Running A Literary Festival

Tomorrow night Gladfest 2015 will start at Gladstone’s Library. We all love a book festival don’t we? In fact many of us probably dream of running our own, even if it was just in our back garden with our favourite authors having a chat on the decking, but what is it really like to organise one? Gladfest 2015’s Festival Director, Louisa Yates, kindly took some time out of her hectic schedule to tell me all about the running of Gladfest and why hosting a festival means so much to her and all at Gladstone’s.

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So in case anyone missed me talking about the festival a while back, which I am really excited about, tell us all a bit about Gladstone’s Library and Gladfest?

Gladstone’s Library is a pretty unusual place – it’s a library, yes, but it’s actually much more than that. It was the vision of the Victorian Liberal statesman, WE Gladstone who decided that rather than bequeath his lifetime collection of books to the Bodleian Library or the National Library, he’d set up his own. With books at one end and the later addition of 26 bedrooms at the other (now, boutique style, I am pleased to report), it’s a residential library. It’s also the UK’s only Prime Ministerial library attracting writers, authors, academics, students and visitors from around the world.

 This weekend we’re hosting our third literary festival, Gladfest, and we have some great writers and authors including Jessie Burton, Michel Faber, Alice Oseman, Patrick Gale and Robyn Cadwallader. For 2015 we also have a much more extensive programme of activities for children and young people thanks to funding from Arts Council Wales.

With just a matter of days/hours to go before it all starts, what are you doing right now?

All the actual planning and organising starts around about December time and really kicks off at the beginning of the year when we are compiling the programme and signing up writers. I’d love to think that when we invite people to speak at Gladfest, it has something to do with my sparkling personality but I have to admit, that’s probably not it at all. The library is a truly special place.

We’re now at the ‘putting up the marquee’ stage and ‘getting the craft fair stands sorted’ stage and the ‘nailing fence posts in’ stage. It’s all hands to the pump and we call in favours from far and wide – friends, family and colleagues. This weekend, you’ll find me helping supervising the parking, handing out tickets and introducing the guest speakers –it’s full on but I love it.

Theology Room Gallery

Literary festivals are becoming increasingly popular, where did the idea for Gladfest come from and what’s different about it?

We first mooted the idea of a festival back in 2012. We wanted to stage a series of lecturers but could not find consecutive dates in the diary, so just 17 weeks later we staged our first Gladfest. We’ve tried to hang on to some of that impetuous spirit to make sure Gladfest is a friendly place to be. For us, it’s about the writers and the books and the audience. There’s no Green Room, there’s no VIP area, everyone mucks in together so if you happen to be with us this weekend, don’t be surprised if you are queuing up for lunch with Jessie Burton or Michel Faber.

I’d like to think that Gladfest is the literary festival writers would choose and that’s partly because we’ve been able to draw on a community of people that has been evolving for many years – our regular visitors and patrons include people like Salley Vickers, Terry Waite, Rowan Williams and Tony Benn. I think it’s also because we understand the practical flip side of being a writer. Earlier this year, statistics showed that the average annual income of a writer was about £5,000 and among the literary community, there’s been a lot of discussion about why so many authors and writers don’t get paid when it comes to taking part in cultural festivals. Why? Good question. There’s often an underlying assumption that art does not need to be paid for, and actually many literary festivals are more about ‘location marketing’ to attract visitors to a town or region than celebrating books and ideas. At Gladfest, we provide guest speakers with a package that covers travel, food and accommodation – effectively, everything they will need apart from booze! It means that although we have sold more tickets than ever before this year, we will only break even; at the end of the day we are hosting a community of writers and thinkers, helping bring their work to a wider audience.

Have you already got plans for Gladfest 2016?

 Actually we have! We’re in talks with some very exciting speakers so once Gladfest 2015 is wrapped up, we’ll give ourselves a well earned break during October and November and then get cracking again.

