by Deborah Levy at an event held in Foyles, London. She expressed concern that the intensity inherent in Adam’s writing was autobiographical. He explained that he admired [Bernhard or Bernhardt?]’s narrators for their manic qualities and wanted to see what he could do with this himself.

Adam told us that Gary at Influx, his publisher, didn’t like Isabelle for her insufferable, unbearable condescension. Much of the initial drafts were edited to soften her.

Callum mentioned the plethora of characters introduced along with the variety of information presented in essay style. He asked how Adam chose what to include.

Adam approached his initial research much as he would if writing a thesis. He then tried to make this interesting. It was about finding a balance between what is real and what is readable (not everything included is real). This approach made editing a challenge as facts had to be checked. For example, a book with a frankly unbelievable title actually exists.

Callum asked why Strasbourg, if its borders were significant.

Adam was going to the city regularly to visit his girlfriend when Brexit was starting. The European Parliament is there. It is possible to walk from the city into Germany. Jean Hans Arp used his French and German names as suited. Adam became interested in the people who had also passed through.

Callum asked about mapping a place – psychogeography.

Adam talked about getting to know a place at a level beyond what a tourist sees – its history and local residents. It can feel as though the city becomes ingrained within its people.

Callum mentioned that obsession is a theme in both books and asked how Adam drew up Isabelle’s character.

Adam wanted to subtly reflect her through her research – to insinuate rather than tell. He also wished to ensure that his girlfriend did not think Isabelle’s terrible relationship with her partner was a reflection of their’s! To help achieve this he deliberately sent Isabelle’s partner away. This created distance – a factor in all Isabelle’s relationships.

Callum talked of fragments included, intertextual references. He asked how Adam knew what to make explicit and what to assume the reader would know.

Adam talked of the many photos he purchased in Strasbourg (as Isabelle does), many of which were not included in the final edition. These offered stories that Adam realised could be included. What was difficult was reflecting in prose the real and personal impact of images and art encountered.

Mention is made in the book of Gutenberg’s holy mirrors. Adam was amused by the bizarre image this tidbit conjured, of Gutenberg trying to make money from pilgrims, tourists, and people believing that a mirror could capture a religious relic’s aura.

Callum asked what photography lends to text.

Adam explained that Mothlight grew from a suitcase of inherited photographs. How Pale the Winter Has Made Us came from research in which photographs featured. It became a case of what image fitted with a character – which historical moment captured fitted the narrative.

Adam’s next book also has photographs but these are ones Adam has taken. He finds the process rewarding – using photographs rather than text for inspiration.

The audience were then treated to another reading, this times from one of the more academic sections, before Callum invited questions.

Q: Isabelle’s father is a failed painter. Why was this fact set up so early?

A: Wanted to drip this back in during Isabelle’s disintegration, along with the critical comments from her mother. Used reflection and insinuation as a destabilisation technique. Wanted to suggest there might be other aspects that were not being revealed.

Q: Is first person narration important to you? Also, what lessons did you learn writing a book second time around?

A: Likes the potential of the unreliable narrator, when well done. Not sure what was learned. Writing Mothlight was cathartic. Pale the Winter is not as autobiographical, more is concocted, although had technique of writing set down from Mothlight. Wanted a little more solidity, not as brief.

Q: Was it written in Strasbourg?

A: Largely, yes. Walked the routes many times, visited the cafes, spotted characters to include.

Q: Any anxiety in writing a gender different to own?

A: Yes. In first draft gender wasn’t set down. Once set down there was pressure to get it right. Watched certain films [Cléo from 5 to 7 ?] over and over that seemed relevant or proved useful in providing a blueprint.

Q: Walking features in both books. You live in London. What is it like walking around there?

A: Love it. My income is from freelance writing, researching film locations, which is a bizarre way of mapping the city. This is different to Isabelle’s experience but find it addictive, rewarding. Wouldn’t use it in fiction as it has already been done.

Q: Mapping. What is lost when transferred on to the page – cartography as story?

A: The sense of excavating a city, recognising the impact of random discoveries of the bizarre.

Q: Arriving at a place before seeing it – what of the impact of preconceptions derived from reading other work?

A: You do bring assumptions – included some in the book. For example, Isabelle visits one of her partner’s relatives outside Strasbourg. The house described is my girlfriend’s grandmother’s. Attempt must be made to get past clichés. Many of the scenes are set in real places and the preconceptions are Adam’s at times – he let them flow.

