Monthly Archives: October 2015

Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter

It has been brilliant having a good old sort out of books wherever they may be shelved, or indeed hiding, in the house as it has reminded me of the books I have to look forward to and also the ones that I have loved and the ones that I have loved and haven’t written about yet. One of the books which has probably made both the biggest impression on me, whilst reading and in the pondering it has left me with since, has to be Max Porter’s debut Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Such an impression did it leave on me (and so many thoughts did it bring) I had to read it twice within a short space of time.

Faber & Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Once upon a time there were two boys who purposefully misremembered things about their father. It made them feel better if ever they forgot things about their mother.

It is no surprise that from the title of a novel such as Grief is the Thing with Feathers the subject is going to be, you guessed it, grief. Whilst the idea of members of a family coming to terms with the passing of a loved one and the effect this has on them might not be the newest of subjects, I think it is safe to say that I have never read a book that describes the varying emotions of grief in such an honest and fractured way. We see grief through the eyes of the three people in the house, a father and two sons, as they try to come to a way of understanding the loss that now surrounds them and the blank unknown of what lies ahead. Into this space appears Crow an unwelcome guest who is both helpful and hindering and who will stay put until these three no longer need him.

In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.

What or who Crow is changes on the page as often as it will in the readers mind. Is this actually a crow that has just happened upon the scent of loss and wants to do some good? Should we judge him on his dark and pointed exterior for the trickster we see? Is Crow a manifestation of a husband’s way of dealing with the emptiness that invades every thought or is the manifestation of the two boys missing their mother? Is it a father’s madness taking on the form of his slight obsession with the poet Ted Hughes* as some sort of coping mechanism and/or breakdown? Is he an entire emotion come to life filling every piece of emptiness in these three’s house and worlds post death? Could Crow be all of these things? It is up to the reader to make up their own mind.

One of the reasons that I was so gripped/intrigued/horrified by Grief is the Thing with Feathers was the character of Crow, who is a riddle in himself and a puzzle you want to solve. I was also completely captivated by the writing. I felt whilst reading that I was under some kind of spell in the way it mixes the reality of grief, and the horror of it, with a slightly giddy yet unnerving sense of the fairytale or the supernatural. There’s a raw modern narrative and a very quintessentially gothic essence to it which I also loved. It also feels in many ways like an essay to grief that is also a poem, the language is wonderful even when it seems utterly bizarre, you are hooked.

Look at that, look, did I not, oi, stab it. Good book, funny bodies, open door, slam door, spit this, lick that, lift, oi, look, stop it.

The main thing that I really loved (if that is the right word) about this book however was the depiction of grief. I always have huge admiration for writers who tackle the difficult or the ugly things in life and, no matter how hard it might be to write or to read, embrace them and give us them with their full honesty, unflinchingly. As I mentioned when I read Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love, grief is something which we really do not like to talk about and yet we all face and when we do we really need someone to talk about it with. Max Porter has created a novel which does this with a rage and a beauty that moved me so much.

Without sounding too daft, as I read this book I felt like I was going through grief again, in a strange way both for this fictional family that I have never met (because they don’t exist Simon) and for anyone I have lost in my life. On one page I would be slightly confused, the next I would be laughing like a drain, the following I would be howling and then there were those particular brutal bittersweet moments where we mourn everything we have lost and celebrate everything that we had, those memories which break our hearts but remind us of the wonder of love and the people we love or have loved.

The house becomes a physical encyclopaedia of no-longer hers, which shocks and shocks and is the principle difference between our house and a house where illness has worked away. Ill people, in their last day on Earth, do not leave notes stuck to bottles of red wine saying ‘OH NO YOU DON’T COCK CHEEK’. She was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.

So to put it simply, I think that Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a rather exceptional book. It is one which puts you through the ringer, leaving you distraught and then hopeful. It is the sort of book you rush through once and then have to go back through and read slowly taking all the intricacies in and then pondering over it all afterwards. It resonated with me and affected me, which is all I ever hope for from a book – one of my books of the year.

*Oh, before I go I should mention the Ted Hughes connection which I have seen has caused some discussion over the interweb with many a bookish sort. If any of you are wondering if you need to have an appreciation of Ted Hughes and his Crow in particular my answer would be no… Because I have read very little Hughes and I had no idea that the Crow collection existed. Before you call me a heathen (possibly too late) I can say that having read Grief is The Thing With Feathers I have got a copy waiting for me at the bookshop to pick up on pay day. So not only did the book affect me greatly, it also got me heading for a poetry collection which is not my normal bag at all. What can I say? Something about the soul of this book resonated with me that I want to find out more around it, even though it is fiction. Yes, this book is that good, not that I needed to tell you again.