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 A huge thanks to Louisa for taking the time out of her bonkers schedule this week. Gladfest takes place this weekend from the 4th to the 6th at Gladstone’s Library located Hawarden, North Wales. I am going to be there all day on Saturday seeing the likes of Sarah Perry, Jessie Burton, Melissa Harrison and Michel Faber, there are a load more wonderful authors over the weekend so do head to https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org  for more information

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The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging  Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the last seven weeks, each Wednesday, I have been sharing my thoughts with you on the winners one by one. For the final week I want to tell you all about a short story collection which completely stole my heart and which I think might just be my favourite short story collection of all time, with the possible exception of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and you all know how much I love him. Carys Davies second collection The Redemption of Galen Pike is like the finest selection of miniature fictional gems that you will want to return to again and again. It is one of those books where I want to say ‘don’t bother reading my thoughts, just go and buy it’ however it would be lovely if you stayed and found out more, or came back after you’ve whizzed to the bookshop.

Salt Publishing, 2014, paperback, short stories, 134 pages, kindly sunbmitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

One of the things that I loved so much about The Redemption of Galen Pike is one of the things that makes it incredibly difficult to write about – the scope of these stories in both time and place are epic. In this collection we have; a young wife on a remote Australian settlement with an untellable secret who reluctantly invites her neighbour into her home, a Quaker spinster offering companionship to a condemned man in a Colorado jail, an office employee from Birmingham witnesses a scene that will change her life in the ice and snows of Siberia, a middle-aged alderman opens his heart to Queen Victoria during a jubilee celebration in a northern English town, a tribe in the Amazon who must follow a horrific ritual. I could go on as seriously all seventeen of these stories have absolutely nothing in common with each other.

Actually that is slightly untrue. They do have a few things in common but more in their sense of style and prose than in any themes or ideas. Firstly they are all stunningly written. Carys has a prose style which is precise and economic and yet lush and brimming all at once. In a single paragraph, and sometimes in just a single line, she can set up a situation, landscape or character which comes into your mind fully formed. This means that even when a story is a few pages, or in one particular case (Nothing Like My Nightmare) a paragraph, you are fully immersed in its world. The longer tales also manage to have an epic quality which I have never felt reading a short story before, the title tale and The Travellers being prime examples of that.

Henry Fowler’s narrow pigeon chest was lumpy and shrivelled like the map of some strange unknown country. It had a kind of raised border all around it that was ropy and pink; inside it the skin had a cooked, roasted look to it. – it was blackened and leathery and hard, like a mummy’s, or a creature that has lain for a thousand years in a forgotten bog.

What is also particularly wonderful with the whole collection is that every single story has a twist/surprise that you won’t see coming. Yes, even if like me you try and be clever once you realise this is the case you still won’t guess it. I literally gasped when I was reading The Quiet, which opens the collection, at a certain moment and then continued to as I went on. There is something really joyful and playful (without the reader ever feeling played, which is a trick to conjure in itself) in Carys writing where you know she is having a wonderful time writing these stories and therefore it becomes a contagious feeling as you read. This links in with a wonderful sense of wit that makes itself known just at the right time. Some of these tales can be rather dark (which I love) yet they all have their own sense of humour, which makes them all the more engaging and effective, throughout. These two combine wonderfully in Jubilee and The Travellers.

That said there are many truly poignant moments. Davies deals with subjects like domestic abuse, prejudice, sexuality, good and bad and much more throughout. Often there can be a moral in some of the tales, Precious particularly springs to mind, yet never does Carys bash you over the head or seem to say ‘you should think this’, she simply writes the story and leaves it to the reader whether they want to see the slightly hidden points that may be lying just under the surface.

One of the many other things that I loved was the equally underlying sense of fairytale, legend and myth in each tale. Interestingly there is very rarely any magic of the spells and curses variety, though sometimes it crops up, more often than not it is simply that there is a sensibility of these things sometimes blatant sometimes more hidden as titles like Myth, Wicked Fairy and In the Cabin in the Woods show you. Sometimes however there is just the slightest delightful nod to these things, like the mention of mummy’s, creatures, fairies and unicorns that pop a folklore or legendary image into your mind whilst keeping the tale completely set in reality be it the present or the past. It is marvellous.

