Category Archives: Sarah Winman

A Year of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman

When I read a debut author whose writing I love there is always a mixture of feelings when their second book arrives. As a rule I am both ridiculously excited as their new work could be even better than its predecessor and also really nervous because it might not be. Tricky. It was with this mixed bag of emotions that I met A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, whose debut novel When God Was a Rabbit I absolutely loved when I read and also had the pleasure of raving to everyone about at my first (short lived, weeps) literary salon in Manchester ‘Bookmarked’ and beyond. I finally read it on holiday, aptly in a desolate cove.

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Tinder Press, paperback, 2015, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Marvellous Ways is waiting for something, she doesn’t know what on earth it might be, she just knows she has to wait. Well, she was told to wait by one of the three loves of her life, albeit from beyond the grave in a dream. (This might all sound bonkers, it is, stay with me.) What she is waiting for turns out to be Francis Drake who, on a mission after the Second World War to pass a letter from a soldier to his father, ends up washed up on the shore of the cove where Marvellous spends much of her time. Drake it seems has given up on life and had it not been to keep a promise to a dying man might have ended it all, Marvellous realises her mission is to bring back to him a passion for life and a life yet to live whilst being close to the end of her own.

My initial summation actually makes the novel sound both a little too simple and also much more linear than it is to read. Whilst it has a beginning, middle and end (as all books do) it also has a fluidity and magical element to it that means it all flows and interlinks, if that makes sense? The first thirty pages tell of how Marvellous lives, waiting, by the sea in Cornwall in her late eighties and creates a wonderful image of an eccentric character who likes to swim naked every day, regardless of the weather, and potter around the hamlet nearby sharing her stories. We then switch to Drake at a pivotal moment in World War II and then follow him back to London where he tries to find Missy, the woman he believes is the love of his life.

She watched the tide of life below. People doing their very best, trying so hard to make it better. And she took to wondering, like so many often did, what it had all been for. The triumph of two years ago hadn’t gained access to wallets or purses or homes. People were poor and the city was crumbling.

What he finds is both a woman and a city changed forever and an incident that soon sees Drake fleeing London and into the cove and life of Marvellous. It is from this point that the novel, I think, really grabs the reader as we enter the world of Marvellous Ways again and get lost in both the stories that she tells Drake (how her mother was a mermaid, how she had had three great loves of her life; a lighthouse keeper and two brothers, how starfish came to be) and some of the lives of those who live nearby and become part of Drakes new life. I was soon swept up in what becomes a fascinating and beguiling narrative of one woman’s history and also the history of some of the lives that she has touched; be they a minor character or a major one, be they good or bad.

Rumour has two very distinct sounds. When it flies free the sound is similar to a ship’s hull scraping against a harbour wall. But when rumour is caught, the sound is of expiration: like a fearful sigh in the vacant dark whorls of long-abandoned shells. And marvellous pointed to the whelks.
She knew these sounds well because she’d had a rumour-catcher outside her caravan and it had caught many over the years, most having been carried on the breath of Mrs Hard. She’d launched rumours like royalty launched ships.

Without a doubt, for me, it is Sarah Winman’s creation of Marvellous Ways that gives life to the whole of the novel. What is unusual for me though is that I would have liked the book to be longer. This is unusual as regular visitors here will know that I can veer away from both lengthy novels and novels about the world wars. I would have, shock horror, liked to have had more of both Drake and Missy’s life during the war. Drake for the impact of the war and the propulsion to do what he does, which I think Winman would have written incredibly. Mainly for Missy though because the glimpse of the life that she led during the war (which I knew nothing about and won’t tell you because I really do want you to read this book) made me have a small jaw drop and I wanted to get more of an insight into how that slowly affected her rather than how much it had at the point we meet her. This all sounds very vague because I don’t want to ruin anything. It also sounds like a backhanded compliment which I don’t mean it to because I enjoyed the experience of A Year of Marvellous Ways as it was.