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That Old Chestnut, What Do I Really Want To Be Reading?

Hip, hip, hooray and cheers all round… I have finished reading my first novel in over a month. A huge thank you to Ruth Ware’s In A Dark Dark Wood which has proved the perfect thriller to (cliché alert) grip me and have me page turning like a loon, more on that soon. I have also spent some of the weekend streamlining, rather than culling, not only my mighty bookshelves but also my ‘read’ shelves and the shelves (yes, shelves) of books that I have yet to review that I have read this year.

I have pondered the books I have read to see if I want to keep them. I have whittled out books I thought I wanted to review but actually am not so sure I do (there are lots of Fiction Uncovered submissions etc where I am not sure it’s appropriate or, worse, if I have very much to say – ouch) and the ones I have been busting to tell you about and have been a busy sausage and not done, yet. The shelves (and shelves) of books I have yet to read has been the hardest to whittle down and to be honest I have barely made the tiniest of dints or dents or whatever. The reason being I feel I am back at that crossroads in my reading life we all go through every so often where we ask… What the **** do I really want to be reading in the future?

The answer is alas illusive because I don’t like my reading straight forward or clean cut, who does? I don’t only want to read one genre, I don’t only want to read certain authors (though it would be nice to return to some of the ones that I love and have failed to read again, as seeing Brooklyn reminded me) and I don’t want to only be reading books that change my life – that would be exhausting, sometimes you need some fantastic escapism be it ghosts, crime or fairytale, not that they can’t change your life. I want to read the odd prize winner, I also really want to head off the beaten track and go and delve into the lives of casts of characters I will fall in love with the stories of all over the world. Sooooo many books, so little time – it’s sods law isn’t it?

I do know that I want to avoid some of (not all, but some) the big shouty hyped books. Twitter has been giving me a slight headache when I have been popping back online, I am on less frequently yet the same titles and voices seem to be shouting about the same books. I was actually saying to Rob, Kate and Gav earlier today how it’s become quite odd going from someone so in the industry and the chatter to now being much more on the outside. That’s not a bad thing, it means I can go rogue, which is the plan I think. Though an unplanned plan, no rules and no deadline reading for me for a while I think*.

Over the past few months on and off I have said I want to give Savidge Reads a slightly new direction, I am just still not quite sure what it is. However with 2016 looming and a new period in my professional and personal life having started I think that whatever that change will come in January. I am just going to pick up books by whim until then and see where they guide me. After all that was what Savidge Reads was meant to be (and is on the whole) from the off; the ramblings (verbal and literal) of a book lover on his journey discovering great books, so let’s see where that takes us shall we – as obviously I am expecting you to all come along for the ride. In the meantime while that all tinkers in my head it’s back to that pesky question of which book to read next?

*Unless some amazing book prize comes a knocking.

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Brooklyn (The Movie)

I am not a big film buff. I love a good movie (and often quite a few bad ones) don’t get me wrong, however reviewing isn’t my forte, just watching them and then simply summing them up with ‘ooh I loved it’, ‘ooh it had its moments’ or ‘ooh wasn’t that a load of old bobbins’. So it might seem bonkers then for me to mention on this blog, which is after all for books, that I think if you don’t all book tickets to see Brooklyn, adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, as soon as you can then you are fools. And I should know because I was lucky enough to see an advanced screening last night…

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When I read Brooklyn (back in 2009 so do forgive me if it seems a churlish review, I have refused to re-read it) I fell head over heels in love with it as a novel. Usually this means that when I see an adaptation is coming out at the cinema I do an inward rolling of the eyes and think ‘not on your nelly’, however when I saw that it was being shown early as part of the Liverpool Irish Festival at the Fact Cinema (which I have always wanted to go to) it seemed too good a trip out to miss. I have to admit though up until the popcorn was in my hand and I was sat in front of the opening titles, I was really nervous. It was, to me at least, an almost perfect movie.

I won’t give the plot away but the film, or indeed the novel, are set around the tale of Eilis Lacey. Born into a poor family who have lost their father and breadwinner her sister Rose has found one of the scarce jobs in her town but for a better chance at life Rose has organised her sister Eilis to go to Brooklyn where many young women are making a life for themselves and even managing to send money back home to help there. We then follow Eilis as she leaves home, has to settle into a whole new way of life all whilst becoming a woman. Then, for reasons I shall not give away, we watch as Eilis has to chose between her old home and her new ‘almost’ home after struggling to belong. Well, for the first time in a long time I was greeted with a film that was as close to the book, both in story, character and most importantly atmosphere, as well as what I had envisioned in my head. I loved every minute.

