Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson

There are some books with which, due to their subject matter, you find yourself being extremely excited about and all at once rather dubious or nervous about before you read them. This was the position I found myself in before reading Jeanette Winterson’s latest novella ‘The Daylight Gate’, for the revived Hammer Horror imprint, as the book centres around The Pendle Witches and their trial. These historical English events have just had their 400th anniversary and still to this day are rather seeped in myth and mystery. Would the book do justice to the legend or was this going to read like a commissioned cash cow? Those were my fears before I turned the first page.

****, Hammer Books, 2012, hardback, fiction, 194 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Daylight Gate’ opens with the events that really caused the Pendle Witch Trial. As pedlar John Law met Alizon Device on one of the many tracks around Pendle Hill, on the 21st of March 1612, and she asked him for some pins. He denied her where upon she placed a curse on him. It is from this point that several things including the effects of Alizon’s curse, rumours the Device family were all witches and a supposed meeting of witches in the Malkin Tower on Good Friday that lead to a trail of thirteen people, the biggest England had seen to date. One of these people was Alice Nutter, a loose thread in the whole trial as unlike the other twelve she was a woman on means and money. It is Alice that Winterson focuses on for her fictional telling of the events.

Through Alice we see the events as they unfold with the Device family as they live on her land; we also see what happens when she becomes accused and what life is like in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle, which Winterson brings almost too vividly to life. We also, through her past, get to see how society is at the time, from the reign of Elizabeth I, who we discover is in part responsible for Alice’s wealth, to the reign of James I, a man who brought fear to a nation through fears of his own. I did find the historical context really interesting and have since been off finding out more. I did also find it interesting that Winterson used Alice almost as a thread of narrative on how ill treated independent women were, and with what suspicion they were treated.

With a novel about witches and one by Hammer the natural question is of course’ is this book scary?’ Well no. However it has got the trademark Hammer Horror guts and gore theme running through it. In many ways, with rape, murder, witchcraft rituals and methods of torture all described in quite ‘The Daylight Gate’ is more horrifying than it is scary but that in itself is scary, just not in the ghostly way some people might be expecting. I certainly had no quibbles with being made to feel very squeamish rather than simply screaming my way through reading it.

My only slight quibble with the book was that Alice’s back story, whilst being an integral part of what Winterson’s fictional version of events and enjoyable, seemed to take over the book a little too much. For example she ends up meeting Shakespeare as the trouble is brewing in 1612 and then we hear how they met before, yet oddly it didn’t add anything to the story apart from placing Shakespeare in the narrative. I would have rather had those pages go back to Old Demdike and all that was happening in the castle as it was there that the book worked its magic the most.

Pendle Hill as taken by me in February, more on that tomorrow…

Overall though I was really rather spellbound by ‘The Daylight Gate’. I came away feeling like I knew more about the Pendle Witch trials, if not the witches so much, and how people’s lack of knowledge and some men’s desire for infamy created it all. I also just fell into the story even when it took me places I wasn’t expecting, but that in itself was all part of the enjoyment. I would definitely recommend this for curling up with on a dark and stormy night by the fire.

I will be back tomorrow with more from Pendle Hill itself.

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Filed under Hammer Horror, Jeanette Winterson, Review

The Joy of Books

I have been asking for recommendations or reports back on some of your favourite bookshops and this morning had a lovely email from Susan in Ontario. It contained a video made by her favourite independent bookshop Type Books in Toronto called ‘The Joy of Books’ which certainly makes me want to go and browse around the store, especially in the dead of night. Alas a) I might get arrested at that time of day and b) it is a little bit of a journey to do some book shopping but maybe one day.

I don’t know about you but it brought back that childhood feeling of wondering what your toys all did when you were asleep or left the room, only with books. Or was it only me that thought that?

Oh and thanks for all the emails about ‘Other People’s Bookshelves’ I am working on the questions at the moment and will send then in due course via email. If you haven’t emailed me yet and want to do so then please do, the more the merrier.

