Monthly Roundup – March 2020

March has been quite the month. It all started so well. I attended two fascinating literary events. I smashed my personal best at Parkrun. Student son came back from uni for a weekend visit. And then we became a plague house.

If it weren’t for all the scaremongering in the media I would say we had a nasty run-in with a flu virus. And maybe that was what it was. We can’t know as no testing for any potential new virus has been made available.

Husband was the first to go down – before all the media fuss – so, having recovered, ensured supplies were brought in. We weathered the storm. I’d like to say I made inroads into my TBR pile but actually I missed a few deadlines because, when I wasn’t lying still wishing my fever would abate and the bedroom ceiling would stop moving, my muzzy head couldn’t cope with anything remotely challenging. I read some. I wrote a few reviews. These will not be amongst my best work.

We came out the other side and I started to hope that, actually, it had been this new virus as we would then have the immunity we are supposed to be seeking. Without testing, who knows?

Son returned to uni to empty his fridge (meat had turned black!) and pick up work related items to enable ongoing, on line learning. The cessation of face to face support takes on new focus when this costly education is being paid for through loans.

As he was still feeling weary, and my car was needed to get other son to work (overnight he had been designated a key worker), husband and I travelled by train to Cardiff to help bring back what would be needed to keep student home for several months. Over the two days we spent in the city it shut down. We watched as a vibrant centre became a ghost town populated by increasingly aggressive homeless. By the time we left it felt feral.

With train services being cancelled without warning we were fortunate to get out. Daughter had escaped London on the previous day so came to our rescue when our final connecting service vanished from the boards.

It is good in these strange times to have my family all together. I have never felt so glad to live in the countryside where signs of spring are offering much needed hope.

My final literary event of the month – to be held in London – was cancelled. To be honest, given everything else going on, I was relieved.

We do our best to adjust to the shift in our reality. With police powers becoming increasingly draconian my mental state is jittery. How many lives will be shortened due to these measures inflicting difficult living conditions and shattered prospects on so many? My personal fear is the removal of my right to daily exercise outside – on some days it feels this is all that is keeping me balanced.

I posted reviews for 11 books in March: 4 novels (1 translated), 2 novelettes, 1 short story collection, 2 poetry collections, 1 children’s story, 1 illustrated story.

Click on the cover below to learn more about the book. Click on the title to read my review.

 

A variety of fiction

 
blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris, published by Black Swan
You Never Told Me by Sarah Jasmon, published by Black Swan


Once Upon a Time in Chinatown by Robert Ronsson, published by Patrician Press

 

Poetry 

 
Northern Alchemy by Christine De Luca, published by Patrician Press
Dancing Naked in Front of Dogs by Michael Maul

 

Fabulously wicked novelettes

 
The Prick by Mazim Saleem, published by Open Pen
In Lieu of a Memoir by Tadhg Mullar, published by Open Pen

 

Translated fiction


Fate by Jorge Consiglio (translated by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch), published by Charco Press

 

Not just for children

 
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy, published by Ebury Press
Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans, published by David Fickling Books

 

Short stories well worth reading


She-Clown and Other Stories by Hannah Vincent, published by Myriad Editions

 

Literary events attended

 
Adam Scovell in Bristol
Venetia Welby at Bowood

 

Sourcing the books I read

This month publishers provided me with five new titles to consider. I also accepted two books from authors – something I rarely do as reviewing them feels too personal.

I borrowed one book from my local library.

I purchased two books.

 

 

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health, speedy recovery from any illness, and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

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 

Monthly Roundup – February 2020

It feels as though the whole of February has been wet and stormy. In recent weeks, every time I venture out for a walk, run or bike ride, I return home cold, damp and muddy. Daffodils are growing in my garden so spring is on its way. I am hoping we do not have to endure snow before the warming sun returns.

I had my big children visiting on two weekends this month so, as a family, we had all the excuse we need to eat out together. This weekend I am in London catching up with my daughter. I continue to take part in weekly Parkruns and hope to complete the Fulham Palace event while in the capital. A dry course would be most welcome.

