Monthly Archives: September 2015

Dept. Of Speculation – Jenny Offill

My lovely friend Catherine Hall is a book tease. I went and stayed with her quite a lot last year and every time she would rave and rave about Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation as being the best book she had read in ages, and every time she would have lent it to someone else. It also seemed to be a book that had always sold out in bookshops I happened to fall into when it was in hardback. When it came out in paperback though I snaffled it on its day of release, and read it on its day of release, twice. It has just taken me a while to get round to writing about it to the point where I feel I do it justice because Catherine Hall was right, it is one of the best books I have read in quite some time.

Granta Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 192 pages, bought by myself for myself

That one was so beautiful I used to watch him sleep. If I had to sum up what he did to me, I’d say this: he made me sing along to all the bad songs on the radio. Both when he loved me and when he didn’t.

They say that there is not a single new story under the sun, or something like that, and if I was to say to you that Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation was the story of a couple from their first meeting to the time after one has an affair and the fall out of that, you might think ‘oh nothing new there’. Normally I would be with you, rolling my eyes the loudest, however whilst that story arc might be well trodden in literature I don’t think that anyone has done it in such an original manner as Offill.*

In a series of chapters that are really made up of many short paragraphs or sentences Offill builds us a fully formed vision of a relationship. We have those first moments of connection, the first conversations, the first night of passion, the working out the unwritten rules as the relationship defines itself. We go through moving in together, marriage, children. Then we hit the affair, the questions of forgiveness and of if staying together is right. We have the highs and we have the lows and we have them in possibly some of the most intimate bursts of description I have ever read.

It was still months before we’d tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I’m so weary of it all.

Because Dept. of Speculation is a novella, and the way it is constructed is so swiftly done, I don’t really want to give you any more of the story than that. All I will say is that you feel for the narrator as they unravel these moments partly because you have been there before and in some ways feels like you are getting snippets of conversation from a friend. Or if you are like me, snippets of a conversation that is going on at a table not far from you that you simply cannot stop listening to. What I have to tell you about is just how ruddy marvellous Jenny Offill’s writing is, so don’t you try and stop me.

One of the quirky, for I think that is a word which can be applied to this novella, things that I found most affective (after some of the heartbreaking poignant moments) in her writing is the way that as we read on we are given random facts that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the story. For example we are told about antelopes vision, the habits of birds and facts about microbes. Initially you find yourself thinking ‘what on earth are these about’ and yet as you read on you realise that these seemingly random paragraphs and facts actually bear an uncanny relationship to where our narrators head or heart is at and it gives the novel this additional force of emotion when you (literally) least expect it. There is also no seeming rhyme or reason to them, sometimes they arrive solitary, sometimes in unrelated (yet somehow apt) groups. I found this really powerful.

There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear bird song there. Our ears have evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.

The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our lives moving back and forth between these three.

Offill might keep her prose short, sharp and sparse but it is filled with imagery, colour, emotion and atmosphere. One of the ways in which I think her writing can be at its most powerful is when (and I know I mention this a lot but it is something I love when done well) she writes a moment that is initially really, really funny and then smacks you round the chops with a sudden realisation of the sadness behind it. There were several moments during Dept. of Speculation where I would laugh out loud and then suddenly be hit with the bittersweet tang of the undertone that was lying in wait for me. Like when Offill writes…

At night, they lie in bed holding hands. It is possible if she is stealthy enough that the wife can do this while secretly giving the husband the finger.

Or…

And that phrase – “sleeping like a baby.” Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.

I found these moments incredibly real. No, I haven’t had a child but I have babysat a lot and indeed when my little sister was born, when I was just sweet sixteen, her crying would lead me to sneak into her room take her out her cot and cuddle her much too the fury of my mother and step father who were trying to create a routine. It is probably the level of reality in Offill’s writing that is where the book chimed so much with me. As I read on I found myself having had the same thoughts and emotions as the narrator. It took me back to those wonderful first flutterings of love and lust and those dark moments of utter heartbreak. It delivers all this simply and succinctly, no bells and whistles, just wonderful writing.

Are animals lonely?
Other animals, I mean.

I think Dept. of Speculation is something quite special. It is a book of observations that will speak to you. You will converse with it in your mind, you will relate to it and then you will want to talk to lots of people about it. I also think in living through its protagonist’s relationship you will come away feeling like you understand and value the relationships you have now and the ones that you have had before. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and you will feel better for both. I highly, highly recommend you read it.

*Note: I will now get lots of emails telling me this has been done before. I won’t believe one of them, ha.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Granta Books, Jenny Offill, Review

I’ve Got A New Job!

