A Sudanese modern classic …

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

tayeb salihThis was our July choice for book group, picked by a new member to our group who is Sudanese and was keen to introduce us to what is regarded as a classic of Sudanese literature and one of the most important Arabic novels of the twentieth century.

This short novel didn’t have an easy journey into print. It was published in 1966 at a time of great political and cultural change in Khartoum where Salih worked for the BBC. It was condemned by most factions there and in the introduction to this edition, Salih bemoans the fact that he has scarcely received any royalties from it –  as a banned book it was mostly distributed underground. It did, however, get attention outside Sudan, being translated into twenty languages. Notably, the English translation by Denys Johnson-Davies published in 1969 has stood the test of time.

Our narrator, a young man returns home to his village on the banks of the Nile in Sudan after seven years studying and living in London. He notices a new man in the village; Mustafa Sa’eed who married one of Mahmoud’s daughters and has been there for five years now. The narrator’s interest in Mustafa is increased when one night, when they had all been drinking together, Mustafa starts quoting war poems in perfect English. A few days later Mustafa comes to talk to the narrator and tells him his story, about how he’d gone to school in Cairo and on to London to study where he had affairs and two of the English girls committed suicide. Mustafa became obsessed with another English girl, Jean Morris, and she was to be his downfall…  After all that ensued, he escaped back to the Sudan and tries to live a normal life.

The narrator goes on to tell how Mustafa later disappears, presumed drowned in the Nile’s flooding, but he had left a will asking the narrator to take care of his wife and sons. There are some bitter scenes as Hosna’s father tries to marry her off again to an older man. Throughout there are flashbacks to Mustafa’s life in London.

This short novel has many sides, framed within an evocation of life in a Sudanese village by the Nile in the 1960s.

Women knew their place unless they were old and much-married like Bint Majzoub, who at seventy and having seen off eight husbands has the right to sit with the old men drinking and smoking. There was one really uncomfortable scene, which I’m not going to quote from, where the old men were all joking about female circumcision. It’s fair to say that the objectivisation of women made it difficult for the women in our book group to appreciate the humour – although Bint gives as good as she gets, commenting on the men’s prowess or lack thereof. She is a magnificent character.

One of the themes we discussed at length was how the author, having experience of the West himself, was trying to subvert the idea of being exotic – the Occident vs the Orient. Mustafa came to London to conquer the West. He is the Arab lover that drives women wild, until he meets his nemesis in Jean Morris. His life in London and after contrasts totally with the narrator’s. The narrator returns home a prodigal son, welcomed back to become a respected high-school teacher of pre-Islamic literature. Mustafa returns to hide from his past. This is really Mustafa’s story rather than the narrator’s; he subsumes himself in much of the novel – it is not always clear whether it is Mustafa or the narrator talking in some of the philosophical discussion that makes for a large part of the text.

While I can’t say I enjoyed this short novel, it was fascinating and certainly provided much to discuss in our book group. (6/10)

I should certainly seek out more African and Arabic literature to read – and indeed have found a newly published short novel by another Sudanese author which sounds like an African version of Miss Hargreaves! (my review of that here). Watch this space for Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir.

For another view on this novel, do visit Jonathan’s post, who coincidentally read the book at the same time we did.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
Season of Migration to the North (Penguin Modern Classics) by Tayeb Salih. Paperback, 192 pages including preface.
Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir, pub Bloomsbury, paperback 176 pages.
Miss Hargreaves (The Bloomsbury Group)

Ronning and Stilton return

Third Voice by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind

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I had the good fortune to give out copies of Spring Tide, of which Third Voice is the sequel, for World Book Night back in April. I enjoyed Spring Tide so much that Third Voice had a lot to live up to, but it didn’t disappoint. The husband and wife team, the Börjlinds, have succeeded in delivering another multi-stranded and complex crime thriller that continues in much the same vein as their first.