One fat hand had flown to the Queen’s throat; her pouchy eyes were wide with wonder, as if Arthur had just pulled back a heavy curtain and revealed a unicorn, or a talking mirror, or proof of some other astonishing legend.
‘Good heavens, Mr Pritt,’ she whispered.

It is really hard to say anything else about The Redemption of Galen Pike other than ‘I utterly adored it go and read it’. It is simply a stunning collection of stories. So go on, off you pop, get a copy. You will not regret it I promise you.

If you would like to hear Carys talking in more detail about the collection and short stories in general you can hear her in conversation with little old me over on You Wrote The Book. If you have read this collection I would love to hear your thoughts, I would also like to know if any of you have read her debut collection Some New Ambush, which I need to get my hands on as soon as I can. Anyway, that is it for me and my Fiction Uncovered judging for 2015 and I have to say I feel quite sad it is all over. I have absolutely loved the experience from the reading to the discussions with my lovely fellow judges. Hopefully we have found some wonderful reads, like this one which I would not have discovered otherwise, for you to go and read and love as much as we all did.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Carys Davies, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Salt Publishing

Noontide Toll – Romesh Gunesekera

When the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist popped/ thumped through my letterbox (kindly sent by New Writing North who run the prize) I thought that I would head to the biggest first and work my way down, literally in size. However as my trip to America gets ever nearer so does my reading for it, which is roughly eight books some of which are massive, so I decided to pick a more slender volume and grabbed Noontide Toll. I soon discovered that Romesh Gunesekera’s latest work might be slender in size yet is a book that keeps on giving and most importantly keeps making you think both whilst reading and long after.

Granta Books, 2014, paperback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by New Writing North

On the island of Sri Lanka we meet our narrator “Vasantha the van man” who, as you might have guessed from his nickname, spends his days driving around the island ferrying tourists, soldiers, business men and their colleagues or wives, ex pats, aid workers and more to their various destinations. In doing so, in what is a collection of short stories which form the novels narrative, he introduces us to all the aspects of present day Sri Lanka, it’s history, its people and also the predicament that it seems to find itself in as a place that has often been torn apart by wars and natural disasters.

‘You ok?’ I asked Chen.
‘Sure, sure.’ His head tilted, not quite as buoyant as he had been at the start. Perhaps he was too young to know any of the gruesome history of his homeland. Maybe there they don’t talk about the terrors of invasion, the herding of people, the famine, the ideological culling, the suppression of the decent. All that probably disappears in the harmonious joy of economic development. At least that’s the idea, I think.

I have to admit that reading Noontide Toll had a slightly shaming effect on me whilst being utterly fascinating, sometimes grimly so. Despite having some friends from the country I had absolutely no idea, other than the Boxing Day Tsunami, what turmoil the country had been through. As Vasantha drives through both the North and the South (which is also how the book is divided in parts as well as stories) we meet the landscape and people who have been scarred by the historical tumultuous past. Old mansions which if haven’t been blown up or destroyed have been ransacked for anything or worth, wrecked ships that have now become the backdrop to music videos. Hotel managers who can throw bottles at rats with such precision you know they have had to defend themselves, people whose grief at losing a family is etched on their faces and yet manage to stay positive on the lookout for turtles laying eggs at sunset.

Whether you know the whole history or not one of the most intriguing things which Vasantha notes when he is with any client, is that his homeland is now free of war yet is struggling in a whole new way as it tries to reclaim itself as a country and with other countries around the world. In some aspects, like with The Weightless World which I discussed a while ago, it is trying to work out what its place and its worth is within the economic worlds (be it tourism or business and trade) of both the West and Asia. It is also a country that is trying to decide what to do with its history; should it embrace it and own it or should it erase any sight of it? Can we really simply remember and move on? What is also somewhat unsettling is that it seems that those who live there are both wary and befuddled by their own homeland being a place of peace can it really last?