Q: Is there food in the book? Religion?

A: Yes. Isabelle visits a bakery. Items are linked to folklore. She visits a cathedral with an historic astronomical clock. Other churches feature.

Adam shared an anecdote. Flights direct to Strasbourg stop over winter. He made a journey to visit his girlfriend that took him via Colmar, Basle. He was reading Sebold and came across a poem in which exact route was being followed…

Callum drew the event to a close by thanking Adam and inviting the audience to purchase signed books that could then have a dedication added. As I had not purchased my copy from Stanfords I was unsure of the etiquette so did not join the queue.

And with that I had to leave to catch my train home. It was a fascinating evening offering insights into the writing process of a fine author. I am looking forward already to reading Adam’s next book.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us is published by Influx Press 

Gig Review: Naomi Ishiguro in Bath

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to Bath for a rather special author event. Naomi Ishiguro was at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – where she used to work as a bookseller – for her inaugural public gig as a published author. It was lovely to observe the warm welcome she received from former colleagues. Friends and family were also in attendance to support what came across as a relaxed and open interview with her former boss, Nic Bottomley. He expressed his pride that one of his booksellers had gone on to create her own shiny book, especially one as good as Escape Routes.

As ever when I write up literary gigs I attend, the following is taken from notes I made on the night. I hope it is of interest.

The nine short stories in this debut collection explore themes of entrapment and flight – escape. After his introduction, Mr B opened by talking about the three tales that feature a rat catcher, asking if these started out as one story or the three included in the book.

Naomi explained that they were from a series she worked on while studying at UEA. She placed her characters in a fairytale world but set herself a rule not to make it too magical (in the real world contemporary settings of the other stories she allowed magical elements). The initial concept was Gormenghasty. A tutor dismissed the stories as full of tropes so they were set aside until a new tutor was more encouraging and suggested they were worth revisiting.

Naomi likes to try different voices and to test herself in order to develop as a writer. Her stories grow organically.

She started writing while working at Mr B’s. Having been raised in London the move to Bath felt like an escape, although she required some re-education. The first time she was in a wood and heard an owl she was unaware it was a natural sound.

Naomi regards each story as a song. It captures a moment and endings don’t need to be entirely settled.

Mr B asked if the book, then, was an album, and how the order of the tales was decided.

Naomi explained that she had heard that George Saunders prints his stories onto paper and then physically moves them around to find an order he believes works. Naomi liked this and her stories were shuffled during the editing process.

Mr B asked if she could introduce some of her stories, as she would have done for a customer on a Reading Spa.

The first story in the collection is titled Wizards. It is about a boy and a bogus magician who meet on a beach. The boy is looking forward to receiving his Hogwarts letter, although this is not specifically mentioned. The magician is trapped by his anxieties, especially his father’s voice in his head.

Mr B asked if Naomi had expected such a letter, if it was something her generation had hoped for.

Naomi admitted that the Harry Potter books had seemed so real to her, the ordinariness of Privet Drive, that at some level she had hoped to receive her letter.

She disagreed with Mr B that the ending of Wizards was ambiguous. She likes it when she is writing a story and can see the ending as it gives her something to work towards.

Mr B concurred that Gormenghast came to mind when he was reading the collection, and also Patrick de Witt.

Naomi told us that she read a great deal of Victorian fiction growing up, enjoying the Gothic elements. She only started reading more contemporary literature at university. She wrote a dull dissertation for her MA – about characters moving from place to place – to work through the technical aspects of moving between scenes. She much prefers writing voice led stories, listening to people and capturing them in her work. She enjoys writing dialogue and would have liked to write screenplays but could see limited demand so instead adds dialogue to her stories.

There followed a discussion about urban malaise. Naomi spoke of the differences in culture between London and Bath – the pace of living and demands made. Without wishing to idealise she mentioned how much more friendly Bath is and how people appear less busy. She told us the stress in London is insane.

Her story titled Accelerate features a guy who becomes addicted to coffee (which Naomi first drank when she started working at Mr B’s) as it streamlines his efficiency. She enjoyed the idea of taking an effect to its extreme.

Mr B commented that he liked this guy…

Naomi regards office life as a privileged existence although she never wanted it for herself. Friends who are, for example, lawyers are expected to work so many hours.

