Gig Review: Reopening of Toppings Bookshop in Bath

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“After 14 happy years on the Paragon, this weekend is our final one in our familiar spot before we set up shop in York Street next to the Abbey. Tuesday 26th is officially the last day we will be open on the Paragon, and our new York Street bookshop will open at 10.30am on Saturday 30th October.”

Toppings Bookshop on the Paragon is no more. The warm and welcoming warren where I have attended many cosy literary events closed its doors before I could revisit after lockdown. However, the bookshop has not gone! Rather, it has moved down the hill and reopened by the Abbey, in a former Friends Meeting House – how appropriate. It is now rather grand.

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Last Saturday, Robyn and I took the train to Bath on what was described as ‘soft launch’ day to see what Toppings has become. Behind the familiar blue doors, it is impressive. Rather than the welcoming cups of tea in the usual dotty mugs, we were handed glasses of fizz. There were a pleasing number of customers browsing the stacks.

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Moving an entire bookshop in just a few days is no mean feat so kudos to the hard working staff for making the new premises look so well stocked and appealing. There were still a few spaces to fill high up, and boxes left in some of the nooks and crannies we peeked into. On the shelves, though, were many temptations.

Robyn was particularly impressed with the room given over entirely to fantasy and sci-fi. I overheard one customer cooing over the crime fiction room. I was pleased to find treasures from many of my beloved independent publishers. I was also happy to note that the ladders were still being employed.

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The back room at the Paragon housed many fine books relating to art, and these are now shelved on the mezzanine level. Here, as elsewhere, are tables and chairs. When staff are less busy answering customer queries, and tea in dotty cups is reinstated, there will be somewhere pleasant to sit and contemplate potential purchases. Or maybe the seating is provided for students and writers to work while surrounded by such an inspiring environment. 

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I enjoyed browsing the tables on the ground floor, seeing what books the staff had selected for these. I also noted they could easily be moved for events, offering a large space for seating attendees. No more peering around stacks when an author proves popular as at the old premises. I suspect the bookshop will not have to hire larger venues as often as previously.

I posted a selection of these photographs on Twitter and was asked about access for those with mobility issues. This was such a valid question I emailed the shop for details. They replied promptly to confirm the existence of a lift system – an outdoors lift that can be used to reach the shop entry level; a lift can also take customers up to the mezzanine. Customer bathrooms are available on the lower level that are accessible via lift and ramp. I hope this helps inform those who would find the many steps I have shown a barrier.

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Obviously we chose to support this new venture with purchases. So, what was in the bag? I hear you ask.

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Having so much enjoyed Dead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy, I had to have her debut. And having read so many glowing reviews from fellow readers of the Mathias Énard, it somehow jumped into my bag too. Never let it be said that book bloggers don’t encourage sales, including to themselves.

Toppings in Bath is open 8.30am to 9pm, 7 days a week and hosts many fine events. It is well worth checking out: online  and now in York Street by the Abbey.

Gig Review: Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins in Bath

On Friday of last week I travelled to Bath for what I expect to be my final book event of the year (I avoid festive season crowds). It proved to be well worth attending. Held in the Maven Gallerywhere the original artwork for The Blue Salt Road is currently on display, Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins gave a fascinating talk on their collaboration for both this latest work and its predecessor in the series, A Pocketful of Crows. The setting added to the pleasure and interest. Bonnie’s art is exquisite.

  

The two books were inspired by Child Ballads – indigenous stories of the British Isles. These dark and challenging folk tales, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, exist in different versions and have been sung by musicians such as Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. As a folk musician Joanne knew the stories – she believes they ought to be our Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The draft version of A Pocketful of Crows was written in two weeks – much faster than Joanne normally writes. She was on a deadline to finish The Testament of Loki and attending a book festival on the Isle of Skye. The journey to and from the festival, the landscape, inspired her to start writing something different. She gave herself a day, then two, then a week, and realised that the story was almost complete. She then had to persuade her publisher that the idea was worth pursuing. She envisaged a beautifully bound hardback – illustrated fairy tales for adults – with illustrations by an artist who would produce detailed work such as would have been common in books published in Victorian times – vignettes, an almanac feel. When it was agreed that three stories should be written she needed to find an illustrator.

Joanne’s publisher provided a huge dossier of potential artists but none seemed quite right. Then, unexpectedly, Joanne received a drawing through the post from Bonnie.

Bonnie told us that, at the time, her daughter had recently been introduced to Ted Talks at school. Bonnie listens to the radio while she works so started listening to some of these talks. Most were from people explaining how wonderful they were and how much money they had made. In her Ted talk Joanne focused on her family and the power of stories, how important it is that we share things together, that we value people more than money (you may listen to the talk here). Bonnie hadn’t read any of Joanne’s books but was inspired to get in touch with this speaker.