The reason for this is simply Sarah Winman’s writing. Throughout the novel you will be greeted on every page with sentences as simple and sharp as Hatred doesn’t need much watering or care. Just a nudge. She can also be quite whimsical and florid but never at the cost of being twee or unbelievable, just slightly magical. Speaking of which there are some truly gorgeous mini stories, legends and fables that interweave the stories of Drake and Marvellous which add to it immensely. One I particularly loved, and almost included as a quote in this review but didn’t because I want you to go and read it yourself, is that of how starfish came to be. It is just utterly gorgeous.

All these traits of her prose excel when combined to create characters and evoke places and atmospheres. She creates, erm, marvellous fully formed, and often flawed) characters. Marvellous is the standout of the lot unsurprisingly, her narrative just resonates and charms even when she is telling you some of the most unbelievable or cuckoo sounding stories, but that is what is so vivid and wonderful about her. It is hard to describe. It is not just characters that Winman is a wonder at, she excels in settings too. War torn London comes fully to life with all its shattered homes, hearts and hopes. Her writing of Cornwall, with its sense of the possibility of the impossible, comes off the page just as it does when you go and visit it now, all these years later there is still something quite ‘other’ about that part of the world.

I could ramble on and on about A Year of Marvellous Ways for much longer but I will save you from that. Suffice to say I really enjoyed it and loved getting enthralled and (sometimes a little literally) lost in the story of Drake, the story of Marvellous and the story of Drake and Marvellous. It somehow manages to be a story of nothing and a story of everything, most importantly though it is a (sorry in advance) marvellous story of stories and a particularly (sorry again) marvellous storyteller. I ended the book with quite the bottom lip wobble because I didn’t really want Winman’s fairytale to end.

Have you read A Year of Marvellous Ways, or indeed When God Was a Rabbit, and if so what did you think? Have you any second novels of debut authors you’ve loved left nervously on the shelf and if so which ones? I now need to get a wriggle on with both S J Watson (who was also at the first Bookmarked with Sarah) and Lucy Wood’s second books very soon, as they have been waiting on my shelves far too long.

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Filed under Review, Richard and Judy, Sarah Winman, Tinder Press

Bookmarked Debut Night… The Report

It’s been over a week since an idea I had became a reality and the Bookmarked Literary Salon opened its doors in Manchester’s Waterstone’s Deansgate for its debut night. I thought I would give those of you who couldn’t be there a report on the event, which started with me being unusually nervous. In fact have to admit I don’t think I have been that nervous before. I went all giddy at about lunchtime however my Mum and sister aka ‘The Girl Who Read Too Much’ (who read both books the weekend before, impressive) had come to visit, sadly no Granny Savidge Reads, and offered support and calming words like ‘get a grip’ before I had to leave to pick up our Bookmarked t-shirts and go and meet the authors off the train.

After an initial slightly shy hello at the station, I had met SJ before yet still felt rather nervous, I took Sarah Winman, SJ Watson and their lovely publicists Helena and Alison off to the venue in style… on the free bus. Soon we were chatting away like we had known each other for ages, then shared some pots of tea and chips before being joined by my co-host Adam and getting holed up in the Managers Office so that the authors could prepare and also so I couldn’t keep popping in the events room had actually turned up. You might spot the slightly nervous smiles from em and Adam just before we were ready to go and meet our audience…

We then went in and couldn’t quite believe out eyes, the room was pretty much full; people were standing at the back (though there were a few seats at the front, why does nobody ever want to sit at the very front), I have to say I could have done a little weep of joy, instead – like true professionals – we introduced the authors and started with a reading. Sarah had everyone in stitches with her reading from ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ and SJ had us all on the edge of our seats when he read from ‘Before I Go To Sleep’.