I should add that you ought to read Spring Tide first, there is little recapping of earlier events; Third Voice assumes you know the basics of what happened before. This gives space for much character development for the two leads, Olivia Rönning and Tom Stilton.

Olivia, coming towards the end of her police training isn’t sure she wants to join the police force proper – confused about her heritage, she thinks she might go off and study the history of art, taking her birth mother’s surname too. However, when out for a walk with her adoptive mother, they encounter the police at a neighbour’s house – a government employee who appears to have committed suicide. His young daughter found him. Olivia and Maria look after the girl until her aunt can arrive – and we know that Olivia’s curiosity will ensure that she seeks to investigate the case.

Whereas Tom, the former DI, former homeless person, now sharing a barge with an equally enigmatic landlady is dragged off to Marseilles by his friend Abbas to investigate the death of a woman called Samira.

These two threads seem initially unconnected, but gradually they start weaving together and it is Mette, the DCI, who has problems of her own to contend with, that will bring everything together. Old foes will reappear and new ones come into play in a plot that twists and turns all over the place. There are some gruesome moments as you might expect, but the clever plotting, wonderful characterisation which goes beyond the two leads, and a real sense of justice prevail once again to dominate the violence.

I do hope the Börjlinds (and their translator Hilary Parnfors) continue to write more Rönning and Stilton books, for these are the real deal. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Third Voice (Ronning & Stilton 2)by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind, pub Hesperus, March 2015, paperback original, 464 pages.
Spring Tide (Ronning & Stilton 1)

 

Shiny New Books – Issue 6!

Lots of book reviews to come, but today I have to plug the new issue of Shiny New Books which has just been published.

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As always you’ll find an eclectic mix of bestsellers and undiscovered gems from around the world of books within its pages. Please do go and take a look. I’ve been so busy that I’ve only contributed three reviews this time (although as the backroom engine, I did schedule over 70 of the 75 pages!) – I’ll tell you about them another day.

Huge thanks to all our contributors, publishers who supplied review copies, and especially my wonderful co-editors: Victoria, Harriet and Simon.

I’m off for my breakfast now – but I will leave you with the cover star of the new issue’s fiction section – Harry, guarding books on the stairs.

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British Writing is Not All Grey

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You’ll have seen this popping up around the blogosphere, originating from a call by Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize Director Sophie Rochester to celebrate contemporary British writing. People have been using it as a hashtag #britishwritingisnotallGrey on Twitter etc; Naomi blogged about it here and Susan here. So I’ve decided to join in and add my list of contemporary/living British writers I particularly enjoy and have blogged about into the mix – here they are, with links to my posts featuring them:

….. and these are only a selection of those I’ve blogged about!

Simenon’s most autobiographical roman dur…

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

three bedroomsLast month I had the opportunity to meet John Simenon, Georges’s son at an event celebrating the prolific Belgian author and his work. Apart from all the Maigret novels, Simenon was famed for his romans durs (hard novels) which are standalone, and typically quite dark and noirish in character  – I previously reviewed one of them, Dirty Snow, here. At the event, I mentioned to John that I’d read one of the romans durs in preparation for the event: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, which is reputedly very autobiographical and he told me that it was basically a novelisation of how his mother and father met.

John’s mother was Denyse Ouimet. Georges met her in Manhattan in 1945 when he interviewed her for a secretarial job. She was seventeen years younger than Georges and they married in 1950, once Georges’s divorce from his first wife was finalised. Their relationship was, by all accounts, tempestuous and Denyse suffered from psychosis in later years, but Three Bedrooms was written in 1946 when the couple were still getting to know each other, and could seen as coming straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Being so autobiographical, it’s not perhaps a typical Simenon in plot terms being a romance, but it is a typical Simenon in writing style.