Mr B observed that many routes put young people on a conveyor belt to an office job resulting in many ending up there when it doesn’t suit them.

He asked if Naomi liked writing from a child’s perspective as quite a few of her characters are children.

The answer was yes as she uses their sheltered world, the wonder of possibilities that haven’t yet turned cynical. Children’s lives are more protected and still in flux. She regards two of the boys she created – Alfie and Jamie – similar in many ways despite their very different circumstances.

Mr B suggested they talk about books. Naomi and he agreed there should be book trolleys on trains and that an idea the bookshop once had – to offer recommendations to customers who sent photographs to Mr B’s of books for sale at airports – had potential. If she were still a bookseller, what books would she now recommend to customers?

Becky Chambers. Julia Darling; Pearl contains beautiful writing – humour, warmth, quirky characters who are doing their best.

Mr B asked if her family connections helped on her road to publication or if there were still surprises.

Naomi didn’t recall talking to her parents about this. She learnt about getting an agent and so on while doing her Masters at UEA. Having said that, she told us it is all a bit surprising. Skype interviews, talking at events, it can all seem a bit odd at times. In any other social interaction she wouldn’t constantly be talking in this way about herself and her work.

Questions were invited from the audience.

Naomi’s boyfriend kicked off, mentioning that she didn’t talk about her story, Bear, and asking how she inhabited the head of a middle aged man.

Naomi explained that writing is empathy and it happens naturally – a voice enters her head. It is a way to live lots of lives. She joked that the man could be based on her university supervisor.

Question: Which authors inhabited your head growing up? (ed. during this long list my pen ran out of ink – gah – but I include as many here as I could write down when I grabbed a replacement)

Doctor Who, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Gormenghast, Patrick de Witt, loads of science fiction and fantasy, geeky voices.

Question: You hear characters’ voices. Are these discrete or a part of you?

Definitely a part. It is nice to express different sides of my self. I can manifest in many different ways – thinking, what if I was this – and write.

Question: Were any characters, traits or moments from real life or were they all in your head?

Amanda Palmer has talked about an art blender. She says that her husband, Neil Gaiman, has his on a high setting. So yes, all things I’m thinking about are mixed in an art blender.

Mr B asked how Naomi felt when she got a quote from Neil Gaiman endorsing her book.

This came from a tweet he posted while reading Escape Routes that Naomi’s publisher subsequently asked if they could use. It felt amazing. A huge moment to have someone admired so much read her work and say they enjoyed it.

Mr B commented on how great the hardback cover is – such an important aspect for a bookshop.

Naomi explained it was created by her publisher’s in-house artist. She open the book to show both the front and back cover and revealed a bird – perfect for the themes explored, including flight, in the stories.

And with that Mr B raised his glass in congratulation and invited the audience to join Naomi in the bookshop’s Imaginarium where she would be happy to sign copies of her book.

Naomi thanked so many for coming out to see her when most can’t yet have read her book.

A long queue formed and I overheard her proud dad, there in support, saying he too had purchased copies for Naomi to sign.

Many from the audience were to be seen admiring the recently expanded bookshop which has become quite a labyrinth – it is gorgeous. I was pleased to find my name inscribed on the ceiling as a supporter.

And with that I took my leave and headed home. It was a lovely evening.

Escape Routes is published by Tinder Press and is available to buy now from all good bookshops, including Mr B’s (click on cover above for the link) 

Gig Review: #Cornerstone2020 New Writing Showcase in Bristol

On Thursday of last week I travelled to The Tobacco Factory in Bristol for Penguin’s #Cornerstone2020 new writing showcase. The Snug was packed with booksellers, bloggers, authors and publicists all eager to mingle and enjoy the generous hospitality. Drinks and snacks were provided; and then there were the books. By the end of the evening the overflowing table above was bare and emails were being exchanged to ensure that eager early readers could be provided with copies direct from London on the organiser’s return.

I am always delighted when book people leave their bases to tour other parts of the country. Prior to the Bristol event, much of this group had been to Edinburgh and Manchester. I had read on Twitter that these events were enjoyed by bloggers who attended.

So, what was the format of the evening?