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Savidge Reads Goes To Edinburgh International Book Festival…

…Well almost. Alas once again I have been unable to go to Edinburgh International Book Festival, which is one of the many things to do on my bookish ‘before I die’ wish list. However thanks to the power of the internet and the wonderful bookish friends I have made, my friend AJ went yesterday for the final day and did a report. He has been going for years and next year myself and the Beard have invited ourselves, so much so AJ won’t be aware of it till now, to stay when we go next year. If we go, fingers crossed, hint, hint, hint. Anyway I will hand you over to AJ…

Great books, great talks, great atmosphere and (occasionally) great weather – the Edinburgh International Book Festival has been an annual pilgrimage that I have made since I was first taken there by my Aunt when I was a child. In August each year, Edinburgh plays host to a variety of different festivals. The most famous being the Edinburgh Fringe, which showcases comedy, theatre, music and dance. But while the buzz of the Fringe is going on, just one minute’s walk from Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare, Princes Street, there is the less frenetic – but equally enticing –Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Unfortunately this year I wasn’t available to attend many of the Book Festival’s events, which is a particular shame as many of the talks and guests have been particularly superb, judging by the guide available online. However, I did find that I had Monday free, which also happened to be the last day of the Book Festival, so I popped along to soak up the atmosphere.

In typical Scottish style, the weather was wet (and I had chosen to leave the house in shorts and T-shirt – but the least said about my wardrobe choices, the better!) So on arrival at Charlotte Square Gardens, I was soaked through. It is not particularly easy to find parking around the location, so it is always best to arrive by public transport if possible. Nevertheless, the moment I entered the tented foyer of the complex, the friendly staff at the door were ever-welcoming and I soon forgot about my rather damp appearance!

There were quite a few talks on today that were already sold out. The popular three-part debate on ‘Rethinking the Union’ had been sold out for a while, and although I would have been otherwise interested in attending, I really wasn’t in the mood for a political discussion that day. However, I do have a deep interest in languages, and work occasionally doing freelance translation, so the talk ‘Gained in Translation: How the best Translators Do It’ leapt out at me. I booked my tickets, and then went for a quick coffee before the talk.

The talk itself was held within the grounds at the RBS Corner Theatre; a large and comfortably kitted-out tent, with a stage and seating for at least 100+ people. Chaired by Marion Bourbouze, the Head of Marketing for the Scottish Book Trust, its speakers were the delightful Sarah Ardizzone and Daniel Hahn, both respected literary translators, into English, from a diverse range of European languages. The talk examined the abilities necessary to be a ‘good’ translator, particularly now that the job has become more professionalised over recent years. An interesting discussion resulted between the two translators on their experiences of the job: the serendipitous events that lead to their becoming translators, the necessity of inhabiting the original author’s voice, but also tempering that with your own voice and the nuances required of your mother tongue. The overall emphasis was that being a good linguist is not necessarily the most important quality needed to be an effective translator. After an excellent discussion that lasted an hour, the discussion was opened up to the floor. One rather overly-enthusiastic (yet equally over-arrogant) audience member did create a bit of a stir by hogging the microphone initially (nope, not me!). However, he was soon heckled by the back of the room after being rude to the staff when pressed for his ‘point’. Nevertheless, the remainder of the floor’s questions were extremely insightful and thought-provoking.

Mulling this talk over, I decided it was time for some retail therapy and to get my wallet out and buy some books. So I headed over to the Festival’s bookshop – a lovely huge expanse of bookshelves, with the visual delight of pristine literature on offer intermixed with the smell of coffee and the sound of clinking crockery from the café at the back. The choice of books on offer was huge! I browsed for over an hour, making notes with my phone on which books I should add to my Amazon Wishlist, but also picking up three books that I had to take home with me there and then.

