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.

 

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Saturday Selection

Another busy week! Thank goodness I have nothing booked in for the next fortnight – even for half term, except for promising my daughter a London trip to Camden market.

amber furyMonday night was my Book Group – this month we read The Amber Fury (aka The Furies) by Natalie Haynes.

I read this book last year and reviewed it here and saw her talk about it at the Oxford Literary Festival – here. Everyone really enjoyed it. We thought the characters were well done, the setting felt real and all the Greek myths therein were used brilliantly.

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Thursday night was down to London, where I met up with Jackie and Kim at Faber’s fiction showcase.

P1020304The star attraction was Kazuo Ishiguro, or Ish as he is known. No sooner had we got installed with drinks than Rachel from Faber brought him over to meet us – lovely man. He was slightly perplexed over blogging and the intercommunication between us all, but we were onto safer ground talking about book groups – he talked about his wife’s one. I will be reviewing The Buried Giant for Shiny New Books in April.

I also chatted with the handsome Welshman Owen Sheers about the Mabinogion retellings from Seren books which he contributed to. He has a new book out in June called I Saw a Man which sounds utterly gripping from the extract he read. He signed a copy of the proof for me – the first to ask – I am privileged. You’ll have to wait several months for my thoughts on the book though.

Also there were Andrew O’Hagan, who read brilliantly from his new novel The Illuminations which is currently R4’s Book at Bedtime, and KateHamer – debut novelist of a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood as a contemporary thriller The Girl in the Red Coat. Sarah Hall would have been there too to read from her new novel The Wolf Border, but couldn’t make it sadly.

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Friday night was Mostly Bookbrains 6.  This year, the Wednesday evening Bookgroup from Mostly Books took over the mantle of compiling the questions, allowing me to be in a team with Simon and all his lovely friends. It was lovely to be on the other side for a change, and, dear reader – We won!!!

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I’d like to finish by highlighting my two reviews in the Non-Fiction section of Shiny New Books’ new issue…

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Armchair Nation by Joe Moran

Moran is becoming one of our foremost cultural historians of the twentieth century. His history of the googlebox in Britain goes right from its inception and promotion by Mr Selfridge himself through to The X-Factor via the new upstart ITV and Mary Whitehouse.

Absolutely fascinating, full of impeccable research from TV and news archives, Mass Observation and more.

Read my full review here.

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where-im-reading-from-188x300Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

We all love books about books, and Tim Parks collection of essays (originally published in The New Yorker) is essentially one long opinion piece.

Divided into four sections covering the worlds of literature, reading, writing and translation, Parks, an English novelist, translator and university lecturer makes a lively companion.  I didn’t agree with all of his views (cf e-readers!) but found the essays entertaining and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the section devoted to the world of translation, which gave me many new insights.

Read my full review here.

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So that’s my week – how has yours been?

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To explore some of the books mentioned above, click below (affiliate links – thank you):

Penguin Fiction Showcase & a fangirl moment with William Gibson

penguinLast night I was privileged to be invited and able to attend Penguin’s General Fiction Showcase event at Foyles in London.

It was lovely to meet several good blogging friends again there – Sakura, Kim, Simon my Shiny pal, Simon S (good luck with the Green Carnation prize tonight) and Luci from Curious Book Fans. Knowing that several other blogging friends had been invited but were unable to go, we all vowed to think about having another book-bloggers meet next year … Suggestions please for venues!

Penguin, as always, had brought together a lovely band of authors to introduce and read from their new books to us – in this case, three established and three debut authors and six wonderful sounding books.

First came Claire Fuller – her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, sounds rather dark – starting in the mid 1970s when a survivalist father takes his eight year old daughter from London to a cabin in the middle of a forest in Europe telling her the world is disappeared. She is not seen again for nine years. Claire read a passage where they’d been looking for acorns, but the squirrels had got them all… I rather like forests in novels – I shall look forward to reading this one (out in February).

Next was Paul Murray who had such a hit with Skippy Dies a few years ago. He described his new novel The Mark and the Void as a banking comedy! He read a passage to us at breakneck speed complete with accents which had a Frenchman (the banker), a writer called Paul, an Australian and a Russian amongst others. It promises to be very funny (out in July).