Adam and I then lead a sort of ‘grilling/conversation’ about some of the in-depth themes of each book and how the books compared and contrasted…

 

Which seemed to keep the authors on their toes, especially when we asked about their debut author journeys and their writing process (I cannot for the life of me remember what I asked that got this response)…

Soon we handed over to the audience (some not in the photo below, my Mum managed to hide somehow) who all had great questions to ask, one included my mother who almost had me saying ‘yes Mum, what would you like to ask?’ she asked about the grieving process that leaving characters behind might cause. I don’t think the authors had been asked that before. The rest of my family who included my aforementioned mother and sister were joined by ‘The Aunt Who Doesn’t Read So Much’ (who had read ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ beforehand and has since read ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ in about three days and three sittings) and ‘The Bookboy’ kept unusually quiet…

 

These too kept the authors in great discussion as we discussed the second still in writing process novels, adaptations, and their previous books ever seeing the light of day and what their writing lives are like…

Then suddenly over an hour had vanished before our eyes and it was time to stop and also time for a quick photo again, can you see the mix of relief, joy and ‘oh no its finished’ on my face?

The authors then took part in a signing or several…

 

Before it was all over and we were saying goodbye as the authors headed back to the train station and I headed for a strong drink and a meal with friends and family. I did manage to ask Sarah which she preferred, a comfy chair with me and Adam or with Richard and Judy… I am too polite to share the response, hee hee. 

Thank you to everyone who came, we had a great time and we so hope that you did. I know Lucy has written up her thoughts, which was really kind, but Lucy why did you not come and say hello, in fact that applies to a few tweeters and followers who turned up. Oh and Emma, thank you for saying hello I am so sorry our conversation was cut short, email me and lets go for a coffee. We hope we will see you all on the 12th of September when we will be having a crime-fest with Val McDermid and a special guest. You can find out more here.

Right, I will stop waffling on and on but I am just thrilled it went so well. If you came, thanks again, if you didn’t thanks to those of you who wished me luck, it meant so much to me.

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Filed under Bookmarked Literary Salon, Sarah Winman, SJ Watson

Bookmarked Literary Salon Launches… It’s ‘Debut Night’

I have been desperate to tell you all about this for weeks and weeks, but until everything was signed, sealed and sorted I didn’t want to jinx it. So excuse the slight self promotion as I bring you the exciting news of Bookmarked Literary Salon’s opening night, the appropriately themed ‘Debut Night’. I am actually so excited about the authors we have coming I could ramble on for hours, instead here is the official wording about it all (let me know what you think)…

Two stand-out debut British novelists launch “Bookmarked” – a new literary salon co-hosted by Simon Savidge and Adam Lowe at Waterstone’s Deansgate.

Monday 8th August, 6.30pm at Waterstone’s Deansgate in the heart of Manchester – “Bookmarked” aims to bring something new and fresh to the Manchester cultural scene. Two of the most talked-about and bestselling first-time novelists of 2011, Sarah Winman, author of “When God Was A Rabbit” and SJ Watson, author of “Before I Go To Sleep will be in conversation for the first time together – discussing their writing; plotting and characterisation – and how they travelled the rocky road to publication. 

About the Authors

S J Watson was born and grew up in Stourbridge, in the West Midlands.  After graduating with a degree in Physics from Birmingham University, Watson moved to London and began working with the hearing impaired in various London hospitals, eventually specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of hearing impaired children, whilst spending evenings and weekends writing fiction. In 2009 Watson was accepted into the first Faber Academy ‘Writing a Novel’ Course, a programme that covers all aspects of the novel-writing process. ‘Before I Go to Sleep’ is the result. Now sold in over 30 languages around the world, ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ has been also been acquired for film by Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free, with Rowan Joffe to direct. It was also chosen for a ‘Book at Beachtime’ on Radio 4 Extra.