My choices this year were:

  • Intrusion – Ken MacLeod
  • The Tenth Parallel – Eliza Griswold
  • The Second World War – Antony Beevor

All three were impulse buys, and I’ve just started to dip into Beevor’s book tonight. From what I’ve read so far, it looks like it will be another interesting read. Generally speaking I am not one for war books, but European history is of huge interest to me, and this seemed quite broad in its coverage without being interminably dry. MacLeod was also a speaker at the Book Festival, and having read a recent interview with him I was interested in checking out his work – a dystopian vision of the future akin to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Huxley’s Brave New World – so his latest book was an immediate and definite choice for me. Finally, the Tenth Parallel feeds my political/religious curiosities. Griswold’s offering looks at the interplay between Muslim and Christian identities along the tenth parallel – the line of latitude seven hundred miles from the equator which bisects a range of countries through which ideological and political struggles between Islam and Christianity play out. So these three are now happily adorning my bedside cabinet, and will be devoured no doubt over the next week!

Still, there were so many books I could have chosen. One that got away was Paxman’s Empire – having seen the TV documentary, I really do want to check out the book. Furthermore, there was a selection of poetry written in Scots (Accent of the Mind by Rab Wilson) that nearly made it to the checkout with me. But they are now on my wishlist and will soon, I’m sure, be on my shelves too! 🙂

So all in all, my day at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was thoroughly enjoyable and the whole event looks like it has been a roaring success once more. I really am looking forward to the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival!

A huge thank you to my lovely friend AJ, who you can follow on twitter here @AlainnJJ, and who is in the process of setting up his own blog at the moment which I will tell you all about when it is complete. I have to say I am very envious of anyone who has been this year, maybe next year… ooh there is me hinting again, ha! Did any of you go?

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The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker

With all those pesky rumours that the world might end on the 21st of December 2012, when the Mayan calendar ends (though one does have to ask where are those Mayans now?), there seems to be an abundance in novels about the end of the world. Either that or maybe it is just that I am noticing them more. Apocalypse fiction isn’t something that I tend to be that interested in as a rule however after a nice steady buzz, not quite hype, started to build around it, I became intrigued by ‘The Age of Miracles’ a debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker which looks at the apocalypse in a rather unusual way. It has become one of my books of the year so far, a little to my surprise.

*****, Simon & Schuster, 2012, hardback, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Normally with a novel that focuses on the end, or possible end, of the world there tends to be something massive that threatens civilisation from the start be it a meteor, disease, sudden infestation of zombies/vampires etc. With ‘The Age of Miracles’ Karen Thompson walker does something much subtler, and yet as she builds the novel it is equally terrifying, when the Earth’s rotation on its axis starts to slow. Initially the ‘slowing’ is just that a few unnoticeable minutes here and there but then it becomes hours and days start to last for seventy two hours or more.

‘We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it. We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin. We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode in the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.’

I have nothing against science fiction, it just isn’t the genre I normally read, yet I did wonder with this premise if ‘The Age of Miracles’ might become a little bit too scientific. Would we be following some scientists as they tried to prevent the slowing or try and create a space rocket to another ‘earth like’ planet.  Again here Karen Thompson Walker does something very clever and slightly understated in that our narrator is eleven year old Julia who hears the news on the TV, her mother going into utter panic and her father taking a much calmer view. To call this a slightly domestic setting for the possible end of the world would be unfair as what we get is the human aspect through the eyes of Julia and the pandemonium, or nonchalance, with which people in the suburbs of California initially treat it with and then you also get the scientific and political aspects through the news as Julia and her family watch it.

‘We were living under a new gravity, too subtle for our minds to register, but our bodies were already subject to its sway. In the weeks that followed, as the days continued to expand, I would find it harder and harder to kick a soccer ball across a field. Quarterbacks found that footballs didn’t fly as far as they used to. Home-run hitters slipped into slumps. Pilots would have to retrain themselves to fly. Every falling thing fell faster to the ground.’

I will admit I had a further worry that also proved to be completely unfounded and also the factor that made the book such a success with me. The child narrator in a novel can be a problem in a novel, they can come across as being annoyingly precocious or irritatingly innocent and sweet, it can make or break a book. Julia is neither of these things, she comes of the page as a fully formed young girl, though I thought as the novel went on that she was much older forgetting the book was written from her hindsight perspective, and through her eyes we see how the normal becomes abnormal and how it is not just the big issues that change but how people’s personalities, responses and relationships change. It gives the book a real human feel to it and you have a real emotive response to her.