Joanne added that narratives are about making connections. This was a perfectly timed connection – like magic.

Bonnie told us that it almost didn’t happen. The letter from the publisher asking her to create the drawings was binned as she thought it was junk mail – Look! We can put your drawings in a book! Luckily the publisher sent a follow up which she read.

By this time all the words had been written and the art was needed quickly. Bonnie had 8 weeks to produce 24 illustrations. Nevertheless she loved working with Joanne as she was given free rein. She knew that the publisher wanted the illustrations spaced. The prose was so poetic she could have illustrated everything.

Joanne introduced us to The Blue Salt Road by talking about the Child Ballads. They reflect real events such as rape, abuse and other forms of domestic violence. The selkie story is a Scottish legend, often of a young girl bound into slavery by a man. She wished to subvert this and consider: in a patriarchal society how can women gain empowerment? In her story a young woman, Flora, is living on an island with a limited gene pool. She has an agenda.

Joanne gave a reading from where Flora first meets her selkie.

The Blue Salt Road is a love story but one of entrapment. The selkie is tamed and must find work. The limitations of island living mean he ends up a whaler, killing sea life. Unlike the other men, it feels wrong to him and he doesn’t understand why.

Flora also has limited options and convinces herself she has done the selkie a favour. Their environment is harsh. Life is about survival. Joanne wished this to be reflected in the illustrations but also to show the beauty of the sea. In its rawest sense, this is a story about where we have all come from.

Bonnie talked about stories being a way of understanding ourselves long before psychologists offered their services. They provide a means of talking about dark and difficult subjects.

She based several of her drawings on people she knows. In A Pocketful of Crows she drew a 14 year old whose personality seemed to fit. Flora is also based on a real person – a girl who has wild hair and a dissatisfaction with life. When asked, the teenager was blasé about her likeness appearing in a book. Bonnie did change certain features as she wished Flora to look a little sly.

Bonnie had longer to produce the drawings for the second book than the first. She wanted to include rock pools, crabs, to show the folds of the walrus’s skin. Drawing waves was a challenge so she made them stylised. Each seal that is a selkie has a little spiral tattoo. Bonnie would have liked to draw the scene on the beach where Flora and her selkie are nude but the publishers weren’t keen.

  

Joanne told us that often author and illustrator don’t work so closely together. She talked of the view that illustrated books are only for children. One hundred years ago many adult works were lavishly illustrated. The drawings enhance the story providing a visual mood board.

There is to be a third book and Bonnie has seen the initial words even before the editor. Bonnie is working on another project and sent Joanne one of her works in progress. Joanne was so impressed that she decided to adapt her story that this wonderful, evocative picture may be incorporated.

Questions were opened up to the audience.

Q: Will there be more books after the third is published? These beautiful books look so good on a bookshelf.

It depends on how the first three sell. Joanne would like to write more. She is fond of the novella with its linear format. Time constrained people appreciate books that are quick to read and offer even more when reread.

Bonnie added that reading a book in one go is like eating a big slice of delicious cake. She reads the manuscript from start to finish to get a feel for the story and then rereads particular chapters to think of possible illustrations. Each chapter is a little story in itself.

Q: How do you tease a story out of a ballad?

The ballad is a starting point. It introduces themes, such as entrapment (man), agency (women). These are perennial concerns. Ideas are then built on, such as how would the selkie feel and react when offered seal stew which the folk often eat. The ballads are springboards.

Q: Why did you include your initial in your author name?

Joanne writes mainstream novels as well as fantasy. Some readers who enjoy psychological thrillers may not wish to read magical realism. It allows them to better understand what to expect.

Q: When you write how do you keep control of your imagination to get things down on paper quickly enough?

Joanne doesn’t wish to keep her imagination under control. She writes each day, even if only 300 words. She will start by revisiting the previous day’s efforts, reading it aloud to judge if it works. As a musician and linguist as well as a writer vocal patterns matter to her. Reading aloud also makes obvious what is superfluous.

Q: Do you have a structure to your working day?

Not so much as many other things are going on. When at home Joanne will start at 8.30am and work to lunchtime by which time a break is needed. When on tour she keeps working, writing in hotels or on trains. If she goes for more than three days without writing, the book goes feral. Even 20 minutes a day maintains the headspace of the narrative. As a full time writer there are many non writing tasks that fill the time she used to filled with her job as a teacher.

Bonnie has no particular structure to her day. She often works early in the morning and late into the evening with her day consumed by other demands. When she has deadlines the work just has to get done. She knows what she wants to draw but each piece takes a long time to complete.

