Tag Archives: New Writing North

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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Announcement of The Gordon Burn Prize 2015

I have not been to many book prize ceremonies, in fact the first one I went to was actually for The Green Carnation Prize only last year, but who doesn’t love a ceremony and wish they were invited to them all? Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Gordon Burn Prize 2015 ceremony which was, frankly, a ruddy marvellous event for anyone who likes a good book. Not that any of you who pass this blog would be up for that sort of thing would you?

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The night was held in the splendour of Durham Town Hall and kicked off as the very lovely Claire Malcolm, Chief Executive of New Writing North, took to the stage to tell us about why the prize was born and the aims it has and what makes a Gordon Burn Prize longlisted or shortlisted book. In essence it is a book that some how combines the world of the fictional and the factual, yet looks at either from a different standpoint, they also inhabit the kind of world that Gordon Burn was interested in with his own writing, which was varied and covered crime, music, the human condition. Basically rather unusual but bloody brilliant books. Lee Brackstone then got up to talk to the audience, which I should add unlike many a swanky prize was open to the public to get tickets which I think is a marvellous touch as they are the ones who are going to buy the books, about Gordon Burn himself. Well I was already intrigued from the premise of the prize, now I want to go away and read anything and everything that he wrote. I shall be scouring the shelves of every bookshop until I have them all.

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Then the shortlisted authors took to the stage to read from their work and also talk about their books, their influences, the prize and Gordon Burn (who felt very much like he was alive and living and breathing in the room with us) chaired by Peter Guttridge. I found this really fascinating. First up was Dan Davies whose In Plain Sight; The Life and Lies of Jimmy Saville is naturally causing some unease but I can vouch (being halfway through) that whilst being incredibly uncomfortable at points is an amazing book though I can also vouch you will get some really dirty looks, occasionally sneers, if you read on public transport. Dan talked about the first time he was in a room with Jimmy Saville when he saw his TV show being filmed and how whilst everyone else seemed to be in his thrall, he remembered being slightly scared of him and feeling this lack of warmth and emotion. Then as he got older he started to do more journalism around him and then the rumours started and so did the book. Really interesting stuff.

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Honor Gavin, who I feel might be the Lady Gaga of authors (and I mean that in the nicest of ways), read from her novel Midland. She talked about how she used her own memories of Birmingham and the stories of her family (her Gran in particular, and how her Gran reacted to that)to create another kind of literary landscape.  In doing so Peter said she creates a city of memories that is slightly out of sync yet very much part of the world at the same time, in which her characters inhabit making it ‘a novel out of time’ which I was enthralled by and could have heard her talk about for hours. I need to crack on and read that book pronto don’t I?

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Romesh Gunesekera read from Noontide Toll, which you may know I think is really, really fantastic having read it earlier this year. His reading was possibly my favourite as he went totally into the head of his main character, Vasantha a cab driver in Sri Lanka, and made us laugh, think and then moved us with the last line – which he does in every short story that forms the novel. He talked about how the novel started as non-fiction and then how he found the voices of Sri Lanka calling to him and becoming more vivid and then the narrative of Vasantha took over. He also talked about the state of Sri Lanka in a post war and post tsunami world, unsure of itself and where it fits in its own history and skin let alone in the world. If you haven’t read the book do, his back catalogue of work is now calling to me.

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Finally, last but certainly not least, was Peter Pomerantsev (Richard King couldn’t make the event due to personal reasons, though has made a video) who talked about his book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible which is all about his experiences of moving back to Russia in the mid noughties and working in the TV industry to get into all the nooks and secret crannies of the country we are all both fascinated and rather scared of. He talked about how he feels about the country as a Russian and a Londoner, and how he felt as his book became more and more timely and what he feels about the country right now. I suddenly got the Russian bug as he talked and will be attended the Modern Russia talk at Durham Book Festival later today to hear even more.

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We then had a chance for more wine and chatter (I was sat next to Ben Myers who is as lovely as I had hoped after falling in love with Beastings earlier this year) before a musical interlude from Paul Smith of Maximo Park, who had been commissioned to make a song around one of Gordon Burn’s works.

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Then it was time for the winners announcement made my Doug Johnstone, Suzanne Moore and Gavin Turk, and the winner was… Dan Davies!!!

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And then the merriment continued well into the night at Empty Shop, with much book chatter, more wine and possibly with me getting into bed with a pizza at the small hours of the morning – maybe. Seriously though, if you haven’t read the shortlist (or indeed the longlist) of the Gordon Prize please do go and get your mitts on them. I am going to look at all the previously longlisted, shortlisted and winning novels (as well as Gordon Burn’s books) and make it a mission to read them all over time. Who doesn’t like reading something different/unusual/quirky/edgy and a bit out of your comfort zone, after all?

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A Weekend in Ilkley (and Ilkley Book Festival!) 

I have spent my first weekend back in the UK away from home in the Yorkshire Dales/Moors and in the wonderful village (and mainly the pub) of Ben Rhydding next to Ilkley. What on earth was I doing there? Well apart from eating, drinking and chatting about books in the pub I was there  as part of the programme for Ilkley Literature Festival, which has just started and if you’re nearby you should really check out.