Francis Combe is middle-aged, a noted French actor who has escaped to Manhattan from Paris when dumped for a younger man by his wife. However, once in New York, he finds parts difficult to come by and makes ends meet voicing radio dramas and living in a small apartment in Greenwich village. The novel opens with him waking at 3am and going out to walk rather than listen through thin walls to the drunken antics of his neighbours:

What were they doing, up there in J.K.C.’s apartment? Was Winnie vomiting yet? Probably. Moaning, at first softly, then more loudly, until at last she burst into an endless fit of tears.

Forced to be an insomniac, he goes into a late night diner and meets Kay in a scene that comes straight out of Hopper’s painting Nighthawks which was painted in 1942, (and is even more amazing in real life at the Art Institute of Chicago – it was one of my main reasons for choosing to visit Chicago one vacation ages ago – another was to see Grant Wood’s American Gothic there too, but that was out on loan. Grr!)

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Nightawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. Art Institute of Chicago

‘You’re French?’
She asked the question in French, a French that at first he thought betrayed no accent.
‘How’d you know?’
‘I didn’t. As soon as you came in, even before you said anything, I just thought you were French.’

They eat a little, make small talk – he finds out she’s from Vienna – then, they walk through the streets of the Village and end up in the second bedroom – in a hotel.

The next day, Francis takes Kay back to his apartment, she essentially moves in straight away having been thrown out of the one she shared with a girlfriend which had been financed by Jessie’s now ex-boyfriend. At first Francis tries to resist falling in love with Kay, but Kay immediately and totally falls in love with him:

She said, ‘When we met’ – and she said it even more softly, so that what she was confiding to him now seemed to vibrate within his chest – ‘I was so alone, so hopelessly alone, I was so low, and I new that I’d never pull out of it again, so I decided to leave with the first man who showed up, no matter who he was.
‘I love you, François.’

Having been found and her feeling declared, Kay becomes resolutely upbeat, willing to put up with all of Combe’s moodiness (and boy, he is a moody one!). He is the half of this couple that needs convincing, allowing Kay to look after him, sometimes almost smothering him it seems, but over the course of a few weeks as they walk for miles, eat (slowly), drink (lots), smoke, talk, embrace, being quiet together, collecting Kay’s things from the third bedroom,  Combe will eventually succumb.  It’s touching that they find ‘their song’ on a jukebox, and this is a trigger for Combe – realising his own feelings after fits of jealousy, wondering what she is doing when they are momentarily parted.

The style may be typical Simenon but, there’s a Gallic coolness to it. If you weren’t aware of the autobiographical elements of the story, it would take you some time to warm to Combe, or Kay, but you actually do will them to work it out and find the happiness they are both searching for.  That certainly raised this short novel in my expectations, and I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

I read the NYRB edition which has an excellent introduction by Joyce Carol Oates.  The novel was translated by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman.  For another review of this story, read that by Jacqui – click here

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The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon

galletSpace here for a short word about the second Maigret novel in the new Penguin editions, translated by Anthea Bell. This was the first Maigret to be published as a book, rather than serialised as Pietr the Latvian had been (reviewed here).

Maigret is sent to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Monsieur Gallet, a travelling salesman – or so his widow thinks.  He turns out to be living a double life, and his family seem to be rather unpeturbed by his death – What is going on?

In a mere 155 pages it got so complicated I struggled to keep up and Maigret had to display much dogged determination to solve the mystery too. Aside from Maigret himself,  there were no characters to really warm to either. Not one of the best for me. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, affiliate link, please click below:
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (New York Review Books Classics)
The Late Monsieur Gallet: Inspector Maigret #2 Penguin classics.

The One Version of Laura Barnett

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

versions of usLast night it was a balmy evening in Abingdon – perfect for an author event in the packed courtyard garden of Mostly Books during Independent Bookshop Week. Visiting was Laura Barnett, author of The Versions of Us, a fantastic novel featuring three possible versions of the life of a couple. Publicists have billed it as ‘One Day meets Sliding Doors’, and it’s an apt comparison, as we follow Eva and Jim through the years with roughly annual snapshots in three different versions of how their lives could have turned out adding the what if? aspect of Sliding Doors, although Laura’s novel is more satisfyingly complex than either of them.