Joanne talked of her dislike of deadlines. She is always aware that others are waiting on her work – editors and so on – but finds deadlines cause panic which isn’t conducive to the creation of art.

  

Q: What does a publisher’s art department do to the work – does Bonnie retain any control?

Bonnie scans her drawings at an ultra high resolution and submits this. Afterwards she has no further say over what will happen to the work.

There was some discussion about illustrated books and how children also appreciate more complex drawings – there is no need to simplify.

The jacket design was done by someone else as this is a different skill, requiring consideration of the placement of words and sales stickers. Bonnie would not wish to have to think of this when drawing.

As the evening drew to a close many books were purchased from the hosts, Toppings Bookshop. Joanne and Bonnie signed copies on request. The opportunity to have my book signed by both author and illustrator was too tempting to resist so I waited in line before heading home.

Joanne was kind enough to chat to me before the event. Both author and illustrator made this event even more special by being so open and friendly throughout.

The Blue Salt Road and A Pocketful of Crows are published by Gollancz (Orion Books).

  

 

 

Gig Review: Sally Rooney in Bath

The following is taken from notes I jotted down at the event.

Last Sunday evening I attended a packed event at Toppings bookshop in Bath where Sally Rooney gave readings from her latest novel, the Booker longlisted Normal People, and discussed how she approached her writing. She was introduced by Matt, one of the booksellers and an obviously ardent fan. Sally then read from the opening pages of her book.

She told us that she wished to tell the stories of the protagonists, Marianne and Connell, from each of their perspectives. She first started writing about these characters in short stories, set when they were in their twenties. Her first attempt placed them at a political protest but that story didn’t work out. She then wrote a second story about them which was published in The White Review. As the characters kept turning up in her writing she decided to allow them to stay and to develop them further.

At this stage Sally didn’t have a publishing contract. The jumps in time in the novel occurred because she was writing about the stages in the characters’ lives that she was interested in. Normal People was written over a two year period but Marianne and Connell had been with Sally for a year longer than this.

Matt asked about the genesis of her first novel, Conversations With Friends.

Sally was studying at Trinity College Dublin for her Masters. She had a scholarship that covered fees and was working part time in a restaurant. She had no real idea what she would do next. The book was her first attempt at a full length novel. It turned into a long long novel. Once finished she set it aside and wrote the short stories about Marianne and Connell. She worked on both these manuscripts, back and forth, for her own amusement. She knew she wanted to be a writer but with no contract felt under no pressure, enjoying the freedom to write what she wanted. She suspects that there will be pressure with whatever she writes next, that she will feel a need to create something new and different.

Matt asked what it is about the novels that resonates so with readers.

Sally has no idea. When writing she considered her subjects niche and of limited appeal. They are culturally specific, about the life she was living (although not autobiographical). She is grateful that people like her books but has no idea why certain novels work. She now wonders why she thought such specificity would not be liked as many of her favourite novels involve characters that are nothing like her.

Matt asked how she got an agent.

An essay Sally wrote was published in the Dublin Review. This was spotted by an agent who contacted her asking if she had a novel, giving her the motivation to tidy up what became Conversations With Friends.

Sally talked about how strange it feels to see her novels as a product in a bookshop, to see a fixed version of the text. If she wants to she can still go to her laptop, pull up the word document and change it!

She loves writing and feels grateful that she can do this now. It feels incredibly rewarding having this imaginative existence. The pleasure of writing is completely separate from the experience of publishing a book.

Matt asked about the idea of masculinity. He said it blew his mind reading about Connell’s recognition of how he should behave alongside the reality of his behaviour.

Sally explained that during the process of writing she isn’t aware of broader ideas. She writes how characters are and how they act. Later she will think about issues covered more, asking if she is doing the character justice or making him a puppet to express her ideas.

Ideas of gender are a series of cultural texts. Children grow up being exposed to what is regarded as appropriate for a boy and a girl. They absorb this. Navigating expectations as a young person can be difficult and complex.

Sally wishes to be able to sympathise with her protagonists. She wishes to remain optimistic about the possibility of redemption.

The second reading was taken from the chapter in Normal People where Connell has just started at university and attends a party. Sally’s reading brought out the ironic humour of the text.


Photo taken from my seat at the back of a packed bookshop. Sally is there in the distance!

Questions were invited from the audience.

A reader asked about the endings of both novels as she felt they stopped rather abruptly.