I asked the soldier whether I could park the van around the side. He shrugged. In the military I thought one had to be more decisive and heroic, but perhaps that was further up the chain of command and only in times of real conflict. Peace has made us all dozy, I guess. Even the crickets were muffled.

If this all sounds very serious, rather maudlin and a little heavy going, I promise you it is not. With the structure of this book Gunesekera gives you these wonderful intense vignettes from Vasantha that you can read as a single short standalone story in itself or indeed read a few as you are utterly charmed by Vasantha and some of the characters that he meets along the way and interweave creating a patchwork of views and insights into all walks of life from all over the place which form this incredibly complex world yet all in bite size portions which really entertain you whilst leaving lingering, occasionally unsettling, thoughts in your mind.

I found Vasantha a really interesting character. By the end of Noontide Toll you are utterly charmed by him and yet he remains something of an enigma. He gives you insight into the history of Sri Lanka and the lives of those in his van, yet bar the occasional titbit keeps himself something of a mystery. I wondered if this was because Gunesekera wanted him to literally be a vehicle for the reader, or if we were meant to feel like one of his clients on a long road trip around the island being told the tales of previous clients yet never themselves, as is the case often when you go aboard and have a driver. That slight customer and contractor relationship which is intimate yet distant all at once.

I think Vasantha is a marvellous creation and a brilliant character. He embodied everything l  admired so much about Gunesekera’s colourful and vivid writing. As you go along his humour and (mainly) joyful wonder of everything around him is a delight. He always knows just when to tell you something funny amongst it all, one of my favourite moments which I think sums him up is when he describes a lighthouse as a naughty beacon of the south, perfect. I was completely charmed by him and his narration as we drove around and often felt his musings about life were very much like mine and in particular my thoughts on why we read.

I like to know about the world beyond our shores. About faraway countries where people behave differently. I like to hear about their food and customs. How they deal with the cold and the rain. What it is like to drive on the other side of the road. I like to take foreign tourists around because it gives me a glimpse of a place that is different in touch, taste, smell, sound and look, from the place I am stuck in. I watch how they sit, how they walk, how they talk, and I try to see what they want to escape from and return to. They are not all driven by the desire for sex in new places. Some want to know our history and our culture and what makes us live the way we do. So do I.

I am not sure I would have read Noontide Toll if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, as I have  to admit I hadn’t heard of it until then, so I am very grateful that it has. It is a wonderfully narrated and intricately detailed tale of a country its history and its people, by the end I felt Gunesekera had educated me with writing of delicacy, wit and slight horror. It is also a book that will remind you why we read and why we should read as widely as we can to experience and learn through other people’s eyes. I would highly recommend giving it a read.

Have any of you read Noontide Toll or any of Gunesekera’s other novels? I have that lovely feeling you get when you discover a new-to-you writer where you want to run off and get your hands on everything else that they have written.

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Filed under Gordon Burn Prize, Granta Books, Review, Romesh Gunesekera

Other People’s Bookshelves #70 – Thomas Otto

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week, for the (fanfare) 70th post in the series we are going through the shelves of a very special guest, Thomas Otto. Thomas is not only my co-host on The Readers but he is also one of my best bookish buddies and someone I have known since my blogging began, or at least it feels like that. So we head to Washington D.C where he doesn’t just have shelves but an entire library, one which I will be having a gander at in four weeks when I spend a few days in DC after Thomas and I go on a road trip around America to Booktopia MI. So let’s all grab on of John’s pina colada’s, give Lucy a pat and find out more about Thomas and his books.