February saw my return to adding literary event write-ups to my blog. I also featured an author interview in preparation for another event I plan to attend. We will have to see if my impetus to book tickets and travel to such entertainments continues further into the year.

I posted reviews of nine books this month: five novels (one translated), two short story collections, and two works of non-fiction. These proved quite a mix of positive and negative. As I would never pick up a book to read that I did not expect to enjoy, there were a few disappointments.

Click on the cover below to learn more about each book. Click on the title to read my review.

 

Two fine novels that I recommend you read 

 
The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue, published by Corvus
How Pale the Winter Has Made Us by Adam Scovell, published by Influx Press

 

A crime fiction tome that wasn’t for me, and a novelette that fully satisfied in under seventy pages

 
Bury Them Deep by James Oswald, published by Wildfire
One Thing by Xanthi Barker, published by Open Pen

 

Five star translated fiction


Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini (translated by J. Ockenden), publishe by Peirene Press

 

Well written short story collections, although one didn’t quite resonate

 
Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro, published by Tinder Press
Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks, published by Influx Press

 

Non-fiction worth reading – loved one cover, found other off-putting

 
Under the Stars: A Journey into Light by Matt Gaw, published by Elliott and Thompson
Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia by Tracey Thorn, published by Canongate

 

An interview I very much enjoyed doing


Author interview: Venetia Welby

 

Write-ups of my first two literary events this year

 
Cornerstone 2020 New Writing Showcase in Bristol
Naomi Ishiguro in Bath

 

Sourcing the books I read

This month publishers generously provided me with a bumper thirteen new titles to consider.

I purchased a further six books to add to my TBR pile.

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

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.

Monthly Roundup – April 2019

April has been a mixed month in my blogging life. I put aside a third of the time available to read a book that was big in both size and scope and which I was excited to receive. It jumped straight to the top of my TBR pile and I took great care that my review accurately reflected my thoughts when I finally finished the tome. Within an hour of posting the publisher had requested that I take it down until closer to publication date – something that has never happened to me before. I have previously received early proof copies with an embargo clearly marked on the AI sheet. No such instruction had been included with this book. On the contrary, hype was being built on social media with photos of proofs received, tweets from readers about their initial thoughts while reading, and side by side comparisons with other big books.

I acceded to the request to take down my review and have since felt conflicted. The points the publisher made were understandable but the whole episode took the wind from my sails. Becalmed and feeling blue I was grateful that my children were home and therefore available to discuss with me what to do next. I pondered the sensitivities of writers and how low I was feeling, no doubt exacerbated by the effect of the book’s subject matter – something I had wished to warn prospective readers about. As with any issue that messes with my head I wrote out my thoughts: Who am I writing books for?

Feedback from readers, especially those who read the review in the hour it was up, suggested that I should post it, which I still plan to do. I need to decide when. I have no wish to alienate a publisher whose work I admire – but I value my autonomy.

As a result of this upset, ten reviews remain for the month: eight fiction (two translated) and two nonfiction. These were supplemented by write-ups of two literary events.

The first of these was The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winners’ Event 2019, held at Foyles on the Charing Cross Road in London. I then published the transcript of the speech the founder of the prize, Neil Griffiths, gave which included his thoughts on each of the shortlisted books. From amongst the strong contenders emerged joint winners – Murmer by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions, and Lucia by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press.

I did, of course, make a purchase whilst at Foyles – a title I had been wanting to read for some time, so did as soon as I returned home from my trip to the capital.


Shitstorm by Fernando Sdrigotti, published by Open Pen

Most other reading this month was taken from my pile of recent or imminent publications.


The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris, published by Orion
Snegurochka by Judith Heneghan, published by Salt


Flotsam by Meike Ziervogel, published by Salt
Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir, published by Headline


The Book of Tehran: A City in Short Fiction, published by Comma Press

Two book reviews had been written for and first published by Bookmunch


Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson published by Picador
Ordinary People by Diana Evans, published by Vintage

I attended a talk by Ariana Harwicz and her publisher/ translator Carolina Orloff at Toppings Bookshop in Bath which I wrote up here. I was lucky enough to receive an early copy of the book they were promoting, and read it in preparation.