Firstly the acting is marvellous. Saoirse Ronan as Eilis is just superb, as she goes from an innocent, slightly giddy and occasionally cheeky to a homesick vulnerable wreck and then onto a more confident women with some very difficult decisions, she inhabits the role wonderfully, and what is wonderful is how she plays Eilis when she becomes slightly unlikeable which I found wonderful. I also thought Emory Cohen was wonderful as the loveable love interest ‘Tony’ and their relationship was spot on, even if he was slightly cuter and more clean shaven than the Tony I had in my head – but that says more about me than anything. The supporting cast were also wonderful. Julie Walters as Madge Kehoe, the Irish housekeeper in Brooklyn was, as always, wonderful and stole almost every scene she was in, though without the wonderfully played roles of the other girls there (by all the women who played them) they might not have been so funny, I could have watched and entire TV series around the dinner scenes set there. Jim Broadbent was very good as Father Flood,  though I don’t think it taxed him much it didn’t matter because it was Jim Broadbent and he is just good stuff always. Huge kudos should go to Eilis’ sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and mother (Jane Brennan) as well as the marvellously awful Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan) whose subtelty and intensity in all their parts was wonderful.

And it doesn’t end there, even though I am now in danger of making this sound like an Oscar’s speech, I thought the director, costume designer and sets and settings all need a huge round of applause as 1950’s Brooklyn and Ireland both came to life fully formed with these characters in front of my eyes, the locations becoming the two biggest characters in the whole movie really. Finally, Nick Hornby (yes, him) has done an amazing job of adapting it all to create the whole plot behind it and seems to have seen all the wonderful things that I love in Toibin’s writing (the intricacy of the small moments, the sadness, the joy and the laugh out loud – no one instantly thinks ‘Toibin, he’s a funny one’ but he is and Hornby sees it, those dinner scenes and small snatches in conversations) and magnifies them slightly highlighting them and just making it all a joy to watch. So go see it.

I have now come away with a huge reinvigorated love of the cinema and have already booked tickets for Spectre on Tuesday and might have to see if anyone wants to see Suffragette this weekend in the interim. I am also going to go and dust of some Toibin as I think that is who I shall be reading next, though I also want to read Patricia Highsmith’s Carol before that comes out at the cinema in a few weeks.

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My Worst Reading Slump… Ever!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… Who ever thought I would be quoting Charles Dickens on this blog, yet here we are. In all seriousness though the last few weeks/months have felt a little bit like that. In going to America on my Readers adventure, heading to book festivals in Ilkley, Harwarden and Durham and then spending last weekend in London I have been having a gay old time left, right and centre, as it were. I am also really enjoying my new job and my new team. Yet all this has come at a slight cost in the terms of reading. When I say slight I mean epic, I have not read a whole book for over eight weeks the longest time since I gave up reading for 5 years in 1999.

Actually, that is a teeny weenie over exaggeration as I have read some books in full, just with big gaps in between meaning the reading of them felt somewhat disjointed. Yes folks, I was book juggling, that horrid state where several books seem to be all up in the air in your head at once as you read bits of one and then the other and another and go back and forth and around in circles. This was not helped by a secret project I was doing for a book prize, sifting their submissions before they went to judging panel back in late August and early September. I was book juggling with fire and I think I got somewhat burnt, even though it was ever so much fun reading for that prize and then reading for America and trying to read for festivals. But I think it got too much and the slump arrived.

Admittedly, this reading slump arrived without me noticing it – the sneaky thing. On arrival back from The Readers Roadtrip, I was unaware that I had not picked up a book for almost a week, probably because I had spent so much time talking about books. What I did notice was that being away from the buzz and shouting of Twitter, which I love but sometimes you hear the same books being shouted about or the same voices shouting, and that I felt the need to have a bit more calm. My desire for buying books hadn’t left me, I had bought twenty in the USA and then five more in Ilkley and more damage in Durham – yet the urge to sit and read wasn’t there, admittedly in the last two cases my trains were filled with stag and hen parties in both directions which wasn’t conducive to reading.

Yet whilst all this was going on I was still having many a wonderful chat about books (when not at work, though actually we are quite a booky lot at Culture so maybe that is slightly untrue) just not actually picking them up and reading them, then it seemed I couldn’t. I was talking all the book talk rather than actually fully participating. I had done so much dipping in and out and multi reading I just think I needed to stop and so for a week or so I avoided books, reading about them, talking about them, blogging (I know, I have been a quiet bookish bear) about them – the end. It was bliss… For a few days and then I got twitchy, then a bit grumpy, then full on edgy. Then I started to resent all the books in the world, let alone on my shelves, that I have yet to read and all the time that it might take to read them. Ouch, hard times (oh a second Dickens reference, I really am ill) and dire times indeed.