‘What I understood so far about life was that there were the bullies and the bullied, the hunters and the hunted, the strong and the stronger and the weak, and so far I had never fallen into any group – I was one of the rest, a quiet girl with an average face, one in the harmless and unharmed crowd. But it seemed all at once that this balance had shifted.  With so many kids missing from the bus stop, all the hierarchies were changing. A mean thought passed through my mind: I didn’t belong in this position; it should have been one of the uglier girls, Diane or Teresa or Jill. Or Rachel. Where was Rachel? She was the nerdiest one among us. But she’d been kept home by her mother to prepare and prey – they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, convinced that this was the end of days.’

I thought that ‘The Age of Miracles’ was a truly marvellous novel, definitely one of the highlights of the year so far for me. Naturally because I loved it so much I am finding it very difficult to do the book justice as I feel I missed so much out. I was so lost in the book that I felt the people’s dread and I felt like I was with Julia along the way; I got very upset several times, and as the book went on worried all the more. I was hooked. It seems almost patronising to say ‘I was also really shocked this was a debut novel’ yet if I am honest I was. Karen Thompson Walkers prose is wonderful in the fact it captures the changing atmosphere of the people and the planet, and I should mention here the brilliant way she creates a divided society with people who keep ‘clock time’ and people who decide to live with the earth’s new unnaturally timed days, and also ever so slowly and skilfully builds up the tensions in relationships, fear and terror as the earth slows down and the book leads to its conclusion.

The best way to finish my book thoughts on this, as I could go on and on, is to summarise like this… If the end really is nigh I have read one of my favourite books in a long time during the final few months which is no bad thing. I highly, highly recommend you read this before the 21st of December, just in case, as you would be missing out.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Karen Thompson Walker, Review, Simon & Schuster

The Savidge Reads Hall of Fame… Ian McEwan

So today seemed the ideal time to start a new series of posts on the blog in the form of, the rather grandly titled, Savidge Reads Hall of Fame. Over the next few weeks, months and years as I continue on my reading life I will be doing special posts on my favourite authors. I have also created a special page on the blog especially which will contain all the titles by the author and links to the books I have read and reviewed of theirs along the way. This will encourage me to read all the books by my favourite authors and may lead you to some new authors if you like most of the ones that I like, if that makes sense. There are some rules though, but you can find more of those on the Hall of Fame page.

Anyway without further ado my first author in the Savidge Reads Hall of Fame is Ian McEwan…

The first book I read by them was… The very first novel I read by Ian McEwan was his very first novel ‘The Cement Garden’, though I didn’t realise it at the time, it was random fate.

The reason that I initially read them was… If I am being honest, which I think is best; there was no huge plan for me to pick up an Ian McEwan book. I was just meandering through my mother’s shelves when I was in my mid-teens and I picked ‘The Cement Garden’ simply because it was short. I wasn’t expecting it to be the dark and frankly rather shocking story of incest and murder that it was, yet that was actually what gripped me.

The reason that they have become one of my favourite authors, and I would recommend them, is… He never writes the same novel twice. Even if the subject, like in ‘Solar’, might not be the sort of thing that I am interested in he always makes me interested. His narrators always have quirks and you can never quite work them out, yet you like them even if occasionally you know you shouldn’t. I also like the fact there is inevitably a dark streak at the heart of them.

My favourite of their novels so far has been… I think it has to be ‘Atonement’ as it is a masterpiece. That said I think as a novella ‘On Chesil Beach’ is utterly brilliant. It was the first novella I read that showed me they could be as powerful, if not more so, than any novel. Read it!!!

If there was one of their works I had a novel with it would have to be… I actually have two. I started ‘Saturday’ and didn’t quite get on with it, so gave it up but will return to it – I think it was all the brain surgery stuff. I also found ‘First Love, Last Rights’ a compelling read but utterly disturbing and uncomfortable to read, almost too much so.

The last one of their novels that I read was… His latest novel ‘Sweet Tooth’ which is probably his most autobiographical and a must for McEwan fans.