A puppeteer and demolitions expert by day, Thomas Otto has been blogging since 2006. Okay part of that first sentence is true, I will leave it up to Simon’s readers to figure out which part. But seriously, I live in Washington, DC with my husband John and our dog Lucy. I blog about bookish stuff at Hogglestock.com (formerly My Porch), and I co-host a bookish podcast with some guy in England.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

My reasons for keeping books aren’t very straight forward. The only thing that is a constant is I don’t keep books I don’t like and I keep books I like. I know that sounds straight forward but there is a middle ground of books I am somewhat ambivalent about that fall under other criteria that aren’t always the same. At some point, if I need to start getting rid of books, I will probably keep stuff that is harder to find because they have been long out of fashion. I hate the thought of those books disappearing. Lately I’ve been thinking of my will. My collection may not fetch much money but I want it to go to someone who will appreciate some of the oddities I have rather than having my next of kin pulping them when they find out they aren’t worth anything.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

With a few exceptions, all of my fiction is organized alphabetically by author and then chronologically by title. I used to have my TBR on separate shelves, but since we moved back into the house after the renovations I have mixed them with everything else. I can’t bring myself to break up my Persephones into alpha order, so they are all together as are my collection of Melville House novellas and those little old Oxford World Classics that can fit in your pocket. My nonfiction is roughly divided into memoirs/letters, books on books and literature, books on music, books on England, etc. One day I will organize John’s collection of garden books, but for now they are grouped rather higgedly-piggedly.

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I also ‘face’ my shelves. That is, I make sure all the spines are lined up at, or near, the edge of the shelf. It drives me bananas when they are pushed to the back of the shelf and the spines of the various sized books are uneven. I should also note that I got to customize the dimensions of my shelves and I made them shallower than the typical bookshelf which I find far deeper than what I need for fiction.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

One of Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe books, but I don’t remember which one. It may have been Ordinary Jack which is the first in that series. My copy of it disappeared over 30 years ago, but oddly enough I just bought it on my recent trip to Powell’s Books in Portland. There was a small, very short-lived bookshop in my hometown when I was a kid. For some reason I bought the Cresswell and was wildly confused by all of the Britishisms in it that I didn’t even realize were Britishisms at the time. I guess even then I was an Anglophile.

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Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

Although I don’t feel any guilt about them, I think that the non-Buncle D.E. Stevenson novels probably fit this category. They are overly twee, chaste romances that are not very well written, and some of the 1970s paperback versions are definitely embarrassing to be seen reading in public. I also have most of Nevil Shute’s novels. He tells great stories but his prose can be a little embarrassing. Still, I never feel guilt when I read them, only pleasure, and they both hold pride of place with the rest of my fiction collection.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

Many of the books on my shelves are not expensive but they are hard to come by, so it is hard to think of which one I would save in a fire. There is a whole class of books on my shelves that fit that category. However, if I had to choose just one I would have to go with a limited edition of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Not only is Lewis one of my favourite authors but this edition has colour illustrations by Grant Wood and is numbered and signed by the artist. It was also an insanely thoughtful gift from my husband.

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

Although my parent’s read quite a bit, there really wasn’t a bookshelf, it was more of a library existence for us in those days. The first adult book I read was Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. I was far too young to read it but that didn’t seem to bother anyone even though my mother and older sister read it first.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I haven’t borrowed a book in many years, but if I did and loved the book, I would definitely buy my own copy.

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I just bought 61 books at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, but they are being shipped so I haven’t added them to my shelves yet. I did, however, recently add Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. I have never read her so I hope I like it.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

I still need to find about 20 D.E. Stevenson novels as well as more R.C. Sheriff and Richmal Crompton.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

Unless they have tastes similar to mine I think their eyes would cross as they tried to find books or authors they recognized.

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A huge thanks to Thomas for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. I am beyond excited about heading over to the US to see him and go on our road trip, I am counting down the days. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Thomas’ responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

There is a sad truth that sometimes it can take the death of an author to remind you that you have always meant to read them. This was very much the case when Maya Angelou died last year and I was reminded that I had still not attempted to read any of her many volumes of autobiography. These books also happen to be some of my mother’s favourite books and on many occasion she has told me I really must read. So when I saw the first four of them pristine in a charity shop last autumn I snapped them up, it took my friend Rachael choosing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for book group earlier this year for me to finally get around to reading it.