…And when this goes live I will probably be sat at my desk head down working it all out. (If my new boss is reading this, I scheduled it last night.) Anyway, some of you will know that I have a new job if you have been following me on Twitter or listened to the latest episode of The Readers, if it has gone live. I haven’t said anything louder, like shouted about it on here with joy when I found out that I had got it, or very specific because I was waiting for references, occupational health green light and a definite start date but I am thrilled to announce that I am going back to Culture Liverpool  and Liverpool Council (after two years away) where I am part of a new exciting commercial team and I’ll be leading/heading up all their media partnerships for them and all the events and other fantastic things that the wonderful city of Liverpool has to offer. It feels like quite a grown up move, yet not so grown up that I can’t post this amazing picture (which I got via the lovely Nina, whose blog Notes from the Chair you should all follow) that says it all…

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So there we have it. Not sure what this will mean for the blog as I think I am going to be fairly bonkers, though I have scheduled a lot of posts in the last week or so for the next week or so (especially when I am in America as of next Friday) but I will be posting plenty I am sure as my love of books, literary events, bookish chatter, podcasting and blogging isn’t going anywhere – it might just be a tiny bit more sporadic. So that is my exciting news! What is new and news with all of you, we haven’t had a random catch up in a while have we? Tell me all…

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Other People’s Bookshelves #71 – SE Craythorne

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 we are off to lovely Norfolk to meet author and bookseller Sally Craythorne, or SE Craythorne as she is otherwise known. So let’s grab a nice cuppa and some of those lovely biscuits that Sally’s put out for us and get to know a little more about her.

I live in Norfolk with my husband and my twin girls.  We have a small-holding, with goats, two rescue donkeys, and a field full of rabbits that eat our carefully grown vegetables.  We also have a dog, called Daisy, a mutt of such mixed breeding that people actually stop us in the street to ask ‘what is that?’  She’s gorgeous. I work as a bookseller at The Book Hive in Norwich.  My debut novel, How You See Me, was published by Myriad Editions on 20th August, and I’m working on my second.

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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?

I buy books all the time, but mostly don’t read them straight away.  I’d be a terrible reviewer.  It often takes me years to get round to something, even if everyone has told me it’s brilliant – or because everyone has told me it’s brilliant.  I think that timing is paramount when it comes to enjoying a book.  I don’t keep a diary, because so many of my memories are wrapped up in what I was reading at the time.  When my grandfather was dying I read Under the Net by Iris Murdoch; travelling through Africa on a particularly terrifying bus will always be remembered for trying to read Women in Love.  My read books are my diary, in a way.  So I keep them. That said, if I think a book’s terrible, it goes.  And if I’m having a particularly horrid time, I often blame the book I’m reading, and abandon it in favour of something that I hope will change my mood.

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?

Chaos reigns on most of my bookshelves, but occasionally I throw a small fit and try and introduce some order.  Crime – only polite murders, none of your gruesome – lives downstairs in the living room, and poetry – for unknown reasons – is heaped up in the bathroom.  It’s heaped because I panic about the covers curling, but I like looking at their spines, and sometimes their contents, when I’m in the bath. Everything else is everywhere else.  It’s mostly fiction, but it’s not in any order.  I find the book I’m after through a kind of divining process, without the rod.  It rarely works for locating what I have in mind, but usually turns up a book I want to read. When we moved out to the wilds and decided to have babies, I was forced to into a book cull.  My husband had the idea that we should be able to move through the rooms without negotiating piles of novels.  Years working as a bookseller meant that I’d collected a lot I was never actually going to read, no matter what the timing.  And books that had been tried more than once and never completed went too.  It was rather a relief.

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

Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea (this is one of Simon’s childhood favourites).  I bought it at Diss Publishing Bookshop when I was eight.  It was my own choice and paid for with my own money.  It’s a quest story with beautifully drawn characters set in Ireland against a background of Irish mythology.  It’s probably the book I have read and re-read most often.  The book I turn to in times of trauma.  The reading equivalent of sucking your thumb.  I love it. My original copy was lost, but it does turn up second-hand and I always buy it.  I only buy the same edition I had as a child, with the epic 80s illustrative cover, which was what first attracted me to it.  This was the book that made me a reader.  It also made me want to be Irish, but I’m mostly over that now.  Mostly.

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?

I don’t believe in guilt for my pleasures.  I’m quite happy for Marian Keyes to sit alongside Sartre and Freud, I think they all get along famously.  If a book really irritates me, I have a habit of throwing it across the room, so there is a small pile of books with battered spines residing by the wall.  But they should be ashamed of themselves!

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?

It’s a small paperback poetry collection called Love Songs of Asia, translated by Edward Powys Mathers.  Its spine is broken and it was long ago fixed with tape, now yellowing with age.  It was given to me by the poet – and my greatest friend – Oliver Bernard.  He carried it around with him for over sixty years and read me many of the poems from it whilst we sat in his living room, smoking and drinking blackberry tea.  Oliver gave me his copy when I presented him with a fine edition I found second-hand, and inscribed it to me. Oliver died two years ago.  That small volume and the memory of his voice reading, in particular, ‘Ghazal of Iza Akhun Zada’, are amongst my greatest treasures.