The ending was the part of the stories that Sally struggled with most. When writing Conversations With Friends she regarded it as a tapestry in which every loose thread must be tied. She then realised that she could actually just end it if she wanted. This was liberating. She chose to leave the ending open. With Normal People she got to around the tenth draft and saw similarities with a book she was reading, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. The overlaps may be a byproduct of her total immersion in the text but it helped her understand how her book should end. She believes in ambivalence, inconclusiveness.

Sally was asked what books and authors inspire her.

As well as Daniel Deronda she named Emma by Jane Austin which also has echoes in her writing. Emma is another twenty-something year old woman, with similar problems despite living two hundred years ago. Sally enjoys eighteenth and nineteenth century bourgeoisie novels, the intimate lives of those who have a lot of free time. The Irish experience is, of course, culturally and politically different due to historic land ownership.

She also enjoys reading contemporary short story writers. For better or worse she is influenced by texts and tweets.

Sally was asked about how she handles class, why Connell’s working class background is so integral.

Reading has informed an image of society. It is hard to write without observing the texture of how class structures interactions. Sally came from the West of Ireland to attend Trinity and felt alienated. A much larger proportion of Trinity students than is normal in Irish society come from elite families. She was determined to prove that she could be as good as them.

She feels invested in and wants to be sensitive to class issues.

Sally was asked what sparked Marianne’s submissiveness and power, if she researched these issues.

No, she didn’t research. She doesn’t wish to create a commentary on such issues. She writes about the characters she creates, how they carry past experiences. They will be influenced by trauma but also every other thing – layers of experience. She is not trying to write as an expert. She wants to be politically sensitive but also true to the weirdness of individuals.

In Normal People she was telling one story – the relationship between Marianne and Connell. It was not necessary to include every other detail of their lives.

The third reading concluded the evening. This was a section where Connell attends a literary event. He is suffering depression which perhaps feeds the cynicism expressed. It was amusing, given the venue and audience, that Sally chose this to read.


Photograph Credit: Toppings twitter feed – @ToppingsBath

As staff cleared away the many seats two queues formed: to buy books and have them signed. Despite the length of the queues it was good to see that the author found time to chat to each reader.

It was getting late so I decided against waiting and headed back out into the rain to make my way home. Sally came across as genuine and interesting. I was glad to have attended this event.

Normal People is published by Faber & Faber. Signed copies are currently available to buy at Toppings in Bath

Gig Review: Launching Quieter Than Killing

Yesterday evening I attended the Book Launch for Sarah Hilary’s latest crime thriller, Quieter Than Killing (reviewed here). Held in one of Bath’s beautiful independent bookshops, Toppings, it drew a large and friendly crowd. I was soon chatting to two Bristol based crime book reviewers who were unimpressed by my efforts to get there. Ladies, that 45 minute journey is only straightforward for those comfortable with driving a car…

Unusually for me I opted to settle at the back when we were invited to take our seats. Having attended several of Sarah’s events I wanted to take this opportunity to photograph the crowd.

Sarah opened proceedings by thanking her publisher, agent and family before reading from her book to a rapt audience. Alison Graham (@TVAlisonGraham), whose other claims to fame includes her work with the Radio Times, then asked an excellent range of questions.

Throughout the Marnie Rome series the plot arc of her foster brother Stephen, who murdered her parents when he was fourteen years old, is developed. Why did he do it?

Sarah talked of Stephen’s obsession with Marnie and the emptiness he feels, how Marnie fills a void in him, and that she got away. In Quieter Than Killing his predicament is presented in a way that draws a degree of sympathy from the reader. Sarah does not plot her books prior to writing so cannot say if or when his reasons for killing will be revealed.

Alison asked where Marnie Rome came from, and also the writing in general.

We were told that Marnie arrived fully developed and first appeared in a story that has not been published – thank goodness according to Sarah! She has always been scribbling stories but didn’t make any serious attempt to write until about fifteen years ago, starting with short stories and flash fiction. A friend told her that she had a dark streak and suggested she try her hand at the crime genre. Novel writing commenced six to seven years ago.

As this series has progressed Marnie has become softer, nicer. Sarah’s child has suggested that she kill Noah (cue gasps of horror from the audience) to explore the emotional impact on Marnie. No decisions have been made…

Sarah was asked why Marnie has a tattoo.

It is all about secrets. The quotes are from Albert Camus, who Sarah loves, although she smiled at how pretentious this can seem. She wanted Marnie to have chosen to undertake something painful, a youthful decision that she may, in later life, regret. At a book club event Sarah was taken to task about the cost “How could an 18 year old afford such an expensive procedure?” She would not reveal if she herself has a tattoo.

Sarah’s empathy and her ability to write children so well was commented on.