However in the last few days things have changed a little. Whilst in London at the end of last week and over the weekend three things happened that made a switch. Firstly I saw Nina Stibbe (who my boss who was with me is a huge fan of) talking about her book and other books at Stylist Live. Secondly, staying at my friend Catherine Hall’s she told me of a book that she had read and really loved and we chatted about some random books the other had never heard of. Thirdly, I went and had a massive wander around Foyles on Charing Cross Road and just mooched and looked at some books I had never heard of before… the bug was coming back slowly.

It then took and actual bug to break the book slump curse. As on Monday night I was felled by a stomach bug from hell and spent most of that night and 50% of yesterday being sick (the rest of the time I was trying to work from home at my kitchen table, dedication) and then today feeling rather delicate. At lunchtime I was feeling a bit woe is me and the like and so I settled down on the sofa with…

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…A children’s book and  I was hooked. All I needed was something simple, stunning and magical. Now it seems the sickness bug has gone and the book bug is back, which will hopefully mean the blogging bug is back to. Though I think I need a good cull this weekend to get me fully back on track, I have my sights on my unread books and the piles (and piles and piles) of books I have read and haven’t reviewed. Maybe a fresh start of sorts and a spring, well autumn, clean is called for? Anyway I am back, nice to be back in the bookish world with you all again.

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And The Two Signed Copies of Margaret Atwood Go To…

Apologies for the blog silence, more on that in the next post, however I am back and about and there will be some new posts very soon. Before that though I have the results of the two signed copies of Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress give away, as chosen by the random number generator at Random.Org. And the winner, who everyone is going to want to be best friends, or best relative, with now is…

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…Sarah Jasmon, congratulations!!! I have sent you an email so do get back in touch so the lovely folk from Virago can send you the two signed copies asap!

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The Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2015…

Has just been announced and it is… Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings!!!

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I haven’t read it yet, even though The Green Carnation Prize judges have been telling me to since they longlisted it as has Frances of NonSuchBook. So I know what is going in my bag to London with me on Thursday (or possibly tomorrow as I am in a weird book funk) for train rides and snatches of time that I get to myself from then until the weekend! Have any of you read it yet and what did you think?

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Durham Book Festival; It’s Been A Bookish Blast

So. That. Is. It. Durham Book Festival has come to an end for me. It has been an absolute bookish blast with over two days of non-stop bookish delight. I have been introduced to authors old and new (to me or debuts) and enjoyed every minute. From the Gordon Burn Prize (which I have now decided I want to judge one day), to the finale event discussing Wearside Jack it has been brilliant. Pat Barker thoroughly entertained me and made me want to read everything that she has ever written, I got to join in with a fascinating debate on hard evidence, I saw Lauren Laverne talking fashion, got to take part in Read Y’Self Fitter giggling away with our tutor Andy Miller, be thoroughly freaked out about the state of modern Russia and heard Patrick Gale and Liza Klaussmann talking about sexuality and sexual secrets. What more could you want and where else could you get all of this other than a literary festival?

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It has also been a real hoot (as you can see from my naughty gleeful look captured above brilliantly by Picador’s Emma Bravo) and the lovely team at New Writing North and Durham Book Festival have been wonderful hosts and putting up with diva demands, well they probably would have if I had made any. I didn’t honest. I got to meet lots of lovely people who I have not met before but I have spoken to for ages on Twitter, like the brilliant Ben Myers and Andy Miller, as well as some lovely faces that I have met before including some of the lovely young talented reviewers that myself and Lauren Laverne have given masterclasses to and who I had some ace chats with at the events…

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And they will be the lovely folk who will be blogging and reviewing for the rest of Durham Book Festival on the Cuckoo Review website and on the festival’s blog BECAUSE THE FESTIVAL IS NOT OVER and you can still go and see some corking events (Philip Pullman, Carys Davies, Stuart Evers, Mary Portas, Bill Bryson and more) over the next week, which they will all be reviewing on the site along with some of the books discussed and more. All good stuff!

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Durham Book Festival; The Story of Wearside Jack, with Mark Blacklock and Northumbria University

And so we come to my final event at Durham Book Festival at the end of what was a wonderful, wonderful weekend. Last certainly did not mean least. In fact the final event I went to was all about Wearside Jack and actually turned out to be one of the highlight events of the whole weekend so I went out with a bang, as it were.