To enable everyone to settle in and imbibe there was a chance to chat amongst ourselves. I honed in on Eley Williams who was deep in conversation with Matt, a bookseller I had met previously from Toppings Bookshop in Bath. I also chose to join a circle as a young lady there was carrying the Girly Swot tote from Galley Beggars so I thought they would be my sort of people. They turned out to be fellow book bloggers and we traded reading recommendations.

Susan Sandon, Managing Director of Cornerstone (a Penguin imprint), then brought the room to order and introduced the six authors who each gave a three minute pitch for their book.

Neil Blackmore introduced The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle as a seductive, sensuous novel. In it, two brothers embark on a Grand Tour of Europe where they plan to make connections and establish themselves in high society. Then they meet the beautiful and charismatic Edward Lavelle. The direction their lives are taking alters inexorably. The book will be published on 30 April.

Abbie Greaves introduced The Silent Treatment as a story inspired by a true situation she read about where a married couple hadn’t spoken for decades. In her tale, the couple live and sleep together but haven’t spoken for six months. Another blogger at the event had read an early proof and assured me it was brilliant and I must read it. The book will be published on 2 April.

Will MacLean introduced The Apparition Phase as a ghost story. Two children fake a photo to try to frighten an unpopular pupil at their school triggering a deadly chain of events. As a television scriptwriter, the author has focused on comedy and assured us that the book also has lighter elements, but it is what is lurking in the shadows that has always fascinated him. The book will be published on 15 October.

Andrew Hunter Murray’s The Last Day is a dystopian thriller based on the premise that the world has stopped turning. Parts of the planet are parched by constant sunlight while on the other side never ending darkness engulfs those who remain. Only certain areas remain habitable – including Britain – and are fiercely guarded. The book will be launched this coming week, on 6 February.

Nick Pettigrew has only just been outed as the author of Anti-Social, the single non fiction title in the showcase. He has written a year long diary detailing cases he dealt with as an Anti-Social Behaviour officer – a job he has recently left. Described as wickedly funny it touches on many of contemporary society’s urgent yet neglected and widely ignored issues. The book will be published on 25 June.

Eley Williams was the hook that initially persuaded me to attend the evening. Her short story collection, Attrib., won the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Influx Press in the year that I (and Matt from Toppings) was on the judging panel. The Liar’s Dictionary is her first novel and explores the world of the  lexicographer and their mountweazels – false entries inserted within dictionaries and other works of reference. In the present day, a young intern is required to weed these out. In Victorian times, a disaffected employee inserts them. I find this premise delicious and can’t wait to read Eley’s creative celebration of the rigidity and absurdity of language.

Having heard from each of the authors about their books there was then time to mingle once again. Guests were eager to chat further and some wished to have their proofs signed which somewhat disrupted certain conversations. I managed to chat to four of the six authors before it was time for me to leave to catch my train home. I had made sure early on to pick up proofs and was pleased to find a tote provided.

Thank you to Lydia at Penguin for my invitation. I am delighted with my generous goody bag and look forward to some quality reading. The event was indeed enjoyable and well worth attending.

As an aside, the Tobacco Factory has a book swap corner and I now think this should be de rigueur in all pubs and cafés. From the reaction to my photo on Twitter, many readers agree.

Gig Review: Ariana Harwicz in Bath

On Wednesday of this week I travelled to Bath for an unusual but very much enjoyed literary event. Hosted by Toppings Bookshop, Ariana Harwicz, author of Die My Love and Feebleminded, was there to talk about her writing and her books. These are available in English from the fabulous Charco Press who are based in Edinburgh and publish books in translation, several from South America. Born in Buenos Aires, Ariana currently lives in France and writes in Spanish. She spoke to the audience in her mother tongue and was ably translated by Carolina Orloff. Carolina is co-founder of Charco Press and co-translated both of Ariana’s books. As someone who speaks only English, I was impressed that so many in the audience appeared to understand all that was being said.

The evening opened with an introduction by Matt, one of Toppings’ booksellers, who spoke of how viscerally he had been affected reading Die My Love. Ariana then gave a reading from the original version of Feebleminded. This was followed by the same section read from the English translation by Carolina.

“if we don’t suffer there’s no passion”

“falling in love is the ultimate curse”

Matt asked a series of pertinent questions that enabled an interesting discourse on the creation of Ariana’s trilogy (the third book will be published in English next year). The following summary is produced from notes I took on the night. Some of the responses are translations of Ariana’s answers and some are additional comments from Carolina. My aim is to reflect the gist of what was said. I hope it will be of interest.