The story starts with a prologue in which Jim and Eva are born in 1938. Then we jump to 1958 when Eva and Jim are both studying at Cambridge (where Laura studied) and the timeline splits into three versions of their fateful meeting as Eva is cycling along the banks of the river Cam and she swerves to avoid a dog.

Version Two…

‘Are you all right there?’ Another man was approaching from the opposite direction: a boy, really, about her age, a college scarf looped loosely over his tweed jacket.

‘Quite all right, thank you,’ she said primly. Their eyes met briefly as she remounted – his an uncommonly dark blue, framed by long girlish lashes – and for a second she was sure she knew him, so sure that she opened her mouth to frame a greeting. But then, just as quickly, she doubted herself, said nothing, and pedalled on. As soon as she arrived at Professor Farley’s rooms and began to read out her essay on the Four Quartets, the whole thing slipped from her mind.

The three versions of Jim and Eva’s lives go on to intertwine around each other throughout the book, and we go from Version One to Two to Three as we move through the years. You may be reminded of the structure of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (reviewed here) – but there is no evolution in the lives here – there are just the three interwoven versions. Laura told us how Life After Life had been published as she was halfway through her first draft and she didn’t read it deliberately.

Why three versions? Laura always wanted to have one with the big romance at the start, one where there was a spanner in the works, and well, one that was completely different. Three felt right. She wrote all the stories together, intertwining them from the beginning, envisaging the novel as a plait. She didn’t plan out the three arcs in detail, but did include around five set piece scenes which occur in each version – big birthdays and funerals essentially. Outside of those, she let the lives of her characters develop as they went. She aimed to keep the balance between the three storylines, not favouring any of them, keeping them and the reader guessing, and always trying to maintain compassion for the characters.

Jim and Eva are fantastically well realised in all three versions. We ride the ups and downs of life with them, through good times and bad, infidelities, marriages, parenthood, their careers. We laugh and cry with them, get annoyed with them and get wrong-footed when they don’t do what we expect. Yet, we rarely get confused which version we’re in, except just a little in those segments where the three versions come together at a single event which of course will go three different ways. The Versions of Us is a very accomplished novel and I really enjoyed it.

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Laura’s other day job is as a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic for several London newspapers and Time Out magazine, so she’s no stranger to writing and had written two unpublished novels before coming up with the idea for The Versions of Us.  She told us how, after she’d finished the novel, she found an agent by googling the authors she admires and contacting their agents. In this way, she was picked up by Sarah Waters’ agent, and when they were ready to submit the novel to publishers, just before the annual Frankfurt Book Fair last year (good timing!), there ended up being a bidding war between six publishers and she had the luxury of picking the one she felt most at home with – W&N. Foreign rights are going well too, so it’s been a whirlwind time for Laura, now doing the publicity rounds.

One really great question from the audience was about if she felt that her novel had changed her as a reviewer and critic in any way. Laura’s honest reply was that she didn’t think she could review fiction any more, because she is so aware of what it takes to write a novel now and has great respect for the craft of writing. I asked a seriously smart alec question about the Fates from Greek mythology who spin, weave, measure and snip the threads of life and whether she’d imagined the fates of her characters like that at all with her ‘plaiting’ of their tales. Laura, bless her, hadn’t studied any classics at her South London comprehensive and was amazed at that congruity – she charmingly said she’d have to look it up!

Laura proved to be a very engaging speaker and she was happy to chat and sign books for all. If she’s coming to your neck of the woods, it will be well worth a visit to see her and I can recommend her novel too – bring on the next! (9/10)

Annabel’s Shelves: C is not for …

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino – DNF

calvinoOh dear, I tried and tried to like If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino, but I fear it is not a book for me. So, sorry to Karen and Dark Puss who both championed this book.