For those of you who don’t know anything about Wearside Jack (and even though I had Mark Blacklock’s novel I’m Jack I didn’t, I just bought it because Benjamin Myers said I must, that is how easy I can be swayed) let me explain. Wearside Jack was the nickname given to John Humble who pretended to be the Yorkshire Ripper in a number of hoaxes. Humble sent letters, taunting the authorities for failing to catch him, as well as an audio-message spoken in a Wearside accent, causing the investigation to be moved away from West Yorkshire area, home of the real killer Peter Sutcliffe, and thereby helping prolong his attacks on women and hinder his potential arrest by two years. Some 25 years after the event, a fragment from one of Humble’s envelopes was traced to him through DNA, and in 2006 Humble was sentenced to eight years in prison for perverting the course of justice. And yes, I did just steal that whole explanation from Wikipedia. But you get the gist and it sounds fascinating, grimly so, doesn’t it?

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The session held up in the Burlison Gallery of the Town Hall was a rather wonderful event, especially if you love crime fiction and criminology. Mark Blacklock, who has written a fictional account of the tale of John Humble in I’m Jack, was joined by a panel of real life crime experts from Northumbria University to talk about the case. We had Professor of Criminology Mike Row, court expert Dr Michael Stockdale and law expert Adam Jackson who all talked about how the case worked, or in many ways didn’t, and how on earth someone could hoax a police force for so long – we soon learned that hoaxes are now put into an investigations frame work as oddly lots of people like to claim they have committed crimes they have nothing to do with.

It was utterly fascinating. The whole set up of the event with the fact and the fiction only made it all the more so. We heard all about the reality of how the courts worked at the time and how they work now, how evidence can be used and withheld, how a plea can change everything and how someone could completely baffle an investigation team and, horrifyingly, how that could lead to further horrendous crimes elsewhere. We also discovered how Mark went about turning history into fiction, the research he did, the sources he used and the way he brings in real and faked evidence to confuse the reader and make them wonder just what is real and what isn’t. I came away even more fascinated by criminology than I was before and, most aptly as it is what book festivals are all about, I couldn’t wait to read I’m Jack which will be my next read as soon as I have finished my rather cosy British Library Crime Classic. A brilliant finale to the festival for me to leave on, wanting more.

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Durham Book Festival; This House Believes That There is No Such Thing as Hard Evidence with Louise Welsh, Peter Guttridge, Dr Dan Grausam & Professor Judith Howard

I mentioned in my last post that once I had decided that the life of a fashion designer or a vet wasn’t for me, maybe being a forensic psychologist would. I have always been a fan of both crime fiction and true crime and I bloody (pun intended) loved Waking The Dead on the telly box and frankly wanted to be Sue Johnston. Anyway I digress, for this reason my final two events at the festival were both crime based. The first was an event in partnership with IAS (Institute of Advanced Studies at the university) where two panels fought the argument as to whether hard evidence exists, with academics from the university and authors, which instantly intrigued me. 
First up to fight against hard evidence’s existence www Professor Judith Howard. She used the example initially of British Weather and the fact that whilst predicting it has got better (like dealing with evidence has) it can never be perfect, you wouldn’t leave your washing out and expect it to be dry just because the BBC or an app tells you too would you? (I know, I would too!) She then talked about new technology and, unless I heard wrong, that pathology could be know as fraud in certain circumstances. I got a bit lost there BUT I did understand that she basically meant improvements mean there is still no hard evidence, as we look at data in totally different ways from the past and will do in the future, we just have more probably evidence that can still go wrong. Those poor criminologists. 

Next up was Dr Dan Grausam who, delightfully I add, did that old trick of getting the audience right on his side from the off. He basically wooed us. He said because of brilliant people like us there was hard evidence in the love of true crime and crime fiction as well as all the television stuff None of this festival, he said, could exist without hard evidence of a love of books or we would just be at some boring existential conference. So really we were all hard evidence of hard evidence. Wow. Twisty. I liked it. 
Author Peter Guttridge was next and he used crime fiction as a way to prove the point of the lack of hard evidence in existence. After all isn’t ambiguity one of the reasons we all love a good crime novel? Nothing is certain and really it is crime fictions guise to be misleading and to write about miscarriages of justice. If it’s all hard evidence fiction wouldn’t work. Look at most novels, multiple eyewitnesses who are unrealisable, and we all love an unreliable narrator don’t we? Well maybe not all of us. His point was that no one (real or fictional) ever sees the same thing in any given situation, plus there is Inattention blindness eg a group are asked to keep score of the amount of times a ball is passed on a baseball court, afterwards they are asked if they notices a woman with an umbrella up crossing the court no one did! He then talked about contamination of DNA followed by quantum physics and dimensions. These last two lost me a bit but I liked the cut of his gib so nodded along smiling. I remember why I changed my mind about being a forensic psychologist… The science bit!