Virago Books, 1984, paperback, memoir, 320 pages, kindly bought by me for me

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers the first year of Maya Angelou’s life, opening in the small segregated town of Stamps we soon learn that Maya and her brother were sent there to live with family after their parents marriage failed. What breaks your heart early on, and indeed sets a tone to this memoir, is the fact that they had tag attached to them labelled ‘To whom it may concern.’ The landscape and times of Maya’s childhood are not easy. Whilst Stamps is segregated that doesn’t mean that it is safe from racism or other evils of the world and nor is living with her grandmother really an exactly happy or enriching experience especially once she is sent away again to live with her mother having only just got used to almost calling one place home.

In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed.
I remember never believing that whites were really real.

From here things swiftly go downhill as Maya where she is sexually abused by her mother’s partner and once this is discovered he is soon found dead having been murdered, Maya becomes a mute. What then follows from here is a tale of how a young woman who has already faced so much difficulty must not only try to make her way with that mental and physical scaring, but also in a world set against her firstly because she is black and secondly because she is female.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.
It is an unnecessary insult.

There were several things that I found fascinating about I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. First and foremost was its look at the plight of black people during a horrendous time in America’s history, though scarily you see moments of the past in the present when you watch the news, when racial tensions were incredibly heightened. Black people were simply considered second rate, if that, and what adds such an impact to Angelou’s writing is that everything she encounters is fact not fiction. Big moments such as having to help hide her uncle from the Klu Klux Klan, how an employee of hers simply changes her name to Mary (partly because it is easier but also because it is whiter) to smaller yet just as awful moments like simply being unable to see a dentist when she has toothache as he only deals with white girls. Yet amongst all this, we read, there remainded hope.

Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas. Some of the men went behind the Store and poured white lightening in their soft-drink bottles, and a few of the bigger boys followed them. Those who were not chased away came back blowing their breath in front of themselves like proud smokers.

 As I read on I both admired Angelou for the things she accomplished (which I will not spoil) before she even turns twenty, as the book ends when she is seventeen, and also because of all the things she encompasses in writing  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings later in her life. It is interesting that in some ways you get the older and younger writer all at once, if that makes sense. I found her honesty, forgiveness, humour and acceptance both humbling and fascinating. I also found her passion for literature wonderful (there was a bit about The Well of Loneliness which I found very funny) and I loved how she talked about and looked at class, family and identity.

Bailey persisted in calling her Mother Dear until the circumstance of proximity softened the phrase’s formality to ‘Muh Dear,’ and finally to ‘M’Deah.’ I could never put my finger on her realness. She was so pretty and so quick that even when she had just awakened, her eyes full of sleep and hair tousled, I thought she looked just like the Virgin Mary. But what mother and daughter understand each other, or even have the sympathy for each other’s lack of understanding?

There is a small but for me, my mother will be reading this and raising an eyebrow sorry Mum, which that is that I actually wish I had read it back in my teens. Whilst I totally understood it is an incredibly important piece of work, one which should frankly be on the syllabus around the world especially in the US and UK, I did feel that coming to it now it did have a slight less impact that I wanted it to. This might be because so many people have told me how fantastic and important it is, which can add a lot of hype and pressure to a book, yet I think it is because I have read a lot of other works that look at this time period and the horrendousness of it all, albeit through fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that you only have to have read a few books on a subject to understand it (far from it, on some parts of history we can never know enough no matter how difficult) and you can’t really compare fiction to fact. I was often very moved by the book; I just didn’t really gel with it until about two thirds/three quarters of the way through, I wondered if this was because Maya’s memories of her early childhood might not be as strong until her early teens and hence why sometimes I felt rather distant and confused with what was going on. However as Maya grew up and became more independent, I became hooked and was very disappointed when it then soon ended, meaning I will have to get to the second in due course. I have a feeling the further I read on with Maya Angelou and her story the more and more effect it will have on me.