Her mother spent several years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and Sarah was raised on her grandmother’s stories from this time, although they were told as interesting anecdotes, the full horror only being understood as she got older and learned more from history. It taught Sarah that stories can be multi-faceted.

 

Alison and Sarah – photo credit, the Twitter feed of author MG Harris (@RealMGHarris)

There was a discussion of London, where Sarah lived for eleven years, and of her fascination with Battersea Power Station. She has no plans to buy one of the modern apartments being built there – having Sting as a neighbour, with his noisy, tantric sex, was not appealing.

Sarah was asked if she would consider setting a book in Bath. The answer was no. Three severed feet have been found in the city in recent years. Local news outlets considered if these may be art installations or a student prank. There was no suggestion of a serial killer – as if such a thing could never happen in Bath. She may consider taking Marnie north though, perhaps to Cumbria.

Which contemporary crime writers does Sarah admire?

  • Mick Herron, whose Slough House series  is funny and clever.
  • Ali Land, whose debut, Good Me Bad Me, about a fifteen year old in care because her mother is a serial killer, is amazing.
  • Alex Marwood
  • Sabine Durrant
  • Jane Casey
  • Susie Steiner

Questions were invited from the audience and Sarah was asked if she would consider writing anything other than crime fiction.

She has an idea for a dark and twisty ghost story, although suspects it would be more of a novella. She has also considered a standalone psychological thriller. There are at least two more Marnie Rome books to come (my note – yay!).

Did Sarah know from the beginning that she would write a series?

This was always her hope. She wanted to take Marnie on a journey, developing the character as she was affected by her various experiences. Character is what matters. A diverse cast, especially in London, is a reflection of reality. Characters do not need to be nice to be compelling.

Good fiction is about raising questions in the reader’s mind. Crime fiction, and also young adult fiction, offer scope for exploring a wide range of social and political issues.

After the questions Sarah took time to chat to eager members of her audience who then cleared the counter of the enticing, new hardback editions of her book. A long queue formed for these to be signed at which point I took my leave. This was an excellent event and well worth that anxiety inducing drive.

Quieter Than Killing is published by Headline and is available to buy now.

Looking forward to #BookshopDay

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Saturday 8th October is 2016’s Bookshop Day in the British Isles. I plan on visiting my local Waterstones and hope to pick up the specially designed Books Are My Bag Winnie-the-Pooh tote, and to fill it with some new books of course.

In previous years I have travelled to Bath, the closest city to where I live. I wrote this piece for the blog on their official online tourist information site, Visit Bath back in 2015.

Bath is for Bibliophiles!

Book lovers love Bath, and with good reason. Want to buy books? Find them in the impressive range of bookshops. Want to meet the authors? Order a ticket for one of the many events which happen throughout the year.

The Bath Literature Festival runs for ten days in early spring and offers audiences a chance to listen to and interact with many of the big names in books, as well as lesser known and local talent.

The Bath Kids Literature Festival, also a ten day event, runs in early autumn and offers a wide and eclectic range of lively book themed events to keep all ages entertained.

These annual extravaganzas generate a buzz which is fun to be a part of, but literary events are happening in Bath all year round. Thanks to the efforts of two of the city’s fabulous independent bookshops there are a variety of both small gatherings and larger fixtures to appeal to all interests.

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Topping and Company Booksellers (pictured above) offer the quintessential bookshop experience, with shelves and tables overflowing with tempting choices, and friendly, knowledgeable staff always available to help guide customers to their next great read.

Regular events offer access to a range of authors, with the cost of tickets refundable against the cost of the book being discussed. Some of these are intimate affairs are held within the shop, while others are staged in larger venues nearby.

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Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights (pictured below) offers not just a range of carefully chosen books in their three floored warren of a shop, but also the option to buy someone you love the gift of a Reading Spa or a Year of Books. These include a consultation with a bibliotherapist to ensure that each recommendation will delight the recipient.

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Where better to find a bath full of books than in a Bath bookshop? Meander through their various rooms and look out for the quirky displays: a customer toilet that has been decorated by the Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell; a stairway papered with Tintin comics; a ceiling decorated with book themed tote bags. The shop is a relaxing haven for booklovers. Take a comfy chair by the fire, pour yourself a complimentary cup of coffee, and check out that book you know you want to buy.

Mr B's

Mr B’s events are often intimate gatherings, enabling the audience to enter into discussions and interact with the author; some of them are even free to attend. They are held in various locations, including the shop’s own bibliotherapy room, with larger gatherings scheduled at alternative venues.

All of these events may be booked online. If you are planning a trip to the city then check out what is going on while you are here. You may just be tempted to make this the primary reason for your visit.