 Last but not least was author Louise Welsh (who I have read, see I have read some of the authors at these events) who was fighting for hard evidence. First of all she did it by holding a pen up and dropping it, hard evidence of gravity. She then asked us all to take out or phones and get our cameras ready, where she promptly pulled out a gun (not real) and shot her fellow panellist and said ‘there you’ve proof I shot him’. More hard evidence. She also debated contaminated evidence saying ‘just because it’s contaminated doesn’t mean it isn’t right’ you just need more and more of it. She then told us a fascinating true crime case of a man who ended up being caught by pollen. Stuff like that blows my mind. Finally she advised us that if we had murder in mind we should make it look an accident, push someone down the stairs is probably best. We all laughed… Nervously. Ha. 

It was then opened up so the panellists could take a pop at each other’s arguments before we all joined in. People brought up how ‘the camera never lies’ but with editing ability now it can. There was also a discussion about how science disproves itself all too often as it advances (slight over my head again) before we all got to vote on who we agreed with. I voted for Dan and Louise, hard evidence that if I like your books and you make me laugh I’m putty in your hands. Another bloody (pun intended, again) brilliant event. 

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Durham Book Festival; Style is Eternal with Lauren Laverne and Laura Craik

The problem with reviewing live events is that sometimes you get so engrossed in them that you forget to make your notes. This was the case with the Style is Eternal event which saw Lauren Laverne and Laura Craik in conversation with Chris Hodge and focuses around Yves Saint Laurent and an exhibition that’s been on at the Bowes Museum just outside Durham! 
Now part of this was to do with the fact that I am quite a fan of Lauren Laverne, I won’t lie and had a small fan boy moment that we were in the same room. The other reason, which you may not be aware of, is because as a child and in my early teens I was obsessed with fashion. In fact for years I was pretty determined that I would be a fashion designer (it then changed to a vet and then a forensic scientist, the latter which links into the next session I’m going to) to the point where I would spend hours and hours designing dresses, I wasn’t fussed about men’s fashion. So to be honest I got a bit lost in the event which focuses on Yves Saint Laurent’s life from taking over Dior at 21 to how he has informed fashion since. 
What I can say was that I had no idea how much YSL (sorry to shorten it but my poor thumbs) had influenced fashion and yet how much of his love for fashion and style seems to have left the industry in some ways. He created the first real line of day to day where but he would have been shocked to see how his influence has reached the high street as far as Zara and even Primark, yet how quality seems to be leaving the equation as fashion becomes ever more fickle and throw away.

I found this idea of YSL being horrified by the idea or even involvement of the ‘sidebar of shame’ for weeks with some of his designs, which both Lauren and Laura mentions on occasion. It was also interesting to hear the idea that with YSL it was an art but with female designers it’s seen as a craft, which could open a whole can of worms but is a really interesting opinion.

Other things that came up were the Sophie Dahl advert, how older women are becoming the faces of designer labels (and not just the surgically enhanced ones), whether couture fashion is dying or reviving, the difference between fashion and style and where fashion is going – good news guys, the exciting stuff seems to be in menswear.

All in all a corking event. Sorry I couldn’t write more. I was just enjoying it too much.

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Durham Book Festival; Read Y’Self Fitter with Andy Miller

The word ‘giggles’ might not be one that you would associate with a literary festival event. In general this perception would be wrong but even more so in the case of Andy Miller’s Read Y’Self Fitter event which is based around his brilliant book The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life.

  

On entering Durham University Library’s event space we were all asked to write down our names, a book we’ve always meant to read and sign it (for legal reasons, ha!) I’m not telling you what mine was, so there, you can all guess. Then Andy took to the stage for a devised Ten Step Programme on how we can read ourselves fitter! This involved much audience participation.

I won’t give away Andy’s programme, though I think it should be complusery for anyone who reads a lot and who will laugh a lot, but I can share some highlights. Especially as some of the points really resonated with me amongst all the giggling. Two seemingly apposing tips were that ‘we are not as clever as George Eliot’ and also ‘we are not as clever as Dan Brown’ the latter got some snorts and some nervous giggles. Now the George Eliot part makes instant sense in many ways but Dan Brown, really?!? Well using a similarly brilliant method as he does in the book, Andy compares The Da Vinci Code with Moby Dick, no really is brilliant, and makes everyone laugh and also think. Brilliant.

There were two particular parts of the talk resonated with me personally in a way that made me think more than laugh, which I was going most of the time. The first of those was the step There is No Subsititure for Reading the Book, Than Reading the Book. (I paraphrase there!) Andy talked about how we always say we are too busy for difficult books. Ironically I had said this very thing to him at breakfast in the hotel when he came with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest under his arm and my eyes widened in horror. But he’s true we do say it and it’s bonkers. As Andy, and his wife we are told, say it’s as simple as reading 59 pages a day. He then added how he was blogging at the start of his quest he blogged and then realised he was blogging more than reading, and that struck a chord with me around what I’ve been thinking for a while. So I have that to mull more, how do we get the balance right? All of us, not just me. Read more is the answer, just crack on with it.