The next I am planning on reading is… I think I need to read ‘Enduring Love’ next out of all of his books because I have heard it has one of the most brilliant opening sequences ever. This excites me.

What I would love them to do next is… I would actually really like him to write another collection of short stories. Having read him writing some short stories as a character in ‘Sweet Tooth’, and enjoying those stories within the story so much, I think it would be really interesting to have another collection of ‘Ian Macabre’ stories, though maybe he has mellowed.

*******************************************************************************

So that is my first one done. There may be another in just a few weeks, we will see as I want to do it on whim. So who else do you think might end up in my Hall of Fame? Who would be in yours? What do you think of this new series of posts? Do let me know.

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Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan

There are some authors we each hold so dear that as soon as they have a new book coming out you are simply palpitating at the very thought. Ian McEwan is one such author for me; I am a big fan of all of the novels of his I have read and indeed many of his short stories, so that over time he has become a favourite, even if I have occasionally been a little non-plussed by a story or book along the way. I was particularly excited about ‘Sweet Tooth’ as from the start there were murmurs that this was McEwan’s first proper ‘thriller’, I say proper because there are often thrilling literary elements in all his novels, so as soon as it arrived all life was on hold until I had read it, yes that is how excited I was.

****, Jonathan Cape, 2012, hardback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Sweet Tooth’ is set in London during the early 1970’s which, looking back, was a time of great uncertainty with the IRA and the Cold War and a time of social change illustrated in part by, as McEwan brings up more than once, supermarkets and supermarket trolleys cropping up here there and everywhere. It is in this period that our narrator, Serena Frome (rhymes with ‘plume’), ends up working for MI5 and becoming a spy as part of a project called ‘Sweet Tooth’. Serena is given the task of, with her beauty and love of books, getting author Tom Haley to join in a government funded venture which promotes authors with leftish views, apparently this happened. Yet at the same time is Serena being toyed with and spied on herself as an affair with one of her lecturers, who led her to MI5, starts to be scrutinised when it appears that he wasn’t quite the spy everyone thought he was.

One of the things I liked about ‘Sweet Tooth’ so much from the start was that there is so much going on albeit so subtly you do ponder in the first 80 pages if there is going to be a ‘thrilling’ pace at any point because lots of things meander along. As we get to know Serena’s story, which is told after 40 years of hindsight, the hints of her sexual freeness, family background and obsession with escaping into books slowly builds a portrayal of her, though we are never sure quite of her motives or actions. I should mention her that there is a certain coldness and distance from her, coming no doubt from all that happens in the story we read and being a spy, that I did initially think ‘this is so not Ian McEwan’. Yet whilst much is hinted at as the story develops there are almost too many strands none of which are quite fully fleshed out.

As Serena meets Tom Haley everything really kicks off a gear and yet it all slows down at once. The mention of the IRA and Cold War even politics, which I was finding oddly fascinating, sort of fall away to be replaced with a tale about an author in the 1970’s. The book becomes less and less a thriller and more almost a fictionalised account of the author himself. If I was a thriller fan I have to say about 160 pages in I would have been feeling quite cheated, as a fan of McEwan I read on because I wanted more of the story and to see where Serena, who I found oddly compelling as I didn’t know if I liked her or not, went (and the twists at the end do make the book) and also to learn more about Ian McEwan, oh hang on, I mean Tom Haley.

‘My evenings now were empty. I came home from work, took my groceries from ‘my’ corner of the fridge, cooked my supper, passed the time with the solicitors if they happened to be around, then read in my room in my boxy little armchair until eleven, my bedtime. That October I was absorbed by the short stories of William Trevor. The constrained lives of his characters made me wonder how my own existence might appear in his hands. The young girl alone in her bedsit, washing her hair in the basin, daydreaming about a man from Brighton who didn’t get in touch, about the best friend who had vanisged from her life, about another man she had fallen for whom she must meet tomorrow to hear about his wedding plans. How grey and sad.’