Jackie Law is a wife, mother, hen keeper and writer who lives in a small village east of Bath. She is an avid reader and publishes book reviews and other related posts on her blog. She is easily distracted, especially by Twitter, where you can follow her: @followthehens.    

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When I wrote this piece I had yet to discover the delights of Waterstones which I now know is another beautifully laid out bookshop that hosts excellent author events. It has friendly, welcoming staff and a coffee shop with free wifi.

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The central shopping area in Bath is compact for a city, giving visitors the chance to easily explore all three of these booklover’s oases.

Which bookshops will you be visiting this weekend?

Gig Review: Jason Hewitt in Bath

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Yesterday evening I attended my first book event of the Autumn season. With two of my children now up at university I have more time to treat myself to such outings. This first excursion was to Toppings bookshop in Bath where Jason Hewitt was due to hold a local launch for his second published novel, ‘Devastation Road’, which I review here.

I follow Jason on Twitter so had picked up on the fact that he has recently moved from London to Bath. What I had not been aware of was that he has a personal history with the city. Twelve years ago he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. In the audience were a number of other writers who have either taken this course or are currently attending. There were also published authors, family members and various friends there to support this very personable young man. It was one of the most open and friendly events I have been to. I enjoyed chatting to a variety of attendees both before and after the author’s talk.

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Jason opened by explaining why he came to write this book. His first published work, ‘The Dynamite Room’, is also set during the Second World War and he wished to stick with the same period. The challenge was how to tell a story that had not been told many times before. As he was unfamiliar with events in mainland Europe around VE day he decided that others may also have this gap in knowledge. There was scope to inform readers as well as to entertain.

We were treated to three readings from the book. As always it was interesting to hear an author give voice to his characters. Jason is also an actor and was a delight to listen to. He appeared very relaxed in front of his captivated crowd.

The plot explores memory and the impact of its loss. Owen, the main character in the book, wakes in a field with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. When he discovers that he is not in Hampshire, as he first believes, but rather in Czechoslovakia, he determines to make his way back home to England. Thus begins a road trip during which he joins the many hundreds of thousands of other displaced people caught in a war ravaged Europe at that time. His memory gradually returns, snapshots finding context and merging to provide some coherancy to his background.

Jason explained that he wished to evoke the numbness felt by many, particularly in Germany, as the war ended – the surreal atmosphere caused by the pause when survivors wondered what would happen next. The many prejudices did not just disappear. The celebratory atmosphere experienced in Britain was not enjoyed here.

Many people in Germany were just waking up to what had been happening so close to their homes. There was the practicality of how to deal with a vast number of stranded foreigners. There were ill and injured requiring treatment, including those liberated from the dreadful camps. There was the question, reminiscent of the refugee crisis today, of who should pay.

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Jason concluded his talk by taking questions from the audience. I wondered if the unusually high quality of these was down to the fact that so many attendees were writers themselves.

He was asked about his research for the book. As a part of this, Jason made the same journey across Europe that his characters took. He aims for historical accuracy in his writing, only veering from fact when essential for the plot. Although entirely fictional, what happened to each character happened to someone for real. Place names have been changed but each location exists.

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This fascinating discussion could have gone on much longer but time was called and I took my copy of the book to be signed. I was taken aback to discover as I left the shop that a couple of hours had passed. Time truly does fly when spent in such convivial company.

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Devastion Road is published by Scribner (Simon and Schuster UK) and is available to buy now.

 

 

Gig Review: Kit de Waal in Bath

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Since reading Kit de Waal’s captivating debut, My Name Is Leon (which I review here), I have been looking forward to meeting the author and hearing her talk about how she came to write such an authentic, perceptive book. Thanks to Toppings, one of Bath’s beautiful independent bookshops, I had this opportunity last night.

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Toppings had a wonderful window display for the book and event. Apologies that my camera struggled to capture it in all its glory due to the reflected sunshine.

Having spent the afternoon exploring the city and enjoying the warm weather I was relieved to enter this sanctuary and rest my weary legs whilst imbibing my glass of complimentary wine. As I watched the place fill up I was able to listen to readers discussing the book and how it had touched them.

Kit started her talk with a little personal background. Like the eponymous protagonist of her novel she is mixed race, although she gave no indication if this caused her any difficulties growing up. She did say that her home was always filled with children, cared for by her mother at a time when child minding was not so tightly regulated. Parents could fail to collect their children for days at a time and her mother would cope.

Kit’s career spanned periods working in law courts and at social services before her own adopted children needed her to stay at home to provide care. Driven to distraction by being in her house all day after many years spent in demanding jobs she decided to try her hand at writing a book. She wrote an astounding thriller that, for some reason, nobody wished to publish. An MA course in creative writing offered some explanation as to why, and it was around this time that Leon came to life.