I was kindly invited by New Writing North to take part in a talk on writing and reading in the digital age and what social media, blogs and vlogs etc are doing for the industry, for readers and for writers. Chaired by (the lovely) Claire Malcolm, who is New Writing North’s CEO, I was on a panel with author and vlogger Jen Campbell and Unbound’s editor-at- large Rachael Kerr. It was a joy to do events with Claire and Rachael again and also to finally meet Jen! The audience were also brilliant. Annoyingly I forgot to take a picture of any of us together or the audience. I am a fool. 

I really love it when you get to do an event with an audience that is as engaged as last nights was. Some of the questions (which I will be answering in full soon here) really, really made me think. Never before has some asked me how responsible I feel about reviewing, or if they have I’ve never been made to think about it as much as I have since. Nor have I ever been asked what I feel my role is, if any, between author and reader. I didn’t think I had one, the audience weren’t so sure. Much to think on and come back to.

Before the event, after having checked in at the hotel which is a pub, I did manage to go around Ilkley. By which I actually mean I went to the wonderful Grove Bookshop… 

And parted with some cash as I somehow, because of the wonderful layout and selection of books, came away with not one but four books, it’s a sickness…

One I had actually asked if they had in (I’m Jack by Mark Blacklock) and they didn’t but managed to get in with a day’s notice. Now that is a bookshop to be proud of – and dream of having locally. Speaking of locals, I must mention the place I spent most of my time, The Wheatley Arms. No, I haven’t become a lush this was our hotel and it was, erm, lush. Look at my room…

I had a balcony all of my own. Now look at the Whitby crab and chips I had for my tea… 

I spent several hours in the restaurant and bar last night with Rachael, Claire and her husband putting the publishing and book world to rights. Before returning again for breakfast this morning and doing the same with Rachael and Jen before we all had to catch our trains. Well after a small lie in with a nice cuppa Yorkshire Tea (my fav) and one of the books I had bought in the worlds most comfortable bed.  

What a lovely weekend. Next weekend I am off to Durham Book Festival, more on that on Tuesday, but for now I will leave you with a link again to Ilkley Literature Festival, and these questions… What have you all been upto this weekend and what are you reading?

Oh and UPDATE the event I took part in has been reviewed. Me being reviewed seems most odd, thankfully it was a good one, phew. 

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Noontide Toll – Romesh Gunesekera

When the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist popped/ thumped through my letterbox (kindly sent by New Writing North who run the prize) I thought that I would head to the biggest first and work my way down, literally in size. However as my trip to America gets ever nearer so does my reading for it, which is roughly eight books some of which are massive, so I decided to pick a more slender volume and grabbed Noontide Toll. I soon discovered that Romesh Gunesekera’s latest work might be slender in size yet is a book that keeps on giving and most importantly keeps making you think both whilst reading and long after.

Granta Books, 2014, paperback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by New Writing North

On the island of Sri Lanka we meet our narrator “Vasantha the van man” who, as you might have guessed from his nickname, spends his days driving around the island ferrying tourists, soldiers, business men and their colleagues or wives, ex pats, aid workers and more to their various destinations. In doing so, in what is a collection of short stories which form the novels narrative, he introduces us to all the aspects of present day Sri Lanka, it’s history, its people and also the predicament that it seems to find itself in as a place that has often been torn apart by wars and natural disasters.

‘You ok?’ I asked Chen.
‘Sure, sure.’ His head tilted, not quite as buoyant as he had been at the start. Perhaps he was too young to know any of the gruesome history of his homeland. Maybe there they don’t talk about the terrors of invasion, the herding of people, the famine, the ideological culling, the suppression of the decent. All that probably disappears in the harmonious joy of economic development. At least that’s the idea, I think.

I have to admit that reading Noontide Toll had a slightly shaming effect on me whilst being utterly fascinating, sometimes grimly so. Despite having some friends from the country I had absolutely no idea, other than the Boxing Day Tsunami, what turmoil the country had been through. As Vasantha drives through both the North and the South (which is also how the book is divided in parts as well as stories) we meet the landscape and people who have been scarred by the historical tumultuous past. Old mansions which if haven’t been blown up or destroyed have been ransacked for anything or worth, wrecked ships that have now become the backdrop to music videos. Hotel managers who can throw bottles at rats with such precision you know they have had to defend themselves, people whose grief at losing a family is etched on their faces and yet manage to stay positive on the lookout for turtles laying eggs at sunset.

Whether you know the whole history or not one of the most intriguing things which Vasantha notes when he is with any client, is that his homeland is now free of war yet is struggling in a whole new way as it tries to reclaim itself as a country and with other countries around the world. In some aspects, like with The Weightless World which I discussed a while ago, it is trying to work out what its place and its worth is within the economic worlds (be it tourism or business and trade) of both the West and Asia. It is also a country that is trying to decide what to do with its history; should it embrace it and own it or should it erase any sight of it? Can we really simply remember and move on? What is also somewhat unsettling is that it seems that those who live there are both wary and befuddled by their own homeland being a place of peace can it really last?