 

The other part that made me think, and apparently has caused boo’s in some sessions, was Always (Try To) Finish A Book. There were no boo’s but there were some definite murmurs at this because, rightly or wrongly and I am in this boat, we all say that ‘life is too short for bad books’ or ‘a book should hold me the whole way through’. And I think it’s true. BUT, and there is a but, Andy said if you don’t finish a book how do you know? Good question. He used the example of The Goldfinch at which I rolled my eyes and then thought ‘hang on a sec, I haven’t even read that!’ See. Andy Miller. You’re point was proved, kind of.

At the end of the session we all joined in as Andy pulled out people’s book choices out and made the stand up. This was particularly funny when the first was a choice of 100 Years of Solitude which Andy had had a small rant about earlier and we all laughed before chanting that the reader would and must read that book. It felt like a huge bookish healing session with lots and lots of laughing. I think Andy should go and visit every book group spreading Read Y’Self Fitter everywhere. So there.

If you haven’t read Andy’s book you must. I will pop up my review very soon, I’m not sure why I haven’t before. In the meantime if you want to hear Andy talking about his book, other books and reading dangerously you can hear him on You Wrote The Book with me here. Who has seen his show and who has read his book?

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Durham Book Festival; Patrick Gale & Liza Klaussmann

The audiences of the Durham Book Festival are a saucy lot if two of the events I have been to are anything to go buy. It seems that the subject of *whispers* sex, sexual secrets and sexuality gets the forces out in their droves. I know it is early on a Sunday, do forgive me but ‘shenanigans’ (which seems much more of a Sunday word for it all) came up in Pat Barker’s session within  few moments of her being on stage. The same happened when Patrick Gale and Liza Klaussmann were in conversation with Caroline Beck late yesterday afternoon, as sexuality and sexual secrecy (and shame) seem to be at the hearts of both their books – which of course makes us all want to read them instantly.

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Lots of you will have heard me rave on and on about the brilliance of Patrick Gale’s work and in particular his latest, A Place Called Winter which is one of my favourite books of the year. You can read my review here for a more in depth look at it, but a brief summarisation is that it tells of a man who leaves Edwardian Britain under a cloud of shame and in some form of penance, and in some ways survival, heads to outback Canada where of course he still can’t hide from his true human nature. I just realised that makes it sound like a murder mystery, rather than a love story and tale of friendship. Can you see why I am not in book publicity? Anyway, it’s brimming with secrets, sexuality and bear grease – well maybe not the latter but it sounds fun, see totally not appropriate as a book marketer am I?

Alongside Patrick was Liza Klaussmann whose latest novel, Villa America, I have not read yet (there is a theme at the events I have been to so far on unread yet books, but as Patrick told me yesterday re Pat Barker ‘if it is a brilliant book, it will keep’ which is now my new life motto) sounds like an absolute corker. It tells the tale of Sara and Gerald Murphy who it’s said were inspirations for Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and who seemed to have the perfect lives, which Liza said ‘seemed to perfect, so I knew something was going on there’ and so she looks at what could have been going on behind the scenes of a perfect seeming marriage and reveals some sensational secrets. Come on, admit it, you want to read both of these. I told you so.

What is great about a live event is seeing how much some books, no matter how different the setting or indeed the authors are, can link together in so many ways. Obviously there is the subject of sexuality (I don’t think I have written the word sex so much in a post ever, what have you done to me Durham Book Festival?)and sex, plus secrets, lies and facades. There was more.

Both books are written about real people; Patrick’s is very much based on his great great Grandfather and what might have been his story and reasons for heading to Canada, Liza’s about the Murphy’s and the Fitzgerald’s and the whole whirlwind that went around them in that time. When asked about the responsibility and what these people thought Patrick said he felt now that most of the people who knew his great great Grandfather were dead he felt he could be freer, but he knew they might have disapproved, Liza too felt the Murphy’s might be unimpressed (as they were with Tender is the Night) but as they were dead it was alright. There was much laughing throughout and many a book was sold and signed afterwards.

Lovely stuff, a couple more books to add to your TBR’s if you haven’t already. If you have read either or both books I would love your thoughts on them. I had a corking first day at Durham Book Festival and now have Andy Miller, Louise Welsh, Lauren Laverne and Mark Blacklock ahead of me today, its almost too much bookish delight!

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Durham Book Festival; Modern Russia

As many regular readers of my blog will know I can sometimes struggle with non-fiction. However, this is something that I am keen to address, or even redress, as I think that sometimes non-fiction (when done right) can have an incredibly deep and resonating impact with you as you know it’s real. It can also make it all the more uncomfortable, in all the right ways, because you can’t read some of the things going on in the world, past or present, and simply say ‘oh but it’s fiction’ even when it seems to be stranger than.