Feebleminded, by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff), published by Charco Press

The final review of the month was a repost of a review and part of a blog tour. As I no longer take part in blog tours this led to some personal questioning but Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers, now available in paperback from Elliott & Thompson, contains such beautiful writing I decided to help spread the word.


Under the Rock: Stories Carved from the Land by Benjamin Myers, published by Elliot & Thompson

Next month I have two short breaks planned to visit my student children in London and then Edinburgh. With my mood still a little shaky I will be aiming to balance family fun with my blogging activities, posting only what I can easily manage. It is vital to me that my reading and writing remains pleasurable to give authors a fair chance of a positive review.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

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.

 

Monthly Roundup – March 2019

March started well and generally felt productive, undoubtedly helped by my anticipation and then enjoyment of a weekend in Brighton which I wrote about here. The long train journey flew by thanks to a good choice of book – The Choke was published by Gallic last Thursday. Click on the cover for more information, and on the title below to read my review.


The Chokeby Sofie Laguna, published by Gallic Books

I posted thirteen book reviews this month: eight novels (two translated); one anthology; two short story collections; two non fiction books. Of these, two reviews had been written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

I started March with a write-up of a literary gig with a difference. For the first time I had been invited to sit in front of the audience – to give a talk on book blogging, including how authors may get their books reviewed. Novel Nights is run for and by writers in Bristol and Bath. I have attended several of their events in the past and knew they were a friendly bunch but it was still a somewhat terrifying experience. As well as writing about the event I posted the notes I prepared, for those who may be interested in the detail of my talk.


Novel Nights in Bristol with guest speaker Jackie Law
Book Blogging 101

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses announced their shortlist at an event in Norwich early in the month which, unfortunately, I was unable to attend. I did, however, write about the books and publishers in the running for this innovative prize. Unlike many literary awards, the RofC charges no fees, covers many expenses associated with attending related events, and financially rewards all presses that make the shortlist. It also brings fabulous books to the attention of readers.


Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019: from longlist to shortlist

My coverage of the longlist continued with a guest post from Peirene Press and my review of Sweet Home, which deservedly made the shortlist.


Guest post by independent publisher, Peirene Press
Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, published by The Stinging Fly

The winners of the prize (there were two this year) was announced last Thursday at an event held in Foyles’ Charring Cross Road branch. I was delighted to accept my invitation to attend and will be writing up the event next week. You may read the Guardians’ coverage here.

On then to my remaining reviews posted this month. The books were quite a mixed bag as I was attempting to get ahead on new and forthcoming releases in anticipation of taking a few days away from my blog at month’s end. I had fallen behind with other writing commitments so last week was largely devoted to improving this situation. I also needed to step away from the online world at times due to the angry encroachment of current events.

So, let’s talk about books.

I had reservations about these two titles but was still glad to have read them both.


Tempest: An Anthology edited by Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, published by Patrician Press
A Chill in the Air by Iris Origo, published by Pushkin Press

I picked up two YA fantasy fiction titles. The first led me to read the second, an interesting exercise in observing how a young writer develops.


The Near Witch by V.E Schwab, published by Titan Books
City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab, published by Scholastic

The next two books were originally reviewed for Bookmunch. I enjoyed them both.


Mothers and Daughters by Vedrana Rudin (translated by Will Firth), published by Dalkey Archive Press
Music, Love, Drugs, War by Geraldine Quigley, published by Fig Tree Press

Other fiction enjoyed included an historical novel based on true events involving the author’s family, and an innovative short story collection.


A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther, published by Salt
Above the Fat by Thomas Chadwick, published by Splice

For those, like me, who have spent time in Berlin (or as a taster for those who haven’t yet), this book is a recommended read. Its sense of place and exploration of why a place becomes important to an individual is hauntingly evoked.


