Sociable Reading: Book Slam

The Clapham GrandPatrick NessWill Self

Event: Book Slam at the Clapham Grand.

Who: Book Slam – I’ve covered one of their events before so I’ll just let you find out for yourself this time!

What: Book Slam presents authors Patrick Ness and Will Self, with a musical interlude of rising star, George Ezra, all seamlessly merged together by comedian Dominic Frisby.

When: Thursday 25th April, from 6.30pm.

Refreshments: There were some interesting boxes on offer containing various quinoa with pomegranate seeds and Spanish tortilla – unfortunately I didn’t get to food in time. Instead, I refreshed myself with two pints of Heineken ( I think) and then tucked into two Warburtons crumpets when I got home – an enviably balanced diet.

Review:

I arrived flustered, but on time, after getting carried away with the April sunshine and making it my mission to walk from my office (in cute pumps which were totally impractical for walking any distance) in Piccadilly to The Clapham Grand. Google Maps gave me a 90minutes transfer time, however, this didn’t factor in a phone call to my mother which resulted in me getting lost around the Vauxhall Bridge area. Anyway, I digress, I made it which is all that mattered, and my other half had arrived punctually and reserved us a couple of bar stools.

Dominic Frisby
According to the bio, he’s a writer, author, presenter, actor and voice-over, this evening he was our master of ceremonies. Frisby played (get it Frisby!) a great host and treated us to numerous and funny anecdotes, my favourtie one being about his experiences with Italian sushi. He worked well with the audience, engaging in banter without being crass or insulting.

Patrick Ness
Author of seven novels, American born Ness was present to give us a couple of readings from his latest literary creation, ‘The Crane Wife’. He was ‘nervous as hell’ and cracked a few jokes in between performances which endeared him to the audience and calmed his worries. The readings were really quite poetic and very descriptive, I favoured the second of the two because of its semi-autobiographical nature. I’m not sure I will be picking up the book anytime soon, but that’s more a personal preference than any real criticism

Will Self
He doesn’t really need an introduction, however, I have to say his performance reminded me of a mash-up of Alan Rickman and the Grandma in Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvelous Medicine. He is clearly a veteran of the live circuit as his persona of a grumpy, eccentric, dry humoured man is perfected down to a tee. His latest novel, ‘Umbrella’ tells the unhappy tale of Audrey Death, from munitions work to contracting the sleeping sickness of Europe in 1918. His tone and style has the perfect symmetry to his prose, and from his novel it was clear that he had created another unique story. However, I do find that Self’s works are often quite hard to follow, especially as this one doesn’t even have paragraphs, so I think it would be one to read alone without distraction.

George Ezra
My favourtie part of the whole evening was the musical talents of Mr Ezra, who unassumingly took to the stage with his guitar and belted out four songs reminiscent of Kings of Leon mixed with Jake Bugg. Awesome talent and one I will be following with a keen interest.

Rating: 7 out of 10 – enjoyable but not as good as last time.

Sociable Reading: World Book Night 2013

World Book Night BooksPreparingSouth Bank WBN EventCharles Dance

Event: World Book Night (more details)

Who: WBN is a charitable organisation headed by Julia Kingsford, and supported by a wide range of publishing companies.

What: This is World Book Night’s third year celebrating reading and books. I was amongst the 20,000 ‘Givers’ who chose a book from the 20 titles and was then given 20 specially printed copies to share with the community. World Book Night is celebrated in the UK, Ireland and the USA with the aim to encourage people to reignite their passion for reading, or even pick up their first book! As well as connecting with people in the oldest way known to mankind, the sharing of stories.

In addition to being a giver I went to the World Book Night’ event, at the South Bank Centre, which involved a whole host of writers, authors and poets sharing readings of their latest works. The contributors ranged from Victoria Hislop to Ian Flemming’s neice, Lucy.

Where: This took place all around the UK and USA as givers proffered their chosen books. However, for me personally, my WBN journey took me from my office in Piccadilly, London. via the Victoria Line, then on towards the South Bank, stopping off briefly in Cameroon and the People’s Republic of China (-I’ll explain that bit in more detail later).

When: Tuesday April 23rd 2013 – (symbolic too as it marks the death of Shakespeare and the Spanish novelist, Cervantes, not to mention St George’s Day).