Julia Rochester, another debut novelist, brought the first half to a close, reading from the start of her novel The House at the Edge of the World set in Devon, which starts with Morwenna witnessing her father’s death as he topples over the edge of a cliff while drunk and having a piss. It’s no comedy though – all about family and roots. (out in June).

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak began the second half, introducing us to the architect Sinan who designed most of Istanbul’s most iconic domes and structures in the sixteenth century. Her novel The Architect’s Apprentice tells his story through the eyes of those who worked for him. As at a previous event, she beguiled us with her mellifluous tones and philosophical take on this historical novel.

The last debut novelist of the evening was Emma Hooper, a Canadian who is also in a band. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is set in Saskatchewan – in the middle of Canada and eighty-two year old Etta decides to walk to the sea which she has never seen. You’re thinking a Canadian Harold Fry, right? However, this book promises something different and is laced with humour- the section she read us in which neighbour Russell who is on Etta’s trail stops at a diner to breakfast finding it is run by a ten-year-old girl and her little brother who does the dishes, was great fun, but I gather it’s not all so sunny. (Out in January).

The final author of the evening was William Gibson – yes that William Gibson! The one who created the cyberpunk genre of science fiction beginning with Neuromancer in the 1980s, and also being a founding father of steampunk with his wonderful novel, co-authored with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine. Over the years I have read and loved quite a few of his novels, but not managed any more since I started this blog.

His more recent books have tended to be set closer to the present, and his latest is (partially) no exception to that. The Peripheral has a double time-line (one near-future and one way in the future), Gibson read a chapter from the near-future one which featured a typical Friday night at a pub in a Southern town ravaged by unemployment and disenfranchised youths which he described as being ‘Like Winter’s Bone, but with better cell-phones’. Being a huge fan of Daniel Woodrell’s novels (see here) I knew what he meant.

P1020255 (739x800)Now, I don’t recall ever having seen an author’s photo or potted biog of Gibson  – I wasn’t sure what to expect. In my head I imagined him as a well-built Californian in his say mid fifties. He is actually 66, from South Carolina, has a real drawl and is very tall and very slim.

In my fangirl moment with him after the reading – he was the perfect Southern gentleman and I can’t wait to read The Peripheral (out now).

Thank you to Penguin for a lovely evening.

An evening with Bethan Roberts

It was off to my favourite place in Abingdon (Mostly Books, where else!) on Thursday for an evening with one of the town’s favourite authors – Bethan Roberts. Born and bred in Abingdon, it was Bethan’s third visit to the bookshop, and for those of us who’ve been to see her talk each time, it’s like meeting an old friend – she remembers everyone. There was also a good turn-out from her friends and family, so it’s always a bit of a homecoming for Bethan, who now lives in Brighton.

mother islandThis time she was here to talk about her fourth novel, the newly published Mother Island. (I will be reviewing it for Shiny New Books in our mid-August inbetweeny issue, together with an extended interview.) Bethan’s third novel My Policeman, featuring a love triangle in 1950s Brighton was stunningly good, making me weep towards the end and was my ‘best three hankie book’ of 2012, (my review here) so I had really looking forward to her latest.

In introducing Mother Island, Bethan gave us her sales pitch: She said she had nailed a basic description of the book early on – ‘It’s about a nanny who steals a child!’ – so if you like psychological thrillers – this book is for you. It’s also about Anglesey, where her dad grew up, a beautiful, mysterious and difficult place – so if you like scenery and bridges – this book is for you. It’s also about motherhood and post-natal depression, art and life-drawing – so if you like reading about any of them – this book is for you. She admitted she felt uneasy about the thrillerish nature of the basic premise, as the novel is about so much more than this.

Maggie is Nula’s cousin, and nanny to toddler Samuel. But there is history between the two women, going back to when Maggie was a teenager, living in Anglesey and Nula and her father came to stay for the summer. I won’t say more for now…

20140731_194657_resizedBethan read to us from the prologue, in which Maggie actually abducts the little boy, followed by conversation with shop-owner Mark and questions from the audience. Mark asked if Bethan was worried about the book being marketed as psycho-nanny, and what did Bethan’s childminder think of it?  Bethan had been worried, but her part-time nanny had read the book and was OK with it – phew!