Q: What is the purpose of the trilogy?

When asked this question an author tries to go back in time. This process happens later, when the author becomes a reader of their own work. It is a deconstruction process. The more truthful answer is the writing comes from a mystery. I don’t know where it comes from.

What unites the three books is a feeling of desperation in the main character. There is a certain style, perhaps like musicians creating a triad. It is the punctuation that unites the books.

Q: How does it feel to revisit your published books that are only now coming out in English?

To write a book is a miracle. To see a translation is another miracle. It is as if I have written another book. Translation is like two people making music. It has to work together. There can be slight changes – politically, ideologically. Some authors hand over their work to a translator and don’t get involved – beyond their responsibility. I am not like that. The involvement comes from the dialectics. Writing is an act of translation.

C: Ariana was recently told her books were thought in French but written in Spanish. This was said as a criticism but she thinks it is a good thing.

Q: Has there been variation in response from Spanish and English readers?

To be here is a political act. It is expected that a Latin American author will write about certain things. I have an eight year old son who is Franco-Argentinean. All he gets from television is: sexist, stereotypical, poverty, dictatorship. I am not interested in these clichés.

It was through the English translation that Die My Love came to be translated into fifteen languages. Now it cannot be so easily pigeonholed. I write literature, not just feminist Latin American.

C: One of the biggest aims as publisher is to do away with such limitations. Charco launched with five Argentinean writers from the same generation yet all are different. It is good to break preconceptions.

A: Reactions of different readerships stems from cultural history. The Hebrew version is getting very different reactions from the English. Some regard the writing as akin to science fiction, others recognise it as realism.

C: These social constructs and clichés exist because Latin American authors are not widely read. Charco wishes to change this.

A: The true political act is to step away from expectations and write what I want.

Q: What was it about the English translation that particularly resonated?

I live in a small French village, write from the margins, produce cryptic literature. English being such a massive language it opens work up to so many readers. What I want to do is break language, undo and then remake, add new meaning. I was told when the books came out they would be impossible to translate.

The challenge of translation is to get across something of that which is broken. The translation had to be hidden, quiet, convoluted – whatever the original conveyed. To leave the bare minimum of image or colour or feeling.

I would not wish to live without writing – inventing language. It is the language that is the main character.

After a second reading, the audience were invited to ask questions.

Q: Characters are never named. Do they recur in the trilogy?

C: Ariana has a background in drama and film.

I am interested in the idea that characters have no names, that it is up to the reader to assign them. I would even prefer books to have no titles, preferring to keep things as pure as possible. There are darker elements. Each character is condoned to their role in society. It is this that defines them.

Q: The ‘mad woman’ – are they thrust into this role? Do they embrace it?

Having to name people, reducing them, creates a misunderstanding. When Die My Love came out many readers understood it was a woman suffering post partum depression. But I never thought of this pathologically. I wanted to give a wider perspective.

Q: The language moves as though alive. Does Ariana edit to achieve this?

Consider artists who paint outside, trying to find an image but the image cannot exist without surrounding sound. Feebleminded comes from an image of a female village idiot. I then saw her again on a train and realised it was not idiocy but obsession.

I also observed the relationships between mothers and daughters. I found something disturbing. There were two bodies that looked alike. What was going on there, between them?

Sound matters more than realism. I just write, uninterrupted. The language comes out.

Q: When you picture the people who love your books are you surprised that they look like me? (a young, white, male)

That they are normal? To answer I go back to my first novel. Being a foreigner is a lonely experience. I wrote for myself, out of desperation. I didn’t know it would become a novel. When I heard it was to be published I went into the forest and cried. It was a way of saving myself.

C: In Argentina the book has been adapted for the stage yet uses the same words as in the novel – it is striking.

I am interested in writing from deep solitude, sorrow, tortuous loneliness.

Matt: The power of good writers is that they evoke situations the reader has been unable to express themselves.

Indie publishers are great because they are places of discovery. And unlike some, Charco has not published a bad book.

As audience members queued to have their purchases signed by both Ariana and Carolina, I left to catch my train home. The evening offered much to consider about both the power of writing and of quality translation.

Die My Love and Feebleminded are available to buy from good bookshops such as Toppings, and direct from Charco Press.