I asked the soldier whether I could park the van around the side. He shrugged. In the military I thought one had to be more decisive and heroic, but perhaps that was further up the chain of command and only in times of real conflict. Peace has made us all dozy, I guess. Even the crickets were muffled.

If this all sounds very serious, rather maudlin and a little heavy going, I promise you it is not. With the structure of this book Gunesekera gives you these wonderful intense vignettes from Vasantha that you can read as a single short standalone story in itself or indeed read a few as you are utterly charmed by Vasantha and some of the characters that he meets along the way and interweave creating a patchwork of views and insights into all walks of life from all over the place which form this incredibly complex world yet all in bite size portions which really entertain you whilst leaving lingering, occasionally unsettling, thoughts in your mind.

I found Vasantha a really interesting character. By the end of Noontide Toll you are utterly charmed by him and yet he remains something of an enigma. He gives you insight into the history of Sri Lanka and the lives of those in his van, yet bar the occasional titbit keeps himself something of a mystery. I wondered if this was because Gunesekera wanted him to literally be a vehicle for the reader, or if we were meant to feel like one of his clients on a long road trip around the island being told the tales of previous clients yet never themselves, as is the case often when you go aboard and have a driver. That slight customer and contractor relationship which is intimate yet distant all at once.

I think Vasantha is a marvellous creation and a brilliant character. He embodied everything l  admired so much about Gunesekera’s colourful and vivid writing. As you go along his humour and (mainly) joyful wonder of everything around him is a delight. He always knows just when to tell you something funny amongst it all, one of my favourite moments which I think sums him up is when he describes a lighthouse as a naughty beacon of the south, perfect. I was completely charmed by him and his narration as we drove around and often felt his musings about life were very much like mine and in particular my thoughts on why we read.

I like to know about the world beyond our shores. About faraway countries where people behave differently. I like to hear about their food and customs. How they deal with the cold and the rain. What it is like to drive on the other side of the road. I like to take foreign tourists around because it gives me a glimpse of a place that is different in touch, taste, smell, sound and look, from the place I am stuck in. I watch how they sit, how they walk, how they talk, and I try to see what they want to escape from and return to. They are not all driven by the desire for sex in new places. Some want to know our history and our culture and what makes us live the way we do. So do I.

I am not sure I would have read Noontide Toll if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, as I have  to admit I hadn’t heard of it until then, so I am very grateful that it has. It is a wonderfully narrated and intricately detailed tale of a country its history and its people, by the end I felt Gunesekera had educated me with writing of delicacy, wit and slight horror. It is also a book that will remind you why we read and why we should read as widely as we can to experience and learn through other people’s eyes. I would highly recommend giving it a read.

Have any of you read Noontide Toll or any of Gunesekera’s other novels? I have that lovely feeling you get when you discover a new-to-you writer where you want to run off and get your hands on everything else that they have written.

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The Gordon Burn Prize Shortlist 2015

Sometimes it seems like it is another week and another book prize, however there are some quite different and unusual ones and for that reason (along with the fact that we all love a list of books don’t we?) I wanted to mention the announcement of The Gordon Burn Prize shortlist for 2015. One of these will join previous winners Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers and The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (another two books I have been meaning to read for ages) when the winner is announced in October.

The criteria for the Gordon Burns Prize, set up by New Writing North with Faber & Faber, are books which challenge our perceived notions of genre and make us think again about just what it is that we are reading and non-fiction that explores in innovative and exciting ways topics that reflect Gordon Burn’s interests such as social history, sport, true crime, music, celebrity and art. Books where the reader begins to question the very nature of what he is reading. Fiction? Non-fiction? Faction?

 I think this sounds really interesting and (possibly bar sport) quite different which you all know I am a huge fan of. The shortlist has now been announced and the five books that judges actress Maxine Peake, authors Doug Johnstone and Roddy Doyle, journalist Suzanne Moore and artist Gavin Turk have chosen are…

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I don’t have the books I stole this from Twitter, apologies to the owners but its for a good bookish cause 😉

  • In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan Davies (Quercus)
  • Midland by Honor Gavin (Penned in the Margins)
  • Noon Tide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera (Granta Books)
  • Original Rockers by Richard King (Faber & Faber)
  • Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (Faber & Faber)

Now I have to say other than the Dan Davies, which with its subject matter of Jimmy Savile has had a lot of debate and discussion going on about it, I have not heard of any of the other books and that always makes me really, really excited. So for that reason, along with something that I will be able to tell you all about on Thursday, I have decided that I am going to read all of them before the winner is announced on Friday October the 9th ‘oop’ north in lovely Durham as part of their literature festival.

Have any of you read any of these titles? What did you make of them? Are there any that intrigue you, might you be up for reading all five? Have you read either of the previous winners, Benjamin Myers or Paul Kingsnorth? What are your thoughts on the more left field (and I think rather exciting) book prizes?

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