What I found interesting was that Tracy, Rachael and Barbara, who I am in my book group with, all felt very similar. Have you read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and what did you make of it? Have your read the following six volumes and how was your journey, no spoilers, with Maya as you went on? Do you think how old we are, or where we are in our life affects the responses we have to books along with what we have read before?

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Filed under Maya Angelou, Non Fiction, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

Significance – Jo Mazelis

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging  Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last six weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week alongside the team at Fiction Uncovered. In the penultimate week this week it is all about Jo Mazelis’  novel Significance which is quite unlike any literary crime novel that I have read before, seriously.

Seren Books, 2014 (2015 edition), paperback, fiction, 472 pages, kindly sunbmitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Lucy Swann has run away. She has fled the life she had in Britain to start a new life with no attachments and no history. She has dyed her hair, bought new clothes and changed her image. What we the reader want to know of course is why. What the people in the Northern French town she comes to stay in want to know is who on earth this mysterious woman travelling alone is. Yet just as we, and they, are beginning to get some insight into Lucy (we the old Lucy, they the new invention) she is brutally murdered. Inspector Vivier and his assistant Sabine Pelat are called to investigate and as they do they begin to learn not only more about Lucy but about all the people in the town she ended up in.

Lucy orders a bottle of vin rouge. Madame Gallo watches her from behind the bar, she is middle aged, but her face is still pretty, her hair dark and glossy. She dresses well. Looks exactly right for the part. As does Lucy, who is a runaway in the disguise of a confident young woman with money and credit cards and expensive clothes.

So far admittedly it sounds very like many a murder mystery or thriller you might have read before. However the murder and indeed the murderer and their motive are really the background of the book, whilst remaining the driving force of the novel. I know this sounds somewhat bonkers so let me explain, without giving anything away of course. In the lead up to, and indeed after, the murder of Lucy Swann we not only get insight into her life, we also get insight into all the people that she interacts with even if it just be a random bumping into in the street. Slowly but surely Mazelis spins us into a web of the stories of many of the people in the towns and what their relationships are and what it going on behind closed doors.

Florian looked at Suzette; three weeks ago she had invited him back to her flat. They had drunk tequila together, biting into oranges between shots instead of limes. He had not expected her to suddenly kiss him, but she did. And had wordlessly taken his hand and drawn him into her bedroom. But in the morning he’d had to get up early and was slightly hung-over. She hadn’t given him her number. He hadn’t asked, nor given her his. It was his mother’s birthday so he’d gone to dinner that evening, though he’d really wanted to see Suzette again. The night after that he’d gone to the bar to see her, but it was her day off. Then, for some reason or another, he couldn’t get to the bar for another three days, and the next time he tried she was again not working. More than a week had passed before he finally saw her at the bar, but it was unusually busy and Jaques was in a foul temper. When Florian caught her eye Suzette barely looked at him. He took the hint and left after just one drink.

I loved this element to the novel as we really get into the lives of a whole cast of characters with many mini stories or vignettes interweaving around the main one. This I found gives Significance additional depths to a simple ‘whodunnit’ or ‘whydunnit’ as it shows the secrets that the victim of murder has, how the murder effects a town brimming with secrets and whose secrets and relationships are significant to each other and the murder. It is rather like Mazelis has taken a box filled with all the crime novel/thriller tropes and really shaken it up to see what can be done outside the box. Have I gone too far with that metaphor? Maybe, but it is true none the less. I think I also loved it because I am quite a nosey person, which I think all readers are to an extent as why would be want to read about so many other people’s fictional lives, and this gives you a chance to have a really good route around into a whole host of characters lives. I found the stories of Suzette the bar maid, Joseph a young black soon to be medical student and Marilyn and Scott holidaying with his younger autistic brother to give his parents a break as interesting and poignant as Lucy’s.