They also discussed Bethan’s move of publisher from Serpent’s Tail to Chatto & Windus for My Policeman. Bethan said that Serpent’s Tail had been, and still are, wonderful for her first two novels, but their editing process was short, and she felt that to improve as a writer a more involving and longer process with her publisher would be better, Chatto’s goes round several times. With Mother Island, she had started with Nula, knowing that Maggie would be a big part – but it became Maggie’s book in the edit.

20140731_203916_resizedThe inspiration for the book came from Bethan wanting to write about Anglesey. Originally she’d thought of a turn of the century setting, but being a new mother didn’t have time for the research – so she turned to her own life for the first time, and memories of many happy holidays there. (Incidentally, the boathouse in the novel does exist – it was a ruin, but has now been chi-chied up and was for sale at nearly 500k!). She particularly wanted to write a novel about motherhood and bringing up young children too – there aren’t many that show how difficult it can be.

Mother Island was a fantastic and involving novel to read – I highly recommend it. Bethan is lovely and I wish her every success. See you next time!

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mother Islandby Bethan Roberts. Pub July 2014 by Chatto & Windus, Hardback, 320 pages.
My Policeman by Bethan Roberts, paperback.

Authors & Book Groups – an event with Kate Clanchy and Louise Millar

On a balmy evening, we were out in the courtyard at Mostly Books for a precursor evening to Independent Booksellers Week (28th June to 5th July – find out more here). Mark and Nikki had managed to get not one but two lovely authors, Kate Clanchy and Louise Millar, to discuss the topic “What makes a good book group book?” with the gathered audience.P1020122 (3)

First let me introduce you to the authors: Kate on the left is an award-winning poet and writes for radio, her memoir Antigona and Me (which I reviewed here back in the early days of this blog) is the true story of Kate’s cleaner when she lived in London – a Korsovan refugee, and truly is a good book for discussion. Recently Kate wrote the Costa-nominated Meeting the English – which is a gloriously funny Hampstead comedy about a young Scotsman who comes down to London for a job, (I’ll be reviewing it shortly for Shiny New Books).

On the right, Louise, by contrast, comes from the world of journalism via Smash Hits and Marie-Claire. She writes psychological thrillers and her latest is The Hidden Girl about a couple that move to the country to create the perfect life into which to bring a child. Her previous novels The Playdate and Accidents Happen have been big hits. (I’m nearly 100 pages into Accidents Happen, which is set in Oxford, at the moment and it’s getting really interesting and not a little scary.)

The evening started off by bookshop owner Mark chatting with Kate and Louise about their bookgroup experiences.  Both have been to bookgroups as visiting authors, but are not members of one. Interestingly, Kate said that she found that as an author, when she’d tried to be a member her opinions tended to be taken too seriously and that inhibited the other members, so although she has friends in lovely groups, she won’t now join them.

Both authors said that when they visit book groups, it’s the diplomatic thing to either not join the group at the start, or to withdraw before the end of the meeting – so those who didn’t like the book but have been too polite to say so can get their chance! Louise was surprised at the way people tend to talk about her novels at book groups – it’s not the suspense that generates the discussion, but the underlying family issues.

Kate and Louise then read from their latest books, and the authors answered questions about their writing styles and writing day before returning to the big question of the evening – and the discussion became a free for all.  When actually asked the question what makes a good book group book, no-one in the courtyard could say with any certainty that it is possible to predict, however, everyone agreed that a book that generates more than a ‘s’alright’ opinion is needed. Publicists offering ‘good book group books’ were viewed with a little suspicion – their job is ultimately to generate sales. The audience was divided over the value of book group reading guides at the back of books, a few felt they’re patronising, others like them.

Nearly everyone in the audience, bar the authors themselves, were members of a book group, and there was just one male other than the shop staff present. This inevitably led to some discussion over how men and women read differently, and whether men tend perhaps to be a little more reticent about discussing the books they read in book groups. There was a huge variety in how book groups in the audience run themselves and choose their books too. Some are quite formal – choosing from a short-list suggested by the shop and/or meet in the shop for serious discussion; some take it in turns to host and maybe the host chooses the next book; others like mine are quite informal and meet in the pub, (as we‘re too lazy to host at home like the neutral setting and beer).