Kit now sits on an adoption advisory panel so has first hand experience of the difficult decisions that must sometimes be made by adults regarding vulnerable children’s welfare. All of this background and experience has been channelled into her candid, poignant tale of a young boy who is separated from everything he loves and cares for through no fault of his own.

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Kit gave two readings from her book. These brought to life the challenges the characters faced, especially Leon’s mother, Carol, who it would be rather too easy to condemn for the way she neglected to provide adequate care for her young boys. Kit pointed out that many of the parents she deals with through social services have had difficult childhoods of their own. Carol was a teenager when she gave birth to Leon and suffered from depression and reliance on drugs. Most parents love their children even if they cannot provide for their needs without support, perhaps through lack of knowledge, ability or circumstance. Like Leon, however badly they are treated, children most often continue to love their parents.

Questions were invited from the audience. These were mainly about Kit’s writing and her own experince of dealing with young people put in care. She pointed out that, whilst early intervention may enable more families to stay together, this is expensive. In the current climate, funding is made available for crisis management but less so for long term support. More adopters are needed, but relatively few are willing to take on large family groups of children, meaning that decisions to split up beloved siblings must be made.

Kit told us that some of the characters in her book will be revisited in a collection of short stories that she is currently working on. I am always on the look out for well written, innovative short story collections so am excited to hear that one is being prepared by such a talented writer.

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As we queued to have copies of our books signed I discovered that a twitter friend was also in the audience. It was lovely to meet fellow book lover and blogger Claire Thinking (pictured above with Kit). You should all go and follow her on twitter now: Claire Thinking.

Thank you to Kit and Toppings for an interesting and enjoyable evening. It was lovely to listen to an author who seemed so at home with her audience. You should also of course, read her book.

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‘My Name Is Leon’ is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is available to buy now.

 

 

Gig Review: Joanne Harris in Bath

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Anyone who follows Joanne Harris on Twitter (and if you don’t, you should) will know that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She comes across online as strong, assured, and intelligent. Add to this she is the author of a variety of styles of books, which suggests to me that she has no desire to be pigeon holed. This is the sort of person whose talents I can admire. Thus, when I spotted that Toppings Bookshop in Bath was offering an evening with this estimable author to promote her latest work, Different Class (which I review here), I decided to go along.

There are risks in meeting someone not personally known but admired. An author is not their work and I would never wish to judge a book by any prejudices I may hold against its creator. With Ms Harris this was not an issue. Attending a talk and a reading is still to observe a public persona, but when warmth and a sense of fun bubbles through as it did at this event my admiration can only increase.

As is my wont I arrived early at the venue. I was studying the window display when I noticed Ms Harris enter the shop. Not wishing to intrude upon her introductions to the staff I hung back before making my way inside. Unlike many visiting authors she had not moved out of sight but was browsing the stacks. When I gave my name to the manager she recognised it. “You are @followthehens” she said. My evening was made. If only I had the skill for small talk I believe she would happily have chatted on. Never have I regretted my social failings so much.

The evening commenced with a short introduction after which Ms Harris talked of her inspirations. Her mother had cautioned early that writers often died peniless and that a more secure job was required. With such a gauntlet thrown down Ms Harris penned two works with quiet success. Quiet success is not enough, however, and to continue she needed to find a home for her third work.

It was while she was constructing a sculpture of her rejections that she received a thirty page letter from a prospective agent detailing her failings as a writer. These included not setting her story in America, and not including enough sex. The manuscript was for ‘Chocolat’ whose subsequent success (without the suggested changes) enabled Ms Harris to leave her secure job. She talked of the film adaptation saying that she was content not to have been involved. That it was made was pleasing as many books are optioned and go no further.

Of the variety of styles of her books, Ms Harris sees all as similar, all inspired by her time as a teacher at a boys’ grammar school in Leeds. Each is set in a small community, is character based, and explores the masks constructed to facilitate acceptance and survival in society. She is interested in how even friends rarely know each other well, an obvious theme in her latest work.

As a former teacher Ms Harris is familiar with the issues she explores. She commented that, when writing fiction, fact must often be toned down or readers will not find the thread realistic. She sets her books in the past as that is what she has experienced. She believes that most teachers will have had to deal with the problem of a special little friend amongst their pupils.

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We were treated to a couple of readings from Different Class before questions were invited from the capacity audience. These were fielded with humour and a sprinkling of anecdotes. I particularly enjoyed hearing of the young Ms Harris who, on arriving for her first day teaching at Leeds Grammar School wearing a smart trouser suit, was informed by the second master that ladies must wear skirts or frocks. The next day she donned a red PVC mini skirt and long boots, carrying the trouser suit over her arm. She was permitted to change.