Review:

My World Book Night journey began a few months ago when I first applied to be a Giver. I chose ‘The Reader’ by Bernard Schlink, because of its thought provoking and beautiful narrative as well as it being a translated novel – plus I knew people would enjoy it. When I got the news that I had been selected to be a Giver I was over the moon, and chose my local independent bookshop, Clapham Books, to retrieve my literary gifts.

When it came to World Book Night it hit home that I was playing an active part of a huge and important mission, to get people reading. And so I armed myself with 20 books and took to my challenge with gusto.

First stop: ‘Tube Folk.’
This was probably the most daunting of my target audiences, as a London commuter is a fearsome beast at the best of time. Plus trying to make a pitch to someone’s armpit is never going to generate great results. However, not to be disheartened, I found myself in a quiet carriage on the Victoria Line and divested myself of three books. Although, at first, people seemed suspicious of receiving something for free that wasn’t a leaflet the reaction soon turned to one of joy and genuine enthusiasm – especially the sweet old man who proceeded to talk about his childhood during the 1940’s.

Second stop: ‘Work’

Although, I had to repeat myself, a number of times, as to why I was trying to give them a book, I gave away seven books to various departments whose lives usually focused on staring at a computer screen. We have planned to reconvene and discuss whether they enjoyed the book when I get back from holiday – I will know if they are lying.

Third (and unexpected) stop: ‘Writers at Risk’ – English Pen.
Since I was following the progress of WBN on Twitter, I couldn’t help but notice a tweet posted by English Pen requesting Givers to send books to Writers at Risk in the UK and overseas. The charity promotes freedom of reading and writing, a very important cause even today, and I am proud to say I sent three books to writers in the Cameroon and P.R China.

The seven other copies of my book were given away on my walk from Piccadilly Circus to the South Bank Centre where my evening‘s entertainment was to continue. I even tried to give one to Jay Rayner, food critic, but he was on the phone – shame.

‘World Book Night’ Southbank Centre

The official event of WBN in London was one not to be missed, even without the presence of Charles Dance, thespian extraordinaire, it read like a literary feast.

The evening was hosted by writer and comedian, Singh Kohli, who provided witty repartee in between performances. The readings ranged from novelists to poets, spanning a wide variety of genre.

My particular favourite was one by Ian Flemming’s niece, Lucy Flemming, who did a reading from one of his articles entitled, ‘How to write a thriller,’ which was both witty and enlightening. Who knew James Bond was such a fan of scrambled eggs?

Another stand-out act, for me, was Sebastian Barry, I hadn’t heard of his novel, ‘The Secret Scripture, but his performance was absolutely brilliant and captured the essence of his characters beautifully. This book is now on my wish list.

I couldn’t write this review without mentioning the one and only Charles Dance, he commands such a presence on stage and his deep baritone grabs your attention instantly – you may have realised I have a small crush. His reading from, ‘Damage’ by Josephine Hart, was especially poignant since her death in 2011.

The whole evening was brilliant, and there are many new books and authors I will be investigating as a result. The fact the auditorium was packed is testament to how much people love reading and the sharing of ideas is not going to go anywhere anytime soon.

World Book Night is an exceptional cause and one in which I will hopefully be involved in again.

Rating: 10 out of 10 – what better thing to do on an evening than spread the love of reading and then listen to Charles Dance?!

Author Q&A: Caroline Smailes ‘The Drowning of Arthur Braxton

Caroline Smailes
Drowning of Arthur Braxton

Title: The Drowning of Arthur Braxton

Author: Caroline Smailes (Author Blog)

Genre: Contemporary Literary Fiction

Publisher: The Friday Project (HarperCollins)

Publication Date: 11th April 2013 (£5.99)

Stand alone or series: Stand alone.

Why did I choose to read this book? I was attracted to the unique title. Plus, as a follower of The Friday Project on Twitter I jumped at the chance to get an advance proof and interview with Caroline!

Where to read? The setting of the novel is quite ingenious and integral to the story so I guess one would have to visit Victoria Baths, Manchester or perhaps The Roman Baths, Bath

Refreshments: You shouldn’t really eat before swimming, however, I would suggest a hearty plate of ‘Fish and Chips’ – just because this is what I ate and enjoyed immensely!