The thing that really sold me on the book was the fact that it is all about books, in fact to be honest it is much more about books and writing than it is spies. As I mentioned Serena is a book lover and as we learn of her love of books, as book lovers, we like her a lot more. As she reads up on Haley, his journalism and retells, which seemed slight odd at first, his short stories (which read a lot like McEwan’s early short stories funnily enough, these were wonderful) we almost get a literary critique from as Serena analyses them looking for Haley in them. It is quite an unusual technique, and indeed novel, in a lot of ways and will either really work for you, once you get past the ‘this isn’t really a thriller’ element, or will fall completely flat.

I think, in hindsight and after giving it some thought, ‘Sweet Tooth’ is very much a book from McEwan for his already established audience, which his publishers have labelled his ‘thriller’ rather than saying ‘McEwan does a book about spies and books’ because it might sell better (though it’s McEwan so it will sell regardless, let’s be honest) and reach a new audience. This could prove an error as anyone seeking a thriller won’t get what they are expecting, and that could lead to some serious disappointment. I personally was expecting something along the lines, only different because it was McEwan, of William Boyd’s ‘Restless’ which I really liked. Subsequently I spent a little time being disheartened that the thrills and spills weren’t really there, as I imagined with McEwan they would have been so good, but was won over, and ended up liking the book a lot, because I felt it was the first time I really got into the head of Ian McEwan which I was happy with and also it is a very bookish book. Objectively though, my fandom aside, I am not sure a ‘thriller’ fan would feel quite the same way though.

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Manchester Literature Festival 2012

I really do love a literary festival. I can’t say I have been to hundreds, in fact it’s more like five or six, but when I saw loads of people I know going off to Edinburgh over the last few weeks I have been, frankly, green with envy. There is something so special about the vibe of these events, the coming together of reader and author and the general love of books that makes me go giddy at the thought. Last year I had the pleasure of going to Manchester Literature Festival, which is the nearest to me (Liverpool doesn’t have one, why?), and seeing many of the events and meeting the authors and event hosts afterwards for The Readers Podcast. This year, in October, I am planning to do the same again, and a little more as you will see, and what an incredible line up there is this year.

I already have sorted tickets for the opening event next week, a trailblazer, which is with none other than Zadie Smith who I am really keep to see talk, especially after having dipped into ‘NW’ already, which I am planning on reading properly this weekend between Green Carnation submissions. This is an event to kick start it all officially and I will be reporting back on for you all.

After the festival starts ‘a proper’ in October I have a mammoth wish list of events to see with authors including; Michael Chabon, Carol Ann Duffy, Penelope Lively, Salley Vickers, Clare Balding, Pat Barker, Jackie Kay, Mark Haddon, Jeanette Winterson, AM Holmes, Jonathan Harvey and ‘Unbound Live’. Phew! You can see these events and many more on the festivals calendar page. I think I am going to miss some sadly as I will be in Iceland, maybe someone reading this might report back for me?

To top it all off though there are two other events on the calendar that I am particularly excited about and that is because… I am hosting them! The first will be on Monday the 8th of October at 18.30 when I will be hosting an event with Patrick Gale and Catherine Hall, who happens to be a fellow Green Carnation judge and also wrote ‘The Proof of Love’ which won the prize last year and was a book I adored. I am going to be re-reading a few Patrick Gale novels over the next couple of weeks including his latest ‘A Perfect Man’ and ‘Rough Music’ which I read, shock and horror, over a decade ago.

The second event I am just as excited about and is at lunchtime on the following day. In the oh so apt Manchester Town Hall, which was used in Sherlock Holmes as the House of Parliament, I will be hosting a Victoriana event with the lovely Jane Harris and Essie Fox, both of whose work I have thoroughly enjoyed as I am sure you are aware. I have had the pleasure of interviewing Jane and Essie before so I know this is going to be a hoot.

Well that is me all excited then isn’t it? I do hope, as I am giving some advance warning, I will see some of you at these events I am hosting or at any of the others I am desperate to see (you’d better say hello). In the meantime though I wondered what your thoughts on literary festivals were. Which have you been to? What was good and bad about them? What makes the perfect bookish event? What makes the perfect host? Oh and would any of you also consider smaller more intimate ‘Reading Retreat’ weekends? Cannot think why I am asking the latter…

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