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It was disappointing when the bookshop manager called time, although we were then invited to come forward and have our books signed. Once again Ms Harris showed warmth and friendship and I regretted my inability to engage in chat. It was a fascinating and enjoyable evening.

The photos I took did not come out as well as I had hoped – I failed to capture the smile in the author’s eyes and the fun she conveyed. My new phone has a camera I find tricky to operate. Or perhaps it is simply that a lovely personality shines through the masks constructed for the public, and such things require that you be there.

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Different Class is published by Doubleday and is available to buy now.

 

Gig Review: Matt Haig in Bath

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On Monday evening, not so fresh off the plane from Belfast, I made my way to the City of Bath for a literary event that I just couldn’t miss, despite being exhausted from my long weekend away. The wonderful Toppings Bookshop were hosting Matt Haig, author of The HumansA Boy Called Christmas, and the book he had come to talk about that evening, Reasons to Stay Alive. This had been on my wish list for some time so I was eager to buy myself a copy and to meet an author whose twitter feed I follow avidly.

Toppings host many author events, often in local churches or other larger venues, but this one was to be held in the bookshop itself, just one of the reasons I had been so keen to attend. The constraints of space would ensure a more intimate experience. Arriving early I picked up a very welcome glass of wine and settled down in a front row seat. As the shop started to fill up and extra seating was put in place I realised how lucky we were that the event had not been moved elsewhere to accommodate the crowd.

I had not read the book but knew that it was non fiction and dealt with the author’s personal experiences with depression. He started his talk by outlining how this illness had come out of nowhere, suddenly, viciously. He mentioned the support he had been given by his family, and the failure of medication to deal with his particular symptoms. He read to us an early chapter of the book which brought to life how close he had been to death.

Obviously he did not die. The second half of the talk focused on the positives to have come out of his experiences. He believes that having a thin skin means that he can feel more and that this is a good thing. He has heightened appreciation, can recognise and empathise with other’s struggles. He knows now that the worst episodes of mental illness will eventually pass, even if they may also return. From what I have heard of his book he says this all much more cogently than me so do go read it!

After sharing another chapter from near the end of the book Matt asked for questions from his audience. This part of the event was not what I had expected. Instead of asking about his writing, or about other’s reactions to the book, the questions focused on how to help people the audience members knew who were suffering mental illness. Perhaps Matt is used to this, he certainly dealt with it gently. I wondered why these people did not seek out experts in the field rather than asking for solutions from an author, albeit one who has experience of these issues.

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I had purchased a signed copy so did not feel the need to join the lengthy queue which snaked around the shop at the end. I should, perhaps, point out that the wine glasses in the picture above were not Matt’s. He had talked of his decision to cut back on many of the lifestyle drugs it is common to imbibe and throughout the evening sipped only on water.

I made my way to the train station and was updating my twitter feed with a picture of the event when I noticed that Matt had entered the lounge and was also tapping away on his phone. I had just tagged him and was entertained by the thought that we were communicating via social media whilst within feet of each other. I decided to talk to him.

What is the protocol for this? An author travels to a city, performs at a bookshop, and then leaves to catch the train home. Sitting in the station is someone who was at the event. How do they feel about a stranger sitting down opposite and talking as they both wait for the train?

I have no idea what Matt thought. He was gracious, answering my questions and indulging in idle chat as we waited for the five or so minutes until our train was announced. As we moved to the platform he made it clear that he would not be sitting with me. I had never intended to impose myself on him in this way. Perhaps it was my social anxiety kicking in and I read too much into his words. He had mentioned that he was still adjusting his body clock after a long haul flight so was probably exhausted.

I noticed as I moved away from him that a young girl approached to let him know how much she enjoyed his books. I hope that he felt flattered by the kindly meant attention. I have since posed the question of protocol on a Facebook Group I belong to, Book Connectors, which exists to bring bloggers and authors together. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, that authors wish to talk to their fans.

As I made my way home I pondered social etiquette and expectations. I had wondered at the audience members looking to Matt for answers to problems in their lives. I had looked to him for some small measure of friendship when he knew nothing about me. I wonder how he saw us.

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Reasons to Stay Alive is published by Canongate Books and is available to buy now.

 

 

Bath is for Bibliophiles!

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Today I am over at the Insider’s Guide, the blog for Visit Bath – The Official Tourist Information Site for Bath Tourism.

I am writing about ‘why the city is perfect for bookworms’.

You can pop across to check out my post by clicking on this link: Bath is for Bibliophiles!