Synopsis:

Arthur Braxton runs away from school and hides in an abandoned Edwardian Bathhouse. It is here he discovers a naked woman swimming in the pool, and from then on nothing is the same again. This is Caroline Smailes’ latest offering and fans of her previous novels won’t be disappointed. Her honest narrative weaves a brave and poetic fairy tale detailing the lives of unique and complex characters taking her readers on a roller coast ride of hope, despair and ultimately love.

Q&A with Caroline Smailes

1. Where does your interest in Greek Mythology come from?

Greek mythology has been an obsession since my teen years. I remember reading the Daphne and Apollo myth and being fascinated with metamorphosis and confinement. Those aren’t usual obsessions and fascinations, but they stayed with me and, clearly, escaped during the writing of ‘The Drowning of Arthur Braxton’.

2. Are the names of your characters important/ meaningful in some way?

They are. I’ve pulled on aspects of the Greek mythology that the stories are based on. For example, Laurel’s story is a retwisting of the Apollo and Daphne myth, where Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree as she flees from Apollo. Therefore naming the character Laurel carried a significance and all the clues are there, but I’m hoping that the novel can still be read and enjoyed without any prior knowledge of Greek mythology.

3. Your novel has a series of impressionable teenagers –How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?

In this novel, none at all. The novel is set in the present day, I’m an old woman and my characters are teens. The main challenge I had was trying to create current and authentic teen voices, especially that of a teenage boy. I had to do lots of research and eavesdropping to try and create convincing teen voices.

4. You mention that the bath house is based on ‘Victoria Baths ‘. What, if any, were the other venue candidates?

Originally the novel was going to be set in a lighthouse on the coast of Talacre, but then Victoria Baths was suggested as a possible location. I was able to go along and look inside the building. I fell in love with the beauty, with the space and with the stunning original features. The novel started forming as I walked around, absorbing the history and exquisiteness.

5. Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

Nope, they’re based on Greek mythology. Although I would have loved to have been friends with Daphne.

6. What authors/books do you feel have influence your writing?

I guess we’re all influenced by everything we’ve ever read. So every fairy tale, all the Greek mythology, my love of Roald Dahl, my admiration of Jeanette Winterson, of Margaret Atwood, of Angela carter. I’ve read so many novels that are truly amazing, too many to mention, but they all influence me in that they drive me to want to be a better writer.

8. The inspirations you detail, music, mythology etc…Do you feel you’re quite spontaneous in your decisions or that you have set ideas before you start writing?

I’d like to say that I’m spontaneous, because that’s how I used to write. I’d never plot or plan, I’d simply write whichever scene popped into my head. But I’ve changed. Now I plan and plot every single detail before beginning. I have character outlines and images, I have an entire narrative structure plotted out for my next novel, so I guess I’m no longer spontaneous.

9. What’s your must-have snack to have on hand when you’re writing?

I try not to snack when writing, but I do have a jar of blackcurrant and liquorice hardboiled sweets in my office. I absolutely hate them, so sucking on one makes me not want to snack. There is logic in there… However, I do love cake. And I often use cake as my ‘carrot on a stick’ to get me to hurry through a section or a block.

10. Shoes seem to be your guilty pleasure… what is your favourite pair of shoes and why?

For me, wearing ridiculously high heels signals a special event or occasion. By day, I’m rushing around in flat pumps or Converse. My favourite shoes change from week to week. This week I’ve favoured wearing a pair of black patent-leather Christian Louboutin’s. And why? Because they’re extravagant, stunning and a little bit magic.

Rating: 8 out of 10 – I found this very different to any other novel I’ve read before and it inspired a roller coaster of emotions whilst reading. I’d definitely recommend.

PS. Big thank you to Caroline Smailes for answering my nosy questions and James Lynch from the Friday project for passing them on!

Book Review: ‘Expo 58’ by Jonathan Coe

Expo 58Atomium

Title: Expo 58

Author: Jonathan Coe (author blog)

Genre: Fiction (Political Farce)

Publisher: Viking Adult (Penguin)

Publication Date: 5th September 2013

Hardback: 288

Stand alone or Series? Stand alone

Why did I choose to read this book? I was attracted to this book after hearing Jonathan Coe do a reading at the Penguin Bloggers Party.