It has a wonderfully inventive structure – being a novel of alternating strands. In the first framing narrative, written in the second person, the reader is trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night …. Then, in the second half of each chapter we get the book he is reading, except that it appears to have been mis-bound and consists of a set of different first chapters, which of course, I think, will turn out to be linked.  I say ‘I think’ because I gave up at about page 69, although I did flick through to the end skimming the conclusion and I realise that I’ve mostly missed a love story between the narrator and Ludmilla, who also buys the defective book.

My problems with reading the book were two-fold. Firstly, I didn’t engage with the smug narrator – who spends half the book telling you how to read. Secondly, I didn’t really engage with the stories because I had one of those moments reading the first one where a particular sentence irked me – and I obsessed over whether it was the original or the translation (William Weaver, 1981) that was annoying me (I still don’t know which). The sentence that got me was:

In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor.

It was the repetition of ‘odor’ that got me (that and the American spelling probably!) It just felt lazy to use the same word twice.

On the next page he then goes on to use it many more times:

…with the odor of train that lingers even after all the trains have left, the special odor of stations after the last train has left. The lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of inidicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog. I have landed in this station tonight for the first time in my life, entering and leaving this bar, moving from the odor or the platform to the odor of wet sawdust in the toilets, all mixed in a single odor which is that of waiting, the odor of telephone booths when all you can do is reclaim your tokens because the number called has shown no signs of life.

Maybe it was deliberate the first time too, but by then it was too late for me, I’d been sensitised. Instead it just all felt totally smug, and thus all the parody about books, reading, writing and style, plus the metafictional aspects which I’d been looking forward to fell flat.

So, if I try Calvino again, I’ll go for The Complete Cosmicomics, stories about the evolution of the universe – but I might leave it a while!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (Vintage Classics) trans William Weaver. Paperback, 272 pages.
The Complete Cosmicomics (Penguin Translated Texts) trans Martin McLaughlin. Paperback, 432 pages.

 

A case of the ‘sweats’ …

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

plague times 1 I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading this, the first volume in Louise Welsh’s planned Plague Times trilogy (the second was published earlier this month), for it turned out to be a taut suspense thriller combining a murder mystery with a deadly pandemic – just my kind of book! Equally, I don’t know why I’ve never read any of Louise Welsh’s books before – I own several others after all.

Stevie Flint has just been stood up in a Soho Club. Irritated, but understanding, for Simon is a doctor and often gets called away she goes home, although ‘he had always phoned, or got someone to phone for him’ before.

The next evening she’s at work with Joanie – the pair are presenters on a TV shopping channel, you name it they sell it – dual action toasters today ‘My husband Derek, he likes his golden brown…’ says Joanie. Stevie and Joanie are good friends in real life too and make a great double act on TV with Joanie acting the married housewife and Stevie the smart singleton, roles that are close enough to real life, although Joanie and Derek are separated now. After the end of her shift, Stevie rings the hospital where Simon works only to find that he’s ‘on holiday’, and heads off to his flat to collect her things!

She finds him dead – in bed – with no obvious signs of murder. She does the right thing and calls the police. Later, having called in sick to work, she really is ‘gut-wrenchingly, jaw-stretchingly, horribly sick.’  It takes several days for the fever to work its way through her system. Stevie is one of the first survivors of what they’ve called ‘the sweats’, and few, if any others, are surviving, but it’s not the end of the world – yet!