Both authors were absolutely lovely to talk to, and really easy to engage with. It was a very pleasant evening indeed.

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To explore works by these authors on Amazon UK, please click below:
Meeting the English, Antigona and Me, Newborn (Picador Poetry) – by Kate Clanchy – all paperbacks.
The Hidden Girl(hardback), Accidents Happen, The Playdate (paperbacks) by Louise Millar.

An evening with Nick Harkaway

On a sunny Wednesday evening, I headed into town to the newly refurbished barn at the Crown & Thistle in Abingdon to hear author Nick Harkaway talk about his novels and more. (Beer and books make a nice mixture in the sunshine).

Nick is now the author of three novels and one non-fiction book. His latest, Tigerman, has recently been published and I will tell you up front that it is the best novel I’ve read this year (out of fifty read so far), and I shall be reviewing the book for Shiny New Books, issue 2, out at the beginning of July.

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Nick and me!

The evening started off with Nick in conversation with Mark from Mostly Books, and it was obvious to me right from the start that Nick is, as Jenny @ReadingtheEnd put later put it on twitter to me, “Sui generis that man!” – definitely one of a kind; intellectual, erudite and well-read, yet loving trashy movies, completely mad, yet intensely sane, and yes, happy! It was a pleasure to meet him and hear him speak – I am now a huge fan.

Nick and Mark started off by immediately digressing off-topic into the genesis of his book The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age. It came out of some blog columns he wrote for The Bookseller on the challenge of e-books and the internet, and he pulled all the ideas together into a discussion about social agency as it relates to technology.

After riffing about the internet to which we returned later, Nick and Mark discussed the genre-busting nature of his three novels. They are all very different in style – The Gone-Away World is a bit SF&F – post-apocalyptic but with ninjas and pirates; Angelmaker has a clockwork repairer, a ninety-year-old former superspy and a doomsday machine; Tigerman is a post-colonial eco-thriller set in a dangerous paradise with superheroes. Harkaway said that “in the UK we are obsessed with taxonomy and putting things into pigeonholes.” He grew up reading wonderful books that defied pigeonholing, and after being a scriptwriter, which is a very enclosed type of writing – you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end – being free to write a novel made him go, “I can do anything!” and so he has done. He hinted that his fourth novel is “completely batshit!” – can’t wait!

There is a development in his writing through the three novels though. The first features two male friends of the same age, the second a Father and grown-up son, and in Tigerman we have a man who wants to become a parent to a lost boy.

tigermanHe told us about the Eureka moment in Thailand when he fired a handgun for the first time (at a target), and he thought about how Batman no longer carries a gun. This gave him the superhero aspect of Tigerman. He and his wife were planning to have children at the time, so parenthood came into the mix too. His wife runs a human rights charity and deals with torture and rendition; he had been thinking about the island of Diego Garcia (see Wikipedia here), a British-owned island in the central Indian Ocean where the US has a base and the CIA were rumoured to have landed rendition flights for refuelling – this gave him the island of Mancreu where the novel is based. Tigerman is his first novel to have a unity of place and time – the island circumscribes the whole thing and the action all takes place over a few weeks.

Nick read us an extract from the novel, a really funny passage which didn’t spoil the plot for those who hadn’t read the book. There is a lot of humour in this novel – and it was one of the passages I’d marked down to quote from later. When I read the novel, I saw echoes of Graham Greene, which I asked about, and Nick said he never thought about but is terribly flattered by the comparison whenever it gets mentioned.  The main character, Lester Ferris, is definitely a Greene type – he’s a British Army sergeant – left behind to represent British interests once the embassy staff have gone – Lester being a soldier is used to obeying orders, and is told not to look too closely at what is going on around the island, but living there does affect him – particularly when he meets and befriends a boy who could be the son he’s never had.

Harkaway also talked more about twitter – he is an enthusiast, but doesn’t let it distract him from writing – noises from his young children are more likely to do that.  He does read digital text, but isn’t “pleased by it.”  You just can’t beat the feel of a book – indeed when he signed my hardbacks of Tigerman and Angelmaker, he stroked the cover and end-papers of Angelmaker saying it was such a lovely design – it is.