Where to read? Well unless you hop on the Eurostar and go and sit in Brussels to soak up the ‘Atomium’ for yourself I think the ‘Lowlander’ in Covent Garden, London would be a smart second choice.

Refreshments: Since it’s set in Brussles it really would be a travisty to not be drinking one of their many briliant beers. My first choice would be a ‘Jupiler’ and as a snacky side it would have to be traditional chips and REAL mayonnaise!

Review:

It’s London in 1958, her Majesty’s Government are outwardly celebrating the post-war prosperity yet still fearing the Red shadow and growing nuclear arms race. It is in this world we meet ordinary, civil servant Thomas Foley who is plucked from obscurity and his humdrum life to head The Britannia, a brand new pub which will form the heart of the British presence at Expo 58* – the biggest World Fair of the century.

But Thomas’s new-found joie de vivre is not all as it seems. Thomas finds himself at the centre of Cold War espionage. At once, followed everywhere by two mysterious British Secret service agents, infatuated by the lovely Emily and Anneke, and a suspicious amount of salt sachets, Thomas finds himself having to decide where his loyalties lie.

This novel had so much potential to be amazing but unfortunately it fell short. The blurb promised ‘Hitchokian Thriller’ and espionage however, in reality it lacked any real story line or depth of character, ping ponging rapidly without settling on a strong narrative. This might be Coe’s attempt to bring the sentiment of The Cold War into the very essence of his novel, vague and no action – but I soon lost interest.

The central protagonist is Thomas, he is going through a stereotypically early mid-life crisis. He dislikes his job and feels lumbered with wife and newly born daughter so when the opportunity for freedom becomes available he jumps at the chance. His character is one of a bumbling idiot caught between chasing after young women like a dog on heat and attempting to be a part-time spy. To be frank I found him an irritating and weak main character. In the same vein the peripheral characters were also nondescript apart from the elusive Mr Radford and Mr Wayne, who’s  double-act style dialogue was a breathe of entertaining air and reminded me somewhat randomly of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from James Bond’s ‘Diamonds are forever.’

On a positive note, I did enjoy Coe’s commitment to satirizing the terminology of the upper class voice and his team of old Etonians. The novel is subject to frequent use of ‘old man’ and references to each other using just their surname which provided much needed humour to the novel especially in the toilet scene – i’ll say no more.

Although Coe’s novel provided light entertainment it didn’t deliver what it said on the tin and lacked any of the promised thrills or suspense of Cold War espionage – saying that I will be visiting the Atomium so I guess he has inadvertently boosted tourism for Brussels.

* Expo 58, also known as Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Bruxelles, was held from 17 April to 19 October 1958 and was the first major World Fair after the end of World War II. –more info

Rating: 5 out of 10 – disappointing

Book Review: ‘Black Roses’ by Jane Thynne

Black RosesJane Thynne

Title: Black Roses.

Author: Jane Thynne.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK.

Publication Date: 28th March 2013.

Hardback: 480 pages.

Stand alone or Series: Stand alone.

Why did I choose to read this book? I was sent it by the publicity team at Simon & Schuster after they read my review of Meike Ziervogel’s Magda.

Where to read? A Czech/ Soviet inspired bar in Shoreditch, London called Lounge Bohemia (you have to text the owner to be able to gain access) – the secretive style would suit this story very well!

Refreshments: Set in Berlin you would have to brave a dish of pork knuckles and cabbage

Review:

It’s 1933. Clara Vine, a young and beautiful Anglo-German actress leaves for Berlin after a chance meeting lands her an opportunity to hit the big screen. When she arrives she soon finds herself confronted with the ‘real’ Berlin, a hotbed of tension and unrest. Reluctantly drawn into the glamorous inner circle of the Nazi elite and brought under the wing of Magda Goebbels Clara finds herself in an terrifying position amongst the ruling class. It is in this environment that she meets Leo Quinn, a British Intelligence worker who is acutely aware of the escalating trouble occurring in Germany and identifies Clara as a priceless asset to gain information. It isn’t long before Clara discovers a dangerous family secret and finds herself presenting an Oscar winning performance to save the people she loves.