When she discovers an ‘in case I’m dead’ type letter from Simon in her tea caddy telling her that he’s hidden a package in her loft, Stevie realises that he was probably murdered for it. The instructions he’s left her are to give it only to Dr Malcolm Reah. When Stevie finds that Reah is dead, and Simon’s colleague Dr Ahumibe is unnaturally interested in Simon’s package, she realises that something’s going on, and that she may become a target too. She has to investigate Simon’s death, so she can protect herself. Finding that the package contains a password protected laptop, who can she turn to? She asks Joanie’s ex Derek, a policeman, for help…

It’s a race against time for Stevie, people are dropping like flies all around her but she is obsessed with finding out who killed Simon, for she had been beginning to think their relationship may have been going somewhere. The question is will she like the answers if and when she gets them?

survivors-1972The spread of the pandemic is well-realised. At first it’s just a nasty virus that’s going round and the world must go on, but as the days go on and more people get the sweats, life begins to break down bit by bit. It brought back strong memories of Terry Nation’s TV series Survivors from the mid-1970s (not the poor 2008 spin-off, and how I loved Greg, Ian McCulloch, in that series, although he had to vie with Robin Ellis in Poldark for top spot in my affections back then!).

By combining the thriller with the pandemic, Welsh has created a wonderful hybrid which made for compulsive reading.  If pushed, I’d say that I was more interested in the pandemic strand than the medical thriller one, but the two themes have a synergy (I can’t believe I just used that word in a review!) that makes the novel more than the sum of its parts. The tension is palpable and the pace rarely pauses for breath.

In the early stages, I particularly liked the behind the scenes view of the TV studio. Welsh could have made Stevie a news or magazine programme presenter, but her choice of the shopping channel was absolutely brilliant. Being that cheesy on screen is not as easy as it looks.

Needless to say, I can’t wait to read volume two, Death is a Welcome Guest, which I have on my pile. The proof copy arrived complete with a kit of surgical mask, gloves and a forehead thermometer strip!  A Lovely Way to Burn would make perfect summer reading for fans of thrillers and dystopias alike, I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!
To explore further via my Amazon UK affiliate link, please click below:

A Lovely Way to Burn: Plague Times Trilogy 1 by Louise Welsh. Pub 2014 by John Murray, paperback Jan 2015, 368 pages.
Death is a Welcome Guest: Plague Times Trilogy 2 by Louise Welsh. Pub Jun 2015 by John Murray, hardback 384 pages.

Fiction Uncovered

fiction uncovered logoTwo trips into London in one week (see here for the other), is going out a lot for me! I wouldn’t have missed last nights Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize at the Jerwood Space in Southwark for the world. Many thanks to the enterprising Simon Savidge, (I’m calling him that as he loves projects) who was not only one of this year’s judges, but was able to invite a group of fellow bloggers. So I caught up with Kim and David, but finally got to meet Simon’s OH ‘The Beard’, Eric, Rob and KateNaomi and Nina. Rob & Kate, Naomi and David have all been guest columnists on the Fiction Uncovered blog too – it was great company.

But the evening was really about the books and their authors. The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize is five years old this year, and is the only prize to solely award British writers, celebrating great British fiction. There were 15 novels longlisted and the prize-money was spread between eight of them, each receiving £5k plus a handbound edition of their book thanks to the generosity of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, and the winners were:

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L-R: Bethan Roberts, Carys Davies, Jo Mazelis, Grace McCleen, Lavie Tidhar, Susan Barker, Emma Jane Unsworth, David Whitehouse. Photo: A Gaskell

  • The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Transworld)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)
  • The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)
  • Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)
  • Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador)
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Bethan Roberts with the judges L-R: India Knight, Matthew Bates, Bethan, Cathy Galvin and Simon. Photo: A Gaskell

A special mention from me must go to Bethan Roberts, who comes from Abingdon where I live and has many a fan in the local literary community. I reviewed Mother Island for Shiny New Books and interviewed her about it here. I was so delighted for her to be ‘Jerwooded’.

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View east down Union St, Southwark. Photo: A Gaskell

It was also lovely to meet Emma Jane Unsworth and her wonderful mum!  I’m so looking forward to reading Animals now.

What a fabulous evening – and a glorious sunset was just beginning to envelop the Shard as I left just after 8.30pm to go home.