If you ever get the chance to hear Nick talk, do go – he is a fascinating speaker and a lovely chap to boot.  Tigerman was a five star read for me – and I’ve got his previous two novels still to read – Yay!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway – published May 2014 by William Heinemann, hardback, 384 pages.
The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age by Nick Harkaway, paperback.

Ian McEwan at the Oxford Literary Festival

I come to you hotfoot from the Oxford Literary Festival where, in the domed confines of the Sheldonian Theatre, Ian McEwan was presented the Bodley Medal by Richard Ovenden the current Librarian of the Bodleian Library.  Before the presentation of the medal (which is made from copper from the old roof of the Bodleian, and has been awarded to around a dozen people so far including Hilary Mantel last year), the two sat in conversation.  McEwan was both witty and erudite, as was Ovenden and it made for a great event…

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Ovenden started off by asking McEwan about his writing process… firstly – the physicality of it.  McEwan said he was an early adopter of word processors – he likes the way they allow a ‘dynamic of constant revision’.  He sometimes writes trial paragraphs longhand and then tries them on the screen.

When quizzed about his writing environment and sharing his house with another writer, his wife, it’s one upstairs, one downstairs – but I can’t remember which way round.  He told us he had a marvellous piece of software called ‘Freedom’ – you set a time, and it blocks the internet for you!

Talking about the development of his novels, and the research that goes into them. McEwan said he has a ‘duty to some kind of truth’, to do the research properly.  For instance for Saturday, his most-researched novel, he shadowed a neurosurgeon for two years and got mistaken for a proper doctor by some students, so at home was he with the subject.

Going back, Ovenden asked him what got him on the literary path towards being a writer.  McEwan said it was whilst he was at Sussex university when he was about 20 that he discovered Kafka and Polish author Bruno Schulz. They seemed ‘off the planet’ and excited him enormously when he realised that literature was a conversation that anyone could join in.

The conversation moved on to screenplays – McEwan said they are ‘very much like novellas’ in the need to establish characters quickly, and having few sub-plots as they will only be around 100 pages long.  He described some of the ‘pleasure and anguish’ of working with others, and within the Hollywood system.  The screenwriter is very much a lowly position, the director has long been the auteur. He’s glad that there is much writer-led TV now, especially coming from Scandinavia.  Ovenden asked about Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Atonement.  McEwan felt he’d done an excellent job getting into his mind.  He praised Hampton and director Joe Wright, and the casting of Saoirse Ronan as Briony in particular.

Then we got onto the subject of McEwan’s new book, which he finished this week!  The Children Act – is a novel about a judge who is undergoing tough personal times, and the effects that a particular case is having on her.  Fiona, 59, is a judge in the family court and had to rule on a case involving the separation of Siamese twins.  To save one, the doctors had to kill the other, else they would both die within a few months. She overrules the family’s wishes to leave it to God, and rules for separation being the choice of the lesser evil, but as her own marriage is failing, she obsesses over the decision – the legal vs the moral vs the religious.

McEwan read a couple of passages from his manuscript – we were the first audience to hear any of it.  It sounds like vintage McEwan tackling big issues, with some visceral language highlighting the plight of the child in bad family break-ups, and then a passage about the twins.  Can’t wait for the book!

Then a few audience questions before the presentation.  The first questioner almost accused him of schadenfreude – being rather ‘chirpy’ when he read the extracts from his new novel – he was hamming them up a bit to inject some drama – this did make the book sound irresistible when it comes out. McEwan replied seriously, there was no intention of being chirpy!

Another question was about McEwan’s predilection for explosive plot devices, (which don’t happen in all his novels).  He replied ‘I quite like novels where something happens.’ He sometimes feels the need to put his characters through something extreme to see what happens to them,exploring  their different viewpoints and memories.  He has a strong belief in character.

After the presentation, McEwan moved over to the festival tent outside to sign books, but in the end I decided not to indulge – I own copies of most of his novels already, but it was also wet, and just about the Oxford rush-hour, so I opted to go straight home instead. He was an entertaining speaker, although this was one of the more expensive events at the festival, it was interesting to hear what makes one of the best modern British authors tick – I really should read more of those books!