There is also a much deeper level to the novel that just an enthralling and entertaining, and it should be said beautifully written (you can tell Mazelis is a poet, the writing is lyrical yet has real pace) and crafted, read. From the title you would imagine that the novel is about the significance of a murder and of course it is, yet it is also about many other significances; the significance we give ourselves and others, the significance we are given, the significance of tiny details or moments and how they can change everything. It is also a book that is very much about perception, the things we notice and the things that we don’t. I was reminded a lot of this novel when I was reading Melanie Finn’s Shame which has been shortlisted for the Not The Booker which is also a sinister tale which unravels in all directions, changes perspectives and expectations as it goes.

It is dark when she leaves the hotel. A boy is standing on the edge of the pavement across the road. Lucy has the curious sensation that she passed him earlier – hours earlier, when it was still light, although the shadows had been lengthening.

I think Jo Mazelis has created something quite unique with Significance. Not only has she created a tense (occasionally quite sinister and gothic) literary thriller, she has also created a novel where the murder is really the back story and the human nature of a collection of people in one town and how their lives and their little actions can create a turn of events. It is a novel that will have you guessing and as Poirot, or Agatha Christie really, said it is a novel where those “grey cells, sometimes they work even better in the dark”, mine certainly did and not just about murder but a whole host of societal issues.

I would love to know if any of you have read Significance and what you thought of it. I would also be really keen to hear if you have read any of Jo Mazelis (who also writes as Jo Hughes) other works for there are lots of them, short stories, novels and non-fiction, do let me know.

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Your Thoughts; Board Games, Stationery & Incoming Books

I have been thinking about bringing some new posts to Savidge Reads, and indeed bringing some old posts back, so have been pondering them all. I then thought ‘hang on, who better to ask for some feedback on all this than those lovely folk who visit the blog’ and so that is what I am doing, I know I am like Sherlock in my deducing of problems, ha!

So, first up new ideas. One of them I have been thinking about for a while and it involves stationery. I have been a huge fan of stationery since time began, well since I was about eight or nine. I can spend hours and hours, and often have, in a Paperchase and am always hankering after a notebook fix. Myself and the lovely Kate of Adventures with Words, did try and start a blog on stationery alone back in 2014. I was rubbish, Kate was brilliant, we both got crazy busy. Well I am thinking of bringing the occasional stationery post to Savidge Reads as in general if you love a good book you love a good notebook… or twelve. What do you think?

The next new idea has a much less booky link and I have to admit I hadn’t thought of doing until I had an email this morning. The email was asking if I would like to review the occasional board game or two. Now admittedly I don’t play them often but I do love a board game and as the nights draw in and you long to sit in front of a fire of an evening (even when you don’t have one like me, weeps) sometimes you want to actually spend some time being social rather than having your face in a book. I know, it sounds crazy but it’s true. Well there are only so many more episodes of The Good Wife, which I am obsessed with, that I have left to watch and I used to love Monopoly, Cluedo, The Gunge Game, etc. So I am thinking about it, it could be fun every now and again?

Clacts-10-Best-Learning-Board-Games-For-Kids

Finally I am pondering whether I should bring back my incoming posts. Not everything that comes in to Savidge Reads, that would be bonkers and with so many unsolicited (and sometimes totally inappropriate) copies of books coming here it might make my fingers bleed. I am talking about the highlights, some books that you might want to check out in the forthcoming weeks and months. I love nosing at what other people get copies of, but it can seem show offy. Maybe there is another way I could do it? Could I consider bringing back some embedded vlogging?

I would love your thoughts on these, bringing back the old or keeping the new. Feel free to shout ‘what the hell are you thinking of Simon, the blog is Savidge Reads not Savidge Stationery or Savidge Games – what next from board games to yawn tastic ‘gaming’ on the computer and telling us all about that or maybe you’ll just start with a weekly post about kittens? ‘ or want to yell ‘Book blogs should be just that and nothing else, think on sunshine!’  I would also love to know if you have anything you would like to suggest for a new series of posts or any other feedback, like get on with commenting back (which is my next ‘thing’ over the next week) or things you don’t like on the blog, only the later if you put it nicely – ha! As always any feedback and thoughts on my thoughts are welcome. Blimey, that was only meant to be a short post.

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