 

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winners’ Event 2019

On Thursday of last week I travelled to London to attend a party at Foyles bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. The event was to culminate in the announcement of the winner of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Long time readers will know that I am a particular fan of this prize and its ethos. I was honoured to serve as a judge last year.

This year I observed from a distance, as reader and advocate. My coverage of the longlist and shortlist is best summarised here. My thanks again to the publishers who provided me with books or a guest post. I urge you to read any or all of these fine literary works.

For the Winners’ Event I travelled to London by bus which takes twice as long as by train but costs £13 return as opposed to £56. As well as loss of comfort and time, bus travel also precludes reading as this makes me ill. I therefore downloaded podcasts to keep me entertained and these proved excellent preparation for the event.

  • Republic of Consciousness Podcast: the judges discuss the shortlist here
  • London Review Bookshop Podcast: the shortlisted authors read from their books here

The weather was glorious for the two days I was in the capital (I stayed over in my daughter’s student house) so on arrival I was able to walk from Victoria to the venue. I then enjoyed time in a bookshop which is always a pleasure.

The party was just getting started as I moved to the top floor space. There was a fine turnout of authors, publishers, writers and readers. I had some lovely conversations – thank you to those who came to say hello and to those who welcomed me when I joined their circles.

The founder and one of the organisers of the prize, Neil Griffiths, then gave a speech that I felt encapsulated its ethos – celebration rather than competition. He stated that he will be stepping back from the organisation next year which a few people commented on with concern. The RofC is a valued and increasingly respected voice in the world of literary fiction.

Neil introduced each of the books on the shortlist before announcing the winner.

Actually, there were two winners because two of the books shortlisted could not be denied the title: Murmur by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions; and Lucia by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press.

Each of these winners gave a short speech of appreciation.

 

I keep coming back to this guest post provided by Charles Boyle last year in which he wrote:

“Does there have to be a winner? Boringly, yes. It’s how the world tick-tocks. But that doesn’t matter, because the real point of the Republic of Consciousness Prize is to celebrate a movement and a community.”

It was a pleasure and a privilege to once again spend an evening in the company of this esteemed – if not widely enough recognised and generously rewarded – literary community.


If purchasing their books on line do please consider buying direct from small publishers as this is the best way to support their ongoing work.

Related posts:

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – Winner 2017 (write-up of the 2018 event)

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winner(s) Event (write-up of the 2017 event – the prize’s inaugural year)

 

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019: from longlist to shortlist

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses announced its shortlist on Saturday afternoon at an event held at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Sadly I couldn’t attend. As in previous years, I had followed the judges’ selections with interest.


The complete longlist – 13 books
Photo credit: Graham Fulcher on Twitter @GrahamFulcher1 

Thus far I have managed to read nine of the thirteen books longlisted and posted an interview with, or guest post from, eight of the publishers. If any longlisted publisher would still like to send me their book to review, or a guest post about their press and thoughts on literary prizes, I will happily continue with my RofC feature this month (my review of Sweet Home will be posted on Wednesday).


The nine books from the longlist that I have received

As a recap, click on the book title below to read my review or on the publisher name to read their interview or guest post. Some of these are older posts. Others were provided in response to a request I made in preparation for my 2019 coverage of the prize when the longlist was announced.

Having been a judge for the prize last year I am well aware of how hard it will have been to whittle down submitted books to create the longlist, and the near impossibility of then removing some of these from contention to create a shortlist. Much as I enjoyed my previous involvement, standing in a room full of hopeful authors and publishers at the shortlist announcement last year knowing that some of them would not be happy with the result proved excruciating.

This year I am looking on as a reader, not party to discussions. Bearing in mind that I have not read four of the thirteen books from the longlist (Kitch, Now Now Louison, Follow Me to Ground, The Cemetery in Barnes) I was disappointed not to see Resistance and Bottled Goods on the shortlist.

However, the five books on this list that I have read are all strong contenders. Well done to these six authors and publishers for making the cut.


The five books from the shortlist that I have received

On 20th March an evening of readings will be held at the London Review Bookshop (details here). I have no doubt that this will be a fascinating event for those who can attend.

The 2019 winner of the Republic of Consciousness Prize is due to be announced on March 28th. Good luck to all on the shortlist, and to the judges as they make their difficult choice.