AppleMark

AppleMark

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?

I’ve always envied those who can claim a precocious childhood of reading the classics.  I was the most age-appropriate of readers, until I reached adulthood and realised I could read whatever I liked.  The ‘grown-up’ books looked terribly boring to me.  I do remember my despair that one day I would too have to grow up and read books without pictures. I do remember resolving to read War and Peace when very small.  My mum read it twice during each of her pregnancies, or so she told us.  I have multiple editions on my shelves, the full range of translations, in soft and hardback, I’ve bought it new and secondhand.  It’s my husband’s favourite book.  I’ve never read it.

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 use the library regularly now, in the vain effort to keep down the quantities of books that I buy.  But, if I love a book I have to own it.  And I get rather irritated when I go looking for something I know I’ve read, only to remember it was a library loan. I am not a gentle reader – I’m a page folder and spine breaker – so I rarely borrow books from friends.  At least, not more than once.  But I do press books onto people to borrow and read, whilst repeating the mantra that my friend taught me: ‘never loan a book you don’t expect to be dropped in the bath, or covered in coffee’.  (Once a friend of my mother’s borrowed a John Irving signed first edition from me and gave it back with the casual aside that her daughter’s puppy had been visiting.  When I opened the cover, half the pages had been chewed out). I buy them again if they are amongst my beloveds.

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

Can I have two?  I bought two.  I’m having two. One: Letters to Anyone and Everyone by Toon Tellegen.  Now I have children, I’m allowed to buy more children’s books.  Yes, they are only babies, but they will grow!  This is an eccentric masterpiece of epistolary fiction.  And it’s very funny.  And it has one letter that goes:

            Dear Ant,

            Ant

            Ant

            Ant

            Ant

for a whole page.  I bought his book of stunning poetry about his father, Raptors, a couple of years ago when it was part of Writers Centre Norwich’s ‘Brave New Reads’ scheme and am now desperately trying to track down everything he ever wrote. Two: All Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith. This was a second-hand find, and one I’d been after for a while.  It’s a book of aphorisms (or what he terms ‘moral prose’) and it’s just beautiful.  Everyone should have a copy. I told you I’d be a terrible reviewer.

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

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry.  It’s the strange and compulsive tale of a man that, to his own astonishment, lies his way into a household and becomes embroiled in the lives of all that reside there. I keep buying it and then giving it to people, and – quite rightly, it is that good – they never give it back.  I’ve bought it more than five times, and I intend to buy it again.

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

This woman reads too many novels. They’d be right.  My general knowledge is completely founded on the reading of fiction.  I buy non-fiction, but more often than not, trail off after a story from the shelves before I’ve reached the halfway point.  It’s an illness, and it means I’m highly unreliable when it comes to facts.

AppleMark

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A huge thanks to Sally for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. 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 Sally’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

Grief is still something that we modern human folk are pretty rubbish at. It is something that we don’t like to talk about along with its frequent bedfellow death. I have often felt that in The West and particularly in Britain we are told to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with it. In reality this doesn’t help. If we are going through it we bottle it inside, isolate ourselves and tend to make it look like we are fine. When people are grieving we tend to find ourselves unsure what to do and either go one of two ways by being over helpful (and accidentally overbearing in some cases) or by distancing ourselves from people thinking they probably don’t want our help or need us in their faces – or maybe that is just me. Yet until we talk about it more, in all its forms, we won’t deal with it better individually or as a society, so thank goodness for people like Cathy Rentzenbrink who have the bravery, for it is a very brave act, to share their real life experiences with grief in a book like The Last Act of Love.

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Picador Books, 2015, hardback, memoir, 246 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I was drifting off to sleep when I heard someone shouting outside in the car park. Nothing unusual about that. Customers often pitched up in the middle of the night looking for their wallets or keys or wives. I opened my window to see what was going on. The man below didn’t look mad or drunk. He was standing next to his car. The headlights were on and I could see a woman in the passenger seat.
‘Is this where Matthew Mintern lives?
‘Yes, I’m his sister.’
‘You’d better come then, he’s in trouble.’
Trouble. It was a worrying word but a small one.

Trouble does not cover what follows as Cathy Rentzenbrink describes how after a night out with her younger brother Matthew, where she left earlier and he stayed on, he is hit by a car. Cathy arrives not long after to be by his side as the ambulance staff arrive and take him to the hospital, all she can think of is to pray that he survives, pray that he will get better, pray that he will live. Yet in the days, weeks, months and years after his accident pass Matthew, or Matty, shows very little sign of mental (and therefore physical) recovery from the accident and remains in a persistent vegetative state (which is a term I really, really hate and think should be changed for the record) the idea of life becomes less of a blessing and more of a curse. The Last Act of Love follows Cathy and her family as they come to terms with this and the life they all lead alongside Matty afterwards and question what ‘a life’ actually means.

