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Farewell 2015, Hello 2016 (and Reading Resolutions)

I have to say both book wise and in the real world (notice how I put the real world second, it is so inferior to books, ha) I think that 2015 might have been one of the best years that I have had in a while. Yes okay, so I had the worst reading slump in the history of ever but there was so much else that was brilliant.

I got to judge Fiction Uncovered (one of my favourite prizes) with some wonderful people and found eight fabulous winners, and many more corkers along the way. I worked with New Writing North and took part in some great events in Newcastle and Ikley (meeting more wonderful people) and mentoring some brilliant young writers, bloggers and journalists before being the inaugural blogger for Durham Book Festival where I hung out with more lovely people. I left a job that was making me miserable with the worst boss in the world and moved to a lovely one where I am working on projects I love, two future and slightly secret ones will be VERY book based, with really lovely people. I stayed at the hotel in The Shard. I read some amazing books and one of the most affecting books of my reading life and then met the author, Hanya Yanagihara, afterwards. I worked on one of the Green Carnation Prize’s strongest years with the wonderful folk at Foyles and a corking judging panel AND got to meet (my future husband) Marlon James in the flesh. I got to chat to lots of authors and all of you lovely lot on here, twitter, podcasts etc about lots of brilliant books and made some wonderful new friends online and in real life. And then there was my road trip with Thomas around America and meeting, you guessed it, lots of wonderful people on that trip especially at Booktopia Petoskey, which was probably one of the highlights of the year. Blimey, that is quite a lot. Catches breath. It was a very good year. All this happened in some way or another thanks to this blog and thanks to books and lovely bookish folk.

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So 2016 has a lot to live up to doesn’t it? I have no real idea what it will hold, which I think it rather exciting. I do have some aims though and have fingers in lots of pies working on lots of projects and one huge one which I am hoping might come to fruition but who knows? I can say reading wise it has already started brilliantly and I am already on book two of the year. I guess I like the idea of the year being open to anything and everything and don’t want to put too much pressure (just the right amount) on myself, which leads to my reading resolutions.

Now my resolutions for 2016 off blog are ‘to do lots of different things and lots of things differently’ and ‘stop bloody procrastinating’. The latter is self explanatory and anyone who knows me will attest this is good self aware advice. The former is a bit vaguer, basically I think we all need to shake things up sometimes, so let us see how I get on. For the blog I have decided, it came to me whilst whatsapping Nina the other day (hairdresser to the literary greats, and me) and it is relatively simple, like me, It is this… 2016 is going to be the year of foraging for quirky books.

Yes, I am just going to see where reading, bookshops, bookish chat on social media and the like just takes me for a year. No pressure, just see where it all goes and what adventures I go on through the pages. The blog will reflect this, it will just carry on being a diary of sorts of my thoughts on books as I read them and other bookish musings that come up as I go along and talking with you lot about them. Okay, that is a second resolution – I will be much, much better at commenting.

So that is it. Simple. 2016 is going to be the year of foraging for quirky books. And I will comment much more. Nothing earth shattering, nothing too challenging or outrageous. Just reading, pondering and talking to you lot about it. Unless I end up judging another book prize in which case it might all go out the window, that isn’t currently on my horizon… Yet!

What about you all? What resolutions both bookish and not bookish have you made for 2016?

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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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