“It’s exceptionally accomplished…The structure is so dazzling it almost distracts you from the quality of the writing.” Guardian

“SJ Watson’s debut doesn’t put a foot wrong… brilliantly simple… Unforgettable.” Financial Times Weekend

Sarah Winman grew up in Essex. She attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and went on to act in theatre, film and television. ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ went straight into the Sunday Times Bestseller List and has been chosen by endless book groups over the year including Richard and Judy, Waterstones and Grazia. It was selected for Simon Mayo’s Book Club on BBC Radio 2 and it was also chosen as one of the ‘Waterstones 11’ which highlighted the debut novels to get excited about in 2011. Sarah lives in London and loves to escape to the family home in Cornwall as much as possible. ‘When God Was a Rabbit’ is her first novel and she is currently working on her next.

‘Gloriously offbeat… Winman’s narrative voice is beautifully true, with a child’s unsentimental clarity. A superb debut’ The Times

‘It’s rare to find a novel you’re recommending to friends, family and colleagues by page 60 but When God Was A Rabbit is just that kind of book… A truly great book to lose yourself in; prepare to bore everyone else around you by telling them just how much they need to read it’ Stylist 

Dates For Your Diaries

  • Bookmarked ‘Debut Night’ will be Monday 8thof August 2011 at Waterstones Deansgate with warm up drinks at 6.30pm.
  • Bookmarked ‘Crime Night’ will be the first week of September 2011 same venue, same time, with two of the biggest British female crime writers. More details to be announced soon.

Further Information

For further information on Bookmarked, the authors it is featuring, the hosts Simon Savidge and Adam Lowe (who are available for interview and features) email bookmarkedsalon@gmail.com you can also visit the website here.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Bookmarked Literary Salon, Sarah Winman, SJ Watson

When God Was A Rabbit – Sarah Winman

I normally do long intro’s into my book thoughts, but I am trying some new things with my blogging and so decided I wouldn’t meander introducing ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman and would just cut to the chase and say please give this book a whirl, its really rather good, and read on to find out why you should, there’s lots of reasons so be warned you might find yourself instantly buying the book by the end, which is a good thing…

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‘When God Was A Rabbit’
has been described as a love story between a brother and sister. Now if you are like me you might be worried that this is headed into incest territory, but fear not, it is nothing of the kind. I would describe this book as a coming of age meets family saga in which we follow the lives of Eleanor Maud (aka Elly) and her big brother Jo as they grow up with secrets they share, and discover the highs and lows of life both together and separately and the special bond they have between them. I would also says it’s a book of friendship and the people who come into our lives no matter for how long or short a time and make an impression. This might sound like a vague summing up of the book but one of the joys I found, and I did find this a really good read, whilst turning the pages was discovering who or what was around every corner.

It’s also about time, and as we follow the family we too see the world events unfold around them from the late 1960’s until more recent years and covers things from family secrets, loves and loses and such subjects as John Lennon and Diana’s death to 9/11. So it’s really about two people through time. It sounds so simple yet it is a book that has been meticulously crafted, not so that we see the authors hard work, but in the sense that the people we follow seem to step off the page. In fact I kept thinking of David Nicholls ‘One Day’ and the nostalgic feeling and so real you feel like you’re their best mate lead characters. Only these are of course siblings, not on-off lovers.

Sarah Winman is without question a very exciting new writer that I think we all need to keep our eyes on. Her prose is rhythmic and I found the first hundred pages simply unputdownable (cliche alert, sorry) as we meet Elly and her family and the cacophony of characters in her life. Seriously, the characters are marvellous. I did wonder if Winman, being from an acting background, has simply created a list of the sort of characters she has wanted to play. Winman’s swift way of summing them up in a is genius. No matter how little time a character is called into this world they are fully fleshed out be it in a single sentence or paragraph. There was one scene between Aunt Nancy and one of her movie obsessed girlfriends, who has renamed herself Katherine Hepburn and is hardly in the book at all, which had me in hysterics and showed the full genius of Winman’s ability to characterize in a minimal way.