Built on Sand by Paul Scraton, published by Influx Press

One book read stood out as a turkey. I know there are many who will enjoy the rich, historical descriptions – it just wasn’t for me.


Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon (translated by Louise Rogers LaLaurie), published by Pushkin Press

And amidst some strong contenders, my book of the month is one you should all go and read when it is released in a few days time – outstanding writing as well as being witty and accessible.


The Fire Starters by Jan Carson, published by Doubleday

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

Monthly Roundup – January 2019

Remember when I wrote last month that I would no longer post a monthly roundup? I changed my mind. Feedback suggested that some of you found these posts useful so, instead of abandoning them altogether, I will be trying to find a way to make them more interesting.

My month started with a short holiday during which I read two books but posted no reviews. This hiatus resulted in me being already behind on my Goodreads challenge.

Another challenge I set myself this year was to get out more and enjoy the countryside where I live. I vowed to dispense with the self-inflicted pressure of reading to a schedule that last year led to days spent indoors trying to catch up. I aim to enjoy running this blog which may now result in fewer reviews but a happier writer.

Thus I posted reviews for only 9 books in January of which 7 were fiction (1 translated) and 2 non fiction (1 translated). I reviewed no poetry. Can publishers please send me some poetry to review?

Let’s look at the books.

I struggle to find crime fiction and thrillers that I truly enjoy reading as so many of them merge in my memory and are predictably formulaic. Sarah Hilary provides the exception. Yes, her Marnie Rome series are all written to the same structure but her use of language and exploration of issues provide literary fodder. I took this early proof on holiday (it isn’t out until May) and devoured it.


Never Be Broken by Sarah Hilary, published by Headline

Another early proof I took on holiday was a debut by Tramp Press publisher, Sarah Davis-Goff. I read her dystopian thriller in anticipation of meeting the author at the one event I attended this month – the Headline New Voices Roadshow in Bath.


Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff, published by Headline

I was keen to attend the gig having enjoyed watching what the debut authors I met at the previous year’s event went on to attain – in the case of Guy Gunaratne this included a Booker longlisting amongst other accolades. I will be interested to see what lies in store for this year’s cohort.


Gig Review: Headline New Voices of 2019

Back last May, when I attended the Greenwich Book Festival, I met Louise Candlish and had since been eager to read her latest book. My local library has copies but they were always lent out when I visited. Then I spotted on Twitter that Louise and her publisher were marking the publication of the paperback by leaving signed copies in coffee shops around Hammersmith, near where my daughter lives. I sent daughter on a mission to track one down and she was successful – Yay!


Our House by Louise Candlish, published by Simon & Schuster

Another thriller that I am happy to recommend, a dystopia set in a future England, is published today by a small press I discovered last year.


Wolf Country by Tünde Farrand, published by Lightning Books

I was also pleased to review new titles to be published by two of my long time favourite small presses – both of these are fabulous reads.

   
Mothlight by Adam Scovell, published by Influx Press
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, published by Bluemoose Books

I have reviewed several titles for Bookmunch of which one has been up on that site long enough for me to pull it across to my own blog. This work of translated fiction was excellent – one I am happy to recommend.


Katalin Street by Magda Szabó (translated by Len Rix), published by MacLehose Press

My non fiction reading included a translated memoir focusing on a Jewish survivor of Nazi Germany


No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel (translated by Stephanie Smee), published by Pushkin Press

Another non fiction title reviewed was by an anthropologist, about his ethnographic field trip to Indonesia. This one didn’t really rock my boat.


Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley, published by Eland

The month also brought the announcement of the longlist for my favourite literary prize, which I was privileged to help judge last year.


The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – Longlist Announcement 2019 

Looking forward, I plan to read more titles from this list as I have only come across three of them to date. Next month I will be posting a few guest posts and Q&As from the presses that made the cut.

Finally, I was a guest myself when Mrs Bloggs invited me to join her for afternoon tea over on her book blog.


Afternoon Tea with Mrs Bloggs

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. I don’t say it enough but your support is always appreciated.