Thynne has clearly put a lot of work into researching the Nazi regime and Berlin in the mid-1930s. As a keen historian of this period I was thrilled to learn new things about the regime from Thynne’s novel, including the Nazi’s predilection for clairvoyance, especially ‘Erik Jan Hanussen’ and his prediction of the Reichstag fire. In addition, the novel is peppered with references to the regime like, the ‘UFA-Tonwoche’, a newsreel played at social events, and organisations like ‘Arbeitsdienst’, the work service. In many instances when original words and their translations are incorporated into novels they can come across patronising and long-winded, however, Thynne manages to weave them into her narrative seamlessly.

The attention to character detail is the other stand out strength throughout this novel.  Thynne has created a beautiful central character in the guise of Clara Vine. She is at once strong and fragile in terms of her determination to aide Leo and the intense fear she experiences when she is close to characters like Magda and Muller. In addition, the subtle depiction of the relationships between high-ranking Nazi officials, especially those of Goering and Goebbels, supports the tense environment in Berlin during this period.

Q&A with Jane Thynne:

1. What was your inspiration to write a story on the Nazi Wives and Women?
I have always been interested in that era of history but it occurred to me that we know very little about the women of the Third Reich. The regime had a profound effect on women’s lives – obviously on the lives of its victims, but also the lives of those ‘ordinary German women’ who lived under it. The Nazis wanted to control the lives of women in the same way that certain regimes around the world do today. I was also interested in what it would be like to be married to a historical monster and to see him in a daily, domestic setting. I felt an intimate, close-up, wife’s-eye view of history was one worth having.

2. What research did you conduct before writing the novel?
I read a lot of Third Reich literature, but as it was the women’s side that interested me I read memoirs compiled by remaining Nazi wives, such as Emmy Goering and Henny von Schirach, as well as a lot of letters from Magda Goebbels herself, and her husband’s diaries.  Visits to Berlin helped me get a sense of place. Especially the Babelsberg Film studios which remain very much as they were. Though a lot of Berlin was destroyed in the war, it was important to me just to walk the streets, and understand the different quarters of the city. Finally I read a lot of spy thrillers, to hone that all important narrative tension.

3. Are the names of the characters in your novels important?
I think so. I take ages pondering names. When you name a protagonist, you have to choose one you really love, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with them. Clara Vine is Anglo-German, so I needed to reflect that. I liked the idea of the vine, twining its way sinuously into events. Many of the other characters in Black Roses had real names already, of course.

4. How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?
Getting a little deep here, I think we all reflect patterns of relationships in our novels that were established as early as childhood. And then we write those patterns, again and again. I grew up in a family of three children, who lived in lots of places around the world, but ultimately in London. I had an emotionally distant father, as my character does, and with my brothers at boarding school felt a certain sense of isolation, as does Clara. I also read a lot as a child, and reading is what ultimately leads to writing.

5. Did you feel as a woman this was an important topic to tackle?
Very much. Women have so often been what I call ‘the hidden half of history’. Their perspective has simply not been reflected, and their stories have not properly been told. The tide is turning now, but I’ve always been hugely interested in the woman’s experience. In the case of the Nazi regime, I think it’s fascinating to speculate on what influence these women had on their husbands and what their complicity was in the crimes. The difficulty is in finding the documentary material.

6. Your novel came out around the same time as Meike Ziervogel’s Magda – how do you feel about being compared to another author?
To start with it was very strange to read a different novel about the very person I had spent a couple of years contemplating. I suppose I knew Meike and I would be compared, but Meike’s fine novel is in a very different genre from my own. It’s worked very well for us both because we’ve done a few ‘double acts’ where we can talk from our different perspectives and now we’re friends!

7. What’s your must-have snack to have on hand when your writing?
On a bad day, Green and Black’s 85 per cent dark chocolate. On a good day, almonds.

Overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable novel which offers a captivating insight into the women of the Third Reich and encapsulates the underlying suspense of the Nazi regime beautifully.

PS. Big thank you to Jane Thynne for answering my questions!

Rating: 9 out of 10 – buy it here!