“’Sorry I’m late!’ shouted Nancy one day, as she rushed into a café to meet her.
‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ said K.H.
‘That’s alright then,’ said Nancy sitting down.
Then looking round, with a raised voice, K.H. said, ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.’
Nancy noticed the people in the café staring at them.
‘Fancy a sandwich?’ she said quietly.
‘If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.’
‘I’ll take that as a yes then,’ said Nancy picking up a menu.”

In fact the level of humour in ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ was something I wasn’t expecting and is a tool Winman uses well particularly if things are getting quite dark, which the book does do quite a lot. In fact it was a rabbit named ‘god’ who stole the show  in terms of bittersweet humour in the first half of the book as Elly uses his ability to ‘talk’, which only she can hear, to deal with horrid moments, so when she has heard some bad news she will go and pet god who will then say something like ‘ouch you little, s**t’ (this has me laughing as I type) and again shows how Winman effortlessly gets into the head of or protagonist Elly, especially in her formative years and in times where she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself or how to copewith life’s twists and in many ways escapes.

I did find it interesting that the opening line is ‘I divide my life into two parts’ because to me this is a book of two halves and is also where it becomes telling that this is a debut novel. Debut novels tend to have a real thrust and drive to them, as this book does (though its technically Winman’s second, the first didn’t get published) for the first half which bowled me over. They can also want to say a lot, sometimes too much. Whilst Winman doesn’t do this I did find that when a friend of Elly and Joe’s was kidnapped in Dubai (in the middle of the book) and plastered all over the news, I started wondering just how much could happen to one family even in the most random or distant of ways. This happened again when John Lennon gets shot… on Elly’s birthday, and this occasionally seemed a touch too much. Then again sometimes that is life isn’t it? It by no means ruined the book at all, it just took a tiny bit of the magic off. I should comment Winman on the ending too as it was a risk, and one the reader sees coming, possibly as in my case with some trepidation, but which I thought actually paid off when in some cases it could have gone the other way. I will say no more on that though.

My only other slight criticism would be that ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ pushes its point home too hard on occasion especially in its gay sensibility. I think the fact that every other character in the book happened to be gay was brilliant and I could see what Sarah Winman was doing, but that isn’t the way it is in real life is it? It’s meant to be one in ten people, not one in every two. I also wasn’t sure how I felt, in terms of stereotyping, about some characters for example Arthur, who comes into the book about half ay through, is a wonderful character lovely older gay man on the whole but did then fall into a cliché by screaming or saying to our narrator ‘popularity, my dear, is as overrated as a large member’. Whilst yes it did make me laugh, that fact it’s said to a girl of twelve seemed a bit wrong, it reflects that rather archaic view that old gay men can be rather pervy and inappropriate and one we should be stamping out. Maybe I am being too critical there?

Those criticisms might seem a little harsh, or make me sound a little like the Grinch of books trying to see flaws; I just want to give it a full rounded review and in doing so had to point out some of it’s pitfalls too. You see initially after reading it I was a little conflicted about it, however with time for the dust to settle I realised I really, really liked it. There’s a warmth in this novel which is quite unlike any other I have read and it lingers. So as I was saying all in all I really, really, really enjoyed ‘When God Was A Rabbit’. It’s a book you gulp down for the first half and then watch unfold more delicately in the second. It’s one that deserves to be read, so I hope you will. It’s a book you won’t forget and, if you are like me, will grow and grow on you after it finishes. 9/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I am actually rather surprised this didn’t make ‘The Orange Longlist’ this year but it was one of the Waterstones 11 and has been picked up by Richard and Judy latest book club (and might just have been submitted for another award – I think I can share that with you, oops maybe not) so I am sure it will be getting much more attention and it deserves it. It is definitely one to read if you loved ‘One Day’ by David Mitchell, as I mentioned, and also if you like the bittersweet. Which debut novel have you read recently which has rather bowled you over? Has anyone else read ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ and what did you think?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Headline Review, Review, Richard and Judy, Sarah Winman