There is so much that I admired about The Last Act of Love it is almost impossible not to fawn over it because I think it is such a beautiful, honest and important book. It is utterly heartbreaking, yet strangely hopeful and uplifting too. Cathy manages to build a full picture of relationships and situations in a few paragraphs which give her memoir an extra intensity. For example whilst the accident happens early on Cathy swiftly builds up the wonderful relationship that she had with her brother, who was also clearly her best friend and who she loved without end. Not long after the book opens we are taken with them as they discuss love together while Matty fixes an old motorbike, it is just a few paragraphs yet instantly we see the dynamic and depth of their love, which of course makes what follows all the more heartbreaking and Cathy’s despair and emotions all the more engulfing in the aftermath.

Everything apart from being with Matty seemed irrelevant. I’d always kept diaries and notebooks, but now I wrote nothing. My words had gone AWOL. I couldn’t bear to read the pointless, silly rubbish the old me had written so I tied all my diaries up in two carrier bags and chucked them into the skip at the back of the pub.
Reading was still my friend, though. I read constantly and compulsively, drowning out the sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep – I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into.

One of the things that I admired most of all throughout was Cathy’s honesty and directness, both in the good times and the bad. I mention the good times because, as we all know, even in the darkest times there are some very funny (often inappropriately so) moments amongst the sadness. Yet where I think The Last Act of Love excels and is at its most potent and poignant is in the darker moments. The moments where you have to update people on a horrific situation, how you tell people who don’t know (which during Cathy’s reflection on college she gives a list of the options and the likely responses to telling new friends about her brother), the guilt you feel, the spectrum of emotions, the way you think physical pain might take away mental pain, how you cope at points when you feel you simply cannot endure  any more and how you do or don’t deal with all these things.

It would be very easy for anyone writing something like this to leave out the bad bits, or as in some things I have read simply move all the bad bits around loss, grief and emotional turmoil and project them onto someone else making yourself look the martyr. Cathy doesn’t do that, in fact she often does the opposite. She openly talks about the intense anger and rage you feel, how uncontrollably sorry for yourself you can feel, how hard it can be to support someone who is seriously or terminally ill and indeed be the person who brings up the difficult question of whether someone really should ‘live’ through all of this – which is what makes up the second section of the book. All this before the guilt and grief that follow after someone’s death which she discusses just as honestly.

There was no pleasing me. I was angry with people who wanted to ask me about Matty, but also angry when they stopped asking and didn’t want to see him. A tragic accident and a coma are exciting, but the prospect of permanent severe brain damage much less so. People didn’t want to see him. They had loved him – not quite like one of their own, but they had loved him – and it was distressing for them to see him so transformed. They gradually drifted away.

Not to make this all about me, though as it is my blog and my reaction to books is always an emotive one as a reader it’s hard not to, but I think all of these aspects of the book were what really chimed with me and also made me think it was ok to have had those dark thoughts and moments before myself. As many of you will know I  often looked after Granny Savidge during her terminal illness and had many of these moments. I can remember having blazing rows with her and everyone else in the family because emotions were so high yet loving them all so much. I remember wanting to ignore the phone the third time in the night she wanted help on the commode because I was so, so tired. I can also remember laughing endlessly when she thought a Crunchie bar wrapper was She-Ra’s bustier or when she told me to ‘shove it in your pipe and smoke it’ after I offered her a strawberry. I remember the moments in her last weeks when I felt guilty that I wanted her to die and then the  fear when I would say to her ‘you can go now Gran, it’s ok, we don’t mind, we love you’ worrying that she might and it would be all my fault. It was reading Cathy’s story that made me realise that that was all ok, it was grief, it was normal, it was human and it was how I coped even when it wasn’t pleasant under an emotionally crushing time. I hope I haven’t over shared there too much.

Speaking of which, before I wrap up, one of the other things that I loved about Cathy’s writing was the fact that while she lets you into some very intimate and personal parts of her life not once does it feel like it is over sharing or exploitative. It is simply a book that is emotionally open and honest and in telling both her story and the story of Matty The Last Act of Love is a book that once read will help or sooth the pain or guilt that anyone who has cared for or lost a loved one feels. Oh the power of reading.

If you hadn’t guessed already I would highly recommend people read The Last Act of Love. It is a warm, engaging, emotional yet hopeful book that I think truly is the last act of love from a sister to her little brother. And an act that will provide solace to many, many readers.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Non Fiction, Picador Books, Review

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.

9781907773716

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