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For this reason I already had my sights on attending the Modern Russia event at the festival today with journalists Arkady Ostrovsky and Luke Harding at the Town Hall. I don’t think I was quite ready for the event that unfolded before me and how much it has bothered me and stayed with me several hours (sorry my phone died) since.

Arkady is a Russian born journalist, who has only recently left Russia again after being a foreign correspondent for the UK within his own country – which he made a joke of the irony of. His book The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War looks at just that period and what on earth has happened to his own country since one president left things in a time of potential positive change for the country to one that seems at its most fragile and dangerous. Luke Harding is a writer for the Guardian, where he has been Moscow bureau chief, and lived there and endured subtle and not so subtle threats whilst in his job there along with his house being bugged and all sorts (which he described like being in a really bad Bond movie) before being expelled from the country by the Kremlin. His book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia looks at those times. The question both of them were to discuss was ‘how did we get here?’ and their answers were fascinating.

Now I am not going to divulge every single thing they said, as why would you need to read the book, though actually (as I am sure anyone else who was at the event will agree) you were left in no doubt that their books were very much required reading for us to understand the news at the moment, how we have got here and what it could all mean. I can say that I didn’t realise the impact of the propaganda that is going on in the country, war is made to look like a blockbuster and the only possible answer, people only tend to get political roles if they are corrupt because then the powers that be have a hold over them, the KGB is back in full force, the fact it is one man not many that rules, etc. The other part I found chilling was when they both spoke about Russia now, at its fragile and most dangerous, and that Putin is a man with nothing to lose and a nuclear arsenal at his finger tips. There is a new cold war already; no one is daring to say the words yet though.

I found their thoughts and opinions grimly fascinating occasionally jaw dropping and in the end deeply disturbing, yet thought provoking in all the right ways. I think what has stayed with me most is the hope that Arkady had after Gorbachev left and the fact that he has now left the country with his family because he finds the whole atmosphere and attitude simply too toxic to bring his own children up in. Haunting, what a session, a truly impacting hour!

After this event and hearing Peter Pomerantsev yesterday, I need to be reading much more non fiction about Russia – if you have any recommendations in that field, or indeed modern Russian fiction (unlikely with the way the country is being run, but not impossible) that looks at the country now, I would love to hear about them.

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Durham Book Festival; Pat Barker

There is probably going to be a collective intake of breath, some shock and horror and disapproval when I tell you that I have not yet read a novel by Pat Barker. Granny Savidge was a fan, many people whose opinions I hold highly have told me… It is the war thing, too many books about WWI or WWII have left me cold. That said, since visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, my mind has turned of late to returning to it and trying again – especially as I will be working on the Tower of London Poppies coming to Liverpool. So when I saw Pat Barker was on at the festival it was a no brainer. The fact she said ‘I like to give my readers stories, humour… and lots of vigorous sex’ within a few minutes of getting on stage made me think Barker might just be the author to get me back into fiction around the world wars.  

This was further proved over the following hour that Pat Barker was on stage with Professor Sharon Monteith discussing her latest novel Noonday and the novels leading up to it. During the conversation she talked about sex, a bit more, and how characters sex lives can tell you all about them. She also discussed on of my favourite things in fiction, secrets. In fact it seemed a lot of her latest trilogy is about the secrets we have from ourselves and others as well as the lies we do the same with.

Another thing which held her in all the higher esteem was that she likes to write about us northerners. It was really interesting when she talked about her northern roots and said was not artistic fusion just language she grew up with and the way women spoke when she was growing up. As someone who grew up with a lot of northern women around him… Tick, tick tick.

She also discussed her thoughts on historical fiction and fiction itself. She said she is definitely not a historian, while she it at university she was never very good.  (We all laughed a lot through the session, she was very warm and very funny.) she was emphatic that historical fiction is not history. It can be a false take, if fits the character it’s the right take. You just can’t move history about or change the facts to suit your fiction but often you don’t need to!

In terms of fiction in general she talked about its power. She said she is reluctant to write from single perspective as what’s brilliant about fiction is that it can give sympathetic portraits of groups of people who differ on opinion, politics and morals. In doing so it also means readers are invited to empathise with differing point of views. In fact she is now proud of fiction for making people more empathetic. So she loves readers and reading too. Tick. Tick.
So all in all I was sold. Would I read Pat Barker? Yes. Was I fool for not buying a book? Yes! And so book was bought. I almost bought all the copies I could to compensate but held back for now.  

So who else has read Pat Barker and what did you think? Thoughts welcome as always!

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